Maggie Leffler on Writing Amidst Tragedy

The publication of your first novel is supposed to be a time for celebration, but for Maggie Leffler, life is a bit more complicated. In this essay, she talks about writing and publishing The Diagnosis of Love while coping with the loss of two of her greatest inspirations.


My husband tells me that there is an American Indian expression, “Hoka hey,” which means today is a good day to die. It’s a statement of preparedness, not of wishful thinking. Greet each day as if it were your last, because there might not be a tomorrow. As a physician who deals with death on a regular basis, and as a daughter whose mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in my third year of medical school and died before my graduation, I’ve been regularly reminded of just how fragile life is—it’s just that sometimes I don’t want to be reminded.

My mother was a doctor, as well as a writer. The same year that she died, she was working on a mystery novel, while I would work on the manuscript that eventually became The Diagnosis of Love. I would take off from medical school, and we’d sit, side by side, tapping away on our laptops, and then compare chapters. We were each other’s harshest critics and biggest fans. The year that she was sick, I wrote furiously, as if we were both dying of cancer. The year that she died, I kept writing at the same pace, both to save myself from my grief and because the characters had become my old friends. They’d seen me through the worst and kept me laughing. Even my mother knew them intimately. I had to see the story through.

“Seeing it through” meant applying to the Iowa Writers Workshop and not getting in, joining a local writers group instead, and ultimately, writing six more drafts over the next seven years. The perseverance paid off: When I got an agent, she sold the book to Bantam within two weeks. Joy! A year later, the advance copies were in, and I sent one to my father, complete with “Cliff’s Notes” of which characters were completely imagined and which characters had been inspired by a real person. (“As if I couldn’t tell,” he said, chuckling).


23 April 2007 | guest authors |

Albert Goldbarth, “The Initial Unpublished Discovery”

In another poem, I chronicled my descent
to a level of shadow and intermittent fiery light.
It was a world of empty faces—almost sucked out,
as if eggs the weasels got at had been turned to faces.
Wanderers and their hunched-up stalkers,
mutterers to angry private gods… that’s who I found
down there. I was talking about
our dream life—our subconscious—but a friend said
that she thought I’d meant the New York subway system,
ha ha. Nonetheless, I give to the neurobiologists
this first identification of a mechanism, somewhere in the brain,
I call “the turnstile.” It allows our passage
into the depths. And what’s the morning
—what’s the clear new start—if not our exiting
back into this life through the same round gate?

From The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, a new collection spanning the last thirty-five years of Goldbarth’s career. Shortly after he won his second National Book Critics Circle award in 2002, Eric McHenry celebrated Goldbarth’s “wacky, talky, and fat” poems in Slate. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “[his] erudition and wit found expression in compulsively wordy but dazzling compositions.”

23 April 2007 | poetry |

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