Saturday, 21 November 2009


I have just received a copy of the new book by Myra Schneider and John Killick "Writing Your Self" (published by Continuum International), a fascinating book in which several well-known writers consider and illustrate how writing has helped them make sense of traumatic periods of their lives, or great loss, sorrow, difficulty, or occasionally the simple joy of a love affair that others don't necessarily condone.
It is full of examples, and has a valuable section towards the third part of the book on how to begin, and how to explore the minefield of our inner selves.

I myself have three poems in it, two that illustrate the shock and the frustrations of serious illness (I was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 2000) and one that illustrates how an ordinary object - scissors - can be a hook on which to hang a poem that explores issues of reality and absence.

I am very pleased to have poems in it, but even more pleased to have a copy of the book. I have only begun to dip in to the chapters, and so far have been very absorbed in what I have read. I will make time later for a much closer read but what the book has recalled for me, in the selection of my 2 poems on illness, is that terrible and abrupt passage from being a well person to a sick person.

It was December 2000; I had not been feeling too well for some time, three years in fact, and had gone back and forth to the doctor's surgery with inconclusive symptoms; no-one picked up that I might be at risk of ovarian cancer, even though my mother had died of it (and her sisters too though this was not in my medical records I believe). In 2000 I had taken up bell-ringing, which I loved, at Eccleston church, just outside Chester. The ringing chamber was approached up a steep flight of spiral stairs, something like 52 steps, though I cannot now remember exactly. Everyone entered the ringing chamber gasping for breath: I do remember that!

So for some time it never occurred to me that there was anything abnormal in my being especially out of breath each time I climbed those steps. Until I began to notice that my abdomen was somewhat swollen; at first I thought I was probably eating too much and needed to lose weight but very rapidly even walking on the flat became such a labour I realised something must be amiss.

My friends were more concerned than I was and under their coercion I went to evening surgery, anxious to be seen, and was. I was given a letter to go to the hospital next morning for an ultrasound scan. Still totally unsuspecting I was planning to drive myself but fortunately a friend insisted on taking me.

It was December the 21st, shortest day of the year, and my father's birthday. I had sent him flowers and of course wanted to hear from him to know they had been received safely. I also, as ever, was behind with writing Christmas cards and wanted to get back from the hospital to finish that task.

I didn't come back from the hospital.

An ultrasound scan was performed; it showed considerable presence of ovarian cancer tumours all through the abdomen,and I was hastily taken to a side ward and admitted there and then.

When I protested I was told that I was "very, very ill".

The impact of shock of course is that you absolutely can't believe what you're told. "No thanks!" I declared as a wheelchair was brought to take me down for further radiology. "I'm perfectly alright - I don't need that. I'll walk!"

Which I did. That was a long time ago. I have been through a lot since then. My father did receive the flowers. Also the shock of knowing his daughter had the same illness as his late wife.

The poem I wrote - "Diagnosis" - still brings all that back so clearly. The utter blankness of shock. It is in my collection "Uncertain Days" (Happenstance Press) and it will appear in my new, full collection "The Plucking Shed" which is due out next year from Cinnamon Press.

I am very, very lucky to be here still to anticipate a new collection. But I am. And I am so grateful.

As I read "Writing Your Self" I shall be asking myself was it the ability to write that helped save me?

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