The stories in this series often inspire—stories of disappointment and rejection that ultimately led to success. Today’s post embodies all of that and more.
Josephine Taylor didn’t set out to be a writer, but after vulvodynia completely upended her life plans, forcing her to give up a career she loved, she looked for something she could do within the physical limitations of her condition. This led to writing, a PhD, a memoir and, eventually, a novel.
Jo’s story is one of dogged resilience in the face of chronic pain, and how being open to trying something new can lead to a new career and fulfilment.
Josephine Taylor is a writer and editor who lives on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia. After developing chronic gynaecological pain in 2000, she was forced to surrender her career as a psychotherapist. Years later, research into the condition informed her prize-winning PhD thesis, an investigative memoir. Josephine is now an Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Writing at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and presents on disorder and creativity. Her writing has been anthologised and published widely. Eye of a Rook(Fremantle Press) is her first novel.
On Being Disappointed
It’s a bit of a cliché: your biggest disappointments clear the way for something even greater than you’d imagined.
I knew this was the case twenty-one years ago, even spouted the philosophy. After all, success or failure is built on expectations, but the way the world receives us can dash these and teach us that control is illusory.
I knew this intellectually, but my trust in it was tested in the years after I developed vulvodynia (chronic vulvar pain) in March 2000.
Losing what’s precious
I’d worked towards becoming a psychotherapist since my own breakdown at 19, when I was slowly brought back to life by Jungian analysis (a form of depth therapy). At the beginning of 2000 I’d been in practice for several years, taught regularly in psychotherapy and counselling, and stood on the verge of formal graduation. My symptoms began the same week as my graduation presentation and within months, debilitated by pain, I had to surrender work.
I could no longer be the fun mum my two young sons knew. We no longer played charades in the evening, went on spontaneous drives into the bush, swam shrieking in the ocean. Now we ate at a coffee table in front of the TV, and they were ferried to the beach, school, life, by other people. I became grimly silent, shielding them from the worst.
I lost my career and my sense of myself as a good mother. I also lost fizzy drinks, tight pants, guitar playing, swimming, parties. Sitting. Uninhibited sex. Friends.
I’d always bounced back from illness and continued to believe I’d get better one day. But I was marooned by and with pain. Nothing could help me recover from this inexplicable disorder – not doctors, specialists or alternate health practitioners. Not lotions or potions. Not becoming a recluse, watching crap TV, reading book after book or keeping as still as I possibly, possibly could.
I reached the point where I had no life outside the house, and this was, perhaps, the biggest cost of all. I had to acknowledge I’d lost everything my earlier life had pointed towards, and I grieved the person I could no longer become.
A turning point
Looking back, I recognise this was the turning point. I could barely do anything, except write. I decided I’d research and become an expert in this condition no-one seemed to understand yet so many (SO many!) women lived with.
I began, slowly and painstakingly, to write a memoir.
Writing brought a breath of possibility, but after a couple of years I became bogged down. Many years before, I’d graduated with first-class honours in English Literature, so I considered a PhD, but with conditions: I wouldn’t contemplate it if I couldn’t work within the creative writing discipline or had to attend classes, sit or pay. The door opened when I was offered a PhD with no coursework, a supervisor, independent research, writing from home, and a scholarship. It was the purest moment of joy in seven years.
Making sense of the rich and disturbing historical material and somehow threading it through my own narrative was challenging, but with support from my supervisor, Marcella Polain, my thesis, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography, was finished in four years, winning several research awards.
I’d hoped my 100,000-word beast of an investigative memoir would be snapped up – years before, an academic had even assured me of this. But it wasn’t. Even if I published personal essays drawn from it, I felt I’d failed in my ambition to have a book published – specifically, a book about vulvodynia that represented the millions of women who struggle in silence with this disorder.
Then, completely unexpectedly, a short story came to me at a workshop. The characters wouldn’t leave me alone and it turned into a novel.
Again, failure led to success – in this case, an unpredictable yet nourishing creative process where my life determined the trajectory of the narratives, and vice versa. I found a wonderful mentor in Susan Midalia, through whom I learned what was worst and best in my writing.
By August 2018 I had another manuscript – this time deliberately written to a smaller size of 80,000 words. Following Natasha Lester’s workshop advice, I made a list of submission options to successively try when each failed.
I entered my novel in two awards without success. I pitched it to a publisher and an agent without success. I was disappointed but determined. Nevertheless, when I answered the phone to Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter my voice was grumpy: I’d schooled myself to expect rejections so I could continue through my list and not give in to disappointment.
It was a ‘yes’ and I was overjoyed. Equally thrilling was that Georgia ‘got’ every element of what I was attempting to achieve with Eye of a Rook. Her response was validating.
The moral of the story
Now Eye of a Rook has been published and is being well-received. I’m an Associate Editor at Westerly and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Writing at Edith Cowan University. I’m a good mum, a loving wife and one member of an extraordinary community of writers.
Vulvodynia subverted my belief in success and failure, forcing me to relinquish control of my life and follow its lead instead. It stole what was best, then gifted me deeply satisfying success.
Fremantle Press have kindly donated a copy of Eye of the Rook to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on the blog or any of my social media posts about Jo’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 4 March, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.