Why I Write As Though My Life Depends On It

In 2011 at the age of 31 as I lay dying in one of our nation's top rehab facilities readying myself to be transferred to the hospice floor of a nursing home and carry out my final days, I was given five years to live by the world's leading medical professionals—but I knew I had less. I knew I would never walk again, never bathe, bathroom, or brush my teeth in privileged solitude again, never fulfill my childhood dream of attaining a higher degree, and never find real love. My student loans were forgiven, but my sins were not. There was no redemption. With some simple subtraction, my white, adoptive, evangelical family abandoned their bedridden Korean lesbian addition, and so at my bedside it was my former coworkers who helped me complete a will and designate beneficiaries for my paltry life insurance policy, before they, too, vanished back into the ether.


By some miracle I found housing and a caretaker, but euthanasia was still the clear solution to my incurable, implacable suffering until another miracle: the discovery of an ancient medicine that cures autoimmune disease. In the eleventh hour I caught the attention and compassion of the only doctor in North America who works with this fascinating plant, the same man who realized within the past decade that it treats ailments ranging from fourth stage cancer to MS to rheumatoid arthritis—ailments that modern medicine deems incurable. I should know, having been a researcher at Harvard Medical School when I fell ill. After firing my esteemed medical team, I began healing myself exclusively with this medicine—physically, psychologically, spiritually, illegally, unadvisedly.


People said I should write a book. I was interviewed. A literary agent from a top talent agency fell into my lap. My fingers—now permanently disfigured—unfroze so that I could type. And so I did. But I was alone.


When I stepped into my GrubStreet class this summer, I had been in near isolation for almost four years. I had ridden the train exactly four times by myself without my Stephen Hawking-esque wheelchair, which I had only been out of for six months. My income—just above the poverty line—allows for no excess aside from food, and even this I had to crowd-source at times when deciding, on an empty stomach, between treatments and meals. The scholarship I received allowed me to take a class in memoir, which confirmed that I hadn't spent the cruel, dour winter writing Jack’s novel in The Shining, and I even walked away—literally—with a few unlikely friends.


Since that day I have written over 100 more pages, walked over 400 miles, cried pools of tears, met with gods, poets, and my own mortality, and been interviewed by two multiple best-selling authors for their forthcoming hardbacks, one of which will quote from the manuscript I hope will someday be my own book, and the other having offered to connect me with his agent, my dream agent, the most legendary in the English-speaking world—an encouraging sign, to be sure, but one that does not dazzle me as it once certainly would have. Such things shrink pitifully when one’s final breath is in view, the path to healing having taken me from the allopathic to the shamanic, from the finite to the divine, from the scientific to the atavistic. Still, I welcome my Fate and am encouraged by any interest others take in the story of a queer disabled asian woman from Arkansas who saw death—and lives.


It is now my hope to have the opportunity to take advanced-level courses and apply for GrubStreet’s year-long Incubator program to pull me out of what has become an unintentionally reclusive existence and into a connected web of other writers endeavoring to tell their story. Each day that I write (and I write every day—as though my life depends on it) I heal a bit more, and my hope is that when I finally publish, I will help others heal as well, and we all might die a kinder death than I have known.


There are other writing programs in Boston, this cultural hub of academics, but I do not need all the requirements of an MFA, nor can I afford one. What I do need are workshops that meet the standard and seriousness that allows me to focus on my chosen genre, or rather, the genre that has chosen me. GrubStreet fulfills this netherworld between dabbling adult education and a master’s degree program, and without the generosity of their scholarship I would still be alone with my book, dulled without the sharpness of other discerning, writerly minds. With access to the resources of industry insiders and the learning that only comes from growing with other artists, I am grateful to their scholarship program, which has singularly allowed me to be a part of this family of creative voices, each telling an important story that might otherwise go unheard.


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About the Author

Mee Ok Icaro is an award-winning essayist, poet, and memoirist. She placed as runner-up in the Prairie Schooner Creative Nonfiction Contest and was a finalist for the Scott Merrill Award for poetry as well as the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the LA Times, Boston Globe Magazine, River Teeth, Bennington Review, Witness, Cincinnati Review, American Journal of Poetry, Michael Pollan’s “Trips Worth Telling” anthology, and elsewhere. She is also featured in [Un]Well on Netflix. More at

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