How childhood illness can shape adult creativity - Guest Post by Jane Davis

Whether it is throughout history or within a single lifetime, cause and effect interest me. The great question: what is it that turns us into the people we become? In the case of my protagonist from My Counterfeit Self, Lucy Forrester, I knew from the very beginning that childhood illness was part of that complex equation.

We meet Lucy in the first chapter, outwardly a wonderfully eccentric albeit cantankerous seventy-something poet and political activist. Imagine a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood, standing in the magnificent rose garden she has created, dressed for the funeral of her on/off lover of fifty years, who also happens to have been a literary critic. Her husband brings her the day's post, saying that it looks important. Lucy opens the letter.

Unfolding the single sheet, she experienced a quiver of pleasure at the way both ends had been folded towards the centre, rather than the more usual Z shape. She admired the precision of it, reminded of the rituals of pre-email days: filling her fountain pen; blotting paper; blowing on blue ink until it dried. But her smile froze. Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. As her eyes zigzagged furiously downwards, it was as if she was being pulled underwater. The words massed and swam in shoals, becoming foreign to her. She, who dealt in the currency of language. Lucy pulled her glasses onto the bony ridge of her nose, but still her brow furrowed. The embossed seal felt official as she passed the pad of her thumb over it. If this was someone's idea of a practical joke, it was a very expensive one.
So this is how you thought you'd exact your revenge. Because it could only be the work of one person.

Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she's horrified to discover she has been nominated for a New Year's Honour. So what makes Lucy essentially Lucy?

I was inspired by a documentary about Jim Marshall, inventor of the Marshall amp. He had tubercular bones and, as a result, spent his childhood in and out of hospital. At the time, with no effective antibiotic, the disease was potentially fatal. It starts in the lungs, spreads through the bloodstream and attacks the spine and weight-bearing joints. Cocooned in plaster casts, he missed out on much of his formal education. It was his father who suggested he try tap dancing as part of his physical recovery. That helped give him an incredible ear for rhythm, he became a drummer, a drum teacher, and the rest is history. It's impossible to say how differently Jim's biography would have read if he hadn't contracted the disease, but it's fair to assume he was changed by it.

The emphasis of most of the articles I read about childhood illness or disability concerned its impact on families as a whole. Written for consumption by adults, they warned against superimposing their fears onto the child and asked adults to consider the impact of making that child their sole focus on other siblings. There were reports on the stress levels of mothers who had children who were ill or disabled, financial impact on families, mortality rates, etc. Surprisingly little appears to have been published about what the child actually suffering the illness was going through. But Google 'famous people who suffered from childhood illness' and completely different picture starts to build.

In many ways Lucy's story is about overcoming impossible odds. Staring death in the face alters a person's perception, whatever their age happens to be. Although she isn't paralyzed, Lucy has that same stubborn determined streak Roosevelt displayed when he refused to accept the limitations of his disease. The refusal to wear leg braces, to face the world sitting down. She also resents overhearing her father say that not much is expected of her, and it makes her want to defy him. She becomes driven. I think survivors need that stubborn streak.    

When I laid my story over a timeline, there was only one real choice of illness. Polio was at its peak in the 1940s and 50s. During those two decades, it became the world's most feared disease, paralyzing or killing half a million people a year. Lucy contracted the disease just before the discovery of the vaccine, but even after immunization became available, people continued to die. In 1961 there were 707 acute cases and 61 deaths. And, of course, like the folk singer Donovan, a few unlucky children contracted the disease from the vaccine. When I started researching the subject, I was surprised by just how many people in the public eye have suffered. Apart from those I was aware of (Ian Dury and Neil Young) there was Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow, Joni Mitchell, Gwen Verdon - and like Jim Marshall, Gwen was encouraged by her mother to dance as therapy for her polio-afflicted legs. Did survival create some kind of drive or ambition? Did sufferers believe they had been saved for a reason? Or was it their ability to draw on huge inner reserves that helped them survive?

Often, the child is set apart, both literally and figuratively. Looked at differently, they become misfits, even at home. In Lucy's case, I also wanted to give an idea of physical separation, a life lived on the attic floor of her parents' home, her sense of abandonment, which leads to a fear of abandonment in later life. She calls herself the Out of Sight Out of Mind Child. But there are advantages to being a misfit.

You may be tempted to censor your work, now you are aware it will be read by others, but don't hide whatever is strange and wonderful and unique about you. Never feel ashamed. Not everyone will love you, that's true, but the thing that sets you apart is the very thing that will touch every other person who is unable to voice what you have already grasped. When Emily Dickinson wrote, 'I'm Nobody. Who are you?' she invited all the misfits into her world. The misfits are your people too. Don't be put off by this word. Celebrate it. If all this advice feels overwhelming, imagine somebody exactly like you on a small island somewhere, and that you are writing for them and them alone.

Master the art of being a misfit and you learn not to mind standing out. You learn not to mind standing up and being counted.

Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as 'A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.' The Bookseller featured her in their 'One to Watch' section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman won Writing Magazine's Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her as 'a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.' Her favourite description of fiction is 'made-up truth'.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey, with her Formula 1 obsessed, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she is not writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

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Anonymous said…
What a fascinating article. Using childhood illness as the central core to build up a complex, hardened, driven character is a brilliant idea. I loved the scene in the rose garden, Lucy's white-hot anger evoked by the wonderful image of words not behaving properly on the page, as they 'massed and swam in shoals, becoming foreign to her.'
It's clear from her reaction that simply turning down the honour won't be enough for Lucy.... In one paragraph you've created a powerful, intelligent, scary and intriguing person with such a strong sense of darkness in her past we at once want to know more. Terrific writing!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for your insightful post, Ms. Davis! It hit home for me, having been affected powerfully by a near-death experience in my early childhood, as well as recalling those summertime polio scares while growing up in the 1940s and 50s. You provide inspiration for transformative creativity in the face of terrible adversity.

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