by Ted Downum
Every writer struggles with motivation. Sometimes, a writer’s own body throws up a test of motivation—the eye strain from staring at the screen too long, the writer’s cramp, the carpal tunnel. Sometimes you might feel too sick to work; it’s that much harder to create an insightful comment on the human condition when your own condition leaves something to be desired.
Like a lot of people, I revert to toddlerhood when I get sick. I do better than some, I think, but not nearly as well as others. If, for instance, I’m waylaid by a rhinovirus, my natural tendencies toward self-pity and misanthropy shift into a higher gear. I want to be left alone on my couch with my clogged sinuses and my bad TV. I don’t want to do anything physically or mentally taxing… which means I don’t want to write.
When this happens, when self-pity has gnawed on me for a little while, eventually I think of a particular writer I’ve admired for many years, and the thought of him doesn’t so much inspire me back to the page as it shames me back. Truth be told, I’m not sure he would have bothered with something as fatuous as “inspiration.”
This acerbic spectre, Dennis Potter, wrote novels, films, and journalism, but mostly he wrote for television. He wrote most of his work while suffering from a severe case of psoriatic arthropathy, a chronic condition that struck him in his twenties and plagued him for the rest of his life. When it flared up, Potter became a very sick man. His skin erupted in raw psoriatic lesions; arthritis would paralyze his joints, leaving him bedridden. Sometimes his temperature rose high that he would hallucinate.
Across a thirty-year span from the sixties to the nineties, his plays for British television pushed back the corners of the small screen, leading his audience between the past and the present, the wished-for and the real. Potter’s plays toyed with dramatic conventions: in some, adults played the roles of children, and characters in other plays expressed their feelings by lip-synching to the popular music of the author’s childhood. In Blue Remembered Hills, Brimstone and Treacle, and Pennies from Heaven, among many others, Dennis Potter explored the twilight regions between innocence and experience, love and lust, the idealized then versus the compromised now.
In The Singing Detective, Potter’s quasi-autobiographical masterpiece, his protagonist Marlow also suffers from psoriatic arthropathy, and Potter’s script stages his hallucinations as bizarre musical numbers, both unnerving and funny: “Dry Bones” scene from TSD 1986
In Potter’s everyday reality, though, the effects of his disease were a constant burden. The repeated attacks of arthritis caused his hands to close up: his fingers curled and fused into permanent, gnarled fists. He couldn’t type. With these new limitations, he had to learn to write again—something else that made its way into The Singing Detective:
The pen strapped to the fist makes a useful metaphor for writerly persistence. As a writer myself—albeit only an aspiring writer—I try to apply myself with a little of Dennis Potter’s bloody-minded persistence.
To write well is to test your determination. How determined are you to express your ideas clearly and artfully on the page? How determined are you to get it right, no matter how much revision that might take—and how determined are you to sit down and do it at all, when life puts up barriers, eats up your time, saps your energy? If you do finish something, how determined are you to get it published? Would we write differently, push to get published, if we wrote with urgency, like we had received a terminal diagnosis?
Potter died in 1994, of cancer that might have been caused by medications he took to mitigate his psoriatic arthropathy. After he received his terminal diagnosis, he resolved himself to finish two final scripts before his death. He achieved that goal, working with the help of precise pain management and driven by his own commitment to writing--what he called, very sincerely, his vocation.
In his last days, he found an unexpected serenity in the practice of his craft. In the introduction to the posthumously published edition of those two final plays, Potter described what he experienced as “now-ness,” the beauty and the immediacy in his every perception:
Writing brought Dennis Potter through his illness; it let him recapture the dignity that his illness took away. As his death approached, the act of writing brought his appreciation of life itself into a crystalline, triumphant focus. I have often thought of him when I don’t feel well, in body or in mind, and I don’t want to sit down and do the work of putting each and every little word in order, of thinking about their value. His example helps me to take up my own pen—to be ready to strap it to my hand, if necessary—and go.