For the last year, I have been struggling to write a novel about pain. The choice of subject was influenced by a sustained attack of fibromyalgia (a doctor’s guess, he wasn’t sure really) that started first in my legs, then moved to my arms and shoulders and was so acute I could barely dress, and driving was an agony. I kept teaching throughout it but it was hard. I’m one of those people who won’t take pills and although I did try physio, absolutely nothing worked. The physio guy suggested ‘mindfulness’, but he was talking to someone who is a champion skeptic, so that was never going to work. I had to quit the teaching job in the end, although to be honest, it was no hardship – I miss the students but not that particular course.
I took off for Africa to think, then driving in Spain, finally the USA. I did a lot of walking, some swimming, meeting and talking to people and of course writing. I was trying to make sense of pain, find a workable plot, credible characters and discussed pain issues with almost everyone I met. One thing was clear; everyone seemed to have pain issues of some kind or another. Some went down the dead end of Oxycontin and other drugs that only made things worse, others were more stoic and endured, still others were in a downward spiral as exercise became impossible and that allows the pain to take control with crippling results.
The walking and swimming helped me and now after four solid months of trying to restore a semi-derelict house I am as fit as I’m going to be and although the pain is still there, I refuse to let it stop me. Painting ceilings does wonder for shoulder mobility (even if I had to lie down afterwards going Ow-Ow-Ow). Ripping up floors, replacing them and waxing them doesn’t help the knees any, but the fact that I can do it is a miracle compared to a year ago. Recently I was painting the front door archway gripping the paint pot to prevent spillage whilst up a ladder. It only took an hour to scrape and paint but I had to get a passerby to take the paint pot out of my hands, as I couldn’t let go, my fingers had ‘set’ around the tin. Embarrassing yes, but just a daily issue with what is happening to my body. Typing this – sheer agony, but to hell with it, I’m doing it.
I know I will eventually sit down and finally get this novel written, but it isn’t the pain that stops me – it’s the doubts. Like many novelists, I like to see the whole arc of a story before I begin, but after a year of trying, I still don’t have it. Normally I’d abandon the whole idea if I can’t find a way through, but it isn’t just the arc, it’s the period. Should it be present day or set in the later thirties, a noir novel perhaps? I’m not even sure of the location. I thought maybe Cape Town – an excellent backdrop with many social dynamics, but then again, is it a detective story? Or a thriller? Or what? And besides crime writer Deon Meyer owns the territory there. I have written so many fresh starts I could publish a novel of first chapters with the same characters in different guises. Different moods and locations, but none that say ‘Yes – go with it’.
It’s strange for me to be in this dilemma. Once I have an idea I usually just get on with it and plough through to the end. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to write an adult novel again (although to be sure there’s a kid in it). Maybe it’s because I am living with pain that I can’t see my way past it or the fact that I am so engrossed with house restoration that I can’t concentrate or am too exhausted. But I don’t think that’s true, I managed to write my previous eight Hawksmoor novels whilst holding down a full-time job filled with stress and marking. Could be I lack a muse. That has always been important to me, to write for someone specific. I miss that. The only people I see now are plumbers, electricians, plasterers and window fitters and discussing fictional characters isn’t very high on their list.
So perhaps when I have a lull I will find a way back to the story. Certainly, pain is interesting. The story of Superwoman Jo Cameron, the 71-year-old Scottish woman who feels no pain, even during operations or childbirth has caught media attention. She also spends her life in mild euphoria, a molecular pathway disrupts pain receptors and the side effect is happiness: Anandamine. She is blessed with positive thinking quite naturally. They want to study her genes and see if there is a DNA therapy that could be applied to the general population, which would put a crimp in the Sackler family fortunes for a start. (Source: The Times, March 29th 2019).
In my novel, one chapter involved such a person who had been cured of pain then broken her leg and cut an artery. She can’t feel anything but can see the blood pouring out of her. She dies inches from her mobile phone, as she can’t move to reach it. I guess that bit won’t be in the story anymore.
I hope that one day I’ll receive that amazing gift I sometimes get when a story falls into my thoughts fully formed. Those are the best stories. They come like a burst of light. But sadly few and far between. My last book was one of those, came in a flash fully formed. The girl in the painting with her blue Lynx and her struggle against a ruthless enemy. Meanwhile here’s a thanks to those who send me positive emails to say they have enjoyed ‘Girl with Cat (Blue)’. I guess since it took five years to complete from the first burst of enthusiasm should teach me to have patience. Time will tell.
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© Sam Hawksmoor April 2019
Shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award and Honorable Mention in the 26th Writer’s Digest Book Award 2018