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Writing: Feel the Fear and Write It Anyway

Launching Cauldstane, her seventh novel, has a special significance for Linda Gillard, because the book embodies her response to her diagnosis of cancer and marks her “return to self” as she emerges from the aftermath of treatment. This is an inspiring post about an indomitable creative spirit empowered by writing and self-publishing in the face of adversity.

Linda Gillard outside a Scottish castle

Linda on location in Scotland, soaking up inspiration for her seventh novel Cauldstane

Being dumped by my publisher didn’t stop me writing. Nor did five house moves in five years. Cancer did. But only for nine months.

I’ve just published my seventh novel, Cauldstane. It’s my artistic response to the experience of breast cancer in 2012, but the book isn’t about cancer. It’s a contemporary gothic novel about an old Highland family haunted by an ancient curse and a much more recent ghost. My tag line is, “If you live in fear, you fear to live”. That’s what the book is about: living in fear. (Well, they say, “Write what you know.”)

The Impact of Cancer

I was editing my sixth novel when my world fell apart, followed shortly by my body. I went from diagnosis to mastectomy in less than three weeks. I had a very bad time with chemotherapy which, as I write, has left me semi-disabled. For more than a year now I’ve suffered badly from peripheral neuropathy – pain in my feet and fingers caused by chemo-damaged nerves. I can’t walk or stand for long and for months I had to use a wheelchair for excursions. I now walk with a stick. It’s rare for this kind of damage to be permanent, but it could be.

So unlike most people who are treated for cancer and survive, I didn’t get my life back with my hair. It was hard to put the nightmare behind me. Cancer was the biggest thing in my life for almost a year, then fear – of more chemo, worse disability and death – became the biggest thing in my life. Until I started writing again.

Writing as Therapy

Writing as TherapyI began writing Cauldstane on New Year’s Eve, nine months after my diagnosis, just a few weeks after radiotherapy ended. I could type, but it hurt my damaged fingers. Thinking coherently was still a challenge, but working on a new novel gave me a sense of my old self and the nature of the story gave me a channel for examining and expressing my fears, albeit indirectly.

After I was diagnosed, I decided to go public on my Facebook author page. My health updates were honest and often darkly humorous and some people suggested I should write a book or a blog about my experiences. I wasn’t interested. It was bad enough living my life. Why would I want to write about it? Nevertheless, my experience had been so physically and emotionally traumatic, I knew I had to find a way to assimilate and conquer it. But it would have to be fiction – not least because I needed my story to have a happy ending. So I decided to write an allegorical novel, about my experience, but not describing it.

The Embodiment of Fear

Cover of Cauldstane by Linda Gillard

Out now: Linda Gillard’s seventh novel

You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy Cauldstane, which is a rattling yarn. Cauldstane is a decaying 16th century castle in the Highlands, a money pit, home of the asset-rich, cash-poor MacNabs for generations. In the 21st century they’re finding it hard to hold on. The family is divided as to whether they should sell up or try to use the castle and estate as the basis of a business. Cauldstane is blessed with quirky architecture, red kites and a riverside location, but there’s also an ancient MacNab curse and a malevolent ghost who poisons lives and relationships and wants to drive the family out. The MacNabs’ real affliction is fear, which acts like a kind of wasting disease, affecting each of them in different ways. (No prizes for guessing that my psychopathic ghost is how I personified cancer.)

Happy Endings

I make no apologies for the resoundingly happy end of Cauldstane. When you’ve been treated for breast cancer, there is no happy end, just a fervent hope it will never recur. Cancer survivors put on a positive face for their families, friends and the media, but we live with fear as our constant companion. So it was important to me that good should triumph over evil, that fear should be vanquished, that the characters should go forward and live their lives to the full, just in case I don’t.

Cancer was a dark and terrifying place I hope I’ll never re-visit, but there were some positives. One of them was discovering that when I was bald and unable to walk, when the inside of my mouth was peeling away, what really mattered to me – still – was books: reading them and writing them. (Thank God for Kindles, because I was too weak to hold a book or turn pages.) Cancer taught me another important thing about myself. It would appear nothing is going to stop me telling stories. Well, not for long.

Cauldstane is now available as an e-book, with a paperback to follow shortly.

Find out more about Cauldstane on Linda’s author website here, which includes links to online retailers

 

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14 Responses to Writing: Feel the Fear and Write It Anyway

  1. Brett Hardman February 10, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    Linda, this is the very best example of ‘write what you’ I’ve seen recently. That old writers’ adage can be a huge obstacle to the creative spirit, and I hear it all the time from my clients: I’m worried about writing this [ms]. I didn’t know much about it before I began…

    All fiction writers, on some level, write what they know. A better adage would be ‘Write what you want to know or feel compelled to explore’. Research is relatively easy; if anything, it’s the emotional truth we should worry about.

    Huge congratulations on your amazing journey, and thanks for an inspiring post!

    Brett Hardman

    • Linda Gillard February 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

      Thanks Brett. ‘Write what you want to know or feel compelled to explore’ is certainly how I operate. I’ve written from the point of view of a congenitally blind woman, a bomb disposal expert (complete with an account of what it feels like to be blown up) and a female vagrant. None of these characters falls remotely within my own experience, but they interested me. I researched them, but I also just made stuff up.

      I tend to write about things not many people have experienced (eg an incestuous brother-sister relationship), so there aren’t all many people who can tell me I got it wrong. (Though a reader did once take me to task for getting something wrong about cricket.)

      I think you’re spot on when you say, “It’s the emotional truth we should worry about.” Indeed, and I think creating that is always an act of the imagination.

  2. Dianne Greenlay February 7, 2014 at 1:13 am #

    LInda, you are an amazing writer, and an amazing woman with an incredible, honest outlook on life.

    You are such an inspiration for the rest of us. Thank you so much for having the strength to share your personal story.

  3. Francis Guenette February 6, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    As you say, Linda, readers don’t have to understand any of the turmoil you went through with cancer, to enjoy Cauldstane. But oh does the author’s struggle and transparency enrich the experience. Thank you so much for your openness to sharing your own motivations behind the writing of a great story.

  4. Roz Morris @ByRozMorris February 6, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    Linda, I have friends who have felt this very fear and ‘done it’ anyway. I’m going to share this post in tribute.

  5. Michael La Ronn February 6, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Great post as always, Linda. It’s very encouraging. It’s the mark of a true writer when, despite all odds, books and writing are what keep us going. I admire that you kept at it, no matter how hard it got. Best of luck with the new book!

  6. John A. A. Logan February 6, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

    Linda, many congratulations on Cauldstane (when it came out the first thing I thought was how unusually beautiful the cover is) – on the power of allegory to transmute and transform, it seems to me you’ve captured a description of the Alchemy that is possible in fiction, for the reader, and for the author. In fact, for the transcendant power fiction can sometimes possess to exist for the reader, I think it must first have existed for the writer, during the creation of the work – when this goes well there can be an Alchemy, base metal transmuted into Gold, or our own suffering growing wings and sometimes turning into the most powerful stories we have, that very power being proportionate perhaps to the pain behind them.

    • Linda Gillard February 6, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

      I’m glad you like the cover, John. This is one of the great satisfactions of being indie. I’m 100% happy with that cover as a representation of the book (except that it’s actually a French chateau, not a Scottish castle!) After days spent searching stock sites, I found the photo and I told my designer, Nicola Coffield what I wanted her to do with it. Then I found a photo of a red kite and asked her to put its silhouette in the sky.

      I feel the cover is the one I would have designed for myself if I’d been a designer. And isn’t that what every author wants?

  7. Colleen Thompson February 6, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    I’ve always told aspiring novelists that publishing will disappoint you, but writing can and will save you. You’re a shining example of that, Linda!

    • Linda Gillard February 6, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

      Oh, absolutely Colleen! Writing has saved me twice. After a mental breakdown in my 40s I found myself unemployed and on the scrapheap of life. I started writing fiction and discovered there was nothing I would rather do. Then again when cancer struck just before I hit 60.

      If I can just keep writing, I think I can keep putting one foot in front of the other.

  8. leah fleming February 6, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    Thanks for this, Linda. After 6 clear years my own breast cancer has returned and next week I hear if it is under control or not… so I do know how fear stalks you at every turn but like you , writing is my escape, distraction, therapy and hope for the future.
    It keeps me focused on the next project, research and not what’s round the corner. Good luck with your new novel. Leah

    • Linda Gillard February 6, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

      I’m very sorry to hear your cancer has come back, Leah. I hope you hear the best possible news next week and that your writing continues to be a source of strength & comfort.

  9. Suzie Grogan February 6, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    Linda this is such a heartening piece to read. I am someone who has been through the same horrors and has used writing as as a way to find a way through. As you express so eloquently, we will never be entirely free from fear – as a middle aged woman I did not expect to have death walking with me already. But with the help of writing lets hope we can both keep him a few steps behind us….

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