Finding a love for creative writing alongside my veterinary duties
If I have a regret, it’s that I’ve never left enough space for my creative hobbies. In my last year at school, to balance the physics, chemistry and biology, I took art and also worked my way through the shelves in the library – more Malory Towers than Middlemarch.
Fiction gave way to fact, physiology and pharmacology at vet school, although I retain fond memories of drawing detailed anatomical cross-sections.
In farm practice in Aberdeen, I registered for art evening classes, although my attendance was poor due to my on-call rota. I remember a friend explaining that life drawing was sketching nudes, which I didn’t believe until I turned up on the ﬁrst night. I hoped a different class – car maintenance – might increase my chances of ﬁnding a boyfriend, but I turned up to find I had joined a class full of women thinking the same thing!
Masters in Creative Writing
I’m not sure why, four years ago, I decided to try creative writing. I’m not sure there was a speciﬁc trigger or whether looking through the prospectus of evening classes, I saw it as the most challenging. Each week we were set a writing exercise and, for those who wished, reading out our homework of 250 words.
Initially, I found the blank page intimidating, ﬁnding all sorts of other things to do, rather than craft what was only a few paragraphs. However, each week the words ﬂowed more easily and I found myself signing up for a second, and then a third term. At this point I was considering leaving full-time employment and returning to study. My question was what?
‘Have you ever considered a masters?’ my tutor asked.
‘Creative writing, I’ll give you a reference,’ she said.
My tutor sowed the seed and was generous in her support. As a result, I submitted a portfolio of writing to Goldsmiths, University of London, which included my article, ‘Life Beyond the Stethoscope’, (VR, 1 February 2014, vol 174, p i).
"I loved every second of my MA and learned so much from my tutors and fellow students"
I opted to do the masters in creative and life writing, part-time (over two years), because I know what I’m like – I would immerse myself in study – those ingrained habits don’t change. I wanted to give myself space to learn, digest and reﬂect, plus I had to leave time to accommodate some part-time work, which would keep me aﬂoat ﬁnancially.
Some of my fellow students had just completed a BA in English literature, while others were working in a variety of careers including nursing, television and the literary world. They had a mixture of writing interests across creative, life and playwriting to poetry. I was the only vet.
Each week I joined 10 students for a two-hour workshop to discuss a book from that week’s reading list, complete a writing exercise and be involved in offering constructive criticism of a fellow student’s work.
The ﬁrst piece of life writing I submitted, I drafted and re-drafted, removing words, then adding them, only to remove them again. I felt both nervous and excited to hear what the group and tutor had to say – after all, I was exposing my work – and myself – for dissection. The comments I received were supportive and helpful, and over the two years we developed strong bonds through sharing our work, feedback and encouragement.
In addition to the workshops, we had two hour-long tutorials each term, for which we had to prepare 4000 words. During the course, I submitted 35,000 words for assessment; three 5000-word pieces and a ﬁnal portfolio of 20,000 words.
I graduated with a distinction just before Christmas. At the ceremony, as I lined up in my gown, balancing a mortar board on my head, I felt that same surge of pride constricting my throat and my eyes prickling, as I had in the McEwan Hall before I crossed the stage to shake hands with the dean of the ‘Dick’ vet school and the registrar of the RCVS in 1985.
"I reﬂected that, as a vet who had worked in practice, industry and government, I had a great deal of writing experience"
With my life writing, I found the most challenging aspect was to express feelings and emotions, my tutors and fellow students were always encouraging me to reveal more. I reﬂected that, as a vet who had worked in practice, industry and government, I had a great deal of writing experience. However, the focus had been on technical content, factual accuracy and my opinion, for example in case reports, technical documents, policy brieﬁngs and ministerial submissions. There was no point at which anyone had been interested in my feelings!
Looking back, it was challenging keeping up with the reading and writing, and juggling these with my other commitments.
There were many times I would leave Belgravia House after an RCVS Council meeting, running through Parliament Square to catch the tube from Westminster to Goldsmiths, or dash out of a writing workshop – the wheels of my case rattling along the pavement – to catch a train to Edinburgh. But I loved every second of my MA and learned so much from my tutors and fellow students.
I was shortlisted for the Pat Kavanagh Award in January, named after the author Julian Barnes’ wife. At the award event I read an extract of my writing with the judging panel from United Agents and Julian Barnes in the audience. I felt as I did when I was about to open up my ﬁrst cow caesarean. What a sense of validation that evening gave me, with many of my friends in the audience, one of whom had graduated with me from vet school. We’d both been wearing gowns in that queue in the McEwan Hall, nearly 35 years ago.
I have embarked on writing my memoir, which is a solitary occupation – self-discipline, motivation and time management will be key. I balance this with my non-executive directorships and membership of the RCVS Council, along with cultural and social activities. It’s a recipe that works for me, I’ve found my niche...for now.