One of my favourite quotations about writing comes from Ursula Le Guin. When asked if she always wanted to be a writer, she said, “No! I always was a writer.” I felt the same way – as a child, I was obsessed with books and writing stories. I’m certainly not alone in that, but it was always a comforting, solid sense of my identity.
As an adult, when I took writing more seriously, with publishing goals and ideas that had thankfully blossomed beyond tales of horses into more complex historical novels, I wrote all the time. It energized me. I’d work all day at my corporate ‘day job’, and come home, do the household chores, walk my dog, and write until bedtime. More days than not, I’d still be excited to write. It gave me fire. It was my passion. I am a writer was a mantra that echoed off my bones.
And then I got cancer.
My diagnosis came with a sudden hospital stay of nearly two weeks, which I was woefully unprepared for, lacking even a phone charger, let alone a laptop. (Don’t worry, I got a phone charger. I’m young enough that I literally, and I don’t use that word lightly, couldn’t have coped without it). I didn’t write at all during that time. My feelings about the tumour steadily growing inside my abdomen seemed to grow just as fast, changing as often as my unpredictable pain and energy levels. I couldn’t wait to get home and pour out my fears and hopes and determination on the page. That’s what writers do, right? I needed that catharsis. The first draft of my latest novel was nearly done too, and I felt more urgency than ever to get the last chapters out of my head and into physical form. I didn’t want to think it might be my last chance. My last novel.
Instead, I stared at a blank page, a balefully blinking cursor. I couldn’t find words for the nearness of death, its seductive brutality, arm-in-arm with my advanced cancer. I didn’t want to admit my terror of chemo and surgery. And my work in progress felt so distant, it may as well have been someone else’s project.
I had no fire for writing anymore. It should have been an anchor to my determination to beat cancer, and instead I felt like someone else. Not a writer. Not me.
I blamed cancer. But cancer treatment gives one a lot of time to rest, and to think. Gradually, it dawned on me that writing had been growing increasingly thorny for a long time. After the elation of publishing my first novel in 2017, my writing career stalled. My publisher declined my next novel, and no one else picked it up then, either. I had other trunked novels. I wrote something different than my usual historical adventure, seeking solace in a dark fairy tale. It was the story I needed to write at the time, a tale from my heart, but my agent didn’t think it suited the current market. Even though she was right, it stung. I turned back to history, deliberately choosing an era that fit the current market trend. Writing it often felt like a slog, where I re-wrote sentences too many times in an effort to bring them to life. The rights reverted on my first novel. I stopped going on social media as often, partly because I couldn’t help feeling jealous of the (well deserved) successes of others, and I felt distant from my writing community, too.
Cancer hadn’t taken my passion for writing. I was just burnt out.
A spark still lingered somewhere, though. Eventually, with the help of a little whiskey (I was allowed!), I managed the cathartic piece that clamoured in me during that hospital stay. It fanned a new appreciation for my nearly-completed novel, and new ideas even crossed my mind. It certainly helped that, during this stage, my first novel got picked up by a new publisher, for a new edition, and they wanted one of my other novels, too. The characters of The Queen’s Dressmaker, the new edition of my French Revolution novel, go through such frightening times, and yet with so much passion, that reviewing the manuscript again lifted my spirits and eased some of my trepidation. A surgeon’s careful and skilled blade is nothing to the guillotine, after all.
My next novel, coming out in August, resonated with my current situation, too. Centred around a doctor’s daughter with a secret expertise in poisons, I couldn’t help but think how much that heroine would be interested in modern chemotherapy. She’d be fascinated by the process of using what is essentially a poison as a cure. I wrote the first draft before I knew I had cancer, maybe even just before I had it at all, and revisiting her story after receiving my editorial letter felt particularly comforting. I’d think of her often when fighting the chemo side effects. She reminded me of the writer I used to be.
The writer I still am, in spite of everything.
(c) Meghan Masterson
About The Queen’s Dressmaker:
Everything sparkles inside the French court, and nothing shines brighter than Queen Marie Antoinette. But on the grim streets of Paris, the people are starving and revolution is in the air. Soon one woman must choose between her queen or the man she loves.
As part of Marie Antoinette’s household, Giselle ensures the queen is always perfectly dressed in opulent gowns, without a feather or ruffle out of place. Being so close to power comes with benefits, and Giselle admires the queen’s kindness and style. But her position also makes her a perfect target for enemies of the Crown…
The palace of Versailles shimmers with gilt, crystal, mirrors and silk. Life within its walls is governed by a complex set of rules that are a million miles away from Giselle’s respectable, but modest, upbringing in Paris. On a visit home to her own family, Giselle is caught in the middle of a violent street riot. When dashing Léon comes to her aid, she falls madly in love with the young, idealistic revolutionary, as the French capital burns around them.
Giselle begins sewing the tricolor rosettes of the revolution, which she conceals beneath her clothes. Guiltily hiding them from the queen, who has only ever shown her friendship, she arranges secret meetings with her new love whenever she can slip away from her duties. But outside Versailles, people are angry and soon the mob breaks down the doors of this enchanted palace, forcing Giselle’s two worlds to collide.
With the lives of the royal family at stake and Léon rising within the ranks of the revolutionaries, Giselle faces a heart-wrenching choice. She is asked to help the monarchs escape France but this means risking the guillotine herself… Will she take the chance to save the life of her beloved queen? And can she do so without betraying the man she loves?
A dazzling and atmospheric historical novel that will transport you to Versailles during the devastating final days of the French monarchy. Fans of Tracy Chevalier, Marie Benedict and Hazel Gaynor will be totally swept away by this heartbreaking and gripping novel.
Order your copy online here.