Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
Today the writer we have with us is Paul Bassett Davies, author of ‘Utter Folly‘ and ‘Dead Writers in Rehab‘. His post is slightly different to the other writers we’ve had on the blog so far but it’s certainly one I can empathise with. I hope that Paul’s post brings comfort and hope to those of you in a similar position.
The job that had the greatest influence on my writing was Hospital Patient. If that seems like an unusual job description, let me explain.
Nearly twenty years ago I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. During the next ten years I underwent a series of surgical operations, and I spent a lot of time in hospital. Eventually it began to seem like a job to me. After all, I was spending about half my life in the role, it was hard work, I didn’t like it, and sometimes I thought it would kill me. So, just like a regular job.
But I flung myself into my work, determined to be proactive. And, being a writer, I used everything that happened to me as potential material. In the process, I became a novelist.
You get a lot of time to think when you’re a hospital patient, and even more time in the long, slow weeks and months when you’re recuperating, or getting sick again. It’s not exactly free time, because it’s not free from pain, or fatigue or stress. That was why I started to write my first book – to escape all that. I came to writing novels late. I’d done a lot of writing before then, in the way of stage work, short stories, radio plays, movies, corporate films, music videos, short films, and a mountain of comedy for radio and television. But writing a book was something else, and in many ways I’m fortunate that I did it while I was unwell. It made me focus on why I was doing it. Which was, of course, to cheer myself up.
Writing my first novel was like telling myself a long, funny story. During the hours I spent telling it – the hours of writing – I was able to escape the dreary world of my illness, and enter the other world I was creating: a world in which I could, among other things, make other people suffer instead of me, and have a bloody good laugh about it. If that sounds callous or sadistic it probably is, and it’s just one of the many functions of telling stories.
But above all I wrote to give pleasure, firstly to myself and then, hopefully, to readers (although I continue to withhold it from my poor characters). Through all this I began to realise I wasn’t really interested in writing or reading things that didn’t take me out of myself, and change me in some way. I like to think I’m clever, but I’m not concerned with mere cleverness. I’m looking for something else, and the best word for it is delight. I want to delight, and to be delighted.
The work of other people which most often delights me also tends to be completely distinctive. That’s why I’ll always try to see anything the writer and director Robert Lepage does, because it’s not like anything else. The same goes for the music of Patti Smith, Tom Waits or Laurie Anderson. And I’ll always read a book by Magnus Mills or Nell Zink, or watch a Wes Anderson film.
All these people have a unique voice, and I like to think I’m developing mine. My first novel, Utter Folly, was long and sprawling, but my second, Dead Writers in Rehab, published last year, is more contained. And among the good reviews it’s received, those that please me most are the ones that say it’s unclassifiable: that it can’t be categorised, and that it occupies a niche of its own.
My job as a hospital patient allowed me to discover what it is I really want to do with my time, and it changed my ideas about sickness and health. I began to focus less on recovery, and more on discovery. The road to recovery is long and arduous, and its goal is ultimately unattainable: in the end none of us recover from life. But the road to discovery can be enjoyed for itself. It’s all about the journey, and finding delight in every step of the way.