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Cancer free, writer tackles competition

Seeking out praise, approval only brings misery, he says

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When he looks back, accomplished LDS writer Dean Hughes is shocked at his initial response when he learned he had cancer.

When he looks back, accomplished LDS writer Dean Hughes is shocked at his initial response when he learned he had cancer.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As Dean Hughes drove home from the doctor's office in 2004 after finding out that he might have prostate cancer and might die, he waited for panic to set in.

But it didn't come at first.

The doctor did say that they had probably caught it early enough, and if he needed surgery, his chances of being cured afterward were 90 percent or better.

But, as he related in his book, "The Cost of Winning: Coming in First Across the Wrong Finish Line," which came out in May, the worry eventually crept in. He thought again about that 90 percent.

There was 10 percent left over.

"I didn't like the image that came to my mind," he wrote. "Ten guys standing in a line, and one of them takes a bullet in the chest. I thought I might like to be standing in a little bigger crowd."

Then dread set in. But, instead of "readjusting my priorities" and "setting things straight with the Lord," Hughes was shocked with the thought that came to his mind: "But I still haven't written a great book."

Hughes was still hoping to prove himself to the world, a mistake he said many fellow Latter-day Saints make in their lives.

"I was told when I was a kid to 'think big,' to 'go for the top,' to 'hitch my wagon to a star,' to 'let nothing stand in my way,"' Hughes wrote. "All those things we're probably telling our kids. And all my life ... I have developed the habit of finding my joy in the achievements that seemed to make me important in other people's eyes."

Instead, he wrote, when he found out about the cancer, he should have been thinking about his wife, Kathy; their children and grandchildren; and the Lord. But his problem was competition.

Hughes did what he said countless others have done — he made life a contest, where everyone constantly compares themselves to each other, where lives are ruined.

This can happen in any aspect of life, Hughes said in a recent interview with Mormon Times.

"You start to wonder why someone gets more praise than you do, and whether what you do gives you importance; whether someone knows your name," he said. "If you're not careful, this could ruin your whole life."

The world tells us that we haven't won a major award yet, made as much money as someone else or we don't have as big of a house as someone else, Hughes said. And we get caught up in that kind of thinking.

Hughes said there are two reasons why we need to stop these thoughts.

"The short answer ... is that you make yourself miserable," he said. "A long-term answer is that you need to ask yourself why you came to this planet. And, in a Mormon perspective, whether or not you're a writer (or any profession) doesn't really matter."

Also from a Mormon perspective, Hughes said that when our lives end, the Lord will ask us how we did in mortality. Then he will ask us how we did in our meekness, and the latter question will throw people off.

"You'll say, 'meekness? You were serious about that? No one ever encouraged me to be meek,"' Hughes said.

"Everything is always about going out there and competing. But, when you read the scriptures, (the word 'meek') comes up over and over. I think it's a real irony that a Latter-day Saint could have to answer to his life and say, 'I got it wrong."'

Although Hughes had these thoughts when he got cancer — which he has been free of for four years — he said they had always been there. He hopes that, just as the Thomas family in his "Children of the Promise" and "Hearts of the Children" series, he can pass on his wisdom to generations through his storytelling.

Hughes' knowledge and love for writing, in fact, came from a generation just before him. Growing up in Ogden, Utah, Hughes said his mother used to read to him, and his love for stories grew then. His teachers throughout school encouraged him with reading and writing, and by the end of high school, he had started his first novel, although it was never published.

After high school, Hughes attended Weber State University, left in 1962 to serve an LDS mission in Germany and returned to finish a degree in English.

Also after returning from his mission, he met Kathy — who would later serve as counselor in the general Relief Society presidency — at a wedding reception, and found out that she was also an English major.

"I felt it would be good to marry someone who liked to read," he said.

They married in 1966, have three children and nine grandchildren, and reside in Midway, Utah.

Hughes also went on to get a master's in creative writing and a Ph.D. in literature at the University of Washington and became a professor of English at Central Missouri State University, where he stayed for eight years. He also taught creative writing at Brigham Young University for eight years.

Hughes said he hopes readers will be able to empathize with the characters in his books, even though they are fictional.

"It's very humanizing to empathize with people," he said.

Actually, empathizing with characters is the reason he wrote his next novel, set to come out this fall. Hughes said that after he wrote the "Hearts of the Children" series, people were always asking him what happened to one of the characters, Diane.

"People know she is a fictional character, but they empathize with her," Hughes said. "That's why we tell stories. It's a way to share and participate in something of importance."

So, in answer to questions about Diane's life, Hughes wrote a novel about what her life was like after the series ended.

Also coming soon is a novel that takes place in Delta, Utah, titled "Missing in Action."

But, for about two years, Hughes may have to take a break from writing. He and his wife received a call to serve an LDS mission in Nauvoo, Ill. They will leave in September.

E-mail: mwilson@desnews.com