Books·How I Wrote It

How Leslie A. Davidson turned her most painful memories into a prize-winning story

The winner of the 2016 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize explains how she transformed pain into peace.
Leslie A. Davidson is the author of the nonfiction short story "Adaptation." (Sarah Mickel)

In the spring of 2011, Leslie A. Davidson was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. About 18 months later, her husband, Lincoln, was diagnosed with dementia. And today, "Adaptation," Davidson's emotional true story of navigating through this new normal, has won the 2016 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize.

In her own words, Davidson — a retired schoolteacher who's late to the writing game — describes how writing about her most painful moments has brought her the greatest peace. 

Writing with purpose

"I can't solve my problems in my head. They have to come out either in conversation or on paper. And once Lincoln stopped being able to verbally communicate, conversation was no longer an option. Meanwhile, I had created a Facebook page at the suggestion of Orca Books, who are publishing a children's book that I've written called In the Red Canoe. I ended up writing a post on this page about walking with Lincoln and being sad because he couldn't see the beauty around us. He said something on that walk that shifted my sorrow completely. The post was very widely shared, and I was floored. There was such a strong response. I saw that this touched people, and it was huge for me to have this support, people saying thank you, I have the same challenges in my life, this was helpful. It made me think that perhaps there was a reason to write it down."

The long goodbye

"I watched an interview with the author Louise Penny, who cared for her husband Michael for some time [Editor's note: Michael died on September 18 at the age of 82], and she talked about the long goodbye and what a gift she felt it was. When I heard her say that, it really impacted me very powerfully. I'm not grateful for Parkinson's, and I'm not grateful for dementia. But there are things about both that have brought beauty into our lives. Now I have the opportunity to tell him every day that I'm so glad we stuck it out when it's tough. That I'm so grateful for who he was, and who he is, and for the life that we have."

Another Saturday night

"I started writing 'Adaptation' late on a Saturday night. I follow CBC Books and was familiar with the CBC Literary Prizes, but I hadn't written anything quite right. But the moment at the theatre [where Lincoln has an episode and Leslie can't physically keep up with him] that I describe in the story — I had been going back to this memory a lot in my head, because it was probably the worst night of my life, of our lives. I felt so terrified and helpless and inadequate and angry with myself for allowing us to get to that place, allowing him to get so distressed. Then the other memory — the walk I take with Lincoln — that was probably the second-most frightened I've ever been, if the movie theatre was the most frightened. So I just started to play that out on the page and it evolved the way it did. It wasn't laborious. I wrote it on Saturday night, I edited it on Sunday and I sent it off the way it was. I was right at the end of the submission timeline. I needed to write this story anyway, and when it was finished, I thought, 'I think it's an OK piece of writing. I think I could submit this.'

"It was a very emotional experience to write this story. It's just even emotional to talk about it. I cried so much writing it. But I cry really easily — I blame it on Parkinson's, but the reality is I've always been an easy crier. I have a nephew who calls it the 'blubber gene.' I remember feeling very tired when I was finished and also feeling that I told that story the way it was." 

The light in the darkness

"What I've discovered is that, almost every time I sit down to write, it taps into a piece of myself that — I guess the cliché would be the Pollyanna side of myself. I can start to tell a story that to me feels hugely sorrowful, and by the end of writing about it, I've found a kind of peace with it — and often some laughter and some joy. But always gratitude. Gratitude that Lincoln is still here, and that we are still here together." 

Leslie A. Davidson's comments have been edited and condensed.

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