Hazel McHaffie

Alzheimer’s

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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Unique selling points

How’s your mental stability this week? Mine’s been seriously under scrutiny, I can tell you.

It’s all this reading. And not just any old reading; almost all of it novels that feature Alzheimer’s – otherwise known as ‘the competition’. Day after day, night after night. Mammoth stints, made possible by lots of knitting. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before that I concentrate better if I knit and read simultaneously. Started when I was a kid to stop me nibbling my nails when I was absorbed in a book. So, as the pile of books has diminished, the stack of woolly beanie-hats has grown – it’s that time of year when, at our church, we fill Christmas shoeboxes for deprived children, and hats are on the list.

It (the reading not the knitting) all began with two penetrating questions from my publisher:
Q1. What other novels are there out there that feature Alzheimer’s?
Q2. What’s different about yours, ie. Remember Remember?
Gulp.
My novel is due out early next year so I shot off post haste to the internet.
Bigger gulp.

Wowwwee! I’ve made a little list (yep, it should be sung to G&S) … 38 and still counting. I don’t know why I was surprised at the number. Alzheimer’s is so much part of life nowadays, it touches most of us in one way or another; of course authors write about it. But – cue huge sigh of relief – none of the novels so far duplicate Remember Remember’s unique selling point. Phew!

So, what can I conclude to date? And have I made the right decisions for my own book on the subject? There’s still time to tweak it if necessary.

a. Alzheimer’s is often quite incidental to the main story line.
Still AliceAn exception there is Still Alice; a brilliant insight into the mind of a Harvard professor who recognises she’s losing her grip on reality. I loved this book even though it made me question my own grip on reality! I kept (sneakily) testing my memory, as regular visitors to my blog may recall … or not? … steady now … there’s a mini-mental test you can do …
To tweak or not to tweak? Not.

In Remember Remember, Alzheimer’s is central to the plot. And it’s told in the first person: Jessica starts unravelling her mother’s story first; Doris herself takes up the story next with her own insights and memories, moving backwards from advanced dementia through to her youth. And yep, I still think that was the right choice. Especially the backwards bit.

b. The novels often take the form of family sagas.
Hmmm. So does mine. Reading them one after the other probably isn’t a good idea. I’m all genealogied out! OK, maybe it’s a feature of my atrophying memory, but I must admit, delving in depth into different generations has been heavy going and confusing at times. Glimpses into different cultures, different eras, may be illuminating (Hanna’s Daughters is set against a background of Scandinavian conflicts and customs; The Bonesetter’s Daughter takes place in China), but keeping a grip on which generation we’re in and who’s influencing whom can be taxing. Especially when names are very similar: Hanna, Anna and Johanna are all principal characters in Hanna’s Daughters … I mean!
To tweak or not to tweak? Probably not.
From early on I was aware of the potential for losing readers so I added a family tree for Doris. I’m hoping that will help.

c. Women feature heavily in these family sagas.
Yeah, well they do in real life, don’t they? And they do in my book. But it was a refreshing change to have a happy homosexual son rather than a troubled married daughter as the central character in Rough Music.
To tweak or not to tweak? Not.
It would require a massive rewrite to change that. So no. But I’m quite glad now that I added a grandson, James, to give a male perspective, although, to be honest, it wasn’t deliberate at the time. He just appeared.

d. We view Alzheimer’s more sympathetically when we get to know the person before the plaque set in.
Often they’re portrayed as gritty little characters who’ve survived against the odds (September Starlings, Hanna’s Daughters, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Let’s Dance). But so far the prize for most tender portrayal goes to Nicholas Spark’s, The Notebook; a cleverly plotted love story with a difference. And depicting, it must be admitted, a rather exceptional form of dementia.

To tweak or not to tweak? Not.
Both parts of Remember Remember reveal the character of Doris as a feisty, generous, open-hearted woman before holes appeared in her brain. So again, that still feels appropriate.

e. People worry about the genetic implications.
Will I go the same way? Is it in my genes? Genetics is a very specialised and complex subject. And too much science in a novel can be a big no-no. Early on in my metamorphosis from researcher to novelist, a helpful agent told me that I must put my ‘formidable academic background’ (his words; certainly not mine!) on one side in order to achieve a lightness of touch, so I guess I’m particularly sensitive to this hazard. The Story of Forgetting pursues a genetic theme and is awash with medical detail, but it’s partly fact, partly fiction, so it can afford to be more dense and esoteric in places. It wouldn’t be the novel you’d select if you wanted light diversion therapy, though.
To tweak or not to tweak? Definitely not.
Been there; done that. In my first draft of Remember Remember I wove in a plot line about inheritance of the disease, but a medical friend who’s an expert in both care of the elderly and genetics steered me away from it. Far too complicated! She was right. I was out of my comfort zone big time. So thanks to her I think I’ve avoided this potential mistake.

f. A fairly universal theme is the strain on relationships.
This emerges strongly from books like Shades of Grace, Animal Dreams, Almost Moon and Have the Men had Enough? Alzheimer’s isn’t exactly a fun subject and no such story would be believable without stress and tension. Love and hate get thoroughly mixed up and several characters contemplate hastening death. (I won’t spoil plots by divulging names.) But a healthy dose of family loyalty and a generous helping of humour in the mix go a long way towards preventing the story being depressing or maudlin. Who could fail to be amused by Uncle Rollie in Diminished Capacity, who baits hooks connected to the keys of an old typewriter by the side of the Mississippi, so that the local fish can write poetry?
To tweak or not to tweak? Probably not.
For a number of years now I’ve spent time with people with dementia on a regular basis; I would never consciously belittle or ridicule them, but dividing lines can be extremely fine. I’ve tried to be sensitive in my attempts to keep a light touch but just to check I’ve got the balance right, I’ve given the manuscript to a number of people who know exactly what it feels like. So far nobody’s crossed me off their Christmas list.

g. Dementia in the family throws up lots of issues.
‘Issue-books’ in the wrong hands can be tedious and off-putting; most of us don’t turn to novels to be preached at. I’m studying this minor mountain of books to see how other authors handle the thorny issues of who cares, when mental competence is lost, how far we can or should go in safeguarding safety and dignity, etc. No consensus as far as I can see … except that these are real issues, and they’re decidedly thorny. Let’s Dance and September Starlings get deeper than most into these questions – Laura Starling even contemplates euthanasia for her beloved husband.
To tweak or not to tweak? Not.
My unique selling point relates to this matter of issues, more specifically the ethical challenges. But hey, I want you to read the book so I’m not going to introduce any spoilers in my blog!

Now, which book next? And where are my size 11 needles?

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