“What writing gave me in the middle of cancer was a way to create in the face of something that wanted to
In the middle of great suffering and uncertainty, it may seem easiest to withdraw, to pull away from painful emotions and empty yourself of taxing, trying thoughts. But leaning into those dark nights of the soul and exploring that uncertainty and pain against the character and promises of God can lead to clarifying moments of truth and goodness.
That’s what poet Katy Bowser Hutson did five years ago when she was suddenly diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. As she threw herself into chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation, Hutson let her raw emotions — her fear, her grief, her doubt, and her hope — pour onto the page, creating order and meaning within a chaotic and painful season.
In her book Now I Lay Me Down To Fight, Hutson recounts her in-the-moment responses and thoughts through poetry from the days leading up to her cancer diagnosis to the conclusion of her treatment. Her essays, written five years later for this book, provide a look into each stage of her journey.
Hutson’s essays and poems are an honest and yearning examination of cancer, life, and death in the face of a holy, all-powerful, good God. Now I Lay Me Down To Fight brings beauty and goodness to even the darkest moments of life, not neglecting or negating undeniable pain, fear, and doubt, but refusing to let the darkness have the last word.
Here’s author and poet Katy Bowser Hutson on writing, goodness, and her hopes for this book.
Rabekah Henderson: What did writing give to you in the middle of your diagnosis and treatment?
Katy Bowser Hutson: What writing gave me in the middle of cancer was a way to create in the face of something that wanted to uncreate me. I have a poem called “Eraser,” and it says “Where you, cancer, copy furiously, I fumblingly create. You cannot uncreate me.” All cancer does is copy — it’s definitely in keeping with a tool of Satan, because it just constantly mimics and it’s not creating anything interesting — it just makes lots of things and tries to take over.
Writing also gave me a way to tack down my thoughts when there were so many of them sitting in my head — I was thinking about life, death, my kids, my family, my friends, and my community. Writing helped me find meaning in those thoughts and slow them down. And then I could also take those thoughts and play with them. This was a deep form of play — playing isn’t just for fun, but it’s finding the edges of what’s true and exploring that. And because I’m a Christian, I’m exploring those things before the face of God who made everything and who made me.
Writing and poetry was also a way for me to share all of these things with my friends who cared about me and were worried about me — I could take these poems and post them on my CaringBridge or text them to a friend.
How did you see God providing beauty and goodness within very long periods of serious uncertainty?
As Tom Petty says, “The waiting is the hardest part.” But something I’ve said to people is that cancer really emphasizes everything that’s true about life. I found God’s goodness in the daily things more so than before, and I appreciated them. I found God’s kindness in the hands and feet of Jesus through my family and my neighbors, and through my church, the body of Christ — the people who brought me meals for me every day for a year. Or in the practical help of my dad painting my counters and my mom helping me homeschool our daughter and wrangle our toddler son.
I also feel that the hard seasons of life — the times that you might think would be the loneliest places — are not necessarily a time of spiritual desolation. Instead, they can be places where the Holy Spirit really comes near. In that sense, cancer can be very clarifying. It really does let you know what you care about the most. I’m not saying it’s a gift: You’ll never hear me say that cancer is a gift. But God does give gifts in the middle of hard things.
Your poems speak to the brutal honesty of your pain, but they’re not lost in hopelessness either — how did you balance that while writing them?
This question makes me laugh because my immediate answer was: I didn’t. I’m not someone who can be accused of being balanced in my life. So my answer is “intermittently and lopsidedly and clumsily.” Cancer feels like it’s a gravity-powered roller coaster. You start at the top, and you go down and then there’s a lift up, and then you go down again, and then up and down over and over until you just run out of steam — you’re so tired. And so with every new challenge or pain or realization, it was another time of wrestling things out with God, which is why I wrote a lot of poetry during it. I don’t know that I balanced hopelessness and honesty as much as I just kept pulling those threads together and standing them beside each other to see what was actually true, over and over again.
What are your hopes with Now I Lay Me Down To Fight?
I really hope that Now I Lay Me Down To Fight goes into two spaces. One, I hope it goes into spaces where people who have cancer — or those who are wrestling with it peripherally — are working through what cancer is trying to take from them and all the hard things that go with it.
And because the poems speak to life, death, and meaning, I also want Now I Lay Me Down To Fight to go into all kinds of human spaces where people are struggling with what life is about. We all need memento mori in our life. And I hope that this book helps people notice that more and think deeply about what they’re up to.
My pastor said on Sunday that we will all die in the middle of something — we don’t know when our deaths will happen. In one of my poems (“En Route to Canaan/Jericho”), I say:
But, for all you know,
you could still get hit by a drunk driver,
Struck by lighting,
Fall dead of an aneurysm
Your cells could still go singing along in symphony til one hundred
And so I want Now I Lay Me Down To Fight to go into those spaces where people have cancer, but I also really want all kinds of people to read this and have a chance to peek into what that’s like, because everybody’s going to deal with death. Everybody does deal with death.
Was there a difference in your experience writing poetry in the moment versus writing the essays five years later?
They were definitely different experiences because the poems themselves are desperate. They were my way of dealing with trauma, and they were written because I had to write them — I needed to fling these thoughts out of me into the light, and I needed to be able to consider them.
Five years later, the essays are contemplative. They’re looking retrospectively at the big picture, about how going through cancer has shaped me. Once you’ve had cancer, you never don’t think about it. So you continue to be shaped by it, just like how Paul had the thorn in his flesh and how Frodo had a Ringwraith wound with him for the rest of his life.
Cancer is something that continues to make me, as my friend Margie Haack says, “collapse into Jesus’ marvelous hands.” And so the essays are a place to let people know where I was, and then the poems actually enter that space.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.