Pat Abercromby talks about her writing process after being a full-time carer.
I had a successful career but almost overnight, morphed into a full-time carer when my husband had a serious stroke in 2007. For eight years I was totally immersed in 24/7 care for him as he gradually deteriorated and developed vascular dementia. Two years ago he went full-time into a dementia care nursing home. Only then did I have time to reflect on how my own life and interests had been totally sublimated caring for him and I very quickly dashed off a cathartic 10,000-word fictional story of a carer in a similar situation to me. A couple of friends, avid readers, encouraged me to expand upon the story and try to get it published.
I have a background in journalism and my style of writing was factual and succinct, not the stuff that novels are made of. I joined a creative writing class and learned so much about the craft of writing. About ‘showing’ not ‘telling’; about the use of realistic dialogue and cutting down on the number of characters populating the story.
For a first novel, writing what you know about. I knew about caring and the value of friendship. What I found fascinating about the process is that soon the characters took on a life and personality of their own, certainly not fully contrived by me. I will be honest and admit that for a couple of the more colourful characters, I did base them, very loosely on people I have known in the past. However the story just quietly evolved as I went along and there are a couple of twists in the action that simply popped into my head as I was writing.
Many writers are very disciplined in their approach, planning out their chapters and sticking to the format, writing for a set amount of time every day and at the same time. My approach was random and haphazard. Sometimes days and occasionally weeks would pass before I worked on the story. I still work as a therapist and there were times when I was just too busy and tired by the end of the day to be bothered writing.
However, my best motivation really was attending my creative writing class which we did in blocks of five weeks with gaps of two months between terms. During those five-week sessions, I would knuckle down and write, mostly at night, and if I was on a roll, sometimes into the wee small hours when my muse stayed with me. I very rarely wrote during the daytime as all the other tasks that running a house and garden on my own involved, working part time and taking a day out every week to visit my husband in his nursing home, gobbled up the daylight hours. I like my bed too much to get up at 5am as some writers do! We often had to read extracts of our writing projects in the creative writing class. That really focusses the mind. Not unlike being back as school and having to produce homework!
Some chapters were easier to write than others, notably the purely fictional elements, imagining the words and actions of some of the characters that I had never come across in my own life. What was difficult and emotionally painful for me, was writing about the devastating affect having a stroke had on the health of the male protagonist, Rob, and his wife Fran, as that is what happened to me and my husband in real life. The loss of self for both of us was hard to bear. He could not accept what had happened to him and became angry and quite manic at times. For me, losing my career, my independence, my freedom and having no choice but to become his full-time carer was very tough to say the least. So, although choosing to write this story when he is still alive and in a dementia care nursing home has proved to be cathartic for me, it is also a tribute to all the unsung carers out there, seven million and counting, who also have their own back stories that need to be acknowledged.
Given that 58% of carers in the UK are women in age ranging from youngsters right through to quite elderly women, I think we all agree that without the support of friendships, we would really struggle. Another important strand in Just One Life is the life-long friendship between Fran and Iona. Their extraordinary loyalty to one another is really an analogy for how important good friendships are to everyone of course, but particularly for women. We really need our friends don’t we? I have been blessed with several wonderful female friends during my life. Without their support and encouragement, I would have had great difficulty getting through the traumas of recent years and this book would never have seen the light of day.
When you realise you have just one life left to live, how do you make peace with the mistakes of your past?
Fran should be looking back on her life with pride. She’s risen to the top of the job ladder, having left behind a council housing estate in post-war Glasgow, to forge a colourful, fulfilling career and enjoy all the trappings of success.
But instead, Fran is consumed by regret. A shocking revelation has cast her life, and her thirty-year marriage, asunder. She finds herself the full-time carer for her husband, a man she now accepts, she has never loved. The sacrifices she has made, the personal freedoms she has lost, have left Fran crushed. Her free-spirited friend Iona is her one salvation. Their friendship has survived the storms of conflict and loss since childhood, their deep affection for one another the only constant remaining in Fran’s life, a life she no longer recognises as her own.
Her husband’s new brush with death will give Fran the chance to reflect on what she has left, the choices she has made and the two men she has loved and lost.
Can Fran find a way through the ruins of her marriage and find inner peace, to make the most of what remains of her life’s journey?
Pat Abercromby has enjoyed a varied career – from recruitment consultant to journalist in Saudi Arabia and massage therapist – eventually setting up a training school for Seated Acupressure Massage. Today she continues to work within the field of corporate wellness with her business partner Davina Thomson with their joint company Wellbeing Direct. In her spare time, Pat enjoys being an active member of her local creative writing group, classical music and the outdoors.