Frederick Community College professor Sarah Bigham did not set out to be a writer. But when a mysterious illness interrupted her ability to sleep, she sought out a new distraction in her state of unrest.
The result was “Kind Chemist Wife: Musings at 3 a.m.,” a collection of poems and essays in a variety of different styles that takes readers through the intricate details of Bigham’s life. Her work caught the attention of Pski’s Publishing Porch and is now available to read via a 196-page book, available through several websites.
Bigham recently answered a few questions about “Kind Chemist Wife,” her life and the process she underwent to finish the very personal and prolific publication.
First, can you tell me a little bit about yourself (who you are, your background as writer, etc.)?
Bigham: My wife, Susan, and I have lived in Frederick for over 20 years. We are both educators (she is the organic chemistry professor at Hood College, and I am an education professor at Frederick Community College), and we love this community. We share our home with three special needs cats and enjoy spending time in our yard, where I putter around in the garden and try to grow herbs.
I understand your book, “Kind Chemist Wife: Musings at 3 a.m.,” is a collection of essays and poems. Can you tell me a little bit about what served as inspiration for the writings?
Bigham: Several years ago, I began developing mysterious symptoms. (I was ultimately diagnosed with a variety of conditions that cause chronic pain.) I was often miserable and would pace the house late at night, unable to sleep, with the cats trailing behind me. I had always been an enthusiastic reader, and I appreciated various forms of art, but I was not often able to focus well on work that others had created, especially during pain flares. The only thing I seemed to be able to do (other than cry) was to start creating things myself. In true desperation, I turned to creative outlets — writing and painting.
How long did it take you to collect the excerpts and make them into a book?
Bigham: The pieces in the collection were written over the course of about four years. Many were previously published in a variety of small journals. I often heard from those who had read my work that I should consider doing a collection. I am not formally trained as a writer, so I researched the process and submitted my manuscript to publishers. I ultimately found one that connected with my work and believed in the book.
You mention your life turning “upside down” in your dedication. What do you mean by this, and how did the experience help shape your book?
Bigham: Had I not become ill, I do not think I would have become a writer. Pre-illness, I devoted many hours to teaching, I volunteered in the community, and I led a busy life filled with travel and activities. While my mother had told me years ago that she thought I would be a writer, I did not believe her! Becoming ill changed my life completely. I am very grateful that I am still able to teach, a job I adore, although I have regretfully had to cut back to part-time hours due to my medical conditions. I have much less energy now, so I spend a lot more time at home these days and a lot more time sleeping as well as resting. I travel only in my imagination. In a way, having these conditions helped prepare me for life during the pandemic.
It looks as though the book kind of takes a journey through your life. What was it like revisiting the experiences for publication?
Bigham: My wife and friends have often commented that I have an unusually detailed memory of the past. Many times, I wished that were not the case as I would prefer to forget painful experiences. However, it certainly comes in handy if one becomes a memoirist! (I fully admit that I may not be remembering everything exactly as it happened!) People with chronic illness are multifaceted. We are more than the sum of our health issues. There are many life experiences that have made me who I am today. My hope was to put together a collection that not only highlighted the intense pain that millions of people live with (often in silence) but to also show that we are complex individuals with hopes and dreams, experiences and value. The healthcare system can be very demoralizing for those of us with complicated, poorly understood or challenging conditions. I wanted to help showcase our humanity, give hope to others who are suffering and provide insight about my overall journey.
One thing that has brought me joy is being able to share the book with those who have made a difference in my life. I sent copies to members of my “care team” — the providers I have found who have been able to diagnose and treat me — as well as to some of my favorite authors. When I was able to focus, reading was one of the only activities I could still enjoy when my health was at its worst. Reading continues to sustain me. Mailing off those books and then hearing back from some of the recipients has been a thrill.
Do you have a favorite poem or essay from the book? If so, what is it, and why does it stand out?
Bigham: Each piece is included for a reason, so on any given day I might pick a different one as a “favorite.” On days when I feel melancholy, the pieces about loved ones who are no longer here speak to me a lot. I truly love teaching and working at a community college, so many times I might select a piece related to my students as a favorite because they are such an inspiration to me. On the days when I have pain flares, I find I am called to the pieces in the chapter I titled, ‘The Medical System: Refuge, War Zone’, and ‘Everything in Between.’ I have heard from others with similar conditions (including some women from as far away as Australia), and I know that my words have resonated with them. One of the final pieces in the collection, ‘The Purse,’ might be my overall favorite because it describes some of the great joy, support, humor and contentment I have in my marriage. Susan is truly my favorite person, and I would not want to spend a pandemic with anyone else!
Do you have any more books in the works? If so, what are you working on, and when will it be available to read?
Bigham: Writing a book takes quite a bit of time, and the whole process of publishing is a lot of work! I am delighted to have a book out there in the world, but I feel like I need a long break before starting on another one. At the moment, I am finding a lot of sustenance in reading the works of other authors. (Buying books is my major vice. I have stacks to be read and am always acquiring more.) Although another book may not come soon, I do have a running list of story, essay and poem ideas. I will never be able to compose everything outlined on that list, but I will surely get to some of them!