Why Do Our Grandchildren Grow Up So Quickly?

We all know that our sense of time changes as we grow older – with everything speeding up at an alarming rate. One of the most notable markers of this is the age of our children – and even more so – our grandchildren.

When We Were Young

I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, time seemed to stretch on forever. If it was Christmas, summer was ages and ages away. You looked forward to being the next age up – to be seven when you were six, and so forth – but didn’t it take a long time to come!

It seemed the natural order of things that time passed slowly and one never thought to question it.

Children and Time

By the time you are in your 30s and 40s, time speeds up a bit, but not that much. Having children in the house keeps you so busy, you don’t think about time as such. Perhaps their birthday parties seem to come around more quickly than yours ever did, or you notice their friends getting taller rather quickly. But somehow there was nothing alarming about the speed of things.

Grandchildren Change So Quickly

But when it comes to grandchildren, everything speeds up so fast you begin to wonder if you have time to enjoy them. They seem to change from toddlers to teenagers in the blink of an eye.

This is particularly the case, I suspect, when you don’t see the grandchildren all that often. We all heard “My, how you’ve grown!” when we were children and thought it was a silly remark. Now, we all probably repeat it ourselves. And buying appropriate presents can be a minefield. It moves amazingly quickly from dolls to make-up, from toy trains to football gear, and for all them to small screens of every kind.

And then they learn so fast. One minute they are working out how to read and the next they are learning French or Mandarin. And they know things you don’t know. This came home to me recently when my seven-year-old grandson taught my husband how to use his iPad.

Children as Markers of Time

I have always used the age of my children as markers for particular times – we moved house when my daughter was seven, my good friend died when my son was ten. These were easier ways of remembering dates than the actual year, as the years tend to merge into one another with surprising ease.

In contrast, I find it hard to use my grandchildren’s ages as markers of time as they move so fast from one age to another.

Other People’s Surprise

And your friends are constantly surprised about ages. Is your son really 35 – it feels like only yesterday that we took him to university! Is that baby grand-daughter six years old already? Different friends are taken aback by different information, but what they have in common is surprise at the passage of time. I tend to say “Yes, they age, but we don’t. We just stay the same.”

And this is, perhaps, hardest of all – realising that we are aging, too. I still remember my own father saying he didn’t mind so much getting old, but he hated having middle-aged children. He always said I was 31, whatever age I actually was. I really understand now how he felt.

Originally published on Sixtyandme (see http://sixtyandme.com/why-do-our-grandchildren-grow-up-so-quickly/)

Handselling

My grandfather, who died before I was born, was a failed entrepreneur who ended up as a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman in the 1930s.  I think of him often these days as I have discovered that a good way to boost sales of my most recent book is by what seems to be called ‘handselling’.

How I handsell my books

cover of Celebrating GrandmothersCelebrating Grandmothers is a narrative book about what it is like being a grandmother.  Who buys it?  Grandmothers, of course, but also many others buy it as a gift.  The pre-Christmas period is great, as people are looking for an original present for a grandmother, and my book is a solution to their problem.  Grandfathers may be looking for a present for their wife, young people for their grandmother, and parents with young children for their mother or mother-in-law.

It takes a lot of courage, but yes, I go up to people in the street and show them my flyer, and while they are looking at it, I pull out the book and say ‘this is what it looks like’.  As the cover has an eye-catching picture, they often say ‘ooh’, take the book and leaf through it.  Many say they will look at my website later (and then don’t), but a fair number buy it then and there.  I always carry change for £10 in my pocket, so the transaction can be completed without a lot of fuss.

How I decide who to approach

The key question is who to approach.  First and foremost, youngish-looking older women, asking if they are a grandmother.  They are invariably so surprised by the question that they ask ‘why’ and then I tell them. Very old women are not so interested, because once grandchildren are grown up they no longer identify with the role. If they aren’t a grandmother, I ask if they have a sister who is.

Another obvious group are pregnant women.  Of course, I approach women pushing prams or pushchairs, although the hazard in London is that they are a nanny and/or foreign and their mother doesn’t speak English or, indeed, they don’t speak English themselves. Men with pushchairs are better as they are invariably polite, unlikely to be a nanny, and more often buy on the spur of the moment.  I avoid older men, because with so much divorce, many lose touch with grandchildren and you don’t want to touch a raw nerve.

I need to aim for relaxed individuals – and a relaxed author

And what have I learned? You need to get people on their own, rather than two or more together.  They shouldn’t be rushing about, on their phone, dealing with troublesome toddlers or looking like their minds are completely elsewhere. I must be in a good mood, as otherwise I can’t muster the necessary enthusiasm.  It helps if it is a nice day as people are more willing to stop and chat. But all in all, people are surprisingly nice, some even complimenting me for selling in this way.  And best of all, every sale feels wonderful.

It’s worth trying quiet shops

Book on shelf in Limone Delicatessen

Finally, shopkeepers are also worth approaching, if they have no customers.  They may well want a copy, but my greatest surprise was a lovely woman who runs the Limone delicatessen in Highgate.  She offered to put a flyer in her window and then added, why didn’t she keep a couple of copies in case people wanted one?  They are placed just behind the counter, so I couldn’t ask for greater visibility.  She has sold five copies in three weeks and refuses to take any payment on the grounds that she likes to help people and ‘what goes round comes round’. I wish her all good things.

This was originally published by the Alliance of Independent Authors:                                    http://selfpublishingadvice.org/book-promotion-a-handselling-case-study/

Crime and Punishment: memories of school

My husband and I had an unusual experience recently. We visited his old school, along with about 60 other men in their 60s and above. There were also a few other wives. Let me explain why we were there, and the impact of the visit.

New Use of School Premises

In the early 1950s, he went to a boys’ grammar school. In the UK, this is a state high school for boys aged 11 and over. It was located in the extensive docks area near Tower Bridge in the East End of London. Most of the boys were from local working class families, but the school had a good reputation and they studied hard.

In the late 1960s, the school re-located to another part of London and the premises were used for various other educational purposes. It eventually fell into dereliction. The area, in the meantime, changed beyond all recognition and is now full of restaurants and office buildings spilling over from the business district in the City of London.

A few years ago, the school building was bought by an Indian luxury hotel chain called the Lalit. It was given a complete makeover and is opening for business shortly. As part of the hotel opening, all alumni of the school and their wives were invited to a reception to see how it had changed. We were feted with champagne and taken around the building.

The old assembly hall had become an elegant dining room and the ordinary school rooms had become well appointed guest rooms. There were also the usual places associated with a hotel, including reception rooms, a bar and so forth. Everyone agreed that the renovation had been an excellent job. It was splendid to see.

Memories

While we trooped around the premises, the men exclaimed about the changes of use. They said things like “This used to be the physics lab!” and exchanged memories of being there.

There were memories of sports events, exams, the way assembly was run, particular teachers and eccentric classmates. Conversations started with “Do you remember…?”

But by far the most common memory was of having been caned by the headmaster. This is known in England as “six of the best.” One man remembered a stool he had to hold onto while he bent over to be thrashed. Another, presumably a bit of a tear-away, proudly claimed to have had over 150 lashings over his time at the school.

My husband said that he had had only one caning, for admitting that he had taken a second pudding, or dessert in American English, at lunch. He had not been the only boy to do so – just the only one to admit it.

Nobody remembered the head with any affection.

Women’s Memories

An equivalent group of women of a similar age, wherever they are in the world, are likely to have very different memories of school. Punishments might still be a strong component. Indeed, it brought back my own memories. I was generally a very well behaved little girl, but I still remember being called in to a head teacher when I was about eight for loudly singing the well-known Christmas carol about three kings in its inappropriate form. The words included something about a rubber cigar.

We girls were beaten much less frequently than boys, I am sure. However, we were told off, given detention and generally forced to undergo some unpleasant activity in an effort to make us behave. And corporal punishment continued in some places for a long time, as my daughter-in-law, who left her school in a small town in Louisiana in the 1980s, informs me.

These memories sit in the back of our heads, rarely aired. But when they come out, they are very strong.

This was originally published by Sixtyandme (http://sixtyandme.com/discipline-and-detention-looking-back-at-school-in-the-1950s/)

Becoming Grandma can Change Your Life

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Are you a grandmother? Does that give you absolute joy or considerable worry? I write about grandmothers on Sixty and Me.  Most of these posts are about the very wonderful side of being a grandmother. But some women experience real problems, often as a result of conflicts within the family. If you find yourself in the latter situation, you are not alone. Stay with me.

The first step in becoming a grandmother is the actual birth. And what a moment that is! It means a new life for the grandchild, but also a new life for everyone around the baby. This includes its mother, father, siblings and other grandparents. And don’t forget yourself.

Becoming a grandmother will bring big changes in your day-to-day life, your ways of thinking about the future, your family relationships and your sense of yourself. This is what these posts will be about.

The birth day of your grandchild brings back strong memories

Some grandmothers find themselves right in the thick of things at the birth of a grandchild. Others live too far away or do not go for other reasons. If you were able to attend, you may notice the details and remember the experience better than the birth of your own children.

Remember all the upheaval and emotion when it was you having the baby? Even if you weren’t able to attend the birth day of your grandchild, it brings back memories of your own childbirth experiences.

Deciding to attend the birth of a grandchild is not an easy decision

You may not expect to be present at the birth of a grandchild. However, if your daughter or daughter-in-law asks you to be there for her, you will need to give it some thought. It is not a simple decision. You may be uncomfortable being around someone in pain, especially when it is your own daughter. Or you may feel that you will simply be in the way.

If you are a somewhat anxious person, you may find yourself too tense about the possibility that something could go wrong. The sound of a baby’s heartbeat over a monitor is great ­– until you think that the one you just heard might also be the last. You will worry for the baby; you will be concerned for the mother.

It is possible that your own emotions could create a problem, like the proverbial father in cartoons who inevitably faints. But being there can also be one of the most special days of your life. Your help may be vital, if only as a welcome distraction during labour.

It’s always good to attend when asked, to give help if it is needed. You will be a full part of the experience. The absolute bonus of course, is seeing the baby when a new born, in that second when you became a grandmother.

Creating an early bond with a grandchild is important 

Being at the birth can establish a very close bond with the new baby. There is something significant in those very early moments. If there are any complications, the baby may well be handed to you first thing. But in any case, you will get to hold him or her very soon. On occasion, a grandmother is invited to cut the umbilical cord. These experiences will remain with you forever, bringing a special closeness between you and the baby.

The birth of a grandchild connects you with your daughter or daughter in law

Being present at the birth may also strengthen your relationship with your daughter or daughter-in-law. A new birth changes many relationships. In the days to come, you will see a lot more of your grandchild’s mother, as you visit and help her to look after the baby.

But it can start with your being there for the birth. It is a very intimate time. You see her when she is feeling most vulnerable and she may rely on you to help her through. What a good way to deepen your relationship forever.

The moment of birth is an indescribable moment

You don’t need me to tell you that the birth of a new grandchild is one of the big moments in the life of a grandmother. Many people who work in the maternity business say they never get over the excitement of each birth. But for us normal mortals, there are only so many chances to be physically there. So if you are asked to be at the birth, think hard about it. And then, if you possibly can, go.

This was first published by sixtyandme (http://sixtyandme.com/becoming-grandma-can-change-your-life/)

The Painful truth about unhappy grandmothers

There are many happy grandmothers about. I know; I am one of them. We play with the kids, we bore our friends by talking about how wonderful they are and we generally feel very pleased with the way grandchildren have enhanced our lives.

But what about the unhappy grandmothers? Those who cannot see their grandchildren much – or at all. Those for whom the occasional visit is a painful experience due to complex family relationships. Let us pause for a moment and think about them. Perhaps you are one of them.

Distant Grandchildren

The least complicated scenario is where the grandchildren live far away. People are so mobile nowadays, they think nothing of traversing a continent for a new or better job. This leaves a lot of bereft grandmothers. Women in California whose grandchildren are in New England, women in London whose grandchildren are in Australia – it goes on and on.

Of course, there is Skype and all the equivalent apps that allow us to see the grandchildren grow from a distance. We can talk to them on a regular basis and keep up with their new pets or toys or hair styles. As discussed in more detail by grandmothers in my book, it is never the same as actually holding them in our arms.

And then we can travel to see them or vice versa. Airports are full of eager older people, often women, clutching presents on the way out and holding back tears on the way home. It will ever be so.

Difficult Families

A more difficult case is where families are in a state of conflict for immediate or past wrongs and the grandmothers are not welcomed. Sometimes, they can visit but only occasionally or under very specific conditions. Sometimes they are refused access completely, such as when there has been an acrimonious separation or divorce.

It may also be the case that you can visit, but it is painful to do so because your son or daughter’s marital relationship is so difficult that being around them is highly unpleasant. You want to go, but you don’t enjoy the time there due to bickering or uneasy silences. How can you enjoy the grandchildren in such circumstances?

Overworked Grandmothers

There is yet another scenario where grandmothers have taken on a great deal of childcare and find it difficult to manage. With too much access, rather than too little, this is a different situation altogether and requires a post all of its own.

Ways Forward

I wish I could offer easy solutions. I wish I could make relationships easier, whether people live close or far. All I can say here is that, whatever the difficulties of your circumstances, you are not alone. There are many others living with similar pain and some organisations committed to helping you. It is well worth checking what is available near where you live.

This was first published by sixtyandme (http://sixtyandme.com/the-painful-truth-about-unhappy-grandmothers/

Interview about Life in a Hospice

Life in a Hospice takes you behind the scenes in end-of-life care, where you will see the enormous efforts of nurses, doctors, chaplains and others – even a thoughtful cook – to provide the calm that we all hope for.  Perhaps you are looking for end-of-life care for someone you love. Perhaps you are wondering if this is the job for you. Or you just feel like being inspired by humanity at its best. This book will be for you.

Life in a Hospice: reflections on caring for the dying by Ann Richardson

1. What inspired you to write your book?

After the death of a good friend, I worked for four years as a hospice volunteer. I was extremely impressed with the dedication of the staff, but also rather fascinated by what motivated them to go to work day after day to see people die. I had already written one book based on interviews and felt this would be another suitable subject.

2. How long did it take you to write your book?

My writing is different from that of most authors as it is based on interviews.  Each interview takes somewhat under two hours and it is best not to do more than one a day. There were 31 interviews done over the course of two or three months. These are then transcribed verbatim (word-for-word), which takes about half a day each. Once I have the transcript, I read it over with enormous care, marking up the different themes and issues arising. I can do only 2-3 a day.  So there is a lot of preparation time.  These preparatory processes usually overlap, which helps.

Once I have the transcript material in order, however, it takes me only a few months to complete a book draft and a little longer for editing.  All in all, the process takes somewhere between six months and a year.

3. What is one thing you would love someone to take away after reading your book?

A sense of awe at the caring qualities of the people I interviewed.  You see humanity at its very best (not the people dying, who we don’t learn much about, but the people caring for them)

4. Describe your book in three words.

 Hospice, dedication, care

5. Who will enjoy your book the most?

People who like to reflect on deeper issues in life.  It is not at all morbid – indeed, it is funny in places –  but it is not traditional entertainment.  I suspect there is a big overlap with people who seek out literary fiction.

6. What do you think is most important to being a powerful writer?

 Skill with words is always important (and hard to pin down what it means), but so is a sense of the complexity of human beings – their motivations, their funny little foibles and their joys.  I would place honesty above all, as readers recognize an honest book when they see it

7. When you write, who do you envision you’re writing to?

This varies book by book.  In this case, I imagined readers would be people like me who would find it fascinating to understand the joys and challenges of end-of-life care.  Regrettably, there are not so many people in this category as I hoped! Several subgroups are also likely to be interested in this book –

  1. people who already provide end-of-life care, such as nurses and others, and want to read about how others cope with it;
  2. people who are thinking about going into end-of-life care, such as student nurses and others, and want to understand what it entails;
  3. people who are looking into end-of-life care for a family member or friend and want to know what hospices are like.

I also recommend it to anyone who just wants to see humanity acting at its very best.

8. Does writing energise or exhaust you, or a bit of both?

Writing completely energises me and it is difficult for me to stop. Sometimes I will wake up in the night and go to work on a book.  Of course, in the end, it is tiring, but I am always happy when I am working on a book.

9. What did you enjoy most – and least – about the process of creating your book?

I enjoy almost everything in the process of creating my books, but there can come a time in editing a book when I feel I have had enough.

10. Did you often suffer from writer’s block whilst writing? Any tips to overcome it?

I have never suffered from writer’s block, aside from the odd morning after a bad night’s sleep when the sentences don’t flow as well as usual.

Ann Richardson’s book is available on Amazon at: Life in a Hospice

This was originally published on mumsthewordblog (https://www.mumsthewordblog.com/2017/04/12/interview-with-ann-richardson-author-of-life-in-a-hospice/)

The story behind Life in a Hospice: reflections on caring for the dying

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This was published on Jane Davis’ Virtual Book Club on 12 April 2017.

Background:  Ann has worked as a social researcher most of her working life, writing books, articles and reports from interviews with ordinary people about specific health and social care problems. Most of this writing was addressed to professionals working in these fields, rather than the general public. But she discovered that her real love is writing narrative books, allowing people to explain their inner thoughts in their own words. She has now written three such books and is planning another.  American by birth, Ann has lived in London with her English husband since 1968. They have two grown-up children and two grandsons, age 7 and 10.
Two reviews:

‘Adds to the canon of literature of personal narratives in the experience of illness, death and bereavement…The simple reflections on complex areas of care resonate long after you have finished reading the book.’

Cancer Nursing Forum Newsletter

Royal College of Nursing

‘Some of the stories are sad, some are amusing, but all are inspiring. This book offers a snapshot of hospice care at its finest. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in caring for people who are facing death, and anyone considering the option of a residential hospice program for themselves or a loved one.’

Professor Steven Claxton-Oldfield 

Journal of Palliative Care

A few weeks back, I re-launched a book I wrote on end-of-life care ten years ago, Life in a Hospice. Some might well ask why one would write a book on this subject in the first place, much less re-launch it ten years later. In fact, the subject has fascinated me for years. Let me explain.

In 1990, when I was in my late 40s, I met a young man who had been living with AIDS for some years and, as there was no real treatment at that time, it was clear he did not have long to live. We had almost nothing in common – he was 20 years younger than me, I was a happily married woman and he a gay man, he was a natural leader of people and I was definitely not, he was a trained nurse and I was a quiet social researcher and writer. But for reasons that are always inexplicable, we quickly became close friends.

For the first time in my life, I began to think about how one should treat people who were close to dying. What should one say? What should one do?  The more I thought about it, the more I decided that the only sensible course was to treat them as normally as possible. Give them friendship and anything that would assist a good life, but basically carry on as you would with anyone else.

It so happened that he was in the process of organising an international conference of people with AIDS and HIV. He had invited conference attendees to submit their stories and hoped to publish them, although he did not know how. Being a writer, I said I could help and, with his consent, applied for a small research grant to supplement the contributions with interviews. The result was a book, Wise Before their Time, in which people with AIDS and HIV talk about the complexities (and joys) of their lives. I managed to secure a Foreword by Ian McKellen. My friend lived to comment on the draft manuscript but died before it was published, aged just 32. The book sold quite well in both the US and UK, but is now out of print. It remains a good read about young people faced with death, but is no longer indicative of the lives of people with this disease.

Not long after publication of that book, I was invited to a hospice and was immediately taken with the calm and peace afforded to dying people there. I felt a longing to be part of that world and soon became a volunteer one day a week in a hospice near to my home. I loved the work of helping people in their last days or weeks. But it also occurred to me that it was a strange job for those who worked full time – going to work every day to watch people die. I had the idea of writing a book on the subject, also based on interviews, but it took some time to put the idea into practice.  I suspected it would take a lot of effort to get the agreement of hospices to interview staff, to find the necessary funding and so forth. I put my attention to other projects.

Eventually, the lure of the book was too strong and, without any funding, I decided to proceed. The resulting interviews proved even more fascinating than I had expected. To me, the subject was never morbid or depressing, but incredibly uplifting to see the many ways in which nurses, health care assistants, doctors and so forth tried to make the last days of hospice patients as meaningful as possible.

Nurses were constantly trying to accede to the requests of the patients, whether helping an old lady to write the letters she said she wanted to write before she died or taking a patient outside to die under a tree when his time had come. A palliative care consultant explained how it was an intriguing puzzle to work out the appropriate medication to keep people pain free but nonetheless awake. And a very reflective cook gave a lot of thought to how to encourage patients to eat because, as he said, if they ate they would have the energy to say goodbye to their family and leave a good memory for them.

The resulting book had a Foreword by Tony Benn (who was a big supporter of hospices), a lot of good reviews and was Highly Commended by the British Medical Association. As the only higher award given by the BMA is Medical Book of the year, I was particularly pleased. The reviewer for the BMA wrote “An easy-to-read book, which will surprise many readers with its lightness of touch, humanity and refreshing tone. I would recommend it to anyone who has worries about their own or a relative’s care at the end of life.”

But after some reasonable sales in the first years, the book languished quietly out of site. Not only had the publishers set a very high price for the book from the outset (over £20), but when e-books began, the price was not very different. As they also did nothing to publicise the book’s existence, its lack of sales is no surprise.  This made me incredibly sad, as it was my favourite book of all those I have written.  I was even reluctant to recommend it to friends because of the high price.

So, ten years on, having gained experience of self-publishing through another book entirely (about being a grandmother), I decided to take the rights back from the original publishers and re-launch a second edition. This process proved surprisingly easy. There was no argument over rights. I undertook a small amount of research to update information about the number of hospices and what they do, commissioned a new cover and added the usual pages that tend to accompany a second edition, such as reviews of the first edition.

Importantly, I set a low price of £2.99 for the e-book. I have not yet decided whether to also produce a paperback, but will respond to demand if it is there.

If you cannot face reading a book that has a theme around dying, I cannot recommend this book. If, however, you are interested in seeing humanity at its best, you could find fewer better examples. It was my privilege to midwife the book into existence.

Life in a Hospice: reflections on caring for the dying is available as an e-book on Amazon. You can read more about it, see reviews and some sample chapters on the author’s website: www.lifeinahospice.com.

This post was initially published on Jane Davis Author’s blog (http://jane-davis.co.uk/2017/04/12/behind-book-story-behind-life-hospice-reflections-caring-dying/)

 

My granny likes to stand on her head

My older grandson went into his nursery school not long ago and told the teacher “My granny likes to stand on her head”. And he was right.  Despite being in my mid-70s, I do like to stand on my head, having practised Iyengar yoga for over twenty years. I never heard what her response was, but I liked the sentence.

 The image of grandmothers

It made me think about the images that come to mind when we hear the word “grandmother”.  I suspect that many people, including myself, have two very contradictory ones.

On the one hand, we immediately think of our own grandmothers. From our childish point of view, they were old, wrinkled, wore sensible shoes and certainly didn’t get up to much. Something like the picture of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, who was additionally portrayed as very round and sweet.

And then we look at ourselves and our friends and the image changes completely.  We don’t feel or look nearly as old as our grandmothers seemed. We are active, we’re often still in work and some of us can stand on our heads. (I am not alone – a number of the women in my yoga class are grandmothers.)  Or perhaps we do other things – sports, dancing, travel. We are busy and we feel vibrant and young.

What is going on?

It may well be, as many people believe, that things have genuinely changed. They say that sixty is the new forty and we can be just as active as we were some decades ago. We look around at ourselves and see enthusiastic, engaged women, not remotely like that picture in our heads of our own grandmothers.

But it is also possible that our own grandmothers were not as un-engaged as we thought. Perhaps in their own way, and suitable to their own times, they were more active than we ever imagined. Undoubtedly, some were very conventional, but others were busy with politics or local organisations or even – for all we know – dancing!

First published by GRAND Magazine.

Author Spotlight with Ann Richardson

This week I am featuring one of the distinguished Authors of the Facebook Page – Books Go Social Authors Group.  Her name is Ann Richardson and she lives in London, England.  She is the Leader of the Facebook Group – Real Lives which is a part of BGS.

I asked Ann a few questions and she provided some very interesting answers.
She has lived an exemplary life and is proud to be a grandmother to her two grandsons.

Tell us a little about yourself?
I have lived in London, England, most of my life, but I am American by birth. I met my English husband when I was only 19, married him two years later and 54 years later, we are happier than ever. (This story, I presume, would not make a good novel!) We have two children, both of whom live in London and two young grandsons. Somewhat unusually for my generation – but not subsequent ones – I have worked throughout my life, although only part-time when the children were young. I was a social researcher, initially employed by an independent research organisation but then working freelance for most of my life. About 25 years ago, I wrote my first book for the general reading public and have written two others since. I am now at the age where you are supposed to be ‘retired’. I am a very involved grandmother, but am also still active in writing – and promoting – my books.

When and why did you begin writing?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Even as a small child, I wrote stories. At my school, writing skills were taken seriously and I clearly honed my abilities there. In my first year at university, I shared first prize in a university-wide writing competition. By that time, I knew that writing was important to me.
But I did not consider writing as a career. Few people did, of course. My interests lay primarily in social problems. I completed a PhD in political ideas and, as noted above, became a social researcher. I gained great satisfaction in writing numerous reports for the agencies commissioning my work, as well as a number of books and articles for a wider audience. I loved learning new things and never stayed on one subject. In the course of a long career, I wrote about the experiences of people with a wide range of medical conditions (cancer, COPD, heart disease, mental health problems and others), patient support groups, public participation and other disparate subjects.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
You can see that I became a writer without quite intending to. A great deal of my time was spent writing about the results of research – mostly my own but sometimes those of others. As an independent consultant, I was hired to write reports from three Committees of Inquiry, for example on the needs of people with learning disabilities, as well as conference reports. I was also hired to edit other people’s writing. In the course of all this work, I was sowing the seeds for the kind of writing I most love now – writing what I call narrative non-fiction about important aspects of people’s lives.

Being a writer means being a communicator. You need to communicate ideas from one set of people (or one person) to other people in ways that they will understand. This means knowing what the readers think beforehand and then judging how best they will absorb new information or thoughts. I found this a fascinating exercise, which had to be constantly addressed in new ways.

At some point, someone I didn’t know asked me what I did and I said, without much hesitation, that I was a writer. And I realised I was.

Do you have a specific writing style?
I have written many books intended for different audiences, including people working in the caring professions, university students and other researchers. These were all written in an easy journalistic style, because of my concern to communicate well. I am not discussing these here, as I think they are of less interest to your readers.

Over time, I developed a very distinct writing style in my books, which I call ‘narrative non-fiction’. This is writing based almost entirely on the exact words of other people, with only minor interjections from myself to maintain the flow. The best way to explain this is that it is like a television documentary with interviews but in writing. I feel that it is an excellent way of communicating the thoughts and experiences of people, without losing something in translation. I also find it both challenging and very fulfilling.

I came on this writing technique from two directions. First, after many years of writing up the results of interviews, I concluded that ordinary people are much better at expressing themselves clearly and with originality than the researchers studying them. While my colleagues tended to summarise the results of interviews, with the occasional quote, as an illustration, I turned this on its head – using people’s original words as much as possible. As interviews were always transcribed verbatim, I had a full transcription of what anyone had to say.

Second, I realised that if you want a reader to really understand another person’s point of view, there is no better way than to enable the latter to speak directly and from the heart – person to person. I was used to working with deep interviews, where people talk openly but confidentially about some aspect of their lives. If I could put passages from these together in a way that flowed easily for the reader, I felt they would come to ‘hear’ the people talking and understand their perspectives. Views would be fresh and very powerful.

e916f-wise2bbefore2byour2btimeI have now written three books in this way and am about to embark on my fourth. The first
was published in 1992 about people with HIV and AIDS, when few people survived a diagnosis and those with the condition were often treated as pariahs.
The stories in the book were extremely moving, being about young people with a fatal disease coming to terms with their situation. Called Wise Before their Time, it had a Foreword by Sir Ian McKellen and despite only limited reviews, sold roughly 7000 copies worldwide. McKellen said that the book was ‘as powerful as any classic of fiction’, which pleased me enormously.

 

 

f6573-life2bin2ba2bhospiceHaving worked as a hospice volunteer, I became fascinated with what it was like to work every day with dying people. In 2007, I published Life in a Hospice about the lives and thoughts of people who work in end-of-life care – nurses, doctors, managers, chaplains and even a very reflective cook. It had a Foreword by the late Tony Benn, MP, was very well reviewed and even Highly Commended by the British Medical Association.

 

This book was seen to be very uplifting, showing humanity at its very best with complex stories of how some people helped others to come to terms with themselves at their most vulnerable time. But because the publishers priced this too high (around £20) and did not publicize it, relatively few copies were sold after its first year or so. I am now re-issuing this book with a small amount of updating and the same title. It will initially be an e-book only, but I will produce a print version if there is sufficient demand.

d0bea-celebrating2bgrandmothersAnd, finally, in 2014, having become a grandmother and finding that there are many fascinating aspects in that role, I decided to write a third book in this genre, called Celebrating Grandmothers

My main concern here, before undertaking the interviews, was that it would prove to be a sentimental book, but I had not counted on the many ways in which difficult family relationships intrude on our lives. It is about both the joys and the challenges of being a grandmother. This was the first of my books to be self-published. It has received many good reviews from readers.

 

I  might add that after I had developed my narrative non-fiction style, I discovered that there was an American journalist – Studs Turkel – who won the Pulitzer Prize for a book written in the same way. His books spanned larger subjects and were viewed as part of oral history. He died nine years ago.

What inspired you to write your first book?
My first book in this genre had a very clear moment of inspiration, which I remember well. I had a close friend with AIDS, who was the principal organizer of an international conference of people with HIV and AIDS in London. We were having lunch one day and he told me that he had asked each invitee to the conference to write their personal story as part of their application – and he wanted to turn the contributions into a book. He thought he could just hand these over to a publisher and it would be done. I told him no, any publisher would send them right back, but I could help him to write the book. I then applied for a small amount of money from the Department of Health (who funded research projects) to pay for some interviews at the conference, and to my amazement received this within two weeks, and the project was off and running.

I proposed that my friend should be a joint author of the book. He lived long enough to comment on the draft manuscript but died before its publication. He was only 32 years old. All royalties went to AIDs charities.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
The most challenging aspect of my writing is actually editing. When you are working with the words of other people, you want to be true to them, but you also want to ensure that their thoughts are clear to other people. This may sound simple, but it isn’t. When people want to stop to think, they often interject meaningless phrases which give them time, such as ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’, but these are not part of their message. In addition, people often start a sentence, then pause, and start it in another way. Listen to yourself sometime, and you will see that we all do this more frequently than we think.

I also have to think about whether to keep ungrammatical sentences, which would embarrass the speaker (as if their clothing was not adjusted appropriately), or poor English when foreigners are talking.

I never add words – ever – but I feel it is appropriate to remove some, such as these interjections or half-formed sentences. To give an example, I once interviewed a really thoughtful man with HIV who frequently added ‘and stuff like that’ to his explanations. Once I removed these interjections, his thoughts emerged so clearly, it was if clouds had been lifted. I tend to correct grammar, on the grounds that the speaker would want me to, and only partially correct the English of non-English speakers.

You are always trying to balance the dignity of the speaker with the understanding of the reader. It is a challenge, but a rather enjoyable one, at least to me.

What are your current projects?
Following my book about being a grandmother, I am keen to write another book about the experiences of older women. We are a group who are often overlooked in our youth-oriented society – indeed, some argue that we are ‘invisible’, not really noticed by anyone. But being an older woman is fascinating in so many ways that I would like to provide an opportunity for some women to talk about it and others to read their reflections.

I have also discovered the joys of blogging; very few people read my own blog, but I have been invited to be a guest blogger on several sites. The most notable is SixtyandMe (www.sixtyandme.com), an online magazine, that asked me to write a series of 12 posts. I not only enjoy the process but like the fact that I am able to reach – and interact with – large readership.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I am a very fussy reader. Not only do I need to be drawn into a narrative fairly quickly, but I tend to edit as I read – not on purpose, but I can’t help it – which makes reading annoying.

I often read non-fiction of various sorts, but I do like a good novel. My real discovery in the way of novelists is an English writer called Jim Crace. He has the ability to create an incredibly powerful atmosphere, drawing you into a situation often taking place somewhere out of the ordinary. One of my favourites is about people living in the Stone Age (The Gift of Stones), but he has also written about Christ’s 40 days in the desert (Quarantine), a dystopic book about the US (the Pesthouse) and one about village life sometime in the past (Harvest). I highly recommend any of these for their excellent writing and ability to take you far away from your own day-to-day life.

Do you have any advice for other writers?
I find it hard to offer advice to others, because everyone comes from a different background, has different skills and different interests. Nonetheless, I would say if you feel a burning desire to write, then do so. Do not expect to make your fame or fortune – very few writers do – but do it because you love the process and will feel good about yourself when you have done so.

If you were not a writer what else would you like to do?
I once wanted to be a ballet dancer and had a good grounding, having started lessons at the age of four. I have never regretted the loss of that career!

This interview was posted on the website of Brenda Mohammed, a fellow writer.

What it means to say “I am not a grandmother”

Sixty-and-Me_What-it-Means-to-Say-I-am-Not-a-Grandmother-740x416.jpg

We do not usually identify ourselves by what we are not. We do not say I am not blonde or not good at knitting or I do not come from a large family. Nor do other people think about these things when they think of us.

Not Being a Mother

But there is one aspect of our lives where what we are not does arise from time to time – our involvement with children.

Younger women experience this when they are asked if they are a mother and must reply “No, I never had children.” It starts a lot of conversations, many of which will be unwanted.

 Not Being a Grandmother

And then it crops up again amongst many in the Sixty and Me community – “No,” you must say, “No, I am not a grandmother.” I know well that it can cause a lot of pain. Indeed, some of you have called attention to this problem directly in comments on these posts.

Perhaps you always loved children and love being surrounded by them. Your friends are excited by the births of their grandchildren and various milestones (first birthday, first day of school) and you cannot share your experience with them.

You long to hold a new baby or talk to young children again. You want to buy those gorgeous baby clothes or fun toys for children. You may do so for a niece or nephew, but it is not the same. Some of you know that you will never do so. It can be very painful.

Are Your Children OK?

You may worry for your son or daughter. Is a lack of children the sign of an unhappy relationship or no relationship at all? If they are postponing the decision, will they end up disappointed? We all want what’s best for our children and it is hard to leave the joys of parenting out of the equation.

There are, of course, many reasons not to be a grandmother. You may never have had children yourself, whether by choice or bad luck. You may have had a child who died, making the lack of future generations particularly poignant.

Some adult children have not yet found the right partner. Or your children might be married or in a relationship but are experiencing serious illness or other problems. Couples will delay having a baby for all sorts of financial and career reasons. And some may be gay and not wish to expand into a family.

Some of these circumstances may be temporary and the hope of becoming a grandmother one day is not unreasonable. Children who have no close partner may suddenly find one. The carefully planned delay to parenthood may come to an end with a series of healthy babies. Gay couples increasingly choose to have children by one means or another.

Looking at the Longer Term

And yet, there are some of you who know you will never be a grandmother. Or the chances are becoming increasingly slight. You may not be bothered, but if you are, you are not alone.

And what can you do? You can, of course, get involved in the lives of other children, perhaps those of your siblings or friends. Many do so with such enthusiasm that they gain many of the benefits of being a grandmother directly.

Or you can consider the possibility of becoming a surrogate grandmother to someone living nearby. There are many organisations devoted to making this an easy choice. This helps young mothers with no one to help in a grandmotherly capacity and much fulfilment to the woman acting in this role. Do give it some thought.

This post was originally published by Sixty and Me: http://sixtyandme.com/what-it-means-to-say-i-am-not-a-grandmother/