This essay is part of a Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.

At least I have stopped crying.

During the first weeks that Francesca was in hospital, whenever I sat beside her bed, all I could do was cry. Again and again I told myself to pull it together; she didn’t need someone behaving as if she was about to die. But whenever I saw her in that gown, in that ward, all I could think about was losing the woman I loved. At that stage, not knowing was the problem. Until the biopsy was done and its results came back and a diagnosis was made, not knowing meant I was free to imagine what the problem might be … and I imagined the worst.

Most people don’t realise that an imagination is a muscle. To make it powerful and effective it needs to be exercised. Runners run. Swimmers swim. Rowers row. Bankers cheat. Politicians lie. And fiction writers dream. Every day. Sometimes all day. Falling down the rabbit hole is what authors do – intentionally.

But when your partner of more than twenty-five years has been rushed to emergency with an unknown ailment, an imagination is a terrible curse. So yes, knowing was better. Knowing was much better. And in the end the truth wasn’t the worst. It was shockingly bad, but it wasn’t the worst. And when we knew what type of cancer it was, and how the doctors were going to treat it, I seemed to stop crying.

Except, of course, when I walked the dog early in the morning. Or just before our son arrived home from school. But I think that was exhaustion more than anything else. There was also the time Francesca and I listened to Barbara on the other side of the ward. A 92-year-old woman whose compulsion to speak was second only to her impulse to breathe, she had raised three boys, been married sixty-four years and wasn’t sad about being sick, she had had a good life – a lucky life.

I definitely cried then.

Inside our tiny world of one bed and one chair, surrounded by pale blue curtains that didn’t reach the floor, a scent of disinfectant in the air, we listened to Barbara’s voice dominate the ward with a looping rendition of her favourite memories. At first it was funny and sweet, but after the nurses had moved on and her sons had gone home and the student doctors had no more questions to ask, and Barbara finally fell silent, I confessed to Francesca how I wanted exactly the same for our family. A quiet life filled with suburban happiness, so easy and perfunctory that we would barely notice it existed until it was almost over.

I said I didn’t want to write any more. I just wanted us to be together. I was tired of our life being so difficult. Of writing making it so difficult. I wanted the fight to end. To forge a new life that was quiet and simple. If we could have just one more chance I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. I would find a job that paid more money. Learn to drive. Get rid of the books. I would give up the writing life. Stop the dreaming. I didn’t want it anymore. All I wanted was for us to be together. All I wanted was for my wife to get better. She could see my fear. How distraught with lack of sleep I had become. Let’s wait and see what happens before we make any big decisions, Francesca said. But even then I think she knew.

As more weeks went by I familiarised myself with the mechanics of a public hospital; witnessed the dedication and professionalism of the nurses and doctors, and saw first hand how Medicare is this country’s greatest achievement. I encountered words like Rituximab, Methotrexate, Cytarabine, Thiotepa, learnt what PICC lines and flushes were, and discovered that it was easier to shave Francesca’s head than watch her hair slowly fall out. I experienced first hand how surgery hours take longer than any other hour of the day; that jokes are permitted in the Intensive Care Unit, and how I wasn’t squeamish when it came to watching a needle enter my wife’s eyeball.

My world had become larger. Richer. Starker. Then one day Francesca asked me how the book was coming along. I knew she was being polite. Trying to shift the conversation away from herself for a few minutes. But I couldn’t play the game anymore. She was too sick and too important to me. I said the book didn’t matter. I didn’t care about writing anymore.

Francesca eyes are a deep green/grey with heavy lids and I’ll never forget how they stared at me in that moment. ‘Well that isn’t true, is it.’

After three years the book still wasn’t finished. I hated it. I never want to think about it again. I hated what writing had done to me. What writing had done to my family. How vulnerable it had made us. We were alone because of the book. We were in danger because of the book. I fucking hated it.

I ignored emails from my agent querying when it might be ready. I shrugged at friends who enquired how my writing was going? I distracted my son when he asked if the book was finished yet. I had told no one that it was done. When Francesca fell ill there were only pages to go, and during the ensuing weeks it had been easier to just bring the story to a conclusion than leave it flapping inside my head. That way I could forget it. Close the file on my laptop and stop thinking about it. I had made a pact with a god I didn’t believe in and I was going to keep it. My life was going to be different now. I had a new routine of visiting Francesca in the hospital, bringing her clean clothes, fresh food, downloading TV shows onto an iPad, and sharing news of our son. I embraced its demands, streamlined its execution and found a comfort in occupying every moment of my day with something practical and necessary. Purpose. I had practical purpose! Why would I want to think about writing?

Eventually Francesca grew accustomed to the hospital ward. She recognised the nurses, understood her treatment, the effects of her medications, and needed me to be there less often. I found I had time to myself again. Moments to read the news, listen to music. The adrenalin had tapered off and my mind began to relax, let down its guard and grow curious about the book I had written. Did I remember it correctly? Had it achieved everything I set to achieve? The intention to give five minutes to a random chapter was completely innocent, but in the end it was all it took to pull me back inside – to make me start dreaming again.

In hindsight I realise I was probably lonesome for the world I had lived in for the past three years. The events and people who populated my book were recognisable and comforting that I thought it would be fine to just check back in to say hello. And if I’d been happy with what I read then I’m sure I would have closed the file and never thought about it again. But after so many months away I saw my writing anew, and what I read was wrong, wrong, wrong. It felt as if a change had occurred somewhere inside my brain. Suddenly my thinking was more precise. I had the ability to distinguish what was necessary to the story and what wasn’t. If a sentence worked or if it didn’t. Whether a character was real or wasn’t. I decided to fix a line, which meant I had to fix the next, and the next. Then the whole paragraph. I couldn’t stop until the entire chapter had been put right. Was the rest of the book the same? I foolishly looked to the opening pages, recognised the mistakes I had made and automatically began to rebuild the entire novel. And just like Francesca had known in the hospital, I realised I would never keep the promises I had made.

I was rewriting on the train. During my lunch break at work. While I sat beside Francesca’s hospital bed as she slept. I’d get up at four in the morning and turn panic attacks about having no superannuation into hours of productive writing.

In between cooking dinner every night, making school lunches, walking the dog, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the house, helping my son with homework, fielding calls from concerned friends, washing up, arguing with the real estate agent, going to work, starting the car, changing the sheets, trying to read, sweeping the backyard, paying bills, hanging out washing, bring in washing, putting washing away, doing the shopping, taking the dog to the vet, walking to the hospital, liaising with doctors, telling friends that Francesca was doing better, I would find the time to write – either on paper or in my head. Never before had I been so tired, and at the same time never so obsessed by writing. In the shower, before I went to sleep, the moment I woke up, whenever I walked or as I talked to people, all I thought about was what needed to be done when I finally had a chance to sit down and work.

The distress of almost losing my beloved has imbued me with a clarity of perception that demanded I make the book better. All hesitation to cut and rewrite has disappeared. I was awake! Alert! In a way that reminded me of what I felt as I watched Francesca being wheeled towards the operating theatre; when I stood beside her bed in the ICU; while we waited for the results of a PET scan to see if the cancer had retreated.

My compulsion to write had never been stronger. I understood it might have been a coping mechanism; a way for me to displace myself from the life that had recently had a bus driven through it. But how was that different to any other time in my life? Writing has always been a way for me to process and navigate this world. To organise my thoughts into a more linear narrative; to explore my imagination. And during the past year I was reminded – for possibly the millionth time – that nothing would ever stop me from doing it. Francesca has known this for the past twenty-five years. She knew it in the hospital. And once again, I knew it as well.

Slowly, very slowly, she has started to recover. And I need her to recover so I can write more. I know it’s a selfish way to think, and I know I am breaking my pact with a god I don’t believe in, but something inside of me has changed. The game of giving up can no longer be played. There are more books I want to write. I know how to do it now. I will never forget again. It’s a madness. It makes no sense. I have no money. Even less success. I’ve just turned fifty and I am currently more driven to write than at any other time in my life. It’s still going on. Even as I write this essay it’s still going on. I have to get back to my book. It’s almost finished. I feel so lucky.

Writers at Work is assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for the Arts

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Arts Tasmania. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Creative Victoria.