Here at Writers Who Kill, we often focus on writing as a skill for telling mystery stories. We deal with fear, hate, and doubt in the context of seeking out bad guys and bringing them to justice. Also, in facing a blank page with an empty mind.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to a real life hero, who uses writing to make sense out of facing and battling a rare medical condition. Tanya Gee is a brilliant attorney and dedicated wife and mom. In her career, she has worked in a public defender’s office prior to attending law school; as a law clerk, staff counsel, and clerk of court in a state appellate court; and as a lawyer focusing on appellate law and business litigation in a high powered firm. She’s a recognized expert on appellate practice and co-author of a blog, Noticing Appeals: Abusing Our Discretion One Post at a Time, about legal issues, oral advocacy, and legal writing.
During this legislative session, the South Carolina Senate and House of Representatives each passed similar resolutions honoring Tanya Gee for her accomplishments and courage, and recognizing that: “Now armed with the same positive spirit, boundless optimism, and cheerful humor that has sustained her as she surmounted previous challenges in life, she is waging an inspiring and determined battle against an extremely rare form of cancer, bolstered by an amazing outpouring of support and care from a broad support network of loved ones.”
The fact that Tanya writes with great delight, awareness, and gratitude at a time when many persons facing similar circumstances would focus inward instead of sharing their experiences is a wonderful gift -- not just to her family and children, but to all who know her and who get to know her.
I asked Tanya to be a guest with us today as a testament to how choosing to write can enable one to lead a courageous life.
Tanya, thank you for joining us at WWK. Please tell us a little about yourself, your diagnosis, and your prognosis.
Thank you for your interest in my story, Paula. You’ve talked a bit about my professional life, so I would simply add that I am the mother of two amazing kids who both ground and elevate me, and I have a very patient and kind husband. I was diagnosed with dedifferentiated chondrosarcoma in February of this year. It is an extremely rare and very aggressive form of cancer. I was very lucky to detect it early. To date, I have completed 10 rounds of chemotherapy and have had my right hip joint (both the ball and socket) removed. I am scheduled for another 8 rounds of chemotherapy in the coming 3 months. I am happy to report that at the end of that treatment schedule, there will be only a 9% chance of any recurrence of this cancer.
How has your undergraduate work in sociology influenced your legal and other writing?
I have always been keenly interested in social justice. When I was in college, I decided to work at the York County Public Defenders’ Office to observe the ways we treat each other as a society, as well as the interaction between people and judicial institutions. I learned some important lessons during this experience. I watched heroic figures quietly uphold our sacred constitutional values every day with no fanfare or recognition. In fact, they usually experienced the opposite. I saw heartbreaking examples of young people whose families and authority figures had failed them. This experience is what led me to law school. When you think about it, our law is really just a codification of social justice. It’s designed to hold people accountable and to protect the defenseless. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. But I know that when I write best, social justice usually plays a role.
What draws you to writing and what type of writing do you like most (to do, to read, or both)?
I think I am at my best when I am advocating a cause I believe in. I’m sure that is true of most people. Sometimes, that can be difficult. When one of my clients is involved in a contract dispute, it is critically important to them, and jobs may be on the line. We might be fighting to uphold or establish a critical nuance of the law, and these considerations motivate me. However, I am far more passionate when the fate of a child is at stake. Serving as someone’s advocate is always a sacred duty, but never more so than for people who have trouble defending their own interests. When I read for pleasure, I tend to gravitate toward those same types of themes.
You chose to participate in Caring Bridge to keep family and friends informed about your life. Could you tell us about that organization, what it offers to persons facing serious illnesses and how it has benefited you and your family?
I am increasingly convinced that Caring Bridge saved me. In the beginning, we set up our site for very practical reasons. When I was first diagnosed, someone who had been through a similar illness explained that managing well-wishers would be an important part of this process. He told us that even keeping people up to date could become overwhelming. Caring Bridge is an amazing organization that provides a way to do just that without becoming burdensome. It is a free service funded by donations and one we have been very thankful to be able to use. As my treatment progressed, Caring Bridge became something much more than a communications tool. It became a power source. Some people talk about the power of prayer or positive energy. Whatever you call it, I can tell you that it makes a tremendous difference. It gave me serenity at times of incredible stress and pain. There have been times when I could almost tangibly feel the thoughts and prayers of my friends.
How has it been to share writing duties with your lawyer husband, Chris Koon, on the Caring Bridge site?
It has revealed interesting differences in our styles. I always try to write the updates, but there have been many occasions when I just did not have the energy. Regardless, it is always a collaborative effort. One of us writes the first draft, then the other revises and suggests changes. We keep going back and forth until we are both satisfied. Invariably, I find Chris’s writing to be very factual and informing, but lacking in emotion. Cancer is a passionate experience. The emotional highs and lows are extreme, and I always want to convey that emotion. I, on the other hand, usually focus so carefully on emotion that I lose sight of the story. Chris will read my draft and point out that I didn’t mention anything about traveling to Houston for surgery. Hopefully, between the two of us, we have entertained, informed, and conveyed our feelings. I think we also have gained a greater respect for each other’s abilities.
As brilliant as you are at legal writing, my favorites of your posts are the ones you write on Facebook when you talk about your wonderful children. How are they doing? Are they readers and/or writers?
The kids are doing very well. It was important to me that cancer not interrupt their lives, so I gave Chris standing orders to focus on them. Fortunately, we are blessed with four grandparents who all live nearby, so Chris has been able to keep the kids in their routine during my treatments. Our kids could not be more different. I think they are actually closer than many siblings as a result because they complement each other so well. Will is reserved, quiet, and honest almost to a fault. He likes to read in his room by himself. I love to peek in and watch the adventures in his imagination unfolding on his expressive face. Will can also sit for hours and quietly rub my back when I am feeling sick. Sabin is a performer and a social animal. She fawns over my “beauty” when I return from chemo. Sabin loves to be read to or (pretend) to read aloud. She craves interaction, and her positive spirit always gives me a lift. The other day, she said to me, “Mommy, I don’t really like you right now.” She then paused for dramatic effect before belting, “I LOVE you!” I am still grinning.
Do you ever consider writing fiction? If so, what would you write?
I am probably most happy when reading books with my children. I love children’s literature, and I am certain I would try to be the next Judy Blume. I would surely fail, but the attempt would be fun and satisfying.
What encouragement would you offer to writers who face the dreaded writer’s block?
I’ve always thought of writer’s block as a literary Chinese finger trap. The more you struggle against it, the tighter it squeezes. I think the mistake most people make with writer’s block is to fight it. Sometimes, our mind and body speak to us, and it’s usually a good idea to listen. I think writer’s block is a message from your brain to disengage and rest. When you try to force inspiration, it feels just that… forced.
E.B. Davis, a fellow WWK blogger, likes to ask our guests if they prefer the beach or mountains. Do you have a preference?
I was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I will never forget the first time I saw the ocean. It was almost overpowering. Chris is a Clemson graduate, and he has had some success in creating a love of the Blue Ridge in my heart. Nonetheless, while I love the mountains, I will take an ocean view every time.
Tanya, thank you for providing us with a true profile in courage. Keep writing. We need to hear your voice.