I first knew Diana Woods as a fiction student in the Antioch MFA program. Though I primarily teach creative nonfiction, she was assigned to my workshop two years ago during a genre jump into creative nonfiction. She was just recovering from a round a chemo then and came to class with a different, brightly colored cap each day, along with a deep desire to learn and an unquenchable zest for life.
After she graduated, she contacted me to see if she might join my bi-monthly writer’s group. At first, she worked on a speculative novel set in the future. But when she veered from that work and brought in an essay on her experience with ovarian cancer, all members of the group perked up. In that more personal work, Diana’s voice had become stronger than we’d previously experienced it and we encouraged her in that direction. She wrote a good few essays on related subjects: preparing to leave her children, how she’d try to contact (but not haunt) her daughter Rani after her passing, about the difficulties obtaining edible pot goodies to fend of the effect of chemo, and of the challenges she faced on a daily basis. Not once in all the writing she did on that subject did she come anywhere near the abyss of self-pity. She just did what the best artists do: reported honestly from the borderland she was experiencing. Near the end of her life, she was often accompanied to the group’s meeting by Rani, or would ask a member of the group to read her work aloud since she no longer had the strength to do so herself.
After Rani read them aloud, each writer told Rani how much Diana meant to them and how she had shaped and encouraged them. Rani took in all the words of love and sympathy, and when the warm sentiment was finished said, “Yes, but she’ll kill me if I don’t come home with edits!”The last time we critiqued her work, just a few weeks before her death, her daughter came alone with Diana’s pages. After Rani read them aloud, each writer told Rani how much Diana meant to them and how she had shaped and encouraged them. Rani took in all the words of love and sympathy, and when the warm sentiment was finished said, “Yes, but she’ll kill me if I don’t come home with edits!” Diana wanted to hone her skill as a writer to the very end. We gave Rani those edits and that essay appeared two days later (with our edits reflected in it) in The Nervous Breakdown, titled Hospice 101.
How she did that, lying on her deathbed, continues to amaze me. Diana is an example of what it means to be an artist in this world and I am honored, as the entire Antioch community is, to have known her and shared a portion of this life journey with her.