From scalpel to story: creative reactions after surgery

It’s curious how a moment of creativity can sneak up on you by surprise. After months, even years, of struggling with an idea that will simply not allow itself to be realised, something changes, and the floodgates of the imagination are opened.

Here’s how it happened in my case, quite recently.

For the last two years I’ve been waiting for a ‘routine operation’, albeit one that didn’t seem particularly ‘routine’ to me. As a medical sociologist I have spent a lot of time doing research in clinical settings. I even worked in a hospital for a while. But I have never been an inpatient myself. So I was viewing the experience with a fairly equal mixture of academic curiosity and personal unease.

When the date was confirmed for my hip replacement, I dutifully read all the guidance and tried to prepare myself as best I could for the procedure itself and the period in hospital that it would entail.

When the time came, I found myself hugely impressed with the quality of care I received, the attention of what seemed like a myriad staff in several different roles, and the sense of being cared about as well as being cared for. The whole process was managed with remarkable skill and facility, such that my unease evaporated very quickly. I felt safe and in skilled hands.

Then to my amazement, I was only in hospital for one night. After just 36 hours in their care, and a rigorous process to get me ready for discharge, the hospital staff declared I could go home. I took with me walking sticks and a bag of medications and other materials, along with wise words from the people who had prepared me for my recovery. There was advice on getting in and out of cars, climbing and descending stairs, positions in which to sleep, plus other things from which I will spare the reader. All of this has proved very helpful and supportive.

One element was missing however from my otherwise highly comprehensive and beautifully presented patient handbook. Nowhere was I advised that in the aftermath of surgery, I would have a sudden burst of creative energy, to whit that I would very quickly produce the synopsis of a long-contemplated novel!

Now I must say that the desire to write an extended work of fiction has been with me for some time. Over the years, various drafts have been started, only to peter out or get overtaken by academic writing commitments. More recently I’ve had a hankering for a novel set over one year in the region where I live, Dumfries and Galloway in South West Scotland. Yet this too has lacked a plot, central characters and the imaginative ingredients that would make for something worth reading.

As I waited on the day of surgery, and yes, even before the pre-operative sedatives had been administered, all this changed. I suddenly found myself rummaging for my notebook and hurling scribbled thoughts onto the page. Even in the long night following the operation I focussed my recovery by deep thinking about this growing idea, for which a nascent structure was suddenly emerging.

Getting home after only a short stay in hospital, I was urged to find a balance between physical activity and rest. My brother Peter told me to take the opportunity for stillness. Yet somehow, whichever of these zones I was in, the ideas continued to come forth. In the first week they were written down in a spiral bound notebook – little statements, dates, settings, and sequences. Then came whole summary paragraphs intended for subsequent expansion.

In the second week I started typing up these notes into something more coherent. Each day new sections were added. Twists, false dawns, and elaborations in the storyline began to emerge. I clarified and gave names to the three main characters, and chose their occupations, circumstances and enthusiasms. In some instances I identified areas where I would need to do some background research of a technical nature, to ensure credibility in the detail of my story. Overall, I could see a narrative arc emerging and I began to feel that this was the extended piece of fiction I had for so long wanted to write.

Fourteen days after the operation I had written a synopsis of a novel in 10 pages. It still needs refining and revision, but quite soon I may well share it with a few trusted confidants for their reflections and feedback. If it can stand up to and be improved by this ‘peer review’ I plan to start writing in earnest at the end of the summer.

When a limb is cut into, when bone is removed and a joint repaired; when one is rendered into the role of patient and given more medication in a day than in a previous lifetime; when your vulnerability is heightened to such a point that, however briefly you are completely dependent upon others, then, as in my case, you learn at first hand about the multi facetted aspects of being human. The intersections between the biological, psychological and the social become vividly apparent – as a lived experience as well as an academic concept.

This heightened sense of self awareness was fostered in me by an important transitional phase, when I seemed to be held between two social states. I was leaving behind a world of chronic pain and disruption to daily tasks, but not quite entered into the life changing benefits foreshadowed by surgery. The anthropologist Victor Turner calls this type of experience one of liminality. It is by definition a temporary period that sits between two more settled contexts. It’s associated with the suspension of rules, with unpredictability and with opening up to new possibilities. It was in this process that I was enabled to capitalise on being ‘betwixt and between’ social worlds, and thereby to foster a work of the imagination.

Here is the essence of what I have so far.

My provisional title is Epiphanies and Robberies. It reflects the two plot lines that develop and intertwine through the story. The action concerns a series of art thefts that break out in the rural region of Dumfries and Galloway. Three people who hardly know each other get drawn into the drama of these unusual crimes and combine their efforts to track down the perpetrators. Initially the three hardly know each other, but over several months, and as they encounter challenging and novel experiences, a friendship deepens between them. At the same time each of them addresses some unsatisfactory aspects of their life and as the novel ends, interesting new possibilities are emerging for all three. The time period of the story is 6 January to 25 December, in a single year.

I wonder if others have had a post-surgical experience like mine? It already seems rather precious to me. To be relieved of chronic pain and poor mobility, to be set on the path of physical recovery – and then to receive the bonus ball, a unique space for the imagination to run free, and perhaps as a result, to create a story that will last into the future.

Post-operative creativity! Who knew?

My thanks go to all the people who cared for me at NHS Golden Jubilee Hospital, Clydebank and to all those members of my family and my friends, who have supported me in the run up to and follow up from surgery, Whether the book gets written or not, I will forever be grateful to you.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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