Since those early days, I’ve completed post grad studies, moved more times than I care to remember and had my heart broken a few times. I eloped with my soulmate and now have three children, a cat, and a dog. I have worked in remote, rural, regional, and urban Australia and in Ireland where we lived for a year.
Running has been the only constant thing connecting me to every place I lived, grounding me with each step and enabling me to process every experience, good and bad. It taught me to sit with discomfort, to work through issues, to navigate challenges. I ran through loss, moves, heartbreak, and inevitable stressful periods when I was overwhelmed.
It is my regular promise to myself.
Pearl number two
For those who received my first newsletter, (and you can of course access that via the archive on my website) you will remember I promised to share my seven writing pearls. These are based on a chi running programme I did years ago. I found them so helpful, I adapted them to help me build a healthy writing habit. Everything we learn can be reshaped, reused and recycled in a way that improves other aspects of our lives. No learning, however obscure, is a waste. Store all your experiences away where they can be retrieved and use them to pollinate other areas of your life.
Which brings me to pearl number two.
Train your brain
Running requires us to build up slowly, to allow our muscles to make the physiological adaptations necessary for a bigger workload. When you become a writer, you need strategies to flex your motivational muscles. There will be endless diversions, time sucking activities, distractions, tasks requiring immediate attention or friends and family suddenly needing your energy. It is good to be prepared and have the scaffolding in place to resist temptation to delay getting your bum in the chair.
It can be easy to obsess about structure and planning, getting so many words down or getting published but writing is not just about rules and methodology. You need this scaffolding, the basic principles required to produce good quality work, but more than anything writing is about words. Putting one word after another.
It is necessary and important to read books about the craft, to attend workshops to hone your skills and become familiar with technique but in the end, it really is about putting your bum in that chair and getting the words down.
Begin by finding ways to write regularly. For me that is early morning. I set an alarm a few mornings a week and plug away at whatever project I am working on. A manuscript, a non-fiction essay or a piece of flash. That time is a commitment just like my hours at work. It is an appointment I make with myself.
I know writer Anne Freeman wrote her first book using her mobile phone while breastfeeding a baby. Behrouz Broochani wrote his award-winning book, ‘No Friend but The Mountains,’ while incarcerated in Manus prison. He sent thousands of text messages via WhatsApp enabling thousands of pdf files to be smuggled off the island to tell the story of his perilous journey and survival. His book went on to win the Victorian Prize for Literature and Victorian Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction.
It does indicate that carving out a writing habit is possible, even under great duress.
Do what you need do to put aside regular time for your writing habit. It may be slipping away in the evenings after dinner or heading to a library or café a few days each week.
Create a space that inspires you to write. Ensure your computer is charged, your notebooks right there, pens at the ready for when you pull your chair in and roll your sleeves up. Pin up motivational quotes if you need to or mark a calendar with your writing days. If you are not lucky enough to have your own space, get yourself a beautiful box and place your writing things in there so that you can just pull it out, ready to start at the allotted time.
Every week has seven days with twenty-four hours in each one. No bestselling author has been gifted an extra hour or two to get their work out there.
Get a piece of grid paper and mark off 168 hours and then colour in the time you work, sleep, exercise, do chores. Are there any squares left? You might need to steal some squares back as a gift to your creative self. Be imaginative and treat those precious squares of time the way you would any other finite and valuable commodity.
It can be helpful to have a deadline for something. Find a series of writing competitions dotted throughout the year or set a challenge with your writing group to exchange a chapter or short story each month.
Do whatever works to keep your motivational muscles flexed.
The Power of Narrative Medicine
As a GP I am in the privileged position to be paid to listen to people’s stories and it has taken me a long time to appreciate that really listening, without interruption, can be the most valuable therapeutic tool available to me. I recently listened to a podcast on Life Matters about the power of narrative medicine where doctors are taught to hear the patient’s experience as a story. It is excellent and well worth listening to.
Unfortunately, a standard medical consultation is only fifteen minutes and there is pressure to make a diagnosis, to examine a patient, arrange appropriate investigations and to initiate a management plan during this brief period. With most surgeries now forced to charge a gap fee, patients are reluctant to attend for several sessions so there is a limited time frame in which to learn about each patient as a person and to provide good, comprehensive care.
What I have learnt after working in general practice as well as emergency departments for three decades is that you can do a lot of listening in a short space of time. Letting the patient speak without interruption when they first tell you why they have come in provides a valuable insight into what is most important to them and what their expectation is from the consultation.
Story is the essential building block of the human experience. It is how we convey information, learn about others, and make sense of the world. Using story as the building block of a consultation makes my work so much more enjoyable. Every patient becomes a person with a family, a history, and a story to tell, not just a diagnosis to be made.
When you visit your GP, consider pitching your story. Give a context to your problem and mention the thing you fear the most. This helps the GP to ask the right questions so that you leave at the end of your fifteen minutes with your greatest concerns addressed. For example.
I have had bloating and tummy pain for a few weeks now. I’m worried because my good friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Am I being silly?
I have a sniffle and am feeling unwell. I know it’s probably just a cold but I’m worried that I might get worse, and I’ve only just started a new job and can’t take time off. I visit my elderly mother in a nursing home and don’t want to make her sick.
I know I haven’t been in for a while. I stopped taking my blood pressure medications, gained weight and know my diabetes control is poor. I was worried you would get angry. My wife died after a long battle with cancer, and I just can’t get motivated.
Think about the consultation with your doctor an interface between two different stories. Your symptoms in the context of your personal experience coming together with the GP’s professional knowledge. If the GP knows that you are anxious about cancer, losing your job or grieving, they can tailor questions and investigations appropriately to address the things that concern you the most, meaning that you leave satisfied that your fears have been addressed.
What I’m Reading
Wifedom by Anna Funder
During a period where Anna Funder finds herself weighed down by the relentless demands of being a working mother, she becomes curious about her hero George Orwell’s writing process. She uncovers letters written by his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy to Norah Symes Myles, her best friend, and the revelations lead to a blistering and meticulously researched dissection of patriarchy.
Anna Funder’s scrutiny of this literary marriage demonstrates how Orwell’s writing was not only shaped by Eileen’s astute observation and fresh ideas but made possible by her servitude.
The invisible role of Eileen in both inspiring Orwell’s work and making it possible for him to devote himself to his writing makes Funder question what wifedom really means. With scrupulous attention to detail, she unravels not only this literary couple’s marriage but holds up a mirror to the present and how the division of time and labour remains gendered.
Funder writes, ‘So many of these men benefited from a social arrangement…in which the unpaid, invisible work of a woman creates the time and – neat, warmed, and cushion-plumped – space for their work.’ She goes on to comment that, ‘Time is valuable because it is finite…Access to time…is gendered. …the more time he has to work, the more she is working to make it for him.’
This is such a brilliant book and has really made me rethink the social constructs we continue to tolerate.
A must read.
One of my stories for you to enjoy
This story is special as it is the first one of my stories that listed in a competition. It was short listed in Furious Fiction, October 2019. I remember how thrilled I was to see my name there, for my story to be chosen from the many others sent in. It gave me the confidence to think, maybe I can write after all.
Since then, I have sent lots of stories, pieces of non-fiction and novels to competitions and for publication. Sometimes something is listed or published but often it is rejected. I have learnt that the rejections mean a range of different things. It may mean that other pieces of writing were better than mine or that I failed to meet the brief, or the judges in that competition did not like my work. I always send the rejected pieces elsewhere, often after reworking them and most eventually find the right home and are accepted.
The only way to get a rejection is to send your work out there, and to keep sending it out there. Rejections mean that you are in the arena, making yourself vulnerable with your words.
The Road Less Travelled
Eliza stood between shelves that bulged with worn covers and called up to him. ‘Excuse me.’
He perched on a ladder, his beige shirt rolled up to the elbows, revealing forearms lightly muscled and stippled with black hairs.
‘Do you have Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina?’
He half turned his lithe body on the ladder. His dark eyes locked onto hers and he held her gaze longer than was polite.
She felt something slip away inside. A sudden rush of warmth pooled in her pelvis. She stood in the oblong shaft of light shaped by the long window. Her eyes dropped first. Her careful, cloistered childhood had not prepared her for the rush of feelings that clamoured for air.
He climbed down, placing his hands and feet on the rungs swiftly before he leapt from the last half a dozen. She half expected him to bow.
He reached up and pulled a worn copy of Leo Tolstoy off the shelf above her head, one eyebrow playfully raised. She noticed a flurry of details, each moment slowed by her attention. He smelt masculine, a heady mix of faint leather and fresh soap. A curl of black hair sat between his collar bones. He was exotic, enticing, enigmatic.
She became aware of the way her blond bob brushed her shoulders, the soft caress of her silky dress on her skin, the seductive warmth of the sun on her neck.
‘Madam. I will wrap for you?’
His accent sent tingles up her spine.
She pulled her purse out of her handbag.
He looked down and paused. She blushed red.
The diamond on her finger glinted dangerously between them. She pulled her hand away.
A thread of music floated between the books.
‘Wait a moment.’
He pulled out a fountain pen and scribbled inside the front cover before wrapping the book in brown paper. He handed it to her with a flourish.
Eliza ran out of Bookends and home. She flung herself on her pink bedspread and wept with anguish. A week later she married Brian in a billow of white. He was kind, reliable and dull.
Sunday roasts, annual holidays, and sex on Fridays.
He was an adequate husband, but she allowed herself one small betrayal. On Fridays she transported herself to a room by the sea, imagined dark eyes softly on hers, content in sweaty entanglement.
Had it really been fifty-two years ago? One week after Brian’s funeral she stood in the same spot. The light was muted now that Bookends was surrounded by apartment blocks. There was the rustle of paper and muted conversations. The smell of coffee filtered through from the café at the back.
She looked around then opened her copy of Anna Karenina one last time. Her hands were knotted and gnarled; the knuckles swollen. She traced his beautiful, curved letters one last time.
You have one life, Use it well. Andreas.
She looked around, slipped it back onto the shelves, and laid him to rest.