I have just published a novel. At the moment I am on holidays from teaching, and am promoting the book, organizing launches, contacting bloggers and journalists, Facebooking and twittering. It is exhausting, but a different kind of exhausting from the usual.
I have been writing on and off for years. I used to write a lot of poetry in my teens and early twenties, and I really started up seriously again with the writing about 10 years ago when I was in the midst of dealing with ME/CFS, and I wasn’t managing to make any progress with my health. At the back of my mind was the idea that, if I cannot work, at least I can write. It was something I could do when I was able: it was totally flexible; if I couldn’t sleep, I could at least write for 15 minutes. It was undemanding, physically, something I could do from my bedroom.
More than that, I think, it was an escape from a life that had obviously been grinding me down. I was having sleep problems at this time; my energy levels were very poor; I wasn’t working; I had all kinds of food intolerances; I was still living with my parents, in my thirties. I had not really managed to begin dealing with ME/CFS, or to make any progress. Writing allowed me a way out of a dark, empty time.
Also, it allowed me a measure of control. I had almost no control over my life at that time, in the mid 2000s. I couldn’t really travel, I couldn’t work, I had no money. And when you have a long-term illness, control is one of the first things to go, and one of the main things that you miss. So creating a fictional world, where I controlled exactly what happened, and where I could live out – through the characters that I created – some semblance of a life that was denied to me at the time, was a way of coping.
I wrote away in silence for years, half-writing novels, always having difficulty finishing things though learning slowly how to do it. Then I did a writing workshop, met some people, and got involved in a writing group that put some discipline on my writing habits, gave me confidence and pushed me into actually following through and finishing a book.
I did finish the book, and went on to write more. I made some half-hearted attempts to get a literary agent, and when nothing came of that, I left the book in the proverbial drawer (on my hard drive), and thought no more about it.
After a few months, a Spanish friend of mine, a writer, mentioned that he had self-published a book, and suggested I do the same. I wasn’t enthusiastic originally, but as time went on I got more and more interested in the idea. Eventually I sat down, edited the book, and looked into how to do it.
It turned out that it was doable. There is a chronicle of how it came about on the blog on the book’s website, if anyone is interested. It took me about six or eight months to get it all together, but I published A Year in Lisbon in printed book and on e-book about a month ago.
I had a launch two weeks ago, which went better than I could have expected. It was something I had been dreading for weeks before. I am a language teacher, and am used to standing up in front of people and talking, but this was different. It helped that most of my friends and family were in the audience, and that calmed me down. I had even borrowed a barstool from a local pub, as I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to stand up for the whole hour of the speech and the reading of extracts, and the answering of questions after, but I managed it in the end without using the stool.
Afterwards I was as drained as I have been for a long time. It was simple nervous exhaustion, a long build-up followed by a very intense two hours, talking, reading, selling books, chatting again. My nervous system had had enough, I went home straight after and did nothing for twelve or fourteen hours.
I have been able to do all of this, though, it has not been too much for me. I have not left ME/CFS behind, but I have made significant progress, and am now mostly able to work close to full-time (with effort) and live a kind of life that I could not have imagined, when I started writing, back in the depths of illness and disability. For that fact, I feel incredibly lucky.
There is nothing about ME/CFS in the book. I deliberately did not write about it, none of the characters mention it, it is a world where long-term illness does not play a role. This is not really surprising; I wrote to escape, to enter a universe where the defining aspect of my life was not my condition. At the time I physically could not have written about it anyway, it was too much, I was too in the middle of it all. Writing for me was a way of forgetting. Strangely though, I am still writing fiction, and have found that I now have to write about a character with severe ME, this story is demanding to be written. That will come out, eventually. I think it is obvious that I take about a decade to process stuff!
The other link to my whole ME/CFS story is the city of Lisbon. The novel is set there, is partly named for the city, and this is no accident. I lived in Portugal from 1995 to 1997, and this was the last place where I was fully healthy. My last year in Lisbon was when I began to show signs of the beginning of post-viral fatigue-like symptoms, that eventually developed into ME/CFS. I was forced to leave Lisbon, in fact I went home at Christmas, 1997, unwell but intending to return, and was not able to go back for a full twelve years. I had left a lot of my stuff there, which friends had to send over to me in Ireland.
So returning to Lisbon, in the first years of my illness, became a symbol of wellness. And as the years passed, and the idea of travelling anywhere, let alone back to Portugal, became more and more distant and impossible, I found myself writing more and more about Lisbon, setting stories there, giving my characters these complicated relationships with the city, putting a lot of my feelings about my experiences of being in Portugal into the writing. Eventually, what came out was the novel I have just published, A Yearin Lisbon.
I was back in Lisbon last week, and am going there again next week, to sell some books and to organize a book launch. It is fascinating being there again, I still know one or two people there, and the city itself is very, very familiar to me, even after nearly twenty years: the smells, the hills, the soft, sibilant sound of spoken Portuguese, the heat, the crazy tiny alleyways and steps of the Alfama district, like some kind of bizarre Escher painting. It is a city with a very strong personality, something that I think I have captured some of in what I wrote.
And it is such a joy to be able to do all of this. To walk around the streets of a southern European city in the height of summer, in 30º heat; to be able to manage air travel, with all of the queues and waiting and frustrations; to be able to organize launches and media and all of the tedious promotional side of the business. None of it is easy, all of it is an effort, but it is doable, and that is something.
And my lost decade and a half is driving me on, I believe. I have lost so much, so much time and potential and money, so many opportunities and possibilities, that I am aware that there is no more time to waste. Without all of those tough years I probably would never have taken the plunge to go ahead and publish. It is an adventure, if nothing else and something, in the end, I had to do.