Write What You Know —
What if You Know Less Than You Thought?
I began working in healthcare when I was a student, before graduating into physiotherapy and, more latterly, working for ACC, Ministry of Health and a number of District Health Boards. That’s thirty-something years in total. Scary, how time flies. So, given my working life has been in healthcare, I suppose it was inevitable that at least one book would be set in the world of a hospital. After all: write what you know.
This is the story of that book, and how I discovered that, despite a lifetime in the sector, I knew next to nothing about healthcare.
The Story of a Story
In 2011 I began a story about Tayla, a nine-year-old with a love of practical jokes. I wanted to explore how intensive care might feel to a child: the machines, the busy-ness, hushed voices, IV lines and intubation. The working title was Practically Joking.
Practically Joking began with Tayla’s admission to ICU after a car crash. I thought this was a great opening; dramatic and sad, but I was able to use practical jokes to provide a leavening of humour. Unfortunately, the story refused to evolve as planned. Within the first chapter of Practically Joking, Tayla, scared and in pain, decided to leave his body and float about the ICU as a small-but-irritating ghost. And just like that, Practically Joking became a ghost story.
Which goes to show, you can’t always control what you write. Sometimes the subconscious takes over.
A bit of background: I trained as a physiotherapist in the 1980s, when Christchurch Hospital still had nightingale wards. These wards were seriously spooky at night: long, dimly lit corridors, wards of white-sheeted patients, full of echoes and draughts.
And the stories told in hospital tearooms! If you’ve worked in a hospital you’ll know what I mean: cold spots, unexplained happenings, figures at the ends of beds. Every hospital I’ve ever worked at has one or two ghost stories.
I suppose my subconscious remembered them and wove them into the Tayla’s story.
Anyway, having begun Tayla’s story and finding it morphing into a ghost adventure, I decided to go with it. The title changed to Ghost School. Ghost School took me to strange places: an intimidating inspector, a coffee-holic doctor and a school for ghosts (because every child deserves an education, even if they’re dead).
‘Well,’ I thought, ‘it is kind of interesting.’
Away From Hospital
Then the story changed again, and I just had to follow. The narrative moved away from hospital. In ghostly form, Tayla travelled out into the world of schools and kids and annoying sisters. He met Jamie, newly arrived from Scotland. Jamie was lonely, because no one could understand his accent and, worse still, all his practical jokes were going wrong. The title became The Prankster and the Ghost.
Fortunately, this title stuck! I even added a competition, and a list of practical jokes at the end of the book.
In an earlier incarnation The Prankster and the Ghost was shortlisted for the Tom Fitzgibbon Award, and was finally published in 2015.
And how does the story end? Without giving too much away, you’ll be pleased to know that Tayla recovered. He’s made new friends (and possibly enemies, because he really is totally addicted to practical jokes).
Writing and The Subconscious
Reading a book I’ve written is an amazing experience. Frequently the language and characters are surprising, and quite often I wonder how I came up with the ideas. Re-reading Prankster for the final time was both humbling and profound, because while I had planned a book about a child’s encounter with Intensive Care, what emerged was a story about resilience. In retrospect I’m pleased that I followed my subconscious’ directions.
Because, a patient’s journey is not a pathway through the health system. It’s not even about recovery from illness. A patient’s journey, at the most fundamental level, is about learning to live. Because just as my fictional Tayla experienced, while a life may begin and end inside the hospital walls a life is lived outside, in the real world.
Note: This blog post first appeared in Corpus: Conversations about Medicine and Life on March 27, 2017. Thanks to Sue Wootten for permission to repost here. Corpus, an interdisciplinary discussion forum, is administered by the University of Otago