Half Smiling


"I’m sure you’ve also heard the expression Life Imitates Art..."

Writer Rebecca Rouillard was thrilled when she won a prestigious award for a book in which one of the main characters has a degenerative condition. When she woke up with a numbness in her body, she wondered what was going on....

An optimistic and honest piece about coping with Bells Palsy (and the rest of life) and how, with a bit of help from Flannery O'Connor, it's possible to stay positive. 

Rebecca Rouillard was born in the UK but grew up in South Africa. She has a Creative Writing degree from Birkbeck, University of London and she was the Editor of the Birkbeck Writers’ Hub for 4 years. Her writing has appeared in various online and print anthologies, most recently in Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers and Wild Swimmers, and her novel won the 2017 Mslexia Novel Competition. You can find her on twitter as @rrouillard or on her website: www.ninepmwriter.co.uk


Transcript below:

Half Smiling

You’ve probably heard Flannery O’ Connor’s quote:

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”

The quote is from Mystery & Manners, and it paints a bleak view of writing. To be fair Flannery O’Connor had rheumatoid arthritis and lupus which may have also had something to do with her symptoms.

But me, I’m an optimist. A glass-half-full kind of person. I don’t necessarily expect it, but I always hope for the best.

This year started well. In January I received an amazing phone call from Editor, Debbie Taylor, telling me that I’d won the Mslexia Women’s Novel Competition. Two weeks after the competition results were announced in March I had offers from several literary agents.

At the moment I’m halfway through editing my novel before my agent submits it to publishers. My book is set in the not-too-distant future and is about a brother and sister, called Ash and Ellyn, who live in a lighthouse. She’s human, but he’s a sentient, humanoid A.I. 

Soon after the book opens Ash’s body begins to malfunction. It starts with just a numbness in his little finger and then spreads up his arm until one whole side of his body is affected. I imagined it like a human having a stroke. 

I’m sure you’ve also heard the expression ‘Life Imitates Art’.

On Sunday last week I noticed that one side of my tongue had inexplicably gone numb. By Wednesday the right side of my lip felt as though I’d had an anaesthetic from the dentist. On Thursday morning my eyes felt strange and I realised that my right eye wasn’t blinking. My smile was lopsided, my eyebrow only went up on one side—I looked like a rakish pirate. I lifted both my hands up in front of the mirror, like you’re supposed to, to make sure that I wasn’t having a stroke. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t having a stroke. My brain felt fine. But would you be able to tell if your brain wasn’t fine? I called 111, like you’re supposed to, and she told me to go straight to A&E and offered to call an ambulance for me.

“No, please don’t call an ambulance, I can drive myself,” I told her. “I drove the kids to school half an hour ago.”

“Do not drive yourself,” she told me.

I started to feel less optimistic.

At A&E the doctors quickly established that I was not, thankfully, having a stroke. But I did have something called Bell’s Palsy—a kind of facial paralysis that affects the nerves on one side of your face, possibly caused by a virus. They prescribed steroids and anti-virals, but all you can really do is wait and hope that everything will go back to normal. It could take two weeks, they told me, or it could take a year. Occasionally it’s permanent. 

Context is everything—there are a few sentences that come before and after that Flannery O’Connor quote which add a slightly more positive spin: 

She writes:

“People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”

I’ve got to get back to my editing now, and yeah—this experience is definitely going in my book.

I’m an optimist. I’m drinking soup through a straw but at least I’m half smiling.