Cancer is catalyst to tell stories to a wider audience in Jeff Metcalf’s new book

First Published      Last Updated Nov 12 2014 12:25 pm

Books » U. professor mines the humor in a memoir-in-essays weighted with the urgency of his cancer.

After 40 years of teaching writing, after surviving endless prostate cancer treatments, after writing and performing a searingly honest one-man play about the disease — after all that, Jeff Metcalf gave himself an even more difficult assignment: Write an essay every week for a year.

It was an absolutely insane idea, Metcalf says now, and you know he's a man who's had a few insane ideas in his 65 years.

"If you write four essays in a year that were publishable, you'd be the department chair here," he says from his office at the University of Utah English department. Shortly after he began his year of writing, "I felt like I had held a gun to my own head."

But he has spent years pushing his students to get their stories down on the page. And while Metcalf had been writing for most of his life, cancer made the prospect of telling a lifetime's worth of stories even more urgent. The clock of his life was ticking, and he could hear it. "I am very demanding as a teacher, and I thought it was only fair that I demand the same thing of myself, to write the difficult piece, to write the unspoken piece," he says.

So Metcalf took advantage of the insomnia left behind by experimental cancer treatments. He set aside worries about if he had anything to say. He set aside worrying about "feeling finite," as his wife, Alana, puts it.

The collection of Metcalf's year's worth of essays, "52 by 52," won first place in the creative nonfiction category of the Utah Arts and Museums annual writing contest in 2012. Last month, the book that grew out of those essays, "Requiem for the Living," was published by the University of Utah Press. "I dropped 18 pieces," he says. "It was brutal. Every piece was like losing a friend."

His illness gave him the catalyst to tell his stories to a wider audience, says Jean Cheney, a friend and teaching colleague.

"He put this together at a time when he was dying, and then in the end, he doesn't die," says writer and radio producer Scott Carrier. "It's like he cured himself by writing the story of his life."

Fighting cancer with humor • "In the course of the nine years since my diagnosis, I've been cut open, had my prostate removed, discovered that the cancer cells had spilled outside the margins, spent eight weeks in radiation, and, when that procedure wasn't successful, I began a series of Lupron injections backed up with a Casodex kicker and Zytiga," Metcalf writes in "The Killing Fields," the opening essay in "Requiem." "Lupron floods my body with female hormones which suppress the development of testosterone, a necessary component for the cancer cells to survive. My side effects have included hot flashes, loss of muscle tone, decreased libido, depression, loss of body hair, mood swings, frequent insomnia, and the retention of water.

"Essentially, my body has no idea what it is or how to act and it's confusing. It's also funny, and humor counts against cancer, trust me."

In Metcalf's best writing, his narratives take surprising turns toward vulnerability.

"Suddenly it goes around a corner, and you realize all this flippancy has in some ways been a cover for something deeper," says his former writing teacher, playwright and novelist David Kranes, now a close friend and fly-fishing companion. "Jeff's strongest when he is vulnerable, and his route to vulnerability is always humor."

Despite the honesty of "The Killing Fields," what's surprising about "Requiem" is what the book isn't: It isn't a cancer diary. Instead, it unspools snapshots from a rich and varied life, all spliced with humor, told by a conversational raconteur. He writes, "Of course there is danger in telling a good story too many times," and occasionally Metcalf gets so caught up in the unfolding plots of his stories that he doesn't pause to invite the reader along for any deeper, more universal reflections.

It's in the final section of the book, the insightful essays in "Being," that Metcalf earns every word that came before. On the page, he transforms from a capital-C Character into a writer, one propelled forward by his choice to consider cancer a chronic disease rather than a death sentence. He is a writer wise and vulnerable enough to examine his naked body and realize he doesn't recognize what the disease has left behind. "Still, I think, I am here. I will sit back up, dress myself, try to keep a balance, and hope on the far side of hope that I will be able to stay above the water," Metcalf writes in "Early Morning Blues."

Punctuated by fishing • "Storyteller" is the word friends and colleagues use most often to describe Metcalf. And his life has given him volumes of material, from a hardscrabble childhood and then family moves to Holland and Saudi Arabia, following his father's career at Standard Oil. Eventually his family moved back to the United States, first to Texas and eventually Utah.

As an adult, Metcalf took off on several adventures, including a freeform hitchhiking trip across Ireland, drawn by his Irish grandmother's stories, and later a sabbatical in Oxford with his then-girlfriend, Alana.

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Reprising a funny play about prostate cancer

Jeff Metcalf returns to perform “A Slight Discomfort,” his one-man play.

When » Friday, Nov. 21, 6 p.m. for social hour and appetizers; play begins at 7 p.m.

Where » Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $50 in advance at eventbrite.com (search for “A Slight Discomfort”)

Note » All proceeds benefit Reel Recovery, a national nonprofit that offers fly-fishing retreats for men with cancer. For more information, visit: http://reelrecovery.org or call 800-699-4497.

‘Requiem for the Living’

By » Jeff Metcalf

Publisher » University of Utah press

Pages » 248

Price » $21.95