Writing is challenging no matter who you are. It requires vision, motivation, and willingness to put yourself out there. But Lucy Foley, author of The Hunting Party, found it more challenging than most when working on her latest novel. Foley faced a debilitating chronic pain condition while working on The Hunting Party and gained a deep appreciation for the days that she could simply sit at her desk and write comfortably. Here, Foley opens up about those obstacles and how her illness affected her work and her life.
I learned a lot whilst writing my debut thriller, The Hunting Party. I learned how much I enjoyed working in a new genre with a contemporary setting—my previous novels having been historical fiction. I learned that I liked exploring my dark side in writing a cast of characters the reader “loves to hate” who are trapped in an Agatha Christie-esque “locked room” murder-mystery setting. And, rather less positively, I learned what it was like to write a book whilst experiencing chronic pain.
The pain came almost out of the blue. It began with a really bad UTI, which, as anyone who has experienced one will know, involves feeling as though you are peeing shards of glass and renders you pretty much incapable of doing anything until the antibiotics kick in. I was prescribed a course of antibiotics and lay around reading and watching TV and waiting for them to work. Except they didn’t. Nor did the next course—by which time, the tests were coming back negative for an infection. The symptoms, however, persisted. For a year, in fact. For a year, I was peeing those tiny shards of glass and was sometimes in so much pain that I could hardly walk. And the doctors I saw—oh, so very many doctors—began throwing up their hands.
At first, I was forced to put the book to the side. I couldn’t possibly concentrate on anything other than my pain, or sometimes the odd episode of Arrested Development. But gradually, I learned that the pain wasn’t always excruciating. It was always there, always bad, but sometimes it would lift a little. I learned to capitalize on those windows of time to get a little more done. Sitting for hours on end at a desk proved to be pretty much out of the question, so instead I downloaded some dictation software and worked with that, sat on the sofa and wrote in a notebook, and typed bits and pieces on my phone.
There was something galvanizing about knowing that I was still able to write. Yes, this monstrous new thing had severely curbed my standard of living and I now found myself missing out on so many of the things I enjoyed: seeing friends, exercise, travel. But I still had this. I could still create. I could escape into a different world, the world of my imagination, and thus remove myself from the pain for a while. Each day that I managed to do a little work and saw that word count creep up was a small triumph. It was an important lesson in what I was able to accomplish in the face of this new adversity. There were so many new unknowns: what was wrong with me, when the pain would cease, if at all, and whether it might get worse. But this, this growing number words on the page, was there in black and white, something certain and quantifiable.
There was another lesson to learn, however. This was to pace myself. To be kind to myself. As with pretty much any form of self-employment, as a novelist you have to be motivated. You have to become your own taskmaster. When I write I tend to have a word count-based goal: generally somewhere between 1,000-2,000 words per day. In the midst of the pain, I had to let go of this completely. I had to learn not to beat myself up if I only managed 500… 50 words a day. It wasn’t easy but I learned, eventually, to put my physical and mental health first. I realized that, being in the privileged position of working from home, I could allow time for “self-care” in my day. If I had to miss a morning’s work going travelling to see an acupuncturist who specialized in my sort of condition, I had to learn to let myself do it. Or sometimes I simply needed to allow myself to do something that I knew might make me feel better: a walk in the park, a lie down. I learned the importance of mindfulness, which helped me both with the pain and with the anxious, frustrated thoughts about not being able to work properly. I learned to have compassion for myself.
Now, despite the odd bad day, the pain is almost gone. It turns out I have a form of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome that, as well as meaning hypermobility in all my joints, also presents as a “paranoid” immune system. I’m eating a special diet and take an antihistamine every night but otherwise life is pretty much back to normal. And yet my attitude towards my work has changed because I have changed. These days I put my own wellbeing before that of my work because I know that, in the end, I work best when I’m looking after myself. But I’ll never forget how writing helped provide a source of positivity and hope in the bad times, nor how lucky I am to be able to do the thing I love, without pain, every day. I will never take that for granted.
Lucy Foley studied English Literature at Durham and UCL universities. She then worked for several years as a fiction editor in the publishing industry during which time she also wrote The Book of Lost and Found, which was a bestselling debut of 2015. Lucy now writes full-time, and has a fourth novel, The Hunting Party, coming out in February 2019. Find her on Goodreads and Facebook.