Born again writer: A NaNoWriMo Profile

As part of my NaNoWriMo Halo Giveaway, I offered all of the folks who signed up a chance to write a guest post for How Not To Write. I think you’ll be amazed as I was at the variety of people who have submitted posts. I know I am. I’m also proud to share their words here and I hope you’ll take a moment to leave a comment. — Jamie

Today’s post comes from Maija Haavisto.

Maija Haavisto

Maija Haavisto is a Finnish journalist and the author of Reviving the Broken Marionette: Treatments for CFS/ME and Fibromyalgia. She doesn’t have blog beyond Twitter (gasp!), but since early 1997 has maintained a bustling personal website. She also writes for the online magazine Suite101. Art, photography and cooking are close to her heart. Her NaNo novel explores the ideals of transhumanism and self-actualization in the framework of a fictional memoir. Is life about quality or quantity, and how many lives can you squeeze into one lifetime?

Born again writer

I started writing when I was five. I always knew it was what I ultimately wanted to do for a living, even though I found out fairly soon that being a novelist was unlikely to pay my bills. I figured out I was going to be a journalist and write those novels on the side. Meanwhile I wrote many short stories and hundreds of poems, winning a few writing contests here and there.

I wrote my first novel in 1998 and another one the next year. In early 2000 the first manuscript was reviewed in the weekly supplement of the biggest newspaper in Finland – not a bad start. But in August 2000 I got sick with an infectious neurological illness known as CFS/ME, though at the time it was just a “fever that didn’t go away” with some cardiac symptoms. At first it wasn’t so bad, even though my parents kicked me out at the ripe old age of 16. By a massive streak of luck I got myself a job as a freelance tech journalist and didn’t end up on the street.

I wrote two more manuscripts, in 2001 and 2002, but after that the cognitive dysfunction caused by my illness made it impossible to write any more novels. I could hardly even read novels any more. I switched to textbooks which were easier, but often I was only able to read magazines. Sometimes I could not even do that, and the only thing I could do to attempt to entertain myself was reading ad catalogues.

It was obviously extremely humiliating. I was having difficulty writing my articles, even though my boss never complained. Many of the pieces I write were software tutorials which meant I had to read plenty of help files. Sometimes I just couldn’t understand a single word.

The magazine I worked for went bust in 2006. In a way it was catastrophe, especially since people with CFS/ME have no rights in this country – I’ve never seen a penny of the sickness and disability benefits I’ve supposed to have been getting since May 2006 – but in a way it was also a relief.

My problem was no longer just “brainfog”, it had progressed to dementia – supposedly “mild” but it sure didn’t feel mild. All my other symptoms were massively deteriorating as well. I was only in my early 20s and it looked like I would be in a nursing home soon. I tried to accept the fact I might not be writing any more novels, ever, that my life was essentially over, but I couldn’t.

I had to accept my situation looked miserable, but I was not going to give up. After I no longer had work I started writing a medical textbook about CFS/ME treatments, though I wasn’t sure if I could ever get it finished. I knew hundreds of medications that could have helped me, but the doctors I was seeing at the infection clinic of the Helsinki University hospital could have cared less about giving me a chance.

In early 2007, however, I heard of a private doctor who was open to new treatments. I had the feeling that he would help me, so I decided to see him even though it cost me as much money as buying food for two months. He agreed to prescribe me several medications he had never prescribed before, thanks to the information about them found in my manuscript.

The medications worked. By April 2007 I was already quite a bit better. A few days after starting a medication for cognitive dysfunction I wrote a short story several pages long and felt I was reaching into what I had deemed “my previous life”. My medical textbook was finished and with it I could help many others, too. I decided to start translating the book into English, but I still had cognitive dysfunction and wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write a novel in the future (as weird it may sound, it’s much easier to write a scientific textbook when you have brainfog than write creative fiction!).

In early 2008 I tried yet another medication on top of the ones I was already taking. It was like a miracle: suddenly my cognitive dysfunction was almost completely gone. All my once wonderful math skills were still lost in the void, but I didn’t really care. I could write much better, not only in terms of quantity, but quality too, and the world of reading novels was again fully open to me. I was also glad to finish the English version of my CFS/ME book, which ended up being a massive 346 pages.

It’s a wonderful feeling to get your brain back; you can’t really explain it to someone who hasn’t been there. It is like getting a new life. It didn’t take long until I started planning to participate in NaNoWriMo. I had been interested in participating since I first heard about it in 2002 or 2003, but it had been out of my reach. Now I felt could do it, and I already had a novel idea brewing in my mind.

It has been six years since I last wrote a novel. In a way it seems like I’ve forgotten how to write a novel, in a way I’m not sure if I ever knew how to do it. I was just 18 at the time, now I am 24. I can’t even remember how it felt to write a novel. Trying to do it again feels like a jump into the great unknown. I feel as if I’m a born again writer.

It frustrates me that I lost many years of good writing time with my brain in the darkness. I was once a great (and experienced) writer for my age, now I’m just a good writer. I have no more “competitive edge”, I’m just one more writer in the crowd. On the other hand, I’m just happy to get back to what I love the most – writing. I am far from healthy and still suffer dozens of bothersome symptoms, but if I sleep 10 hours I usually have a few hours that I can use as I please.

In the end, my biggest challenge may not even be my health but the fact I stubbornly insist on writing in Finnish (because I’m looking to get published). The entirely different structure of the language means I have up to 50% more work to do than the people writing in English and have to write an almost 50% longer novel than any of my previous manuscripts (which have been about 35k words, but would be long enough if they were in English).

I want to show myself I can do it.

9 thoughts on “Born again writer: A NaNoWriMo Profile

  1. I am deeply impressed by your story, Maija! I am glad that you have found a doctor who could do something for you. I have some friends who have severe illnesses, too, and mostly their doctors knew less about their illnesses than they themselves did.
    Thank you for sharing this personal story!

    Ulla Hennig´s last blog post..At the Beach

  2. Maija,

    I am sitting here reading this, fibro suffererer, who was convinced that I had had a mystery stroke that had gone undetected when I would suddenly find myself in a fog so bad that I couldn’t find my way back home on roads I had traveled a thousand times.

    Yet, I had just finished running a marathon when my Doc finally sat me down and explained what in the world was wrong with me! I was in denial, and thought she was nuts! But I have to tell you, under a great doctor’s care, my world also came back to me and I can relate to your story SO much

    Good luck on your Nano story, I wish you all the best and pray for your continued health.

    Wendi Kelly-Life’s Little Inspirations´s last blog post..High Flying Faith

  3. Hello Maija,

    Your determination is amazing and have resulted in this impressive achievement. I write predominantly in Marathi and could relate to your insistence to write in Finnish.

    Thank you for the great story.

    I also take this opportunity to thank Jamie for this platform to bring these amazing experience to us.


  4. Hi Maija,

    What a journey you’ve been on and I can see where your novel idea now has been born out of the “many lives” you have traveled in your (relatively) short years. Hopefully your life will continue on a recovery path and you will continue with medical professionals who are receptive to your being such a moving force in your recovery.

    Best of luck with the novel and your continued improving health.

    And yes, Jamie – this is an amazing forum – thanks!


  5. Hi Maija,

    Writing is hard enough without having to fight cognitive dysfunction. Amazing. What meds ultimately helped you through the brain fog?

    Another question from a stupid monolingual American: why would it be harder to write in Finnish if that’s your native tongue?

    cinderkeys´s last blog post..A pessimist’s optimism

  6. Wow, amazing story. I am glad that you have been able to rise from the darkness and pen with passion, and abandon once again.

    I wish you the best with NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words and every word written beyond it.

  7. Thanks for all the encouraging comments. :->

    cinderkeys: Piracetam and nimodipine helped the most – nimodipine more with the overall “fogginess” while piracetam has helped a lot with “verbal dysfunction”, such as leaving out words when speaking or writing, using an incorrect word or not being able come up with a word, as well as reducing cognitive fatigability. Low dose naltrexone and the supplement acetyl-L-carnitine also helped to a lesser extent.

    Finnish is a very different language from English. We almost always write compound words together. Also, instead of prepositions and such, we use morphemes (words change their shape instead of attaching other words to them). For example, there is a classical six-word short story written by Hemingway which goes “For sale: baby shoes. Never used”. Translated into Finnish it would be just three words: “Myydään: vauvankengät. Käyttämättömät”.

    This means that a text which is 50k words in Finnish would be about 70-75k words in English! So, to qualify for NaNo I have to write about 50% more than most other people. At this point I’m getting rather pissed off by my choice, because I’m starting to feel like 1,667 words a day of English would be trivial, but the same in Finnish feels quite hard.

    The only reason I chose Finnish is that it makes it easier to attempt to get published. But, I probably would have had an easier time just writing in English and translating it afterwards. Then I also could have asked for editing help from my American and British friends – I don’t really have any Finnish writer pals.

    Anyway, I’m at 12,115 words now, but it’s been fairly rough. I’ve sat on my computer for most of the day every day yet still haven’t been able to get ahead of the game (which would be nice, as I have two birthday celebrations on the very last weekend).

  8. @Maija This is perhaps one of the most powerful writing stories that I have had the pleasure and privilege to read. I’m so happy that you let me share it with everyone. 🙂

    @Shailesh @Amy {blush} You’re welcome and thanks.

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