Reading Arthur W. Frank’s astonishing At the Will of the Body recently has given me pause to reflect on the relationship between illness and writing. One of the chief delights of reading Frank’s account of his heart attack and cancer is his beautifully modulated prose style. I was only half-joking when I said that it seems to be written entirely in quotes, each page both measured and solid as a dresser made of teak.
Not having been at my best of late -rest assured: this is not a coded reference to relapsing- it occurred to me that Frank’s book achieves its mastery after the event as it were. The past tense is a wonderful thing. It brought to mind another joke, of the friend who told me he read my memoir of cancer Love for Now in double-quick time, to see if I lived.
They are different beasts. Love for Now has its bodily fluids, while At the Will of the Body is more cerebral. We need both kinds of account, the here-and-now awfulness, along with the reflection in tranquillity.
But what if, what if illness was actually (secretly) the ideal circumstance in which to write? This is something it took me six years to admit to thinking, just as Love for Now was published.
During my treatment for cancer my days were remarkably similar, and regular, in their routine. I would walk my son to school, watch two episodes of Frasier, eat a second (or third) breakfast, then sleep or watch daytime TV. In the afternoons I would sit in bed writing, either till I slept or it was time to collect my son. This pattern basically did not alter. Cancer notwithstanding, it was, in its way, perfect.
This reminds me of something Ann Sansom once said to me, along the lines that if you wrote poetry when completely exhausted the chances were you would write better poems than when you felt on top of the world. Exhaustion, she said, cuts through the defences of the rational-conscious mind to the place where you start saying what you really want to say. Before you know it, she said, you’ve gone and said it. And it’s never as bad as you think.
Well, it’s a theory.
All I know is, Love for Now would have come out differently had I waited to ‘plot’ my story. And the first poems I wrote about my treatment, just as it ended, owe their terseness in no small part to the effects of radiotherapy on my energy levels.
The truth is, I never ‘feel like writing’. Not today, with my cold. Not then, as I shuffled from room to room, not ever. It may as well be now. Today. Because you never know.
There, I’ve said it.