Imagine having a life-threatening illness only for doctors to think you’re faking it. For fifteen long years this was Sue Currie’s reality.
Determined to share her story, Sue enrolled in a writing course and learned how to turn her experience of medical negligence into a powerful memoir. Now, after years of hard work, her book Difficult Patient has been released. We asked Sue about the writing process and the challenge of compressing decades of pain into a book that others could read and benefit from.
In the late 90s when I contacted journalists to tell my story, they didn’t believe that such events could be happening in our medical system.
I was desperately ill but I didn’t have a voice. I couldn’t take on the medical system that had let me down and was continuing to cause harm.
When I was reasonably well – these were rare moments – I began to construct a timeline of events detailing my experience of illness, misdiagnosis and treatment. This was my truth, my story on the page. I wrote it all down in case I died.
In 2006, when I finally received proper treatment and began the slow process of recovery, my timeline became a legal brief, a tool to seek justice. But the law was just a blunt instrument against the powerful medical system; my voice was barely heard.
I needed to do more.
I knew my story had the potential to shine a light on our broken medical system and so, in 2009, I enrolled in an Advanced Diploma in Writing and Editing at the local TAFE in the hopes that I would find the words to capture my experience of medical negligence. My confidence and self-belief were almost non-existent but my story needed to be heard.
One thing I learned very quickly in my course was that I suck at editing! (And I still do.) But I began to learn how to construct clear and compelling sentences, how to ‘show’ the reader without ‘telling’ them (and becoming a bore), and how to employ literary tools to best tell a story. Each new skill helped build my confidence.
My goal was to write non-fiction but I took other writing classes which would prove valuable in the development of my style and voice. Poetry, for example, had never really interested me but I ended up studying it for two years. It taught me how to distil large chunks of information into a few strong sentences.
Fiction classes helped me breathe life into the characters in my story without divulging too much of them personally. It also taught me how to set a scene using all my senses, even when it hurt emotionally to revisit certain memories or moments in my life.
I also studied comedy writing so that I could inject humour into my dark and upsetting tale. It was important to provide light and shade so that the reader could take a breath before the next chapter hit them in the guts.
When I began the memoir class I relished churning out the first third of my book. Of course I made loads of mistakes but after many redrafts my once complicated and unfathomable story finally took shape.
But I was still too angry to write the most hurtful chapters and so I placed my manuscript into a drawer and forgot about it. It took me a few years of health and normality before I could tackle the next two thirds of my story.
The words began to flow onto the page. I had so much to convey and the word count mounted and mounted until I had my manuscript.
The feeling of writing the last word of the last redraft before sending it to a publisher is one of immense relief and hope. After all that effort, and all those years working out the structure of my story it was finally finished!
Of course, I was fooling myself. But I kind of knew that.
The publishing director at Affirm Press, Martin Hughes, offered me a book deal – the moment I had dreamed of! He praised my tenacity and said that my voice was authentic and strong; he was clearly moved by my story. But, he said, the manuscript was far too long.
In that moment, I truly wouldn’t have cared if he had told me to rewrite the whole bloody thing! I had a book deal; I was going to be a published author.
And so the editing process began. The editorial team helped me trim the fat from my story and mould it into a cohesive narrative. I added more detail about how particular events made me feel, how they affected my mind. Initially I had been unwilling to delve too far into these very grim moments in my story, scared of reliving the trauma. But, while it was painful to revisit certain events and emotions, they were an essential part of my life.
And so my story, which started as a simple timeline of events, evolved into a book.
And finally my voice is being heard/read across Australia.