Hazel McHaffie

abortion

Living the dream

What a week I’ve had! OK, I may be confined to barracks post-surgery, strictly forbidden (by authoritative medical personnel no less) from all housework or exertion of any kind, having to keep my leg elevated day and night … but, bored? Not a bit! Frustrated? Nope. Secretly sorry for myself? Certainly not! I’m capitalising on the situation and achieving far more than I ever anticipated. And buzzing! Has to be good for the soul.

OK, I knew it was coming. Before surgery I accumulated the usual materials for sedentary occupations like knitting, reading, writing, DVDs, etc etc. What I hadn’t bargained on was a complete takeover bid!

It started as soon as I began to actually write the annual Christmas story/play I compose and direct for my grandchildren. As part of my research I began dipping in and out of my all-time favourite books … soon lost in memories and other lives, somewhere in my head my own quite distinctive characters from different strata of society and various times in history who form the core of the play.

Then it was time to start actually committing ideas to the computer.

I began tentatively, feeling my way gently, setting the scene, getting to know the principals, but suddenly one after another they assumed accents and speech patterns and habits of their own. And away we went! Enormous fun. All without the constraints of my other kind of writing (this story is for a very select and exclusive readership indeed; not a single literary critic or publisher’s delicate sensibilities to be factored in).

On the day of the play itself, the youngsters will bring their own personalities to the characters as they assume their roles, but afterwards, once it’s in book form, I want these people to live on the page. Their mannerisms, their language, their reactions, must convey so much. It’s proved both a welcome challenge and a runaway delight!

Then there’s the side effect of recuperation. Lots more thinking-time. Without all the usual time-consuming domestic responsibilities there’s more leisure to watch TV and read papers, and it’s astonishing how many programmes and articles impinge on my own fields of interest. Factual as well as fiction, they make me reflect, which has to be good for my mental state.

So, for example, there’s the news this week of a patient who’s been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, who has now had his vagus nerve stimulated to some effect, putting him into a minimally conscious state. Progress, you might think. Clever stuff. Could this be the start of new hope for many? But hey! Is it really better to be aware you can’t move or do anything spontaneously? Would I want such a thing for my husband/son/brother in his thirties? Does this influence my thinking on assisted dying?

Then there are the up-coming court cases. Victims of the contaminated blood scandal from the 1970s/80s have finally won a ruling allowing them to launch a High Court action. Imagine! Forty years of waiting! And they’re a long way from a resolution or compensation even now. Something in the region of two and a half thousand2,5000! – have already died. Whose fault is/was it? What are the pros and cons of a legal system that grinds so slowly? How could we deal more effectively with such a catastrophe in the future?

And what about the families devastated by the consequences of giving Sodium Vaproate to pregnant women. That too goes back decades and it’s left to the families to fight on for justice. My brain is throwing up questions and doubts right left and centre. Not necessarily for a book; just challenges about the morality of what’s done in the name of medicine.

Ahhh, back again comes that old chestnut, abortion. Irish girls have been coming to England and Scotland to have pregnancies terminated for decades. (I remember being troubled by the questions way back in 1960s when I was in clinical practice and saw it first hand.) This week it was announced that Ireland is to hold a referendum next year on whether to repeal its ban on abortion in almost all circumstances. Are the issues any different today? Could this have been resolved more appropriately? Should religion influence laws? Is a referendum the best way forward? And what about all the other forms of medical tourism …?

Inside of Me coverThe BBC2 programme aired a couple of days ago, Being Transgender, was billed as dealing with ‘one of the hot topics of the moment’. Well, that was my thinking when I published Inside of Me last year. But even though I’d immersed myself in the topic of gender and identity for a couple of years, I was still fascinated by these personal experiences, still wondering about the issues, but be warned, the footage of reassignment surgery in this case is pretty shocking.

So all in all the days are flying by faster than I feared they would. My mind is in overdrive. And I’m hoping to be ahead of the game when I return to normal functioning … God willing.

 

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A Place Called Winter

All except one of my trusted readers/critics have now given me their feedback on my latest book, Listen. Exciting times. But before I sit down for a serious edit, I’m immersing myself in some exquisite writing, beautiful language from the pen of a master, that will be a incentive to me to raise my own game – I hope!

The author? Patrick Gale. The book? A Place Called Winter. A sad, tender, compelling tale of Harry Cane’s battle with his own demons, the taboos of his day, and the wild wastelands of a new country. It’s an intensely personal novel inspired by a true story from Gale’s own family history: one gay man reaching out with sympathy and deep feeling to another (his mother’s grandfather) across a century of social change.

Harry Cane is born into privilege, raised to ‘believe that what mattered was to be unmistakably a gentleman’. He rides horses; others muck out their stables. His soft hands remain idle while callouses build up on the palms of his social inferiors. But his childhood is emotionally impoverished, with his mother dead and his father absent, schooldays punctuated by all the trials upper class boys can inflict on those they see as weaker prettier mortals. Consequently his life is centred on his younger brother Jack. It’s Jack who drags his shy insecure brother into society after their father’s death and introduces him to Winifred Wells, his future wife. Theirs is a gentle undemanding relationship which reluctantly produces one daughter before it settles into platonic coexistence.

The time is the early 1900s; apartheid is unchallenged; class distinctions rule; abortion and homosexuality are unlawful, the latter punishable by hard labour and utter disgrace; ‘treatment’ for psychiatric illness and ‘deviance’ is draconian. When his brother-in-law discovers Harry’s guilty secret, Harry – now an exiled ‘unmentionable‘ – signs up for a new start in a new country, Canada, one of 511 passengers on a ship sailing to the unknown.

The vast impossible prairies are simply waiting to be tamed, and after serving his year-and-a-day apprenticeship to a Danish farmer, Harry commits himself to converting 160 acres of wild wasteland into a self-sufficient thriving homestead within three years. Setting out with simply the map coordinates SW 23-43-25-W3, and directions to a place called Winter scribbled on the brown paper the cheese was wrapped in. An English innocent in a harsh unbroken landscape where there is ‘not much call for cash‘, and ‘neighbour is a relative term‘.

His closest neighbours are a brother and sister, Paul and Petra Slaymaker, whose lives become intimately entwined with his own. Beautiful relationships are established which are tested in the cauldron of  gossip, violence, war and illness. But their peace is threatened much more by the reappearance of a common enemy whose actions and knowledge cast a long shadow over their lives.

Gale’s writing is superb. His characters are beautifully realised, their emotions are captured with tenderness and palpable truth, and the abiding fear of loss, disgrace and exile haunts every hour of reading. Much as I revelled in the writing, though, I had a powerful feeling of desolation at times. Harry’s apologetic personality, his sad acceptance of the degrading things that happen to him, his gentle resilience, his innate decency even in the face of extreme provocation, stand in sharp contrast to the militance and ferocity of modern day campaigners for individual and collective rights. I wanted to reach out to him with compassion, understanding and reassurance.

But it’s a novel. I must instead give you a flavour of the lyrical prose:

… hot breakfast rolls as soft and pale as infancy.

… torn rags of sentences.

… they gave the impression of having emerged, fully formed, from eggs, as brittle as the waxy shells they had discarded.

There’s the heir and the spare and the heiress-beware.

A horse is ‘like a sofa with hooves‘.

‘Vaccinated by this cruel loss of his first daughter, he approached fatherhood the second time round with a certain reserve. He did not consciously harden his heart, but he loved with hands metaphorically behind his back.’

… war was declared in August, when harvest preparations were at their height. The news was sown swiftly, shaken from pulpits and scattered by posters and threshing gangs.’

I rarely give a book 5*s – this novel reminds me why. It wholeheartedly merits them. Highly recommended.

*****

 

 

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Peeling back the gilt of Christmas

Nativity carouselAt this time of year it somehow seems extra tragic when bad things happen to good people. Aside from the global crises afflicting our world and unravelling before our eyes in our living rooms, I personally have a number of friends currently facing serious illness, impending death, sudden bereavement, and yet it must seem like everyone around them is caught up in trivia and pleasure, festivities and excess – in reality of course, who knows how many others are only hiding stresses and problems from public consumption?

Mrs Santa straw figureIt’s in this spirit that my mind has been wandering over the huge dilemmas facing different families; what would I choose in their circumstances? how would I cope?

Metropolitan police officer Heidi Loughlin, 33, discovered she had an aggressive form of breast cancer the day after finding out she was pregnant with her third child. She decided not to have a termination of the pregnancy but to delay treatment until after the birth. Her condition became so serious however that her baby girl was delivered by Caesarean Section on Friday, 12 weeks early, and Heidi has been given a short time to recover from the operation before starting powerful chemotherapy next week. She faces a pretty gruelling Christmas, but is determinedly looking forward to March when she will get her baby girl home to her two brothers. She has risked her life to give her daughter a chance and says she has no regrets; it was all worth it. What would I have chosen in this situation, I wonder? What would you?

Then there’s fireman Patrick Hardison. He entered a burning house in Mississippi; the roof collapsed on him leaving him with severely disfiguring burns across his face, head, neck and upper torso. Think for a moment of the pain of a small burn from an oven shelf, a hot iron … Multiply that by ten trillion. Even after 70 operations he was still so terribly mutilated (see pictures here if you can cope with them) that he would only go out heavily disguised. What kind of Christmases has he endured, I wonder? He recently underwent the most extensive face transplant ever performed. Factor in not only the excruciating pain at every stage but the risks … would I have been courageous enough to want to go on living? Would you?Antique Santa candle holder

Within the last two months, two transgender women have been found dead in their cells in all-male prisons: 21 year old Vikki Thompson in November, and 38 year old Joanne Latham in December. No more Christmases for them. Many difficult questions present themselves where transgender people are concerned and there is generally much greater sensitivity to their issues, but what about when they commit crimes, serious offences that land them in prison? Not only their own welfare is at stake but that of their fellow prisoners. Where would you have housed these two? Nearly 150,000 people signed a petition to house a third person, 26 year old Tara Hudson, in a female institution even though she had been convicted of assault. Would you have signed it?

A 50 year old woman, mother of three, is so determined not to grow old and ‘lose her sparkle’ that she has refused to undergo kidney dialysis. Her kidneys were seriously damaged when she took an overdose following a diagnosis of breast cancer. For years her life style has been chaotic to say the least, and one wonders, what is Christmas like in that household? Whatever, the Hospital Trust responsible for her care appealed to the courts to have treatment imposed against her wishes. But a senior judge has upheld her right to an autonomous choice to die. Was he right to do so, do you think?

I’m merely scratching the surface by way of illustration. Remember all the cases we’ve heard about recently – various scandals around abortions carried out on the grounds of gender alone; teenagers killing themselves because they’re obsessed with losing weight; all the dire warnings about how to deal with declining fertility; the consequences of a simple blood test at 18 weeks pregnancy that allows screening for thousands of genetic conditions  … the list goes on and on. My files are bulging with clippings and articles.

Scandinavian figuresSo at this time of celebration and joy, let’s spare a thought for families caught up in tragic circumstances, and the courageous souls who try to support and guide them. May they find wisdom, courage and strength. And I wish all visitors to this blog peace as you prepare for the festive season whatever it means to you.

 

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Away from it all

KinlochlevenI’ve just spent four days in the Highlands of Scotland, walking boots on my feet, camera in hand, no intention of working in my head. A complete break after all the frenzy around publishing the latest book.

I absolutely love this stunning scenery; the majesty, the mystery, the rawness, the sheer peace of it all, so indulge me while I give you a glimpse of its beauty.GlenfinnanView from top of Aonach MorGlenfinnanBut in spite of my best intentions, medical ethics (as portrayed by newspapers) did winkle its way into that bolthole. My eye and brain homed in on two issues close to my heart at the moment. Individual rights: triggered by the discussion on veiling the face in court or in school. Abortion: the question of whether there’s any meaning at all in the Abortion Laws of this country if doctors are not prosecuted when they’re caught authorising the abortion of fetuses because they happen to be the ‘wrong’ gender. But my resolve held! I merely saved the relevant articles, and refrained from scribbling a single word into my notebook.

Now I’m back in harness, refreshed and raring to go. The work of promoting Over My Dead Body goes on, and invitations to speak about it are coming in, but I’m ready to get thoroughly immersed in a new topic too. I’ve just downloaded 14 e-books and ordered 21 paperbacks on the issue of eating disorders which should hopefully get me started.

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A few statistics to conjure with

Out and about with the granddaughters this week, we’ve learned a lot of fascinating statistics about owls, debunking a fair few urban myths along the way. (Did you know that The Scottish Owl Centre houses one of the largest collection of owls in the world? Yep – fact not fantasy. Everything from the huge Siberian Eagle Owl to the dinkiest Scops Owl – 40 species, 100 birds.) Anyway, contrary to popular conception, owls are not wise, which makes them a fitting symbol for what I want to say in this blog.OwlLast week the following email appeared in my Inbox: ‘On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.’

Wow! Goodreads is ‘the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations!’ – by it’s own description anyway, so I indulged in a little warm glow. Top 1%, huh? Not to be sniffed at. But then I discovered that they’ve just announced that they ‘now have 20 million members, up from 10 million members just eleven months ago.

OK, do the maths, and I’m one of 200,000 top reviewers. Hmmm. Not that impressive, eh? Especially not since reading is part of my job. But I find their site really useful for keeping tabs on what I’ve read, when, and what I thought of each book. So thanks, Goodreads, for a very useful facility.

You might remember I was toying with two topics for my next book: anorexia or abortion. Well, I decided the next step might be to see how many other novelists have written in this area – suss out the competition. Assess where the biggest gap is.

Type ‘novels including anorexia‘ into Google and up come 52 titles through just Goodreads and Amazon. With a footnote saying ‘218 best eating disorder books’ which presumably means non-fiction. Do the same thing for abortion, and 27 come up. Hmm. Not what I was expecting. Of course, it could all be to do with shelving, the blurb available, keywords, that kind of thing. I’m sure more will surface once I start reading. And I quickly discovered that a large proportion of the eating disorder ones are teen fiction.

By reading synopses and reviews of them all, I’ve whittled it down to a dozen must-reads on abortion and probably 29 on anorexia. Looks like I’m in for the long haul, anyway. Watch out for an onslaught of reviews, Goodreads!

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To be or not to be: anorexia? or abortion?

With Over my Dead Body about to go to the printer, my mind keeps straying to the next novel. I’m simply itching to get going again. If you’re a follower of my blog you’ll know I keep a pile of folders with ideas and plots and topics for the future, and this time I’ve whittled the choice down to two: one about abortion or one involving anorexia. No shortage of material for either.

So you’ll understand why my eye honed in on two articles in Friday’s news. First up: Women who have nine abortions. Nine? Wow.

pregnant womanIn a former life, as a healthcare professional, I very occasionally cared for women who were having abortions. Actually, I’m old enough to have witnessed the effect of backstreet and DIY abortions in the years before the Abortion Act was passed in 1967, coming into effect in clinical practice in 1968. None of us would want to go back to that horror, I’m sure. Women died and were horribly mutilated. Health care staff were traumatised.

After the procedure became legal in the UK, I personally elected not to be active in the termination process, or to wish to know why the women had chosen this path, but I had no reason not to look after them as patients. Most were distressed and chastened by the experience, and I’ve known some who went on to develop mental health problems as a consequence. Only rarely did I encounter women who were using abortion as a form of birth control. But even with this background, the week’s statistics have still shocked me.

A Department of Health report shows that a total of 185,122 terminations of pregnancy were carried out in England and Wales last year. Of those, more than 66,000 were repeat procedures. Over 4,500 had had at least four abortions, 1,334 were up to at least their fifth termination, and 33 women had had nine or more. Just pause for a moment and think about that – the loss of life … and the effect on these thousands of women … and on society. Is this an acceptable set of statistics? Is this what the Bill was all about?

The second news item featured the other end of the scale: the Irish abortion Bill, otherwise known as The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Back in ‘my time’ I was aware that women secretly came over to Britain from Ireland to seek the help they wanted because there was an absolute ban on terminations over there. They still do apparently (about 4,000 last year according to Irish Department of Health figures) – the sheer scale of today’s abortion-tourism was a revelation to me.

Twenty years ago their Supreme Court ruled that women in Ireland were legally entitled to a termination if it was necessary to save the mother’s life, but six successive governments since have failed to introduce legislation to enforce this. Until now. This week. July 2013. 46 years after the UK allowed legal terminations.

It was the much-publicised death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar from septic shock last autumn after being denied an abortion, which precipitated this latest attempt to make the procedure legal in certain circumstances: where there is risk to life or the woman is suicidal. And please note, we’re not talking about frivolous reasons or social convenience here; we talking about life-or-death decisions. Nevertheless, the debate has been and remains a hotly contentious issue, involving nasty things like open aggression and death threats and letters written in blood. Even Mrs Halappanavar’s grieving husband has been sent hate mail by anti-abortion activists.

This is groundbreaking stuff in Ireland. Parliament has been in an uproar, with resignations and expulsions and threats of excommunication from the church. Lobbying groups are threatening to bring court cases to challenge this new law. Even though, as it stands, this Bill only helps a very limited number of women. Those who are pregnant as a result of rape, those with fatal fetal anomalies, those who simply can’t face the prospect of another child, are not included in this legal entitlement. What would you say to that?

So yes, the subject remains an ongoing hot potato. Lots of ethical issues to grapple with. Many indeed that might get me into big trouble too were I to write about them! Only question is, will this be my ninth novel? Or will I take on anorexia? I’m still swithering.

I confess at the moment I’m really tempted by the eating disorder and all its ramifications, only that didn’t hit the headlines this week. And I have a title for that book already!

 

 

 

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Bigotry? Intolerance? Prejudice?

We’ve heard so much negative comment lately about people with religious beliefs being bigoted and intolerant, I want to share an entirely different experience with you.

When last year I received an invitation to run a series of workshops on the challenges of medical ethics for a group of Christians (from the Christadelphian Church) near London in March 2012, I confess I hesitated for lots of reasons. But the organisers were very persuasive, and I eventually succumbed to their flattery.

The conference was this past weekend. And I’ve survived to tell the tale.

Life has been very pressurised of late and I had a lot of baggage to shed in order to free my mind up to facilitate group work effectively. So I used the journey south to unwind, visiting two magnificent National Trust properties. The first was Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire,Fountains Abbeywith its awesome architecture and stonework, and its dramatic cloister.The cloisterJust standing surveying all this ancient beauty, soaking up the centuries of peace and devotion, is balm to the troubled soul.

And then on to Ickworth in Suffolk, very grand, housing fabulous paintings, and also steeped in history.

(SORRY: photos inadvertently lost.)

Oh, and a quick trip to nearby Ixworth Thorpe to see the house where I was born. I’ve only visited once before, taking my mother round her old haunts, and it holds no memories for me because I was a mere babe when we moved from here, but it’s part of who I am. (No plaque outside yet though, I see!)

Anyway, suffice to say I’d shed a lot of tension before arriving at the High Leigh Conference Centre, in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Another lovely building looking great in the sunshine.

From the moment I introduced myself the team couldn’t have been more welcoming and supportive. The whole atmosphere was warmly inclusive. So far so good.

I had five and a half hours to fill with my workshops so that took care of most of Saturday. My sessions are totally interactive and the course they run is partly determined by the cues I get from the participants, which means I have to be ready for anything. Fairly keeps the adrenaline flowing, I can tell you! But I take a few tricks up my sleeve in case things flag.

It’s my belief that, in order to understand the enormity of the choices relating to the big dilemmas of modern medicine, and to empathise with individuals and their families grappling with such questions, you need to engage emotion as well as intellect. So throughout the sessions, as I presented increasingly difficult scenarios, the delegates imagined how they might feel in such situations (eg being infertile, or dying from a degenerative disease, or suffering from psychiatric disorders, or listening to a child begging not to have any more aggressive treatment), and they moved on a continuum from very comfortable (represented by soft easy chairs with lots of cushions) to very uncomfortable (pebbles on seats and upended chairs). There was a fence to sit on for those who couldn’t decide, and we even introduced a moral high ground (high seat covered in a velvet cloth) for the few who took up a fixed moral position.

Were these Christians bigoted or intolerant? They were not. Were their minds closed to new ideas? Not a bit of it. Were they holier-than-thou? By no means. They were impressively honest and compassionate and realistic. Yes, they live to a high standard, based on a foundation of firm principles, but it was obvious there was no party line when it came to assisted dying, abortion, infertility treatment, organ transplantation … They thought for themselves. They might not agree on the solutions, but they challenged each other healthily, respectfully. They acknowledged their own prejudices, recognised the weaknesses in their arguments, and had the courage to admit there was room for change within themselves. Every single person allowed themselves to be uncomfortable, to alter their position. We laughed a lot. Some tearfully shared painful experiences. We engaged honestly with the issues. And the world is a better place because there are folk like this who have the courage and humility to accept that there are no easy trite answers, who are ready to really listen, to understand, and to support others going through life’s traumas, without thrusting their own opinions on them.

Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable and heartening experience.

Indian proverb: Judge no man till you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

 

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Congenital defects and moral dilemmas

I couldn’t have dreamed up a better precursor for my forthcoming book Saving Sebastian, due out on 1 July. But honestly, I hadn’t so much as whispered in the ear of the BBC.

The documentary, So What If My Baby Is Born Like Me?, went out at 9pm on 19 April on BBC Three, but the main players were also interviewed on various newsy programmes. The story featured Jono Lancaster, and was both poignant and challenging. Jono has Treacher Collins syndrome, which essentially involves deformities of the face and ears, but normal intelligence. And Jono’s intelligence certainly shone through, as well as his honesty, courage and thoughtfulness.

The thrust of the programme was whether or not he should father a child naturally with his girlfriend of four years, Laura. They both want children, but Treacher Collins is hereditary, and they run a 50/50 chance of having a baby with the same condition. But no one can predict how severely it would be affected. As well as the distinctive facial irregularities, some children require tracheostomies and tube feeding, some are profoundly deaf, some have cleft lips and palettes. In the course of considering their options, Jono and Laura met a little girl, Maisie, and saw firsthand what such anomalies mean to parents. And to the child.

And Jono knows only too well the reactions anybody with the condition will encounter. He’s even been vilified for daring to have a relationship with a pretty girl! And Laura is indeed very attractive, as you can see. Jono’s own biological parents were so appalled by his appearance that they rejected him from birth. He was taken in at two weeks of age by an amazing woman who’s fostered over twenty children. She admitted that Jono had occupied a very special place in her affections and she’d formally adopted him. Watching them together was a delight.

But before you condemn his natural mother, ask yourself, how would you react to being handed a baby looking so different from your expectations? Or walking down the street with a child whom everyone stares at? Take a look at these photos and imagine the scenario; ask yourself the questions, if you dare. I studied dozens of them and I confess I didn’t like the answers.

However even Jono’s adopted mum couldn’t help him with the quandary he was in now. As she wisely said, you might think you know what you’d do in these situations, but no one can say for certain what they would do in reality. You can’t know until it happens.

It’s a tribute to her love and acceptance and sound common sense that Jono’s instinctive preference was to adopt. Laura though, wants her own child. In an effort to work though the possibilities, they seek advice and counselling; they visit families who’ve faced some of the same dilemmas. One option they have is to go for IVF with PGD – essentially this involves creating an embryo using their own sperm and eggs, then testing it to see if it carries the defective gene. Jono seems initially to be labouring under the mistaken idea that the faulty gene would simply be removed. When he finds that the whole embryo would be destroyed, he’s morally outraged. For him this is ‘an insult’, ‘disrespectful’ to all people with a deformity or genetic disorder. The fact that he himself wouldn’t exist if this facility had been offered, gives his outrage special emphasis and extra weight.

Listening to this young couple grappling with the dilemma was peculiarly arresting even for battle-hardened me. Something so natural as having a child is for them a major issue with endless questions, doubts and fears attached. Jono’s ‘morally wrong’ argument is a massive stumbling block to progress, but in the end their conclusion is that, for them, it feels right to go for IVF with PGD, to have a child without the defect. ‘Morally wrong’ for Jono it might be, says Laura, but even so ‘it’s right’. ‘Definitely right’ for the child, Jono concedes.

The scenario in my novel is different, though many of the issues and questions are similar. Sebastian is four years old, and he has a rare blood disorder. But he’s stunningly beautiful to look at. His parents are considering having a baby by IVF with PGD to save Sebastian’s life. They too have reservations … But in this case, I’m not going to tell you the outcome!
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Am I really me?

I’ve just had a complete stranger contact me to check: Do I exist? Am I really me? Did I actually win a prize in a writing competition as an advert claimed?

Now, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me they’ve seen this photo in the said advert – for a creative writing course with the Writers Bureau. It’s very small fry as prizes go and I was only runner-up, but the advert’s appeared in a range of different publications: Big Issue, The Daily Telegraph and Private Eye amongst others. And it’s been running for seven months now. Wahey! All free – and unsolicited – publicity for me!

But this is the first time I’ve had my credentials – nay, my very existence – challenged. It transpired this gentleman was wondering about taking a similar course but was suspicious it might all be a money-making scam. He checked me out on Google and there I was: a real live person. And a person who writes to boot.

So, now he wanted to check the authenticity of the prize. And that’s when he contacted me. I could easily reassure him that yes indeed, I’d won a couple of awards with the Bureau.

Back he came. Would I recommend the course? I would. Wholeheartedly. Now, a bona fide sceptic might be thinking, Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? It’s quid pro quo. They promote her work; she endorses their course. But my recommendation was most sincere. Why? After all, lots of people say creative writing can’t be taught. You’ve either got ‘it’ or you haven’t. The course showed me that

Techniques can be taught
Two of my brothers, who are more practically inclined, think I definitely have a seriously abnormal quirk in my brain because I love words so much. I mean, who on earth would scribble a weekly blog from choice?! Well, the inclination may be innate, but the technique of writing publishable work, turning ideas and drafts into polished and focused articles or books which publishers will accept, even pay you for, is an art that can be honed and refined.

We are not our own best critics
As writers we have no end of baggage cluttering up our discriminatory antennae. There’s all the passion we feel about the subject, the pain of giving birth to that text, the protective instinct of a mother. We need other detached eyes (whoops! well you know what I mean) to see it for what it really is, and help us to identify our faults and relinquish the bits we cherish. And you need to really respect your critic’s skill and judgement to make that kind of sacrifice.

We benefit from knowledgeable and objective criticism
It’s delightful to have friends and your Mum telling you how much they love what you write, but what you really need, if you’re serious about writing, is people who truly understand what good writing looks like. Most if not all the tutors on the course I took are themselves established writers. They know the reality as well as the ideal. They speak with authority. They give advice that’s worth listening to. But they temper their criticism with kindness because they also know the sensitivities and vulnerability of the novice author.

Reading purely for pleasure isn’t the same as reading analytically
Tutors can help to direct the would-be writer to good prose, to analyse what makes it sing, and to apply the principles to their own writing.

Broadening experience of writing is beneficial
I must confess I was slightly begrudging about doing the non-fiction half of the course first. I’d already published nigh-on a hundred articles in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Surely I didn’t need … What a waste … OK; I resolved to complete the early assignments as quickly as I could to get them out of the way, and then concentrate on the fiction component. Which showed me how wrong I’d been in my initial resistance. Writing to order – about things I’m no expert in – was a salutary experience and an excellent discipline. It opened my eyes to new experiences, made me observe in a different way. I wrote about events as diverse as attending a craft fair, visiting an exhibition of photography through the ages, going for a meal as if a food critic. And always there was the challenge: could I make words work for me without the underlying drive that had propelled my writing before? Words moreover that someone else would enjoy. And there was no room for half-hearted effort just because this wasn’t of any interest to me. A real live, eagle-eyed someone was poised ready to rip my mediocrity to pieces; how humiliating would that be? No, it was nowhere near the doddle I’d anticipated.

It helps to know one’s own strengths and weaknesses
Over the full course I covered everything from writing a letter to a newspaper through to a play for radio. Getting tasters of so many different kinds of writing not only opened up new avenues of experience, but also helped me see where I definitely didn’t want to go. Or probably shouldn’t attempt to go! I confess I was rather pleased with my play, a murder mystery with haunting subtleties and a nice twist in the tale … maybe … perhaps … I began to see the credits rolling … My tutor soon disillusioned me!

Creative writing courses aren’t like sausage machines
Some cynics dismiss these courses: they churn out clones producing formulaic writing. Not the distance-learning course I took! Far from it. It was always student-focused, individually tailored. The assignments were set, certainly, but I was free to interpret and respond as I saw fit. And my tutor always commented specifically about the work I produced; never forced me into a mould of her making. And her assessments were always fair and focused – on me, my style, my end game.

It helps to have aims and goals
Right from the start she’d wanted to know, what was I looking for from the course? What were my personal aims and ambitions? I did actually have a clear agenda from the outset: I wanted to write a set of novels about medical ethical dilemmas. To make ethics come alive through fiction. This was to be my unique selling point. My tutor understood and respected my need to be different. And she gave me good honest criticism to that end.

Knowing the market is vital
Every assignment had to be written for a particular publication or potential buyer. It took hours: analysing the market, trying to understand what editors and publishers were looking for. At times I found it tedious; I was reluctant to put in the effort. After all I had no intention of writing for food journals of women’s magazines or local papers. No way! I wanted to be a novelist. Again, how wrong I was. That discipline taught me much, and since I’ve published my novels, dealing with important life issues, I have indeed written for several newspapers and a range of magazines, bringing my books (and the issues) to a much wider audience than would otherwise be possible. But now I understand how important it is to do your homework.

Persistence and determination are essential for success
I am constantly amazed that I’ve won any prizes for my writing. I still feel like a raw amateur playing out of my league, in many ways. But the fact that I have serves to underline a sad fact. In today’s climate it’s hard to get published. You need an over-developed persistence gene and a hide like a rhinoceros. I happen to have inherited a stubbornly determined streak that refuses to give up on my ambition.

Having a niche market helps
I also have one unusual advantage. I inhabit a rarefied world; the world of medical ethics – the dilemmas thrown up by modern medicine.
In real life all of us are touched by these issues. Someone we know, or we ourselves, face these challenges. Maybe we develop a life-limiting illness; should we end our life before the agony becomes unbearable? Maybe we find ourselves unable to have children; do we go for sperm donation or surrogate pregnancy? Maybe we’re fertile all right, but we don’t want this unwelcome pregnancy; should we have an abortion? Maybe a loved one develops Alzheimer’s; how far should we go in caring for them?
But the subject of medical ethics is shrouded in esoteric language and obscure arguments. We need a user-friendly means by which ordinary people can be helped to understand the pros and cons of different sides of the arguments by getting inside the skins of people living through these scenarios. There’s a niche for novels that make the issues accessible.

There is a space for me.

Next week I promise a short post to compensate for today’s essay!

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One click ethics

Thanks to my daughter’s vigilance, I’ve just found an amazing website, tailor made for people like me who don’t get round to noting programmes about ethical issues until it’s too late, or who forget the ones they’ve seen. If you share my obsession about ethics you’ll probably know about it already. But just in case I’m not the very last ostrich out of the sand, I’m going to share this discovery with you. And no, the BBC aren’t paying me a penny!

It’s http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/ and it gives information about religion and ethics programmes broadcast by the BBC on TV and radio – past, present and future, so pretty comprehensive. And of course, giving appropriate links. Loads of cross referencing and fascinating diversions. The usual suspects are there – abortion, euthanasia, assisted conception, sexual exploitation … arguments for and against, recent controversial cases, documentaries, drama, comment. It’s great to have one site that gives easy access to the more obscure references as well as prime-time coverage.

I’m off on my travels again this week, so it’s good to know in advance what’s coming up and to know exactly where I can go with one click to catch up the following week if trains don’t run to time, or the hotel stages a fire alarm at the wrong moment, or I get so lost in my latest Robert Goddard novel that I lose all track of the hour.

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