In ‘The Write Prescription,’ Judith Hannan explores writing as therapy

Judith Hannan — Dustin Aksland

It’s a wonderful coping skill. When bad things happen to good people, we all love stories. That’s what the news is all about, and gossip, and “Wuthering Heights.” It’s a shared passion, which means we love to hear other people’s stories, and we find sanctuary and healing in telling our own.

Judith Hannan of New York and Chilmark found herself journaling in 2001 when her 8-year-old daughter Nadia was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Nadia endured many months of chemotherapy. Her mom maintained a 24/7 tour of duty at her daughter’s side, virtually giving her soul over to all the excruciating aspects of treatment and, finally, remission. At last, Ms. Hannan wandered into a bookstore in search of other people’s narratives about similar immersions in terror and triumph. “Books about death and grief were more plentiful,” Ms. Hannan said. “Perhaps because I had looked into that dark abyss, but I was released.”

Ms. Hannan’s journals tracked “a messy and uncertain narrative.” It took her eight years to sit down and write “The Write Prescription,” a polished, gorgeously organized, and helpful primer for others dealing with serious health issues in themselves or loved ones. Ms. Hannan, who has thrived as a professional writer under the tutelage of Nancy Aronie, founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop, has composed a handy launching pad for any aspiring writer with a story to tell, whether it’s set alongside a hospital bed or at a French train station during WWII. It’s a guide for getting started, and rolling along those tracks until The End.

Ms. Hannan wrote her first book about the ordeal, titled “Motherhood Exaggerated.” Sharing her story in book readings and lectures led to a groundswell of other people pressing her with their own accounts. The task became: How could she help others through the therapeutic process of writing it all down? It’s a huge undertaking, even for those of us who’ve written all our lives. With the first glance at “the blank page,” a sense of dread descends. We would rather drag out the vacuum cleaner, or take down the curtains for a good soak-and-dry, followed by hours of ironing.

“The Write Prescription” is filled with gray-paged writing prompts, akin to tipping a can of gasoline into a car’s tank when the gauge reads “empty.” “How did you get to this point? Why are you here, staring at a blank page or a blinking cursor? What were you thinking when you decided to buy this book?” Those are only the first of many more diving boards into the pool of words.

On another excellent prompt page, Ms. Hannan invites the reader/writer to create metaphors, such as “The feel of a hospital gown on my skin is … fluttering moth wings.” Then she lists a slew of open-ended starting metaphors such as “Watching you leave is …” “The dog barking all night is …” [Here are mine: “Watching you leave is … a treat!” and “The dog barking all night … has been silenced — don’t ask.”]

Throughout the superb prompts and insights, Ms. Hannan weaves the tale of Nadia’s cancer, from the initial difficulty of achieving a diagnosis to family dynamics, to the variety of doctors’ bedside manners (or lack of), to the bonus and disruptions of friends gathering round. She quotes Julian Barnes from his book “Levels of Life”: “You need your friends not just as friends but as corroborators.” Ms. Hannan takes advantage of the wise words of other authors on devastating illness, including Lucy Grealy in “Autobiography of a Face,” and Anne Fadiman in “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.”

“The Write Prescription” can be read as an engrossing, nail-biting story of a mother and a daughter caught in the long, sticky strands of a nasty sarcoma, with a happy ending (all three of Judith Hannan’s kids are grown up and flourishing). It can also be accessed with a notepad in hand, or a laptop open, waiting to take on the challenge of Ms. Hannan’s prompts. The reader/workshopper may find he or she hasn’t stopped until rising from his or her labors with a book — or at least a darn good essay — in hand.

The author’s baptism by fire has led to other avenues of family aid. She conducts writing workshops for homeless mothers, at-risk adolescents, and medical students. She’s a mentor with the Visible Ink program, serving patients at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. And this is just a start. When you read Ms. Hannan’s affiliations at the back of her book, you’ll wonder what megavitamins or bionic implants enable her to accomplish so much.

Ms. Hannan also weaves into “The Write Prescription” the poignant story of her father’s Alzheimer’s disease, and her mother’s death of breast cancer at the age of 55. And here’s where she exhibits, early on, her fine use of metaphor: She describes how, at the age of 38, pregnant with twins, she gives her medical history to an ob-gyn, who jots down Ms. Hannan’s data as follows: [female sign – downward arrow – bc55], encapsulating with callous symbols what Flaubert could have written as a full-bodied novel, demonstrating what a miracle it is for us to, as they say in preschool, “use your words.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” Anne Fadiman, as Anne Radioman.