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Me, Myself and Lyme

8 Minute Read

Earlier this year I launched my second novel, Anatomised, which explores the impact of Lyme disease. There’d been a nine-year hiatus since the publication of my debut novel: A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man. Convention says the second book can be harder to write than the first as the author sometimes hits a creative brick wall, so a time-lapse between the two isn’t unusual. A decade, however, can start to look more like retirement than a creative break.

Anatomised was definitely much harder to write than my first book, though my problem wasn’t in the fresh-ideas department. On the contrary, I was brimming with material and raring to go – until I was bitten by a tick and everything in my life unravelled. I found myself trapped in a black-windowed, monolithic building on the corner of Survival Street at the intersection of Life and Death. The terrifying symptoms of Lyme disease were initially mistaken for many other life-changing conditions, misdiagnosed as two strokes, a possible brain tumour and multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, the raging infection was undiagnosed and untreated. It was therefore given time to take hold, spread, cross my blood-brain barrier and even destroy parts of my brain. As my own lights dimmed, the devastation of Lyme disease lit up the MRI scanner.

Within months I lost my livelihood (fiction mentor and creative writing tutor at two universities). I lost the ability to walk, to stand, to read, to write, to even think straight. There seemed little hope of me writing anything more than my own obituary. I was forty-four, had been riding the crest of a wave, and then I was sucked under, lost to a freakish riptide.

As a novelist and historian, I’m often asked about autofiction; the place where autobiography and imagination overlap. Anatomised is fiction, but it has facts at its heart. It tells the story of a middle-aged couple whose lives are turned upside-down by a mysterious illness that threatens to crush their dreams. It explores dark subject matter, but the main protagonist is a stand-up comedian so there are lots of lighter moments as it moves between harrowing, humorous and heart-breaking.

Just before I got sick, I was poised to write a romantic tragi-comedy set on an idyllic holiday island. It was to be pure, if dark, escapism; a beach read; a philosophical “Mama Mia”; a masterpiece. In my wildest dreams it would top the Times bestseller list, be optioned, turned into an award-winning film, a standout musical, a Chekhovian play, a Netflix TV series, and I would make a fortune that King Midas would be proud of! But soon after my long brush with death, after discovering the huge and rapidly growing numbers of patients experiencing Lyme disease around the world (a majority of whom had no voice), I parked the rom-com, re-set my moral compass, shifted my creative focus, and prepared to set off in a new direction. But first I had to get better.

It took over two years to be diagnosed and treated for Lyme, and then several more years to make a gradual, if incomplete recovery. Miraculously, I started to form coherent ideas and words. Sentences flourished, paragraphs piled up. It was as if I’d risen from a tomb, like a Lyme Lazarus, and I’d come back to the living with an important story to tell. The question was: should this tale be factual or fictional, memoir or novel?

Writing a semi-autobiographical novel allowed me to safely revisit the past; to explore exactly what went wrong, and still goes wrong for Lyme patients, from shambolic diagnostic processes to denial of treatment. Mistakes were made through ignorance, accident or inexperience, at other times through old-fashioned obstinacy and obstructionism. Sadly, similar errors and misjudgments are still being made with Lyme patients across the globe – every day. Anatomised writes some of these wrongs and wrongdoers, setting the record straight in the hope things will change for the better, because they must.

The process of reliving trauma in such detail was overwhelming and exhausting, but it also provided purpose and motivation; a reason to drag my ravaged, aging body out of bed. After a Eureka moment, when I suddenly understood how the story would end, I knew I was on the right track. Ironically, although I was reinventing the past, I never looked back.

Could I have written this story as straightforward memoir? In theory yes, in practice no. The truth is Anatomised did begin as non-fiction. I initially wrote 30,000 words as memoir but I gave up. The life I’d left on the page felt dead and flat, like the tragic two-dimensional outline of a Hiroshima Shadow left on the walls of buildings decimated by the atomic bomb. I pressed delete and wrote another 15,000 words of creative non-fiction, first from the viewpoint of my wife and then a close friend. There was life in this reawakened memoir and moving silhouettes, but still there was no depth of field. Facts remained facts, cold and cadaver-like. When I sat down to write, I sank further into the quicksand of the past, experiencing what I now believe to have been post-traumatic stress disorder. Lyme almost killed me, and now I was destroying myself all over again.

On the verge of giving up on writing (if I’m honest, on life itself), I stumbled across the names of Jack and Alice Mann that I had jotted randomly in a notebook, intended as material for a totally different story. Searching for safe emotional distance, I started to write in the third-person, viewing the rollercoaster ride from their shoulders. The fictional floodgates opened. Creative lightning lit up my sky. I wrote feverishly and unfettered for a year. My imagination muscles were flexed, my fingertips burned. Never in a million years would I wish Lyme disease on another person, yet I had to give it to Jack. I watched the comedy of the Manns’ lives unravel into tragedy as if my own survival depended on it; not so much a thinly-veiled autobiography as a heavily-draped curtain on a stage (quite fitting for a forlorn stand-up). Even though Jack and Alice were imaginary, I felt a colossal guilt and apologised to them daily in my head. I still do.

It isn’t rocket science: writing is good for a person. It is self-coaching, self-counselling, self-soothing. It is selfish in its taking from the world, like a sponge sucking water, but it is selfless too in its wringing out and pouring back. Sometimes it’s even mixing metaphors, because writing is gardening for the soul. It is weeding bad things out and planting new things in. But each writer must find their own allotment, the form and shape that best expresses their voice and vision; what they feel or think most profoundly and honestly about the world they live in. For me, fiction rather than memoir is the place I most effectively hunt down truths about what it is to be a human being. Fiction allows a writer to move ideas beyond the realm of “what happened” into the exciting realm of “what ifs”. Ostensibly, Anatomised is about Lyme disease. Arguably, it could have been written as a memoir entitled: “Me, Myself and Lyme”. In novel format, I wanted to confront Lyme, but also to escape it. I needed to surprise myself as a writer, and therefore the reader. Even though dark places exist within, behind and between the pages of Anatomised, readers aren’t absolutely sure what is real and what isn’t, and that’s how it should be. A story reflects its own truth.

All writing has the potential to be liberating. You may not write the wrongs that make the whole world sing, but the process can be psychologically curative; a meditative medicine for the mind. It can provide consolation, comfort and sometimes liberation. It’s true, you can’t cure Lyme disease or other chronic illnesses or traumas with words alone, but you can share your story. You can use what’s broken to reach out and illuminate the darkness. As Leonard Cohen wrote: “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

I remember the first story I had published. I’d just thrown away a perfectly successful career as a medieval historian in the pursuit of an impossible dream to become a fiction-writer. When one of my short stories won an international literary prize, my love-affair with writing fiction rather than fact took root. It began to pave the road to creative writing, lecturing posts, the publication of my debut novel, a collection of short stories, editing anthologies and interviewing famous novelists at literary events, including Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro. I wrote that first short story under a pseudonym Cassi Hart, an anagram of “catharsis”. Fifteen years on, now in my fifties, the Muse of Catharsis has left her mark on me and on the skin of my pages, like coolness from the softest of calamine kisses. And her kiss doesn’t age.

Anatomised took four years to complete and, despite good reviews, it probably won’t appear on many shopping lists let alone a bestseller list! That’s a shame, as some of its profit will go to international Lyme charities that offer patients a lifeline. It may have been the hardest story I’ve ever had to write but the process soothed my soul, it made me wiser. It probably saved my life, and who knows…maybe it could help save others?

So, as we grow older and wiser, here’s to writing wrongs, flexing imagination muscles, soothing souls, and hunting down the truth of our lives; in fiction, in fact.

Article Copyright: A F McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is an award-winning author. His traumatic experience of Lyme disease has formed the basis of his new novel Anatomised

Website –

Buy the book here.

Tamalpa UK latest news

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Here at Tamalpa UK were are fully committed to running Tamalpa Life Art Process classes, workshops and training programmes that provide a safe place for participants to explore life themes that feel pressing and identify the challenges that are holding them back in their personal and professional lives.

Find out more here: Tamalpa UK latest news

Getting my Painting into the RA Summer Exhibition!

9 Minute Read

‘I am a fan of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As a younger man, I thought it a bit jumble sale-like. It’s not, and the mix of a piece by a premier league contemporary artist hanging next to a piece by a ‘Sunday painter’ is one of its great appeals…I submitted two pieces to the 2017 exhibition. Neither was selected. I submitted two pieces to the 2018 exhibition. One WAS selected’   Bob Deakin

I went to art school in the late 1970s. One year at Winchester and three years at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham. I remember prospectuses for courses typically described them using the word; peripatetic. I applied – and was accepted – having no idea what this meant. Only quite recently did I appreciate it means something like walk around or roaming.

With some help from staff about where I could find things that interested me, my experience at Art School had some fascinating experiences and some exciting consequences. It provided very little in the way of technical training. I did learn how to take and print photographs because I wanted to incorporate these into what I was making. Things like life drawing were not done; it was not hip.

The place of contemporary art in the world then was very different to how it is now. I recall the Tate’s purchase of Carl Andre’s bricks being front cover news on the Red Tops. And not in a good way. It was reported as a scandalous waste of money. I recall being called upon to justify it by aunts and uncles at a family gathering. I doubt I made a good job of this. Thankfully my parents were very supportive, including never asking ‘what’s it about?’ type questions when they visited my degree show. My work then included some visual punning so they would have ‘got it’ anyway.

Towards the end of my degree course, I applied for a place on post-graduate courses. I got as far as interview for two. Both suggested I go away for one year, continue making work, get some experience and apply again in 12 months’ time. I went away. I got a job. One that had nothing to do with my art education, but was fun, paid cash on a Friday afternoon and didn’t require me to think of work if I wasn’t AT work. I often spent much of the cash I received on a Friday afternoon on the same Friday evening.

My father was struck by an illness from which he died. I supported my mother through the initial months of her grieving. I got a dilapidated flat near to the Oval cricket ground. I fixed it up using skills I’d peripatetically acquired at art school and also learned from my DIY enthusiast father. Would he be pleased? I think so.

My fixing-up skills helped with my appointment to the job of Display Carpenter at Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge. It was an exceptional job. I loved it and I learned so much in my time there. It was also where I met Rachel. We fell in love and were together for 27 years. We have two children. We separated in 2009.

Rebuilding my life as a single man was a challenge. It was sometimes delightful, sometimes not. I started going to art galleries again. When I did I appreciated how much I had completely suspended this driving interest.

I experienced visual art differently from how I had as a student. I didn’t feel compelled to understand it as I once had. My responses were more; ‘Do I like this?’ ‘How did the artist do that?’. ‘I can see the artist’s hand in this’.

Sometimes I’d be looking at the work of a contemporary, practising artist, sometimes a Michelangelo or a Leonardo. At moments during my visits I cause concern to gallery attendants. I have no intention of touching but I like to be inches from the surface to see the evidence of the MAKING of this thing.

The single-man Bob started to think about acquiring some of the technical skills his art school education didn’t provide. I signed up for evening classes. I did lots of life drawing, also etching, silk-screen printing and recently portrait painting.

On a 1 week and then a 2-week summer school course, I experience rigorous training in drawing. At times I imagine my experiences to be like those of an apprentice to a Renaissance artist in 15th century Italy. I doubt there was much peripatetic about their learning. There was nothing peripatetic about mine on these two courses.

At a portrait painting evening class in 2017, I set myself the task of producing 12 portraits within the 2.5-hour class. I think I got 7 or 8 done. If you knew how possible it is for me to labour obsessively over getting things ’right’ you’d appreciate the potential liberation associated with this intention.

This is one of my paintings from that evening: I thought it to be of little merit. The tutor and some other students thought different. I took it home and it grew on me. People who know me well have made comments about it that I recognise are deep-rooted aspects of me.

I am a fan of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As a younger man, I thought it a bit jumble sale-like. It’s not, and the mix of a piece by a premier league contemporary artist hanging next to a piece by a ‘Sunday painter’ is one of its great appeals.

I submitted two pieces to the 2017 exhibition. Neither was selected. I submitted two pieces to the 2018 exhibition. One WAS selected – the image above. (I’m excited and emotional just typing this.)

One of the privileges of exhibitors is the invite to Varnishing Day. Here’s my story of that joyful day:

Exhibitors meet in the RA courtyard for the procession to St James’s Church.

On the walk, I strike up a conversation with Eleanor, also a first-time exhibitor. We discover that we both studied at the Art Academy on Borough High Street, me evening classes, she a five-year part-time course. We had both been taught by Carl Randall. Carl was responsible for suggesting to me that my piece in this year’s exhibition had some merit.

The church is gorgeous, the service lovely. I am struck by how the voices of the small 8 piece choir fill the space of the church. I think there must be more than two hundred of us in the congregation. I picture the 200+ beating hearts and creative brains. I am aware of mine being one of these.

I walk back to the RA with Eleanor. We express our mounting excitement about seeing our respective works in the galleries. I don’t remember when I last felt like this. I am at a loss to describe the feeling; this is a first-time experience.

Back at the RA now, and at the entrance to the galleries, we are given the ‘List of Works’ book and a glass of sparkling wine. None of us knows where we’ve been hung. I look me up; I’m in room IV. Eleanor is in another room and we part saying we’ll catch up later.

I walk straight to Room IV and see my painting across the room from the door. I’m in a great place. I take photos as I walk towards it. These are blurred. Is this due to my excitement? I take more, this time closer and in focus.

This is such a thrill.

Looking up to the right from mine I think I recognise the work of an artist. I look it up in the List of Works. It is the work of my art-school tutor Gerard Hemsworth.

I haven’t exhibited anything since my degree show in 1979 when Gerard was my tutor. Our paintings are hung about 2.0 metres apart. First I’ve met Eleanor with whom I have Carl in common, now I’m this close to Gerard, who was influential in my art education and for whom I’ve the greatest respect. I’ve seen his work at previous Summer Exhibitions.

I share this 2.0-metre proximity with other exhibitors, including Una Stubbs. Her painting and mine are 1.5 metres apart.

I walk to some other rooms but am compelled to return to mine to witness my painting seen by others. I am delighted to see that Gerard is there. He’s barely changed in the nearly 40 years since I last saw him. I say ‘Hello Gerard’. There’s the briefest moment of hesitation on his part until he smiles and we both do the ‘nice to see you, which room are you in?’ type exchange. I (like to) think he is as amused as I by the proximity of our work. We chat for some time.

I walk around once more. Then return to my painting. A painting very near mine is by a young artist. He’s maybe 11 years old and his mum is with him, taking photographs. I congratulate him on the inclusion of his work in the show. We both say it’s our first. I tell him he will surely have more.

A man in a flat cap joins our conversation. I ask him in which room his work is hung. He introduces himself as Humphrey Ocean, committee member of this year’s exhibition and hanger of Room IV.

He tells me he liked my painting from the first time he saw it and thinks it sits very well with those paintings he’s hung close to it. He tells me it also looks like the portrait of another exhibitor in Room IV. He subsequently introduces me to others as ‘my new friend Bob’, and tells me that Gerard was also his tutor back in the day.

 I am stopped in the courtyard on my way out. He introduces himself (I forget his name) as the creator of another piece in room IV. I recall the piece. He saw Humphrey and I talking, he knew which piece I’d painted. He said he liked it.

Humphrey has two paintings in this room. Gary Hume is hung here too. Looking at the List of Works this evening as I write this, I note that Lisa Milroy, David Batchelor, Jock McFadyen, Harry Hill and Basil Beattie, with Una Stubbs and others whose names I don’t recognise, are hung in this room. How remarkable that I’m showing alongside them. And Gerard.

I had the greatest of days today at the Summer Exhibition Varnishing Day. I’m thinking it was meant to be.

The RA Summer Show is on until 19th August.

More info here.

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