I am fortunate to be able to feature a guest post by author Linda Gillard. Linda is, of course, the award-winning U.K. novelist who wrote two of my favorite books, Star Gazing and Emotional Geology. (You can see a synopsis of her books here.)
Several years ago, Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her many fans followed her reports on Facebook about the very harsh treatment regiments she endured, as well as about the disability she faced as a consequence. Through it all, she continued to write. She discusses that process in this post.
I think everyone will be fascinated to read her thoughts about how much of an author’s own experience goes into a work of fiction.
A MATTER OF JUDGMENT by Linda Gillard
I’ve never subscribed to the idea that authors should “write what they know.” Imagination combined with diligent research can equip us to write about anything, but sometimes life presents you with such interesting and challenging material, it almost seems a shame to waste it.
Phoebe Flint, a subsidiary character in my latest novel, THE TRYSTING TREE, is an eccentric 70-year old artist and breast cancer survivor. Chemotherapy has led to disability and chronic pain, leaving her angry, frustrated, but still desperate to work.
“Her dogged efforts to paint were never witnessed by friends. Phoebe’s humiliating failures were a private affair. She stopped complaining about her disability when several well-meaning friends cited Matisse and his famous paper cut-outs, executed from his wheelchair using a pair of wallpaper shears. Phoebe vowed privately that all she’d be executing with wallpaper shears would be the next person to mention Henri-bloody-Matisse.”
Apart from her penchant for young men, Phoebe is pretty much a self-portrait. I sailed through major surgery for breast cancer in 2012, but chemo damaged the nerves in my feet and hands so badly, I now suffer constant, largely untreatable pain and I’m semi-disabled. I’ve been told there can be no improvement now. I’m 64 and I’ll be in pain for the rest of my life.
Fortunately I’m a writer. I can still work, but my typing is slow, less accurate and it irritates my fingers. (Voice recognition software wouldn’t work for me. I’m one of those old-fashioned souls who can’t think without a pencil in hand.) My brain is also affected by chronic pain and I struggle to order my thoughts and construct sentences. THE TRYSTING TREE took me two years to write instead of the projected one.
When I was creating Phoebe, I was tempted to write at greater length about the miseries of chronic pain, the physical & emotional side effects of mastectomy, the tyranny of fear that cancer imposes on its victims. I could have allowed Phoebe some gin-sodden, self-pitying monologues, after which she would have pulled herself together and resumed the rôle I’d allocated to her, that of heroine’s mother and comic relief. I didn’t because Phoebe would have taken over and become the (anti-) heroine of my novel. THE TRYSTING TREE was meant to be a book about memory and loss, not recovery and survival.
I also thought I had a responsibility to my readers to spare them the full horror of my experience in what was meant to be an entertaining, if thought-provoking novel. Some of my readers have cancer, some have had cancer and some will have cancer. Many have lost loved ones to cancer. Those familiar with this hideous disease didn’t need to be enlightened and those who weren’t could be left to hope for the best. My experience wasn’t typical, after all.
So I resolved to keep Phoebe and her suffering in the background. At the same I time I wondered if I was turning my back on a better book, perhaps a more important book.
Looking at the five-star reviews, I think I made the right decision, but doubts still nag me. I pulled my punches. Does that mean the book was superficial? I certainly feared so when writing it, but I also knew I could no longer trust my judgment since another side effect of cancer treatment was loss of confidence, particularly confidence in my judgment. I always used to know if I was writing badly, and if something wasn’t working, I knew how to fix it. Working on two post-cancer novels, I’ve felt like a pianist playing a dummy keyboard. I go through all the motions, but I don’t know if I’m hitting the right notes.
Post-cancer, it’s been harder to make creative decisions, harder to enter the imaginary world of the book, harder to believe in my own characters. Writing fiction – hitherto a mostly joyous experience – has become something of a physical and mental ordeal. Exhausted by pain, struggling to stay awake at my desk, I assumed a book that failed to engage me was unlikely to engage a reader.
I was wrong. Pain has affected my judgment, but not my ability to write. Something emerged unscathed: the part of my brain that makes up stories, then works out how to tell them. Or to pursue my musical analogy, I can still play the piano, I just can’t hear if I’m playing well.
I never wanted THE TRYSTING TREE to be a book about recovery and survival, but in a way it was. The story wasn’t, but the process of writing that story was. It demonstrated that, despite everything I’ve been through, everything I’ve lost, the writer in me has survived. So in the future I’ll just feel the fear and write it anyway, because writing is not so much a matter of judgment now as an act of faith – faith in the storytelling process.
THE TRYSTING TREE on Amazon.com