“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
In all the books about how to be a good writer, the first rule is that you should write about what you know. The second rule is that there are fewer subjects you know better than yourself.
Most novels, really, are about their writers: their experiences, their friends, the people they know, the things they’ve done. In some fiction, the central character turns out to be a writer. And that says it all really.
I’ve always found self-centredness easy and it’s clear that most of the books I’ve written are really about me, though they may masquerade about being about something else.
But having a life-limiting illness has, I can’t help but feel, given me an even greater tendency towards introspection.
I’ve been struggling to articulate this – one explanation for my long stay away from these pages – until I had these very thoughts confirmed in the short memoirs of another writer: Tom Lubbock, the chief arts critic of the Independent. He died from a brain tumour in 2011.
In private diaries, he wrote of the almost stifling effect of writing about your own ill health, because it only emphasises the self-centredness he already tended towards by being a writer.
He’s a self-centred person, he admits, but having a brain tumour made him doubly so.
His tumour was of a slightly different type, but his physical and emotional symptoms were so similar to mine I could only nod along as I read. The title of his book – a phrase taken from an email he wrote to a friend about his health and tumour – says it all. Until Further Notice, I Am Alive.
(As if someone is waiting to hear; as if it’s bound to be the first question people will ask; as if it’s the only thing he can think and write about; as if friends and family felt obliged to ‘check in’.)
My writing here has been blocked over recent months by worrying about being self-centred; and then in turn that my worrying (about worrying) was just as self-centred.
The truth is I’m happy to write and talk about my illness. But I worry that it’s not what people always want to hear or talk to me about. And after we talked about it, I worry that my illness has hogged the conversation.
And then I worry that I’m thinking it might have, because just how self-centred is that!
I recently attended the memorial service for a woman who was very important to me at university: a friend, confidant, mentor and one of the least selfish people I have ever met. She died during the summer, suddenly and tragically aged 40.
On my way to the service, I did of course think of her. But my mind was also caught up with selfish thoughts: I would see people I hadn’t seen for 15 years and they’d know about my tumour. Would we talk about it? What would I say? Would I become the centre of attention (the living, but dying), rather than the friend we had come together to remember (the lived, now dead)?
And if we didn’t talk about my illness, wouldn’t it be the unspoken-about spectre? Would people feel uncomfortable, not wanting to broach it? Not knowing what to say? But there I was again: thinking about myself, putting myself at the centre, instead of our dear friend.
And then I thought about how I would feel during the memorial service? Would I be thinking of her, or more myself? My own bad luck? Comparing her death to mine?
Would I feel moved to write a blog about her? Because, let’s face it, wouldn’t that blog really be about me?
We’ve just moved house. Another home, another country. My kids attend a new school, I’m making new friends. Slowly people are starting to discover I have a life-limiting disease.
I’ve tried not to mention it straight-up (too self-centred, I’ve decided). But when people do find out, it does for a time tend to dominate the conversation. As if other people’s lives aren’t important. As if I trump them. And that’s self-centred too.
So do you refuse to talk about it? And if you do, isn’t that just a bit self-absorbed? I’ve got a secret, and I don’t feel you’re close enough to me to know it.
Can you see the blockage? (He asks, selfishly.)
It’s stopped me from writing here that my new drugs aren’t working any better. (Stop talking about yourself.)
It’s stopped me from writing that the DVLA have have decided that I’m not allowed to drive again and I’m devastated. (There you go again.)
It’s stopped me from writing that my seizures are still a daily occurrence, and I feel my language is getting slowly worse. (Stop it.)
It’s stopped me writing that I feel bad about always writing and talking about myself, then I feel bad about feeling bad because isn’t that just as self-centred as the writing? (I warned you.)
It’s stopped me from writing these thoughts down, because surely to do so would be the most self-centred act of all. Because aren’t I just feeling sorry for myself, and doesn’t sharing that with others put myself at the centre, yet again? (Right, off to bed.)
Image: Olaf Breuning, Me, me, me, you and me, 2009