Novel finished so I should blog, shouldn’t I?

As some of you know I finished the novel part of my PhD the other day. For some reason I feel I ought to mark this with a blog. However I am still reeling from hearing that my sub-conscious rules me like a programme downloaded from a computer and that there is barely a thing I can do about it. Apparently up until age 7 we download these programmes by watching how our parents interact with each other and with society. Then after age 7 we learn by rote and habituation. The conscious mind although it is creative can’t do a darned thing about these hardwired bits of learning. Sigh.

This is how my parents interacted. My father worshipped my mother and would hear no ill of her while my mother (in my lifetime) stormed through life making sure that we all acted as her adoring satellites. I probably don’t mean satellites but it’s been a long week.  I probably married my mother, certainly I married someone who had a lot of admirers and who did what he wanted to do. So that means I was programmed by my father? Oh it’s all too much.

Back to the novel then. At the last minute and I really mean, the last minute, I cut 14000 words from the whole, bringing it down to the required 70,000. This means that when I send it out to publishers I will have to put back the 14000 words and create more words to bring it up to 100000 which is the required length for commercial women’s fiction. Honestly it’s the bulimic version of literature. Binge, vomit, binge even more. No offence intended to people who have the very nasty condition of bulimia which I know is very hard to cope with.

The trouble with creating something in two parts (I have to write a 30000 word critical component) is that now I have finished the first part (the novel) I feel like letting it all hang out and lolling. Which I MUST NOT DO because I have to finesse my critical component and cut it by 6000 words. You would think there was an ink shortage at university or something. And when I’ve done that it could be months before two examiners are free to give me my viva by which time, being a middle-aged woman with moderate memory and butterfly mind, (oops that’s my subconscious programming rearing it’s ugly head again) (hang on though, what about the unconscious? Have I just learnt something all wrong? My mother frequently said “Get it right!) I will have forgotten all about what I wrote in my PhD. Amazing, frankly that I remembered the end of the sentence what with all the parentheses.

I told my hairdresser about the event where people join each other in a pub for an hour of hush when they read books silently. “That would be my idea of Hell,” he said. Reading a Patrick Ness story about a boy who thinks he has arrived in Hell. But I digress.

Without a novel to hold me together I shatter into little pieces that make no. sense. at. all.

Lessons from “the other side”: teaching and learning from doctors’ illness narratives

Originally posted on A Better NHS:

An abridged version was published on the British Medical Journal website here and the full version is below.

I am happy to teach medical students, doctors and educators – I am teaching in london this week and next. For a public discussion I am presenting at Critical Voices on July 5th with artist Emma Barnard on the theme of how do we know how patients feel and why does it matter?



Doctors have written about their experiences as patients for years in the hope that other doctors might learn something from what they have been through. They are motivated by the often-shocking realisation that medical education and clinical practice have prepared them so poorly. They are keen to explain what it is like to be a patient, the particular problems that doctors have coping with illness and the health risks associated with their profession1-3. Their continued…

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Are we nearly there yet?

It goes against all my instincts to answer the above question with “Yes, we are nearly there!” in case I jinx the imminent completion of my novel and critical component for my PhD at Newcastle. I have managed to send two creative supervisors to the extreme act of moving to a neighbouring university to get away from me, found a fairy godmother and had my manuscript rejected by Mills and Boon with the admonition to “read more Mills and Boon books.” I leave it to the reader to decide which of these events are positive or negative. 

I appear to have agreed to spending the next seven days (and nights, I suspect) writing up the (hopefully) final version of both my novel and my critical component. (Let’s just pretend that the bibliography will be completed by elves–probably the same elves that will proofread, print and bind my PhD). It’s still a huge milestone and, barring Acts of God or more likely invading viruses of either the bodily or computer kind, makes me feel relieved. 

However, I have just skim read a particularly vital chapter of my critical component and found it intensely boring. While part of this reaction is due to over familiarity with the content, there remains the possibility that examiners will also find their eyelids drooping over it. How to remedy this? Different coloured inks? (ref Faulkner) Post modern fragmentation of the pages? (ref BS Johnson) A dialogue? Scrap it altogether? (step away from the highlight/delete buttons). Perhaps I should insert a prayer, as some of my mother’s Ugandan students used to do. Whichever method I select will be better than this procrastinating but essential reflection. Watch this space. Or don’t, if you are also grinding away at the last version of your PhD. Just do it. 


I’m writing a novel based on the illness experience of a close relative. Throughout the process I have also had to deal with the effects on me as I reflect on my relative’s experience. This is an emotional journey which often overwhelms me and up till now I have not paid attention to that. It certainly explains why I am frequently exhausted both mentally and physically. It doesn’t help that I also have to write a critical piece which involves research into the illness and how best it should be handled. The research has thrown up how often I do exactly the opposite of what is recommended. So as well as exhaustion I have to deal with guilt at my unhelpful and in some ways damaging actions. That they arose from ignorance and well meaning doesn’t mitigate the guilt. Added to this, my excuse for no longer visiting my relative is that instead I am doing the thing I do best: “writing” and this is my contribution to her “care”. Yes, she did say “I hope you get some writing out of this hideous disease” but still the guilt lingers.

Why is it so difficult to visit her? My brother visits every day, sometimes twice a day. The relationships are different. He is her elder brother and says that now she has dementia it is as though she is “my little sister again”. She was always my older sister (by seven years) and in many ways she was a mother figure to me. A particularly benign mother figure but one with a degree of authority. I went to her for comfort and for advice about how to operate in an adult world. She was my champion, my encourager, my solace. I have read how difficult adult children find the switch from being cared for to caring for their ill parent. For me, I have to toggle between keeping my relative safe and not infantilising her, always with the sensation that the sister, who occasionally was exasperated when I acted in an unreasonable way, might criticise my handling of her situation.

I can’t get feedback from my sister because she has the “flattening of effect” (a symptom of the disease) where she does not register negative or positive feelings with facial expressions. I want to “please” her but don’t know how. I want her approval.

Whenever I had difficulties, my sister was the first to help, to give me money, buy me a dress, express contempt for someone who had chucked me, defend me from another’s hostility. I desperately want to do for her what she used to do for me.

But I feel helpless. 


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