Thinking today about the old chicken-or-the-egg question: do we choose the stories we tell, or do the stories pick us out of the crowd, follow us home, demand our attention? I just finished reading Rebecca Skloot’s extraordinary first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and it reminded me afresh of how important it is for those of us who write to always be listening, as Stephen Dunn puts it, “with that other, inner ear.” A student in a community college biology class, Skloot first saw the name HENRIETTA LACKS written on the board as part of a lecture on cell division. HeLa cells, named after Henrietta, were the first cells to survive–and reproduce–for more than a few days within a lab environment, making possible everything from polio vaccines to cancer therapies to gene mapping. But who was Henrietta Lacks? Skloot wanted to know. “No one knows anything about her,” her instructor replied. “She was a black woman.”
That was the inciting incident.
“What does your character desire?” we often ask our writing students–or are asked, in turn, by those who read our own works in progress. “What does this person want? What is his or her obsession”
But an equally important question might be: What is the writer’s obsession with the story he or she sets out to tell? For if it’s less than an obsession–if it’s mere inclination or, god forbid, calculated choice–the deep, primal heartbeat that drives a book’s creation for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, cannot take meaningful root.
Sometimes when a book gets uniformly good reviews, the small, winged cynic on my shoulder begins to mutter and twitch. “Can’t be that good,” it grumbles. “Probably disappointing.” Within minutes of beginning The Immortal Life, said cynic was reading as voraciously as I, captivated by the unlikely marriage of personal interest story–the emotionally impacting story of Lacks herself, which unfolds in step with the developing relationship between Skloot and Lacks’s living daughter–and the story of HeLa cells themselves: their discovery, their commercial development, their impact on modern medicine and, as a result, every person living today. Technically speaking, what makes this book a lasting masterpiece is the skill with which Skloot is able to portray both the personal and the scientific, making each story equally engaging and, through that process, strengthening each. One might argue that Skloot, who earned her MFA at The University of Pittsburgh and is a contributing editor at Popular Science, is uniquely suited to write this particular story, skilled as she is in both in the portrayal of human pathos and the analysis of scientific fact. But Skloot’s interest in Lacks began long before she’d developed this particular skill set, and it lasted through long years of disappointment in which Lack’s descendants–burned by past experiences with both reporters and the medical establishment–refused to be interviewed. It lasted through self-financed research trips, broken relationships, job changes, life changes. Through it all, beneath it all, that primal heartbeat pumped out its question: Who was Henrietta Lacks?
Thank goodness Rebecca Skloot never stopped listening.