Getting things done (when the going gets tough)

Creativity, grief and ploughing on

Three summers ago, almost to the day, my auntie died from a brain tumour. She went from seemingly normal to bed-bound and voiceless in less than three months. And then she was gone. Just like that.

To watch her brain and body collapse was heartbreaking. It happened so quickly and it was so relentless. So unforgiving. She was a fun-loving, good-living 69-year-old woman. Neither young nor especially old. It was terribly sad. I miss her a lot.

Making changes

At the same time, I happened to be working on my novel. After sending it to a select handful of publishers without success, I’d spoken to my agent and decided to spend a couple of months editing and refining. Nothing major. Just a few tweaks.

I started working in my usual way. An hour or so here after work, a half-day there at the weekend. And then the news came in. She was staying in hospital. It was worse than expected.

You see, at first, we’d thought she’d had a stroke. All the symptoms were there. Weakness on one side, slurred speech and out-of-character behaviour. A devastating loss of inhibitions.

So yes, at first, we thought she’d had a stroke.

Did I mention my novel is about stroke? That the whole premise is built around a woman in her sixties who is bed-ridden and dying? Because she had a stroke. Like my auntie, as we then thought.

But as we soon found out, it wasn't a stroke. My auntie had a tumour on her brain. In fact, she was riddled with cancer. And no one had known. Not even her.

Keeping calm, carrying on

I spent most of the next three months, up until she passed away, as follows. I went to work in the morning . I went to the hospital in the evening. Then, in the early hours, I wrote about a dying woman. A different dying woman. One that I created.

It was undeniably difficult. I had to send several explanatory, apologetic emails to my agent as my two-month editing process turned into three, four, five and six. There were times when I sat at my screen and cried. My novel – eight years of creative work – seemed insignificant.

And yet I ploughed on.

I became tired from the driving, emotionally drained from the hospital visits, upset at what I knew was about to come. It was difficult to concentrate. It was tough to be creative. It was hard to really care.

And yet I ploughed on.

There were a couple of weeks when I was editing a chapter about religion. The lead character and narrator, the bed-ridden woman’s husband, goes to his church and questions his faith. My auntie was deeply religious. I’m an atheist. That was a challenging fortnight.

And yet I ploughed on. Of course I ploughed on.

I had to plough on.

When the going gets tough

There’s this a notion that creativity can only occur when certain stars align. At that time of day when you work best. When the clutter from under your desk has been filed away in a drawer. At a specific point in the moon’s orbit.

But there is no muse. There is no celestial being to strike creativity upon you at times you can’t predict or plan for. What you have is your health, your family and friends, and your desire to make something that no one else has made.

To be creative is not to write, design or develop when things are going well and you have time on your hands. Anyone can do that. It’s about finding a way to do your thing in whatever circumstances you find in front of you.

For me, I was at my most creative that summer. The going got tough, but I found a way to do my thing. Because that’s when it counts.

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