Death Sentences

April 27th, 2009

In the early 1960s, an Englishman teaching in Brunei was diagnosed as having a cerebral condition that would kill him within a short time.  The Englishman, Anthony Burgess, immediately began to write.  He turned out several novels in rapid succession and was an established writer by the time he learned he had been misdiagnosed.  Burgess went on to become one of the most prolific and influential literary figures of the 20th century; his works included A Clockwork Orange and The Long Day Wanes, among dozens of others.

In 2002, Michael Cox, a recognized expert on Victorian ghost stories who had been dickering around with a novel for several decades, underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his optic nerve caused by a rare form of cancer.  Knowing he’d been given a reprieve from blindness, Cox nailed himself to his chair, produced 30,000 words in six weeks and sold the novel that became The Meaning of Night, a global best-seller.  Working feverishly as his sight faded again, Cox finished its equally dazzling sequel, The Glass of Time, before his death in March of this year.

Prior to his mortality-driven burst of creative energy, Cox had always wanted to write a novel but said he “Wasn’t confident that I could do it, and I couldn’t do it for 30 years. I wrote endless first chapters.”

How would your approach to your writing change if you suddenly realized your time was severely limited?  And isn’t it?

Would that loudly ticking clock get you past that first chapter?  Would it make you value your time differently?  And what keeps us from doing that beginning today?

6 Responses to “Death Sentences”

  1. Merrilee Faber Says:

    Hmm. Maybe I’m not meant to be a writer. Because if the clock started ticking for me, I would spend every moment with my husband and son, and give them everything I had left.

  2. Thomas Says:

    From a 2006 interview with Michael Cox:

    “I’ve learnt a lot of hard lessons. The best piece of advice is to write every day. There is no better discipline. Not to worry whether the words are good or bad but just to get them down. If they’re bad words you can always fix them: if they’re good they can stay. Regularity produces miracles. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that a novel is being created day by day.”

    Familiar words indeed.

    “Regularity produces miracles.” Don’t those three words just about summarize it all?

    Great post, Tim!


  3. usman Says:

    I already feel I’ve wasted a lot of time by not writing for 18 years. Now i really want to, need to, write.

  4. Sylvia Says:

    I am not sure what my reaction would be and it depends to a great extent how much time I had. First priority would have to be people, as Merrilee says. But 24/7 with anyone can be a bit much. I can imagine writing like crazy to get as much onto paper as I possibly could. I suspect it would be very focused on non-fiction, though.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Thomas the Michael Cox quote is on the nose. (Great books, by the way.) And Merrilee/Sylvia, no one wants you to neglect loved ones and pets. But we all waste tons of time we could be writing, and I believe we do it on the demonstrably false assumption that we have all the time in the world, when (surprise!) we don’t.

    Maybe it’s too dramatic an example.

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