Hazel McHaffie

creative writing

Under construction

Almost completed houseWhen I sent off my draft novel for expert critique a few weeks ago, in my mind it was rather like this house – pretty much ready apart from some fine tweaking. (I’ve watched this estate being built as I pounded past it each morning on my daily constitutional.) Not quite turf-laid-and-curtains-at-the-windows ready, but basically sound.

 

 

 

Scaffolding and reconstruction of house

This week, though, it looks more like this.

 

Scaffolding back, new supplies coming in, clear signs of restructuring. From inside, the sound of drilling, plumbing, wiring, painting, glazing. Yep, I’ve been hard at work revising and editing: taking passages out, putting new chapters in: tightening some sections up, allowing others to breathe: tweaking semi-colons and parentheses; erasing adverbs and adjectives.

Heavy diggersThere’s even been some basic digging to strengthen the foundations. A new introduction for one of the key narrators, a different pathway for the plot resolution. I’m even contemplating adding a prologue!

To the runner passing by it might well feel like several steps backwards, but the architect and chief builder can envisage the distinct improvements being added: porch, conservatory, double garage, pond …

 

 

For Inside of Me this is all good news. The end result will be a more appealing, readable and desirable commodity … I hope! And that’s the whole point of this exercise at this stage. I’m hugely indebted to the ‘surveyors’ who kindly drew my attention to potential flaws and then left me to do what I think necessary. Thanks, folks – you know who you are!

NB: Before readers of this blog deluge me with comments about the flaws in this little analogy, I know, I know, I know! Of course the architects should get it right first time around, and no construction company worth their salt would operate in this slovenly fashion, but they’re building houses to tried and tested rules and plans. Estates like this are mushrooming everywhere. Creative writing, fiction, has no blueprint and every novel is unique and must stand alone amidst thousands upon thousands of other books. None of you will post a review about the house; many of you might post one about my novel! By then it’s too late to revise the text to gain that extra star. And once it’s published there is no second chance to sneak in and correct the faulty wiring or double glazing.

 

 

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We’re all in this together

Portobello Book Festival It’s Saturday. It’s raining. Where am I? Yep, at the Portobello Book Festival. Why? Cos I’ve been invited to take part in an event about dementia. (Hardened visitors to this blog will know about my novel on the subject: Remember Remember.)

Today I’m sharing the spotlight with a poet, a doctoral student, and a campaigner. Could be interesting. In the chair is Alison Summers who, as part of a PhD in Creative Writing, has recently written a novel about a young person with dementia (she’s currently on the hunt for an agent). She has the job of firing the questions and keeping us all to time – not easy as it transpires!

On the panel? Tommy Whitelaw who went from being part of a global merchandising operation for the Spice Girls, Kylie and U2 (yep, really!), to being a full-time carer for his mother when she developed vascular dementia. He’s currently touring the country campaigning for better care and understanding of the condition. He’s here to talk about his personal experience, not his brush with fame. Next to him is John Killick, who’s spent decades helping people with dementia express their creativity, the results of which are captured in his recent book, Positive Dementia. He’s one of life’s natural listeners and he’s still kept busy promoting improved ways of caring in all sorts of places. And then there’s me.

Ahah. The introductions establish a common thread: all three panel members have been working actively in the dementia world, using the spoken word, as well as the written – fact as well as fiction – to help raise awareness of the condition and the issues around it.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that, though we all come from different backgrounds and different disciplines, and we weren’t in cohoots beforehand, a concerted message comes across:  the importance of properly listening to people with dementia and their carers; listening to what they say and what they can only express through their body language or music or even silence. Care based on that kind of compassionate listening will be truly person-centred, respectful and sensitive. The kind of care we would all want for our loved ones.

Cross inside churchThis cross just inside the Old Parish Church (the venue for the session) seems entirely apposite.  Sensitive, responsive care is a form of love for our fellow man.

Blackwell's van

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good to see friends from Blackwell’s Bookshop there too with piles of my novels. It still gives me a thrill to see those 3-for-2 stickers on them.

As I walk away from Portobello I’m reminded of Sigmund Freud: One must not be mean with the affections; what is spent of the fund is renewed in the spending itself.

PS. Remember this?

Iron railings

Well, voilà!

Black railings

In spite of the rain and the professional engagements and the time spent with lovely ladies with dementia and all the sundries of everyday life, after four coats of paint, those endless endless railings and gates are now finally FINISHED! Hurrah!! And the tedium of the job gave me oodles of time to plot my talk – this time about Over my Dead Body. Another tick on the to-do list.

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The human side of caring

Wahey! I’ve just had a brand new experience. I’ve been up in Dundee at the teaching hospital, presenting prizes to medical students who participated in a creative writing competition. Me … awarding prizes! How grown-up is that?!

Actually it was a particular pleasure, because the subject for the competition was ‘Ethics and Humanistic Values’- a topic very dear to my heart. For several reasons …

1. When I was much the same age as these prize-winners, I entered a writing competition organised by the BMA.
My childhood Parker pen My entry was initially handwritten with a Parker fountain pen, I recall (yes, this very one with my name engraved on its side), then typed laboriously on a borrowed manual typewriter. (This was, of course, years before Wozniak dreamed up the idea of personal computers. How ageing is that?) And my essay was all about the importance of putting humanity into caring. You can almost hear the swift collective intake of scandalised medical breath in the sacred portals of BMA House. Holistic care? Tut tut. But astonishingly my entry won a prize! And I’ve been banging the same drum ever since. It’s those extra touches of kindness, sensitivity and compassion that really do make the difference. And the older I get, the more I believe it.

2. I’ve recently seen the less-than-optimal side of hospital care, as you know, but standing there in Dundee, surveying today’s young doctors-to-be, I felt tremendously reassured.
It’s heartwarming to know that they’re being actively encouraged to care, and think of patients’ feelings and anxieties; to be creative as well as scientific; not just to cram their heads with knowledge. I hope these lovely, sensitised men and women are the ones who care for me in my hour of need.

3. And then there’s my current personal crusade. I gave up clinical practice to do research about the dilemmas of modern medicine and how they affect patients and families; then I gave up research to write novels set in the world of medical ethics. And the whole raison d’être for weaving fictitious stories is to help people get inside the skin of characters grappling with these big questions. To help them understand themselves as well as others. To be sympathetic to different perspectives, beliefs and opinions. So it’s brilliant to find other people promoting the same messages, targeting the same goals.

I gladly agreed to shake a few hands and string together a few comments. And my blog gives me a chance to add my personal commendation: well done, Dundee medical school, for your healthy emphasis on reflective practice.

But I have to confess, it was sobering to think that, when I wrote my own essay on this subject, not only were none of these students so much as a twinkle in the eye, their parents were schoolkids! What’s more, the hospital/medical school in Dundee wasn’t even built. And it has been admitting patients since 1974.

Hey ho! Some reflections are more reassuring than others.

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