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Writing and life

Writers have a significant advantage in dealing with the darker, messier, more painful side of life. To at least some extent, everything is material you can take apart, study and reassemble; material you can later turn loose on your characters.

Yesterday afternoon, as an orthopaedic surgeon shoved a needle through the capsule of my shoulder joint, a small part of my mind – maybe ten percent, maybe less – was analysing and recording. Not just pain (note to self: they prefer to call it ‘discomfort’) but my own response, and his. The room, the equipment, the observing trainee. The other ninety plus percent was quite comprehensively occupied with ‘ow-ow-ow-ow-ow’. But that ten percent pulls you through. And here’s the thing: afterwards, there’s plenty of time to study your own observations. At 2.37am, for example, when the lignocaine wears off.

One question I found myself toying with through the small hours was the classic ‘does art emulate life or does life emulate art’. (Okay, so you don’t do your best or most imaginative thinking at 2.37am.) The answer is both, of course. But in specific terms, a few years ago I wrote a scene where a character has two very painful injections into the shoulder – bone marrow in that case, but the general feel of the thing was the same. The scene returned to my mind during the night. Comforting, really. Turns out I got it pretty much right.

In an early draft of a novel that came out in 2008 I wrote a serious car accident. When a member of my family was, not long after, involved in a tragic accident – he recovered, but it was a long haul – I down-sized the incident in the novel: too close to the bone. In that same novel the main character’s mother has a fall while carrying a glass bowl, with resultant cuts and concussion. A few months later, while helping one of my sisters move house, our mother fell, carrying a glass bowl. Shattered shards, blood, kind and professional ambulance staff. You get the idea. But at 3am you can get to wondering whether writing it makes it real (at the time my sister suggested I add a lotto win into my next book, but as I never buy lotto tickets there wouldn’t really be any point). Of course it doesn’t. You write what’s already real. Ideally after the event – because then the idea of writing it can help you get through.

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