I called them my Kodak Moments.
The snapshots of my day as a doctor, the patients who managed to creep across the brick wall which medical school had instructed us to build, between our profession and our emotions. The desperate, the alone. The children who would never know a future, the elderly who struggled to search for a past. One day, I stood by the bedside of a woman with metastatic breast cancer, a woman whose birth date was just a few days from my own. We had grown up with the same posters on our walls, we knew the lyrics to the same songs. I watched her for so long, searching for the difference between us, because I knew that if I couldn’t find it, I would never be able to turn away.
These Kodak Moments took over my life. I would pull into my drive at the end of a shift, and not remember how I got there, and I would lie in the dark each night, trying to make sense of what I’d seen that day. I decided I must be too absorbent for medicine, and if I didn’t find a way of dealing with these moments, perhaps I really wasn’t suited to this job after all.
So, I decided to do what I had always done, since I was very small, and I started to write about how I felt. Of course, I didn’t write about the patients themselves. Instead, I wrote about my reactions to the situations in which I found myself. I tried to make sense of them.
When I was a child, I lived for library day. I spent all my time with Meg and Mowgli and Aslan (some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book), because they allowed me to explore a very confusing world, without ever leaving the safety of my own chair. I think of writing in a similar way. I think, at least for me, this is what writing (and reading) is all about. It’s a way of understanding, a way of choosing a new perspective. Without writing, I know I would struggle to process everything around me, and finding the words to explain my experiences leaves me free to absorb a little more of the world.
As a teenager, I watched an Alan Bennett series on BBC1 called Talking Heads, and it felt as though someone had opened a door into another room. For the first time, it made me appreciate the power of words. The power to move, distract, and entertain. The power to shift a viewpoint. The power to explain. I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn how to harness the power of words, and use them to make the world an easier place to understand.
For me, I think life will always require more than a little explaining, and as long as I need those explanations, I will continue to write.
Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and worked as a hospital doctor, before specialising in psychiatry. She was born and raised in the Peak District, where she continues to live with her family and her dog. THE PROBLEM WITH GOATS AND SHEEP is her first novel, and will be published by Borough Press (HarperCollins) in Spring 2016. Say hi to her on Twitter.
Jo was also a student on one of our online novel-writing courses. Writing a Novel Online: The First 15,000 is open for applications now.