Katherine Standefer, author of “Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life,” Zooms into the valley for two virtual events this week: a reading with the Jackson Hole Book Trader and a creative writing workshop with Jackson Hole Writers and the University of Wyoming.
“Lightning Flowers” tells the story of Standefer’s fraught relationship with her body and how she grapples with her diagnosis of long QT syndrome — a rare disorder that can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats — and her implanted cardiac defibrillator.
Standefer thinks critically about the life-saving device’s global environmental implications. Her investigation makes her wrestle with the “mountains in [her] body,” she said while talking to the News&Guide.
“Pick it up and you will hear a human voice,” Elisabeth Egan wrote in her New York Times’ review of Standefer’s medical memoir.
Given the constraints of the pandemic, Standefer’s Jacskon Hole homecoming isn’t what she had in mind, but she’s excited to get “that local welcome and hometown pride of actually having done the thing,” she said.
Standefer first came to Jackson while in high school and, like all of us, became hooked. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and English from Colorado College, she packed her bags and headed for the Tetons in 2007. While working as a ski instructor and climbing guide Standefer was also building her writing career: She had a job at pARTners, was a writer-in-residence at Jackson Hole Middle School and won the Flash Fiction Contest at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference.
“It’s sweet to come back to Jackson,” Standefer said. “But it’s also really bittersweet that I can’t be there in person and honor the place where this unfolded.”
Standefer is enthralled by everything Wyoming: its ecosystem and its people, who are always willing to lend a helping hand. But as her fight with long QT syndrome intensified, she realized that Wyoming’s state politics and health care didn’t match Jackson’s vibrancy. The tension between this “willingness to help and unwillingness to have codified forms of help available to its citizens,” Standefer said, made her decision to flee Jackson all the more difficult.
In September 2009, Standefer abruptly left Jackson — the place she thought she would build her life — to battle long QT syndrome.
“Wyoming was my heart,” Standefer said, holding back tears. “But Wyoming failed me. The connection to that landscape and what it meant to leave that land at the exact moment I thought I might die was horrible. ... I have never stopped grieving leaving that place.”
Thus began the most difficult and formative years of Standefer’s life. She recalled writing “Lightning Flowers” years before she put pen to paper — the daily fight for her life crystallized the storyline. Standefer survived two traumatic surgeries, daily health trials and tribulations and countless doctors’ appointments, all while writing the book.
When asked about her favorite part of the writing process, Standefer hesitated.
“This book was an intense labor and a spiritually mandatory book to write,” she said, “which is why I’m pausing on the word ‘favorite.’”
For most authors, identifying that breakthrough moment is their bread and butter. But not for Standefer. Living through hell while penning a complex memoir, grounded in the body’s unforgivingness, was no walk in the park.
As she writes in the prologue: “I will never know what my insides looked like after 2,000 volts — if my tissue erupted into lightning flowers of the body cavity, a sudden bloom. What I do know is that the night I took three shocks to the heart I was marked, called into the world in a way I could not turn away from.”
Standefer said that very moment laid the painstaking foundation for her memoir.
The response to “Lightning Flowers” has prompted Standefer to reflect upon her gut-wrenching writing process. The memoir is garnering high praise. It was selected for Oprah Magazine’s November Reading Room and was short-listed for prizes from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
Egan’s New York Times review noted Standefer’s doggedness in spite of her uphill battle: “She will not rest until she has answers.”
“There’s an immense pleasure in ... the overwhelming euphoria of having really stuck with something in order to make it sing in the way you really hoped it would,” Standefer said.
“The weight of the trauma of this book and the way the process required me to move through those stories in an embodied way was just so hard. It’s an incredible feeling to pop up on the other side.”
As Standefer revels in the reviews she will lean “as far into the joy” as possible.
“Not that any book is perfect,” Standefer said, “but I really showed up to this one.”
What’s next for Standefer?
“Well, first, a really long nap,” she confessed, laughing.
Before Standefer takes her well-deserved snooze her story will come full circle with a virtual return to the Hole. Her virtual appearance at Jackson Hole Book Trader starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when she will read a few excerpts about the valley to pay tribute to the community.
“It all happened so fast and so privately, that there’s something important to me about honoring that grief and getting to share the way that I wrote about that land with the people who are still there,” Standefer said.
Visit JHBookTrader.com for details about the book reading.
Then, from 10:30 to noon Saturday, Standefer will virtually visit again for her “Writing Into Big Questions” workshop, co-sponsored by Jackson Hole Writers and the University of Wyoming’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.
Participants will think critically about the interplay between their own narratives and the world around them.
“Folks are really excited about this idea of tying their personal story into a larger narrative,” Jackson Hole Writers Assistant Director Matt Daly said. “The constellation of issues at different scales she works with — personal, technological and global — is a fascinating combination.”