Nerida Newton: writing her way out of illness
Nerida is an Australian-born author of two novels, The Lambing Flat, shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel Award and Death of a Whaler. She has been published in anthologies and journals and newspapers.
In this series, I’ll be reflecting on Nerida’s blog-posts from her blog Breastardo, as a means of understanding the role of creativity in trauma.
As I introduce Nerida’s deeply personal story, I am led by the broader philosophical question, “why write?”
One thing that became apparent during my years of teaching writing and researching writing behaviour is this: writers write because they must. They cannot but write. This statement counts for ‘bad’ as well as ‘good’ writers, career writers and hobbyists – and it probably also applies to some extent across the creative industries.
But there is something particular about the written word that distinguishes it from other forms of artistic expression. This distinction is summed up in one simple phrase ‘what if?’
Readers come to stories out of curiosity, for a slice of virtual reality, for the opportunity to play out scenarios in their imaginations. And because humans take on, from the earliest days of their existence, a default position of extreme self-interest, the most common ‘what if?’ question readers ask is: ‘What if that happened to me?’
For the writer as well as the reader, the self-interest is no different. Joan Didion, one of the most no-nonsense writers in the industry sums up the connection between writing and the need to know, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
In her essay, “Why I Write”, Didion gives examples of how the abstract word illuminates the material realities of the world. She describes how pictures in her mind dictate the form of words on the page. And from this process of translation, answers to her questions are unfolded.
Knowing what Didion has to say about her process, it’s no surprise that she was compelled to write The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year her author husband, John Gregory Dunne died. She told a Guardian interview just after the book was published in 2004, “Well there was nothing else to do,” she says. “I had to write my way out of it. Because I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
“I had to write my way out of it…”
Anyone who’s written anything close to them – or even simply kept a journal – will understand this notion of writing “out of” a situation.
And so this brings us to the topic of this series of blog-posts.
At GIM, we’re obsessed with the whys and hows of the creative process. And we’re interested in the lives of creative people to uncover the numerous ways to use creative processes to affect people and to produce social change.
The cancer word/the word on cancer
A few months ago I opened my Facebook feed to see this update from a mate, Nerida Newton:
As many of you know, I’m not averse to dressing up in costume, so Halloween appeals. This year, the kids decided on a family Viking/Dragon trainer theme (depending on which generation you ask). The costumes came a few weeks ago and, as it turns out, mine is particularly relevant.
Because right now, if I need to be anything, I need to be a Warrior Queen.
Because last week, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
There’s a brutally hard road ahead and a series of battles,each of which I’ll need to face as I cross it. I have a mastectomy and chemotherapy in my near future. The landscape of the body I’ve known for decades will change. I’ll face hair loss and lethargy and a foggy brain.
But also, I have a loving, supportive family, a brave, loyal partner who I love dearly, a wide network of strong, kind, wise friends and a medical team who treat each case as one they will not only cure, but prevent recurring.
So take a good, hard look, cancer. I have my war paint on, the heart of a lioness and my tribe behind me. You’re going down. Let’s dance.
Nerida and I are not what you’d call ‘close’ friends. But I know her through my network of writers. And over the years of seeing Nerida’s updates appear on my feed, I’d developed an affection for her. The same week she announced she had breast cancer, my mum announced the same. I wasn’t prepared to be without a mother yet. And I wasn’t prepared to watch Nerida’s young children face the prospect of not having theirs. So both pieces of news, though completely distinct in terms of how they affected me personally, were imbricated in my mind.
As I use words, here today, to trace a pattern of my own fears on the page, Nerida now goes through months of treatment for her breast cancer. And as she does, she writes. And as she writes, she writes “her way out of” cancer. In doing so she mediates a ‘what if’ process for her readers, helping them confront their own traumas, their own fears and their own practical need to be prepared for the unknown. All of these engagements with the word are selfish acts, no doubt. But they are not less illuminating for it.
So, over the coming year or two, GIM will follow Nerida by bringing you excerpts from her aptly named blog Breastardo.
Let’s not read Nerida’s guest blogs for knowing what cancer can do, but instead, let’s read for knowing what creativity and particularly – writing – can do.
Enter Nerida Newton
Of course, one of the first thoughts Nerida had about her cancer concerned fairness…
Since my diagnosis a week ago, I’ve been contemplating fairness. Which is a pointless thing to do, really, having already seen in my life good people suffer and callous people prosper. And I’ve come to the conclusion – again – that there is simply no rhyme or reason. We are all on our own paths and comparing ours to anyone else’s is a fruitless activity. The same day that I was diagnosed, there was a mega-typhoon in Asia that killed hundreds of people. There was an earthquake in Afghanistan that did the same damage to human life. Some guy in Gladstone was cleaning up the leafy debris in his backyard and was bitten and killed by a brown snake. All those people died. All those people are being mourned. I’m still here, with modern medicine and a chance to stare down my mortality.
Because, it’s not the first time.
The first time, I was 22. I was white-water rafting on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe. I’d just done an 111- metre bungy jump, to the raft. (You see how I threw sand in the eyes of mortality, then.) I was thrown overboard that day, into what is described by rafters as a cauldron of white water, held beneath the surface by conflicting currents. I thought I was going to drown. I hit panic, then fight, then panic, then a resigned calm. Then I bobbed to the surface, about 100 metres from my raft. Gasping and grateful and very subdued.
The second time, I was in my mid-30s and pregnant with the very precious cargo of my daughter. I had the worst grade of a condition called placenta previa, a condition that prevents natural birth and that is the single biggest killer of pregnant women in first world conditions. My Ob/Gyn kept reminding me that I could bleed to death in 20 minutes. I spent five months practically under house arrest and unable to go anywhere (thankfully my wardens were lovely family and friends). I was in and out of hospital, begrudging, complaining, often. Every night, when I went to bed, I wondered if I’d do something in my sleep to disrupt the delicate architecture of my uterus, wondered whether she and I would cross the line, whether she’d breathe, hear, speak, see. We both clung on. She’s perfect. I clung to my nuclear family and a great support circle of friends. And they got me through.
But now this.
There’s a brutally hard road ahead and a series of battles, each of which I’ll need to face as I cross it. I have a mastectomy and chemotherapy in my near future. The landscape of the body that I’ve known for decades will change. I have been told to expect hair loss and a foggy brain and fatigue and an inability to find words readily, the latter of which is perhaps the scariest part for me, as a writer.
But also, I have a loving, supportive family, a brave, loyal partner who is simply one of the best men on the planet and who I love dearly, a wide network of strong, kind, wise friends and a medical team who treat each case as one they will not only cure, but prevent recurring.
Nerida uses metaphor to describe her cancer:
In the first couple of weeks after I was diagnosed, I imagined my cancer was black, and sticky, like hot tar. I imagined it bubbling away in my breast, in my system, polluting me. It was a filthy, frightening foe and while I was already set on defeating it, this image of it would not leave me, and it unsettled me. They say most breast cancers are not painful. This isn’t true of mine. It announced itself with a sharp pain, then a nagging ache that would come and go. Unsurprisingly, that pain has now settled in, and the tumour itself is a massive 8 – 10 centimetres. It should really have its own postcode. I can feel it when I lie on my stomach, and when I hug my loved ones. It is rigid, unyielding and still feels entirely foreign. My unwelcome guest. I am tempted to give it a name, so that when I tell it to fuck off and die, as I have been doing often, I can address it directly. I have asked for suggestions, but the best so far has come from my brother and his Spanish-speaking, Colombian fiancé: Breastardo. A new word I am happy to interpret as meaning a bastard in the breast. And that it is.
This Friday I get a port inserted into my chest, something that will save the nurses having to find my vein each time I need chemotherapy and make the process more comfortable for me. I was told it would leave a small scar. Negligible, really, when my body is about to be mutilated both internally and externally so that Breastardo can be burnt down and cut out and, God willing, never return. This is just a day surgery, a local anesthetic. What is significant about it is that this feels like the start of it all. The call to war.
Though still no doubt negotiating the shock and suddeness of her diagnosis with Stage III cancer, she also maintains her writer’s focus on truth and beauty:
Over the last few nights, I’ve been having beautiful dreams. In them, I have been riding golden horses through dappled forests, or floating, or running, aglow with light, strong and healthy. They feel like healing dreams. Reassuring dreams. They leave me with a bright, brilliant sense of joy and calm. I know that I’m being given a chance to sharpen the lens of my existence, to see the world, my relationships with the people I love, every detail of the life I’m living in its exquisite glory. That every moment now will be imbued with meaning. And I’m still laughing a lot. Wayne and the children make sure of that. It feels perverse to say I feel lucky, right now. But it’s a fact. I look around me, and I do.