Me, myself and I

10292_1255543602.originalIt’s disputed who wrote it first, but the quote I’ll attribute to the American sportswriter Red Smith reads:

“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

19 Comments

  1. Personally, Gideon, I find it refreshing that people will talk about their life-limiting illnesses as you do. Time was when all of this would be shut away. We don’t want to talk about that, in case it makes us feel sad.

    A friend of mine has Mesothelioma. Back in June 2009, she was given 3 months to 2 years. She’s still with us, with a tumour that’s reduced in size thanks to new treatments. She was always of the opinion that talking about these things reduces the fear for others. And, if for no other reason, you should continue to talk about yourself.

  2. Gid, you always have talked about yourself, and other things. What else is there? Anyway, while reading about your escapades and adventures, what exactly do you think WE’re doing?! Of course, it allows a reader to be there, right in the moment and deep in the feeling with you. But it also allows each one of us a perspective to reflect straight back onto our own kit and kaboodle and to build up our own vicarious experiences of life and shit. We’re all taking from it, you, me, everyone, so, err, thankyou! Dont idle too long over whether its high brow, low brow or mono brow, just have a go. And if you really want to tie yourself in knots, try writing an altruistic blog. 😉

  3. Gideon, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed your great writing, sharing your news, your updates. I also expect that people who are facing something similar will find your writing helpful. Thanks for the update. Jx

  4. Gideon, Only the other day I was thinking that you must have died, I was made up today to see that you hadn’t. You must keep posting even if only to let us know that you are soldiering on because we all want you to for a long, long time.

  5. Keep talking and please please keep writing.
    I believe your writings are acts of selflessness and complete generosity from one being to another to write so openly and honestly – to inform , support and share your wisdom , thoughts and understanding .Your writings have given me hope and have made me laugh and cry and above all have expelled some fear and given great comfort to realise we are not alone in what we are going through.

  6. Gideon … How weird is that ??? I hadn’t thought of you for along time as I’ve been caught up in my own life and also the lives of those around me and closer to home. But for some reason I did think about you about an hour ago and the thought crossed my mind you may be gone, dead ! But hey, here you are writing about yourself ! And I’m so glad you are 🙂
    I like that you write about yourself and you give of yourself. We readers take from your writing about yourself and use it for ourselves, our own reflections about ourselves and our lives! So thank you for returning to continue writing about yourself.

  7. Gideon, your blog always hits the spot.
    Melanie Reid gets paid for writing about her life limiting disability, every week, so did John Diamond. Presumably Tom Lubbock was paid for his book & I think Tom’s wife has also just written about him.
    Glad you’re back to blogging, if that suits you.
    It’s inspirational stuff.
    Love to you all.

  8. Hi Gideon. Good to hear from you again mate. I hope your move has gone well. I know I normally email you directly but having read others’ responses to this latest post I thought it more apt to post here.

    I read this article in the Guardian
    (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/nov/07/tom-lubbock-brain-tumour-language) not long after my op the previous October. It is very poignant and articulate. I can relate to it a great deal. Before anybody who is in a similar position, please note that it will help to be in a positive frame of mind before reading it. It does depend on your outlook on life.

    In a similar way to yourself I feel my spelling/writing/language is getting worse. I used to be the one in the office who people would come to for me to check their letters for grammar etc. That is now long gone, as indeed has the office and my job. However I do think it is important to keep pushing myself to keep the brain active in this regard, however frustrating it is.

    You say: “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.” I think that people are happy (“happy” probably not the right word!) to talk about this but might not know how to broach the subject.

    You put things much more elequently than I can. You must keep your blog going – there are loads of people out there reading all your articles.

  9. That rings true, but often I’ll try and change the conversation away from my tumour and my friends want to know more because they care. People can’t help being fascinated by the oddness of it often. It does feel very ego but it depends how comfortable you are about being open and whether peoples views of you change. I don’t think peoples view of me changes, I just think you get to work out who actually cares which can be useful and surprising.

  10. Hi Gideon

    It is indeed wonderful to hear from you. Like others, I have been thinking of you and wondering how you were doing. Please keep writing. We obviously all love reading whatever you write. Don’t make us wait a long time again please.

    Penny

  11. Hey Gid,

    You write so well – its good to hear from you and hear how you’re doing (good or not so good… or something different). Mainly its just good to hear what you have to say. You’re words are important and they are you. You are important. So please keep writing – we want to keep reading. We want to know how you’re feeling and understand how it is with you.

    See – its actually all about me: selfishly I want to know so it can help me to be a better friend, because I know I’m lucky to know you and to be allowed to care and you’re important to me so I want to do it well.

    PS so sorry about the driving. xx

  12. Gideon, I can only echo the comments above, It’s great to see your blog back.
    Your thoughts hit a note with me after a conversation with my physio last week. She told me I needed to think about myself more, as the important people in my life will understand. How can I do this when they already carry such a burden? I know she’s right but it doesn’t make things any easier.

    Please continue to write, and be assured that your thoughts about yourself are similar to everyone reading.

    My very best wishes to you all.

  13. Hurrah, yr back, and er…..sorry Gid, may be me being a bit old and technophobic (see you’re not the only one who brings it straight back to an egocentric viewpoint) but aren’t blogs all about the writer and his view of the world? If we didn’t want to read the thoughts of Gid why do we (I, again me me me) hit the bookmark every day just to see if you’ve written a new blog?

    So…..you write, we read, and if it ends up being a series of chapters to rival Marcel Proust (but not as boring perlease) we’ll all be the happier for it.

  14. Hi Gideon, I have read your book and I plan to read it again.
    I’m glad you are ok . I Aldo have been wondering how you are.

    Take care and keep writing xx

  15. Thank you all for your very kind and encouraging comments. I promise to try not to stay away for so long. And for those who thought I was a gonna – there’s lot’s more life in me yet.

    When things do go seriously wrong, you can be assured I’ll write in intricate detail about it here.

    Thanks for all for reading and for your support. I’m encouraged to keep posting, so I will.

    Gideon

  16. Hi Gideon,

    I always find your blog interesting and I too had wondered whether you had taken a turn for the worse.

    My hubby is now awaiting a date for resection at Queen Square – his tumour is enhancing 🙁

    I hope the seizures are as controlled as can be.

    Best regards Nina

  17. I like to hear that I’m not the only one thinking like this. Had part of my tumour removed 3 months today. I’m doing good apart from the fearful nauseous triggers I get many times a day, I’ve been told at the minute its a 2nd stage benign tumour and I’m one of the lucky ones compared to others. But I still think about how I will be/feel in few years.

    God keep writing about you (its why we read)

    And main thing – keep fighting

    1. Hi Nicky,

      It seems silly to say this but “so far, so go” is good! It sounds as though you are not on chemo but if you are then it is quite normal to have bouts of nausea. I was lucky and didn’t feel particularly sick but did get very tired. I think you will feel better over time – honest! For now, try not to worry about the few years time, there is time for that if/when that happens. I still have little bouts of sickness – only for a few minutes – but that is after quite a long time now.

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