Hazel McHaffie

empathy

On the shoulders of giants

Some time ago I listened to one of these programmes where people tell their stories of good triumphing over tragedy. In this case it was a woman called Zoe, who told of her experience losing 5 early pregnancies. The consultant, she alleged, had told her not to even start looking for support; there was nothing out there. In response she set up her own helpline: originally called Saying Goodbye, now the Mariposa Trust.

Actually, it’s not true there’s nothing out there. I worked in the field of parental loss for decades, and there are a number of organisations that reach out to grieving families in their need. As a researcher, I myself studied what bereaved parents want and need, and my findings were widely disseminated.

Which all brings me to today’s subject. It’s important not to forget that what we do builds on the shoulders of others; often of giants. And it’s the same in literature. We’ve all benefitted from reading other people’s work – volumes they’ve laboured over, struggled with, paid a heavy price for. Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware that these writings are impinging on us, altering our way of thinking, touching us at some deep level.

I’ve had a weird sensation of deja vu this week. I’ve been reading One Life by Rebecca Frayn. It tells the story of Rose and Johnny, a young couple who unexpectedly discover a deep desire for parenthood. But unfortunately Johnny is sub-fertile, and Rose is unable to get pregnant even with medical help (IVF, ICSI).

I explored the scenario of infertility in two of my own early novels: Paternity and Double Trouble, so of course I was fascinated to see how Frayn tackled it. I’m not suggesting for one moment that this author has copied my work – her approach is quite different, and I don’t suppose she even knows of my existence! But we are neither of us entering virgin territory, we are both building on what has gone before, maybe our own experiences, certainly those of others who’ve delved into these sensitive areas before us, in factual accounts as well as in the world of make-believe.

And this is where fiction especially comes into its own, because it has a dual effect, touching the heart as well as the intellect. It allows and encourages us to get inside the skin of people like Rose and Johnny, to empathise with their emotions, and hopefully emerge more understanding, more open-minded, more supportive, more compassionate. My raison d’etre. I’m delighted to find another debut novelist entering into my world.

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On the receiving end

Hmmm. And I thought I was clued in to other people’s viewpoints and pretty empathetic. After all, I’ve spend years actively listening and trying to understand how they tick, in my professional as well as personal life. Shame on me. But … hey ho, I guess one is never too old to learn.

It’s fifty plus years since I began my working days in the NHS, and here I am in 2017 still following medical advances and thinking about modern challenges all these decades later. But lately I’ve been seeing things from a very different perspective; my eyes have been opened to a different kind of reality.

In June I was diagnosed with a malignant tumour. It was surgically removed within 24 hours, but last week I was back in hospital again for second-stage surgery. My care throughout has been exemplary – efficiency, kindness, courtesy, skill, compassion, they all seem to be drip-fed at all levels.  Goodness, I even had a reply from the Medical Director thanking me for my letter of appreciation! Way beyond the call of duty.

But one practice in particular has struck me forcibly. in ‘my day’ the medical team told patients what was in their best interests; today recipients of care are consulted and encouraged to share the decision making. My dentist takes this approach and, knowing nothing whatever about dentistry, I confess I struggle with the responsibility sometimes. I want to say, ‘I don’t know – you tell me!’ When it comes to my physical health I’m a lot more confident; my background and knowledge stand me in good stead. But I do wonder if all this choice and shared decision-making isn’t rather bewildering for the average ordinary Joe Bloggs. How do they know what’s best? Have they ever thought about mortality/morbidity statistics, or quality of life issues, or palliative versus aggressive care?

My novels are designed to help people get inside the skin of those faced with extremely difficult challenges, to increase empathy and understanding, to help formulate sound reasoning. But maybe there’s a case for exploring the more mundane and less dramatic/harrowing situations which people are facing every day. It has taken my own brush with cancer to open my eyes to the impact of this common reality. Just shows you.

Report card reads: Could do better.

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Humanity and magic

Quite a responsibility on our shoulders then. And of course, my own eye goes straight to ‘writers’; my brain inserting ‘fiction writers’.

‘Fiction is the most humane and magical of acts – it’s healing, restorative, exactly because it shows us a way across those chasms. We can never know what it’s like to be someone else, ever, except through fiction. People always talk of fiction as if it’s an escape from the world, but it’s not that, or not just that. It’s an escape out of ourselves and into the world, too.’  (in All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell)

We all know what it’s like to be immersed in a good book; in a totally different place; feeling the emotions and thoughts of someone else. If we let it, this absorption can offer us insights which in turn help us to empathise with other people, understand another point of view, maybe be more tolerant, more afronted, readjust our moral compass, be better equipped to support and help. To be more specific, my own novels take the reader inside the skin of characters grappling with some of life’s big questions and issues. Fiction allows us to do that in an enjoyable form, and I do believe that if we all allowed ourselves to truly walk in other people’s shoes before judging them, the real world would be a kinder, gentler and more peaceable place. The kind of world I want my grandchildren to inherit.

In my academic life, I always said I wanted to go out on a high, not fizzle and fail, and now I’m a novelist, I have to ask myself periodically, when will it be time to quit? Every end of year I take stock. OK. And this year? Well, I’ve decided I should continue writing fiction for now, the compulsion is still there. I have two books on the go at the moment; I’m keen to finish them. I’d be bereft without this driving force in my life. So watch this space …

But for the moment, in this the first blog of a new year, I want to say a very big thank you to all of you who follow my posts, and especially those who get back to me with comments and reactions – by any route. The discipline of writing something every week does me good: it keeps my writing and editing muscles toned; concentrates the mind; makes me think through issues/arguments; allows me to share writerly and occasionally personal experiences. Knowing you too gain something from it is a real thrill. So, it only remains for me to wish you all an excellent year 2017, joyful, peaceful, healthy. And if life is tough for you at the moment, I hope you’ll find the strength, courage and determination to overcome.

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Juggling balls

Reviews for my adult novel, Inside of Me, are slowly trickling in, and it is, as ever, extremely gratifying to get such wonderful endorsements from people whose opinions I value: ‘well researched’, ‘full of empathy’, ‘a gripping story, full of unexpected and emotional twists and turns’, ‘absorbing’, ‘complex psychological issues, handled with a light touch’, ‘raises challenging questions without simplifying the issues or offering any easy answers’. Wow! Thanks, folks!

It would be all too easy to get impatient waiting for the rest of these busy reviewers to respond. After all the delays caused by my illness, I just want to get this book out there. But frustration would be a serious waste of energy, so I’ve turned my mind and pen to a totally different kind of writing: the story/play I write for my grandchildren every year for Christmas. (The eldest is now almost sixteen so the level of sophistication rises exponentially year by year; getting closer and closer to adult fiction.) And guess what: it’s been positively therapeutic! A delightfully refreshing change from looking deep into my soul, and worrying about my own body image and identity.

Costumes in the makingI can’t share anything of the theme or substance of this year’s production with you, lest I bring down the wrath of the entire family on my head – it has to remain a closely guarded secret (ie. known only to me) until the actual day. But what I can say is that it’s currently 16,000+ words long, involves the making/assembling of nineteen different costumes, and the collection of a whole variety of props. And it will require a complete makeover of parts of our house closer to the event. Enough to keep me well out of mischief from now till Christmas. By the way, if anyone has a spare mortar board or a shaggy grey wig and beard do please get in touch!

In between I package gifts and write letters for the most ordinary humdrum aspects of the season. Keeps my feet firmly on the ground. Oh, and of course, watch eagerly for any correspondence from the said critics.

Christmas gifts

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Lessons from the receiving end

You’ve probably all read about the young video fashion blogger, Zoella, whose book, Girls Online, was a runaway best seller last month. And the subsequent furore over the revelation that she used a ghost-writer. Hmmm. Well, I want to assure you that this blog post has actually been my own unaided work in spite of the traumas of the week. Apologies for the absence of illustration but I’ve been rather otherwise occupied.

Three days ago I was admitted to hospital as an emergency and kept in; I’ve just been discharged this afternoon. With a lot of time on my hands and being on the receiving, not giving, end I had plenty of leisure to analyse what makes for the kind of caring that I would rate as good.

thinking Things it is not: steaming through tasks to meet targets without a care for the person in the bed; a patronising or condescending attitude; crashing metal bin lids all night long; omitting smiles and random acts of kindness from the care plan; leaving the patient feeling they are an unwelcome intrusion; loud conversations between staff at all hours of the night.

thinkingThings it is: human kindness in word and demeanour; showing the utmost respect for even the most trying of patients; adding a smile to the mix; according the patient the benefit of some understanding of their condition; a word of true sympathy for those in pain or unable to sleep. How I wish I’d appreciated these things so clearly when I was on the vertical, clothed end of the partnership!

From the horizontal position I saw evidence of the excellent and the not so shining. I loved the consultant who sat at eye level with her patients and exuded warmth and bonhomie wherever she went. I admired the skill of the expert who could cut away the humbug of weeks and get to the kernel of the problem. I was amazed by the lightning speed one care assistant could get through showers and bed-making and serving meals. But I’d like to single out three people for special mention.

Two were medical students who were dispatched to take my history on the first day. They not only took great care to elucidate accurate facts, they were totally sympathetic and respectful, treating me as an equal, a partner in the business of making me well again. And they even popped back several times to see how I was faring, to check if I needed any further information. They showed inherent human kindness and empathy. Our future is safe in their hands.

The third was a student nurse who was especially sensitive to the feelings of all she came into contact with. Intuitively she seemed to know just how to make everyone feel valued and supported – even the most irritating and difficult patients. She took the time to sit with the frail and frightened; she followed up requests; she thanked the patient for their part in exchanges.

So what was the key to the excellence of these three young professionals? Warmth, grace, humility and true empathy with people – worth so much when you’re feeling ill and vulnerable. Almost everyone else in the teams had more knowledge and experience and technical know-how (and of course, we need our healers to possess these skills), but these ‘learners’ stood out for me. Because they took the time to see and indeed value the real person in the bed. I devoutly hope our medical systems don’t evolve to train or force this natural people-skill out of our doctors and nurses of the future. It could be said of one very experienced and senior person I met: ‘He doesn’t do emotion’. I could respect his wisdom but I felt intimidated and somehow guilty in his presence. By contrast, in the hands of those two medical students, at the other end of the food chain, I felt understood and valued.

But enough of this … it’s been a long and taxing day. I’m delighted to report that after two months of incapacitating problems I’ve now been given the correct diagnosis; I’m on the right treatment; I am hoping not to need to report health issues ever again. I might even get back to writing my novel once more ere long! What’s not to celebrate?

 

 

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The price of empathy

Elizabeth Jane Howard, author of the novels based on her own family history that became known as The Cazalet Chronicle, (recently serialised on Radio 4) has said that ‘You cannot be a good writer without empathy.‘ Too right, I thought. You have to enter the lives and hearts of your characters, to understand how they tick, how they react, in order to create believable three dimensional people. Fair comment.

I’d go further and say that in my experience, involvement with your own fictional characters means you pay quite a hefty price as their creator. You feel their pain. You struggle with them. You grieve with them. They keep you awake at night.Right to Die

This phenomenon was at its most acute for me when I was writing Right to Die, the story of a young man who develops Motor Neurone Disease. It so happened that several members of my family were quite seriously ill at the time – indeed one of them actually died in reality on the day I ended the life of my main protagonist. Traumatic in more ways than one. I was a wrung out rag for ages after completion of the book.

Double TroubleThen there was Double Trouble (a tale of one family’s attempts to overcome infertility). Not only I, but a number of readers have been seriously upset by the violence done to the main character in that. One of my colleagues in the Institute of Medical Ethics said he couldn’t talk to me about it for a week; he had to recover first. I really really didn’t want it to happen myself, but it did. I was there. I was simply recording what took place in that bedroom. I was distressed twice over: both witnessing it and again describing it.

Oh, and I still shed a tear at the end of Saving Sebastian Saving Sebastianwhen Sebastian’s mother appears at a medical conference to tell her story and reveals an unexpected twist in the tale. It’s my happiest book to date, I’ve read it countless times, and I know what happens, yet it still tugs at my heart strings.

But in a way I see this as some kind of a barometer. If I don’t care about these characters how can I expect other people to? After all, I conceived them, nurtured them through the gestatory period, and gave birth to them. I tracked their thoughts and actions intimately. So of course I empathise with their agony – perhaps even more than their ecstacy. I was there at their end too, so naturally I stand at their graves and weep …

… except that … I must confess …

Oh dear, I’ve remained dry eyed throughout the writing of Over my Dead Body. Hmm. Should I be worried? Should I even share such a revelation?

This latest novel has the usual quota of tragedy, moral dilemmas, and heartbreak. It’s about a troubled woman, Carole, who loses her daughter and granddaughter in a car crash. It includes harrowing decisions about whether or not to use their organs. It reveals tense relationships, sibling rivalries, haunting secrets. We also peep into the lives of those struggling with life-limiting conditions who might or might not be saved as a consequence of Carole’s choices. In fact, the characters were initially so burdened emotionally that a number of my early reviewers and critics strongly suggested – even begged me to tone down the problems. One said she felt ‘coshed’; two said they cried throughout; others said they felt drained. So I did.

But me?  Ahhhhh, therein lies the issue. I’ve lain awake listening to Carole and Guy and Oliver and Sarah and all the others. I’ve worried – agonized even – with them, I’ve woken stressed by their quandaries, but no, I haven’t cried with them.

So … am I getting hard in my old age? Am I inured to tragedy? Or am I unmoved by these particular characters? If so, that blows my empathy theory right out of the water. Help!

Are the characters one dimensional? Or wooden? Or unsympathetic? Are the situations and dialogue implausible? Well, I’ve had more than the usual amount of positive feedback for this book: so I’m pretty confident that readers do care and they do weep.

So it’s me then. I can assure you, Ms Howard, I do empathise with my characters. I do. I DO! I must then modify my declaration: it is not necessary for the author to be reduced to tears. Is that OK with you?

PS. For your eyes only … until the final manuscript goes for publication I shall continue my vigilance and analysis … and keep worrying!

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Feeling the pain

I must confess I’m not much of a cinema goer (best not to ask – it’s a long story) but I have just been to see The King’s Speech. And it really is as good as it’s cracked up to be. It conveys powerfully the struggles of the shy Duke of York, ‘Bertie’, who’s already sagging under the sheer weight of emotional baggage created by a bullying father and a crippling speech impediment. And then his brother ‘selfishly’ abdicates … and Bertie is precipitated into the role of King George VI … and required to rally a stunned nation … to make speeches … to the world …?

Of course, the scriptwriter has draped the bones of historical fact with clothes of his own tailoring. Plenty of artistic license, I don’t doubt. Nevertheless the whole package has a credible and authentic feel to it. And the acting is superb. As you’ll have seen, the cast have been nominated for a whole raft of Oscars – deservedly so.

Now, maybe you’re more film-hardy than me, but watching good actors doing what they do so well, I’m in awe of their skill. They speak of ‘inhabiting a part’, of ‘being in character’, and accolades are given for doing just that. It’s the art and craft of their profession. For a time we onlookers suspend disbelief; they convince us their words, their actions, their thoughts, their feelings, are the genuine article.

What we hear less often mentioned is the impact on the actors themselves of this ‘inhabiting’.

Did you know, for example, that Javier Bardem, Spain’s first Oscar-winning actor, became so immersed in his role as a single father struggling to come to terms with his fatal cancer in Biutiful, that he found it took over his life? He started trying to set his real affairs in order in a rather manic way, contacting old friends, healing rifts. People who know him apparently started to get concerned.

Nicole Kidman, playing the part of a bereaved mother whose young son was killed in Rabbit Hole, began waking in the night sobbing and overwrought. I can believe that – must be harrowing to really feel the devastation of such a loss sufficiently to convey it so movingly.

And Colin Firth, engrossed in perfecting King George’s stammer in The King’s Speech, struggled at times to articulate words outside of the role. Not too clever a state to be reduced to if you act for a living, I guess!

They really do get inside the skin of their characters. And something of the same kind of experience is shared by authors. Well, by me anyway, and I doubt very much I’m alone in this. Our characters become more real to us than flesh and blood friends.

Right to DieI felt utterly drained after spending months experiencing Adam’s emotions as he died slowly from Motor Neurone Disease in Right to Die.

Double TroubleIt took me weeks to recover from the brutal death of Donella in Double Trouble. She was one of my favourites. I so much wanted the story to have a different ending, but what happened happened without my say-so.

paternity1Bethany’s struggle for life reduced me to tears every time I read that chapter in Paternity.


It gives me a real thrill when readers tell me they too have been so intimately engaged with, so profoundly moved by, something I’ve written, that the edges between reality and fiction have been blurred.
‘I found myself looking round for my wheelchair.’
‘I had to go and check on my own children.’
‘I felt confused and disorientated myself – I actually did a little test to make sure dementia wasn’t setting in.’

Of course, there’s a downside too. Some people dare not expose themselves to raw emotion at this level. They won’t even open the covers. I have to accept that reality.

It’s impossible to please all the people all the time, after all; no point in trying. But I do have to try to be true to myself. And that means sticking with this genre. Because this is my raison d’être – why I moved into fiction writing in the first place. I want to give a voice to those people whose lives are dominated by the dilemmas and challenges of twenty-first century medicine, who so often struggle unseen and unsupported. I want people to listen to them; to feel their anger, their anguish; to care.

Starting with me.

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