I gave up writing after that. Thrown into the turmoil of cancer, the pursuit of writing as a serious thing seemed laughable.

Yet as time went on, and I survived the first wave of treatment and then a 10-hour surgery, beginning a second stint of chemo in the winter of 2013, the itch to write returned. But it was with a difference. Before, I’d been focused on publication, on writing as a career. But that desire was gone. So on Friday mornings, before the nurse rang the doorbell and I fell into a chemo hole again for days, I woke early and wrote.

I gave up writing after that. Thrown into the turmoil of cancer, the pursuit of writing as a serious thing seemed laughable.

It was outlandish stuff. Humorous stories to keep me amused in the darkness. I wrote without expectation, telling the kind of stories I’d always dreamed of telling. Weirdly enough – or not – that’s exactly when I started making progress.

All this is true. Every single word.

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And yet in another way, it isn’t.

In 2019, an early version of my story collection Shirl was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. With it came the possibility that these crazed stories might actually be published. If that happened, I realised, and the time came for me to speak about the work – a part that’s very nearly scared me out of writing altogether over the years – the collection’s turbulent backdrop would be a talking point. So, subconsciously at least, I started giving my cancer years a shape: erasing the mundane parts (of which there were many), sharpening the drama, turning it bit by bit into something that had a beginning, middle and end. In short, transforming it into story.

After all, as writers isn’t this our speciality? This constant raiding of experience for the sake of narrative? This meticulous re-ordering of events to summon meaning?

Which brings me to thinking: perhaps that process doesn’t end on the page? Perhaps, as writers, stepping out to give context to our work, what we’re really doing is engaging in another act of storytelling. Moments of truth – great or small – are plucked from our lives, then intensified and expanded.

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Nor are the stories we tell static. They evolve, like yarns and myths told around campfires, depending on several factors: the setting in which they’re relayed, the reaction (real or perceived) of an audience, the dramatic sensibility of the teller.

By nature this process is also highly selective.

In telling the story of how I came to write Shirl, for instance, I could equally describe my growing up in the outer western suburbs of Melbourne. I could talk of how, as a boy, some friends and I had a job operating the scoreboard at local football games, paid $20 each and all the Four’n Twenty pies we could eat. I could talk of how, from the window of that ramshackle aluminium scoreboard on Saturday afternoons, I gained a bird’s eye view onto the face of my culture – the men, the sport, the drinking – themes that have come to dominate my writing.

Or I could simply cut to the chase and describe the hundreds of hours spent alone, wrestling with words and sentences, failing and failing and yet trying again, which is the real unvarnished truth behind finding yourself as a writer.

But that isn’t much of a story.

Instead I’m here to tell you about the time I had cancer. It was hell, mostly. I had things done to my body that can never be undone. The mere sight of teenage girls on TV tripped me up, thinking I’d never live to see my daughter reach that age. Also, just the full-time workload of the thing: the blood tests, the scans, the appointments, the medications. And yet (in the words of American writer Tim O’Brien) proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life, and somewhere in that heady collision I found freedom: freedom from worrying what anyone thought of me or my writing, freedom from the constraints that had held me back for so long.

And it’s true. Every word of it.

Even though it’s just a story.

Wayne Marshall’s debut book collection Shirl is published by Affirm at $26.99.

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