Linda Gillard is a writer’s writer: successful, intensely creative, humble and one of independent publishing’s finest novelists. Her story will inspire you to live each day with your arms opened wide:
I’d like to tell you a story.
In 2012, a few weeks before my 60th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went from diagnosis to mastectomy in less than 3 weeks, then underwent a programme of chemo that was so painful and made me so ill, I thought I was dying. Then I had weeks of radiotherapy. After that, I assumed I’d begin the long haul back to health. I would, as they say, “get my life back”, if not my breast.
I didn’t. Well, not so far. Unfortunately, chemotherapy left me semi-disabled. For two years now I’ve suffered from peripheral neuropathy – pain in my feet and fingers caused by chemo-damaged nerves. I am in constant pain. I can’t walk or stand for very long. I walk with a stick and I need to use a wheelchair for anything more than short excursions.
It’s rare for this kind of damage to be permanent, but mine appears to be. No pain relief has been effective, so I manage the pain by ignoring it. You do actually get used to chronic pain, but it takes its toll. I’m crabby, permanently tired and find it hard to concentrate. It’s like having a brass band rehearsing in your head.
I’m a full-time writer, so a sedentary life didn’t entail major changes for me, but my writing was affected by my experience. Fear became the biggest thing in my life – fear of cancer recurrence, more chemo, worse disability and death. I knew I had to start writing again. Working on a new novel – my seventh – gave me a sense of my pre-cancer self, even if my fingers hurt when I typed and it was a struggle to organise my ideas.
My ghost story, CAULDSTANE was my artistic response to life-threatening illness. A phrase that recurs throughout the book is, “If you live in fear, you fear to live.” Writing a novel about fear gave me a channel for examining and expressing my own fears. I depicted fear – of a ghost and an ancient family curse – as a kind of wasting disease that is gradually destroying a whole family. My malevolent ghost was in fact a personification of cancer.
Cancer changed the way I think and work. Formerly, a book took as long as it took, but now my calendar is dominated now by annual health checks and I find I’m reluctant to start anything that can’t be completed in a year. I don’t like to tempt fate.
Cancer has also changed how I read. My damaged fingers struggle to turn paper pages, so my Kindle has been a boon. Cancer has changed what I watch. I avoid negativity, graphic violence, anything medical.
Cancer also changed what I write. I hate to admit I might be less courageous in my writing now, but if I am, it’s because my life scared the bejesus out of me – and it still does. I hope there’s been no diminution in quality, but I’ve developed a tendency to write unequivocal happy endings. When you’ve had breast cancer, there is no happy end, just a fervent hope it will never recur. Cancer survivors put on a brave face for their families, friends and the media, but we live with fear as our constant companion. So when I was writing CAULDSTANE, it was important to me that good should triumph over evil, that fear should be vanquished, that the characters should go forward and live life to the full, just in case I don’t.
There are few positives about what I went through, but something to celebrate was the discovery that nothing, not even cancer is going to stop me telling stories. It isn’t about ego or the money. It seems I write because I must. I am a storyteller. I may be a stricken storyteller, but clearly it’s going to take more than a nasty bout of cancer and disabling chemo side-effects to silence me.
Cancer is huge. It’s monstrous. But there’s something even bigger and more powerful than cancer. I already knew about the resilience of the human spirit and the comfort of gallows humour. I lost my father and both in-laws to cancer. My joyous discovery was that the desire to create is – apparently – indestructible. And since reading was my main escape from the physical pain and grief of losing all my hair and a significant body part, I like to think that what I write might bring comfort, or at least distraction, to someone who is going through the fire.
Every word I type now is a blow struck against cancer. Writing – especially writing well – is the best revenge.
Amazon.com page http://goo.gl/aBPVjs
Barnes & Noble page http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/linda-gillard
CAULDSTANE on Amazon http://goo.gl/uhJtNs