My sophomore year of college, I took a fiction writing workshop, which meant that each class all the students would evaluate two or three of our peers’ stories. The stories, mine included, were not very good, which is what you’d expect, because everyone was 19. The feedback we gave each other was basically different iterations of “make the story make sense” and “follow your voice.” This was my first experience editing, and I liked it because with so much bad writing, it was easy to figure out what to fix: everything. I remember one of the class’ stronger writers turning in a story about a girl going to a baseball game with her father who tells her that he has cancer. She’s bummed, obviously, and that was the whole story. It had an arc, dialogue, denouement. Everyone was really pleased and praised her accordingly, except me. I stewed, and then finally, I spoke up. “You can’t just put cancer in a story and expect it to be weighty. It’s cheap.” I felt like a dick, but I also felt right.
This spring, someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer. Unsurprisingly, this has not been a pleasant experience. At times during the last six months, I’ve found myself thinking of that workshop moment, especially when I read a book or see a movie that deals with cancer. Sometimes the right writer or director makes it effective, but I still can’t bring myself to disavow what I said in a classroom 10 years ago. How could I still be so heartless, even with cancer breathing down my neck?
I’ve looked elsewhere from cancer narratives to alleviate sadness and stress, but have found myself drawn to “Live,” comedian Tig Notaro’s recent set on the subject, recorded this spring at the Largo in Los Angeles. A wry comic, she walks onstage saying, “Hello! I have cancer! Hello!” She reassures her shocked audience by saying that they will be fine, though she might not be. It’s an incredibly weird 30 minutes, a sort of audio stroll through all of Notaro’s recent tragedy (of which she’s had plenty: her mother’s surprise death, an infection separate from the cancer, a breakup). She is alternately droll and chipper, as bewildered by the chain of events as her audience is. Her mode of soft confrontation is startling. Confession as catharsis is nothing new, but her set turns that rubric on its head.
Thinking about our annual Now Issue, our winter look forward at the next year, I couldn’t get Notaro off of my mind. Though she is a comedian and not a musician, she embodies perfectly what we value and hope to convey with this issue: new ideas and a fearless face forward. I am always looking for an uprooting in the arts, but I was not expecting to find it happening in the realms of comedy and especially not in the subject of cancer. Other people felt the same way, too—Notaro was inescapable in print, online and on the radio, dutifully giving updates on her health and continuing to crack wise about her travails. I interviewed her, too, and while we never touched on cancer in our discussion, the best part of the conversation was when we talked about how adult bunk beds don’t exist. It reminded me of the way she ends “Live,” by telling a joke about a bee passing her in traffic on the 405 in LA. She references it throughout the set, saying it’s too cutesy to tell and that she’s just not in the mood. She finally tells it at the end, to a rousing reception that, at face value, it doesn’t really deserve. Only through the lens of the previous, bleak 30 minutes do you begin to understand that it’s no longer the same joke. It used be about a bee, but now it’s about cancer. And really, that’s the funny thing.