John Anthony Burgess Wilson had just turned 40 when he got a death sentence from doctors. They told him he had inoperable brain tumor that would kill him within a year. As he weighed his grim prospects, Wilson knew he had a real fight on his hands.
“It was January of 1960,” he wrote, “and according to the prognosis, I had a winter and spring and summer to live through, and would die with the fail of the leaf.”
What could he possibly do in a year to leave substantial money behind for his wife Lynn? Completely broke at the time, his life had been a series of wrong turns and dead ends.
He had applied to study music at the Victoria University of Manchester, but was turned down for poor grades in physics. Instead he studied English language and literature, graduating with upper second-class honours which left him disappointed. When grading one of his term papers, the historian AJP Taylor, wrote: “Bright ideas insufficient to conceal lack of knowledge.”
Then came Second World War. Wilson enlisted in the army, ending up as nursing orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps. On his asking, he was later transferred to the Army Educatiol Corps. Throughout, he had a problem with authority.
When the war ended, Wilson taught and tried his hand at jourlism. He then joined British Colonial Service as an education officer. It was after he collapsed in class in Brunei, that Wilson got the news he had barely a year to live.
Wilson somehow had the feeling he could turn a professiol writer. But he had only a year to earn royalties for his wife. And there was no certainty he would be published either.
Before that all-important year was over, Wilson finished five novels and was halfway through the sixth. As he continued writing furiously, his cancer went into remission. It would be 33 years before cancer in the lungs claimed him filly.
In all, Wilson had over 50 literary works and 250 musical compositions to his me and was still writing on his deathbed. By that time, his wife had been long dead and he had remarried. Under the pen me Anthony Burgess, he had become one of the best known English literary figures of the second half of the 20th century.
Burgess’ example has inspired many. Motivatiol writer Theresa Cheung of ‘Coffee Wisdom’ fame has used his story to highlight the fact that people diagnosed with a termil illness often become very motivated. But why wait for that shock before pursuing the life of their dreams, she asks.
“You don’t need a death sentence to start doing the things you have always wanted to do in your life. You can do them all right now. Take a coffee break and list five things you would do differently in the next six months if you thought you had only a year to live.
“If you are finding it hard to break from routine, don’t try to change everything at once. Do just one thing differently, and as you start feeling refreshed this will motivate you to further action. Start with today.
“Excuses won’t help you move forward with your life. Regret, guilt and blame drag you back into the past and do nothing to improve your present situation. Let your past go, and look forward to a positive future.”