Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly

Like most writers, I've recently experienced the classic writer's block. After I got my MA results in March, the momentum petered out. It's not that the results were bad — quite the opposite; it was the enormity of the responsibility to write well that made me feel afraid. One of the most humbling comments I've ever received about my work came from my MA examiner. She said: "For me, the way in which you relay your personal story of breast cancer is as powerful and moving as the likes of Jean Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and The Butterfly." The comment almost made me splutter out my marmite on toast and my bangers and mash from the night before. 

I had never read the book, but I have it on my bookshelf. I knew only that it was a powerful and well-written story, and that I needed to own it and read it one day. I remember my friend Emily reading it years ago and it was because she loved it so much that, when I saw it sitting in a random Help for Heroes fundraiser in my newsagents, I had to buy it. Yesterday I finally picked it up to try and unpick what the examiner meant. It was an especially poignant decision to start reading it now. Not so much because of that comment. Because one of the mums at my daughters' school has just had a stroke. She is in her mid-thirties.

Jean-Dominique Bauby survived a devastating stroke but spent the remainder of his life in hospital with locked-in syndrome. Before the stroke, he had been the editor of French Elle. After the stroke, he was paralysed, with the exception that he could swivel his head ninety degrees and blink his left eyelid. He used his eyelid to dictate his book one letter at a time: Claude Mendibil, a specialist nurse, would point to letters on a screen and Bauby would blink once for yes, twice for no. Bauby describes the deadweight of his condition with little self-pity, and he shows how his extraordinary mind takes flight like a butterfly and provides him with respite. And sometimes, even, joy.

My favourite chapter so far is about the Empress Eugenie, the hospital's patroness. In his mind, he befriends her, follows her, is even caressed by her: "I followed her hat with its yellow ribbons, her silk parasol, and the scent of her passage, imbued with the eau de Cologne of the court perfumer...She ran her fingers through my hair and said gently, 'There there, my child, you must be very patient,' in a Spanish accent very like the neurologist's." I love how he mingles his fantasy with reality: the voice of his doctor invades his flights of fancy and brings him back to the unequivocal truth. 

He catches sight of himself in the middle of a reverie with Eugenie one day: "Reflected in the glass I saw the head of a man who seemed to have emerged from a vat of formaldehyde. His mouth was twisted, his nose damaged, his hair tousled, his gaze full of fear." Instead of weeping inside, the moment is euphoric: "Not only was I exiled, paralysed, mute, half deaf, deprived of all pleasures and reduced to a jellyfish existence, but I was also horrible to behold. There comes a time when the heaping-up of calamities brings an uncontrollable nervous laughter - when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke. My jovial cackling at first disconcerted Eugenie, until she herself was infected by mirth. We laughed until we cried."

It is the laughter that is inspiring, this honest humour. This is what I need to hold on to in my writing. What on earth am I afraid of when I look at the blank page, the white screen, the dark cave of memory? How ridiculous to worry about what to write when the extraordinary Bauby managed to write a beautiful book by blinking an eye; when a mother of two young boys is learning to walk and talk again; when the heroes we fundraise for have terrible injuries to live with and struggle to cope with the aftermath of bloody conflict. Writer's block just seems stupid. I will keep The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly on my desk and remember Bauby when I'm stuck in the quagmire of my own woes. I will conjure up my own butterflies and take refuge in the imagination. Honestly, what a book! I urge you to read it.

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