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Reason to Live

First-time novelist Joni Rodgers wasn't so crazy for trying

But as Joni wrote, she felt herself coming to terms with the Gimlet; she realized she hadn't been stupid to love him. And along the way, Mac metamorphosed. He became less Gimlet, and more Gary. Joni began falling for Mac, and naturally, so did Tulsa. By the time Joni reached a pivotal scene -- the one where Mac and Tulsa were supposed to realize their relationship couldn't possibly work -- she couldn't bear to make her fictional world so sad. "By then, I was so much in love with Mac myself, I couldn't bear to let him go," she says.

The real world, of course, is far harder to manipulate. Last April, while Joni was revising the novel, she itched, felt tired and started shedding hair abnormally fast -- just as she had before, when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. A CAT scan of her neck showed that her lymph nodes were enlarged, but the oncologist couldn't be sure whether the cancer was growing again. She recommended that Joni have follow-up scans every four weeks, till they could be sure whether she'd lost her remission.

Joni decided that she couldn't bear to spend the summer focused on her cancer, and told her oncologist that she'd return in September. By then, it would be clear whether she was no longer in remission. One way or another, she'd know.

She worked feverishly on her book and traveled again to Montana, where, like Tulsa, she'd been young and happy. While there, she allowed old friends to take her to a shaman. She was skeptical, and giggly, and worried about hurting her friends' feelings.

The Indian woman was supposed to tell Joni her "power animal," an Indian guardian angel, usually in the shape of some impressive large mammal -- a bear, a wolf or a cougar. But the shaman said that instead of a big furry beast, she saw a griffin standing behind Joni. The shaman asked the spirit about its shape. She said it replied that in Joni's life, fiction is stronger than reality.

Joni went home, and per the shaman's prescription, she built a mandala. She bought a metal hoop from Wal-mart, and hung on it a rabbit skin her daughter gave her, along with a rattle her son had made and an agate from her mom. She attached feathers and her braids, the remnants of her pre-cancer hair.

In fall, the CAT scan was good; the oncologist pronounced her in remission. Maybe it was the mandala that somehow saved her -- or maybe her newfound vegetarianism, or her latter-day avoidance of caffeine and sugar. Joni gives lots of reasons, but mostly she credits her book with making her want to live. She gave her novel a happy ending, and it returned the favor.

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