My path to writing novels was less traditional than you might think. The journey began after my official MS diagnosis at age forty-nine. I’m sixty-five now but had my first glimpse into the disease (unknowingly at the time) in 1993 at age forty. What I now know as an “episode,” I experienced a sixthnerve palsy, which impairs your ability to look where you want. I went through a barrage of tests that ruled out several fearful possibilities (which was a relief,) until I heard the conclusion. “We’re not sure. It might be MS. We must wait to see if you have a second episode.” I learned the twoepisode requirement was a fundamental part of diagnosing the illness. For more about MS, visit https://mssociety.ca/about-ms.
The symptom from my first episode disappeared after a few weeks, and there was no hint of anything for eight years. I won a golf championship in 1998 and had almost forgotten about MS. Then, starting in 2001, I experienced random, unexplained tripping episodes. I didn’t know it then, but these resulted from a growing drop-foot condition, a common MS symptom. The frequency and severity of my falls increased until I had to admit it was time for round two of examinations. The gavel came down around 2002. My case was a difficult one to pin down. The deciding test, spinal fluid analysis, completed the picture. There was now no doubt I had joined the almost 80,000 Canadians living with the illness.
MS diagnosis like receiving a ticking time bomb
The immediate flood of questions with no immediate answers was tough. What would happen to my finance career? Could I fulfill my dream of helping my kids through college? Could I still golf and ski or would I end up in a wheelchair? And so on. I suppose with this or any disease, the heightened sense of uncertainty never stops. Worrying more about what’s coming comes at the cost of less time spent enjoying the present. However, as they say, life goes on.
I ended up working for six years after my diagnosis, but all that time, the future loomed. One growing question was, if I had to stop working early, what would I do with my time. I suppose a good analogy was “retiring” well before I wanted to. I imagined that first Monday morning, when I should have been fighting rush-hour traffic to make it in time for our daily 7:00 a.m. meeting, sitting at home doing… what?
Trying to find the answer to that question, I thought about many things, almost like taking an inventory of everything I knew or could research. I remembered a course I’d enjoyed in business school called “Career Planning and Personal Growth.” The main takeaway for me was if you are unsure what you want to do going forward, study your past for hints. What activities do you recall enjoying in your life, even as a child? The introspective analysis could well reveal the type of thing you should do going forward.
Always wanted to write?
I “discovered” (remembered really,) that I enjoy writing very much. When I was younger and would read a novel, I used to dream of someday writing one myself. One of the best courses I took in high school was learning to craft thoughtful and effective personal letters to others (an almost extinct practice I’m sad to say.) I majored in English in university, writing my senior-year thesis on the meaning of Robert Frost’s poems. How and why I ended up working in the investment industry for almost thirty years is another story. However, once I started my often high-stress work weeks, the days of reciting, “Whose woods these are…” came to an abrupt end.
There was a time after my diagnosis I focused on everything MS had and would steal from me, counting the things I could no longer do, then and likely going forward. I scoffed at myself for thinking writing novels could ever be as meaningful as a career in the investment industry. I don’t recall how long I allowed myself to attend my pity party, but something clicked. I was ascribing the value of an activity based on my perception of what others might think. The light came on when I realized it was what I thought that mattered most. MS reminded me of an important life lesson.
After that, the juices flowed. I tried to block out the bad news and focus on the things I could still do. A new thought crept in. If my current demanding job ended, that would be a big loss, but it was also an opportunity to fulfill a dream. If I found myself with more time, I could write novels! But… wait… English major or not, I’d never taken a single course on trying to emulate James Patterson. After a thorough Internet search, I discovered the University of Toronto School of Continuing Education. I took courses on nights and weekends, starting a few months after my diagnosis. Three years and sixty hours of courses later, I was ready should the fateful day come.
Because of MS, I now write fiction-thriller novels
My writing work started at fifty-five at the peak of my investment industry career. I gave up my job in investment management, which was by far the best position with the greatest responsibility I’d ever had, and an excellent boss. However, with increased duties came additional stress, which everyone knows isn’t good for you. There are many studies confirming it is particularly bad for people with MS. I refer to it as Kryptonite for Superman. As my career progressed, so did my “package” of MS symptoms in type and severity. My neurologist almost demanded I stop working immediately. In January 2008, when everyone came back from Christmas holidays, I asked to meet my boss where I gave him the bad news. I needed to stop and soon.
Not too long after hanging up my suits, I started writing my first book. I suppose you could say my dream of writing novels came true, just not as I imagined. Four novels later, I’m working away on number five. I am told by those whose feedback I value, both professional and not, that with each effort, my stories are improving. God willing, I will write for the rest of my days.
The glass is, always, half full
I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, but I believe, even in the worst situations we should all try to find that one piece of good, difficult as it might be. When one door closes another opens. I am convinced it is there for all of us. One of my favorite sayings is, “I have MS. It doesn’t have me.” In many respects, whether or not I become a well-known author isn’t important. That I am trying is.
I don’t think John Grisham is looking over his shoulder just yet, but you never know.