On writing and illness


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.


  1. Dear Anthony, I wish you’d published this particular blog two months ago as that was when I was incapacitated by a fractured vertebra and have spent two months doing much what you describe every day, even down to two episodes of Frasier in the mornings and afternoon property programmes. But I haven’t written a word in all that time until today when an 8 line poem needed to be written. I blamed the opiate based painkillers I was prescribed but had I read what you wrote today I might have tried harder. When I had the accident I was about to go on the Sansom’s Whitby poetry course, and had I gone Ann might have given me the advice she gave you and I might have tried harder. My incapacity is not life threatening nor permanent but it did something to my mind – it was frightening, not least because of the writer’s block, or whatever it was. It may have been wimpishness. But thank you as usual.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Meg
      I am so sorry to hear of your travails.
      Not least because you missed out on being with Ann and Peter, who are such life-affirming people.
      I hope you feel encouraged and emboldened to write and to send it off and to keep writing.
      As Jean Sprackland said to me (in another post somewhere) ‘All we have is the process’. Sometimes illness gets in the way of that.
      Sometimes it can be a spur to action.
      Wishing you a speedy recovery and more writing


  2. Very interesting blog not least because it reminds me that one day I need to start writing about my experiences of illness. Maybe it’s better to write about illness ‘in the moment’ because then you can capture ‘the moment’ as pure and undiluted as possible without the baggage that reflection can sometimes bring. My own memories of my illness are still very good despite being 25+ years ago, but I still wonder if anything I write now will be as good as it might have been had I written it then?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Andy
      Thank you for your kind comment.
      I don’t think there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach to this.
      I think what matters most is that we write, get our stories down, and work on them to the best of our ability and preparedness to make them truthful.
      That’s all we can hope for and trust in.
      Wishing you continued good health and good writing

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My days in treatment were like yours. Within the rhythm of the chemo cycles, I mostly walked my daughter and her friends to school, came home to bed and sleep, and then woke up to write.

    I also found it easier to write then than now. Like you, I think radiation and accumulated chemo-related fatigue play a big part in this. But I wonder if there’s also something that happens in the aftermath of treatment, when all the effort and activity and fuss come to an end, and you’re suddenly — quietly — alone with whatever this is. Will it come back? (Has it come back?) The enormity of it all sinks in.

    I read Art Frank’s book at the beginning of chemo, and it reminded me of the experience of reading baby books: I was reading with a hunger to know what to expect. Now I look back on that time (this time last year) and think about how much more was knowable about treatment than is knowable about the course of illness itself. And maybe that’s how we live with ourselves?

    Beautiful blog, so glad you liked the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Kate
      Thank you for your profound and moving response to my post.
      I think you have absolutely nailed it. So much more is known about ‘treatment’ than ‘illness’.
      I found the ‘aloneness’ of the post-treatment period really difficult to get through. Not just the so-called double whammy of chemo/radio-fatigue but the crushing enormity of it all sinking in, as you say, just as my visitors and support basically dried up. In a sense, being ill was a lot more fun.
      I never thought I’d say that. Maybe you have sparked another blog post….
      As ever with deep thanks for your recommendation of Arthur Frank and good wishes


  4. “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”
    I also agree with Ann Sansom that less time, more stress and worries add a certain edge that can pull the best out of us.
    It’s probably why Love for Now is raw and beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, as ever, Evelyne, for your encouraging words.
      The edge as you call it is a scary place. But, counter-intuitively, a creative one as well.
      As ever with good wishes and thanks


  5. I agree wholeheartedly with Ann Sansoms quote! I’m exhausted 99% of the time and so when I write, it comes from where it should, a place of little thought. And as I am so whacked, I tend to throw it into the world with little care, no ego attached. There are no regrets here!! As for writing as a companion during the routine of illness, I completely agree, I didn’t go out looking for poetry or prose, writing found me, right when I needed her, right when I didn’t know I was looking for her. Hope the cold clears.. said from a lady in two day old pj’s slumped at her laptop, about to return to sleep.. there I said that too! LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Anthony

    I have a theory that approximately fifty per cent of illness is psychological. One of the major factors in my wife’s recovery from cancer was her positive mental attitude throughout her treatment. I hope that you will feel much better shortly.

    Best wishes from Simon

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Simon
    I cannot confirm your theory but I do know from my own experience of surviving cancer that a large part of it was down to my positive mental attitude and not knowing or understanding the full extent of my cancer and that I could die. If it had not been for my positive mental attitude I may not be here today. I am pleased to hear your wife has recovered.
    All the best


  8. Another brilliant post, as I say the cancer was certainly the making of me -so brave of you to say this! As I work with those who have experienced cancer I often struggle to make people realise that it should be on the CV -my gynecologist told me (at diagnosis) that many people later told him it had had a positive impact on their lives… At the risk of playing Russian roulette with a terminal illness I do believe that trauma can change our perspective -so be stronger and live longer, your words are are refreshing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, as ever.
      I still don’t know if cancer was ‘the making of me’.
      Some days I am quietly confident that it was, others much less so.
      If I knew only one thing about it I guess I wouldn’t need to blog about it so much.
      As ever with grateful thanks

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Anthony, a very thought-provoking post.
    The whole issue of writing and illness is a source of huge interest to me as I feel that writing is so therapeutic. However, I always wonder if ‘the world’ wants to read stuff written from a ‘down’ place ~ either phsically or mentally ~ as there is such an emphasis on positivity, positivity, positivity.

    Liked by 1 person

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