The Dreaded Influenza

I was so excited last week (Brisbane Writers’ Festival!) and honestly had grand plans to post something every day about all the wonderful, inspiring talks I’d heard.

Then I caught the dreaded influenza that’s been roaming the halls of my fair city, and I’ve spent all this week in bed. (Look at me, sitting upright on the couch! Typing on my laptop! Small achievements!)

But even this is an opportunity, folks. Even this has been useful.

It’s been a long time since I was in high school, and I had an illness that produced chronic, endless fatigue that stretched into my uni degree. Sometime during those years, I wrote many story scenes and scribbles whingeing about my illness and imagining how it could be worse (deathbed scenes, etc.). Lots of these scribbles recently wound up in a novel where I cruelly give my main character a made-up alien illness so that she’ll have to make friends and rely on other people instead of just heroically “doing it tough”.

And this week – ugh! this week! – I’ve been rethinking lots of those scenes and checking against the facts of how I feel now. Did I feel this sick then? Is this how I would write that part now? How do I describe her head “swimming” without it sounding like a cliche?

It’s a good reminder of an old trope – to “write what you know”. Use every experience you’ve ever had to make your characters’ sufferings and joys more real.

Famous authors who were sick or dying when they wrote some of their most famous works (yes, I’m very melodramatic when I’m sick):

– Jane Austen worked until her death from a long mystery illness (possible culprits include (most recently) bovine tuberculosis, Brill-Zinsser disease following her child episode of typhus, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or (according to her 1964 biographer) Addison’s disease);

– Ernest Hemingway gave himself liver disease, then was in two plane crashes that left him in pain and ill health for the rest of his life;

– Even John Green of The Fault in Our Stars says he wrote a book about different types of cancer because he suffers from that most terrible of illnesses, hypochondria.

Portrait of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810)

Portrait of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810)


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

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