So, I just thought I would give you all a little update into how the writing is going. Well, at this exact moment in time I, like so many of you, am fit to melt into a puddle, which isn’t helping. Before this week, however, I was plodding along until once again, I found myself disappearing into a cul-de-sac. Interestingly, I know in my head where this is going – finally! – but it’s not translating to paper as well as I’d like. This is a common predicament for writers, not unique to me. After hacking away for a while, and adding words purely to beef up the word count, I decided to take a break. I gave myself permission to step away, justifying my decision with advice from writer Sam Blake (The lovely Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin) that sometimes you need to allow your subconscious the space to put elements of the story together. I’ve spent the last week or so doing just that.
A number of things have rubbed me since reading in Cork nearly a month ago. I began thinking about the advice my brilliant mentor David Butler gave me during our last session. “You’re really being too hard on Rachel,” he said, which annoyed me a bit, because I think Rachel deserves it. My protagonist can be lazy, selfish and quite frankly, a bit manipulative. She uses events of the past to justify her shitty behaviour towards those around her. Some days she annoys me so much that I want to shake her. Why doesn’t she just try a bit harder?
The funny thing is, David is absolutely right, of course. Everyone in my writing group loves Rachel and is rooting for her to overcome her demons. They think she’s feisty and assertive in all the right ways, and they seem to look forward to the next instalment, which is flattering. Rachel even got a few laughs at the West Cork Literary Festival, which was such a good feeling. My daughter didn’t go to the reading, but she read the extract in the back of the car afterwards. Her eagle-eye spotted every detail; she is an avid reader who I’m sure can memorise many of Jacqueline Wilson’s or David Walliams’ books. After she finished, my daughter asked me “Mammy, why does everyone hate Rachel?”
“Did you not hear what her boss said to her? She’s been missing appointments, coming in late and hungover. She’s not a reliable employee.”
“Yes, but she seems to care about her clients. I know she’s not perfect, but I can see where she is coming from too. People need to back off her.”
My eyes narrowed. “Hmmm. Have you been talking to David?”
After taking a break for a week, I went back and read over the story again. I could see what David and Alison were saying; I am quite hard on Rachel, and she deserves some happiness. Because Rachel and I are similar in many ways (the Cerebral Palsy, the struggle to fit in at work, and hating being called “inspirational”), I’ve been trying to detach myself from her a bit. I did a one-day course with Michéle Forbes in April on creating characters, and now I understand why all my characters act the way they do. Including my antagonist, Sister Anthony.
For years, I’ve said that I base Sister Anthony not on a person but rather an attitude that I as a disabled person have encountered all my life. That voice that tells us as disabled people that we are less than (I’ve written about internalised oppression before), that in order to be accepted, we need to change and conform. These ingrained beliefs – personified in my story through Sister Anthony – can be difficult to challenge unless we question them, where they come from, and how damaging it can be to believe them.
I know you probably don’t know what I’m on about, so let me explain. (Oh, please reader, be kind; this is so hard to write and admit to). The reality of aging with impairment is something that is seldom talked about. I was lucky to have availed of services throughout my childhood – physio-, speech- and occupational therapy. However, in Ireland, once you turn eighteen, access to these services becomes restricted, if you’re lucky enough to have access in the first place. I’ve always been lucky in accessing services, but only because I’ve pushed for them.
In recent years, I’ve experienced aches and pains beyond anything I ever had in my childhood or teenage years. I still do my physio and exercise, but my body is starting to fight back against some of the things that I used to regard as normal. For example, I used to hoover and mop on my knees, because that way I didn’t need to worry about balance and coordination. I love ironing – my mother taught me the importance of perfectly ironed clothes – but now an ironing session might warrant an hour’s rest afterwards. I’m not giving up. I’ve always been independent and that’s not going to change. But I have to admit that sometimes I worry that this decision will have unsavoury consequences.
And on Friday, I had a very upsetting moment of realisation. Upsetting to the point where I cried – a lot. Yes, I am like Rachel – stubborn, imperfect, obstinate and determined. But I have also become my own Sister Anthony. And Anthony is not a pleasant person. She’s pushy, and often extremely cruel. Her expectations of Rachel are unrealistic and the by-product of living in an ableist society, one where the medical model dictates that self-improvement and conformity are key to being accepted as an equal.
I’m glad I recognise this in myself, because it means that I can heal. I need to give myself, and Rachel, a bit of a break. Heaven knows we’ve both put up with enough to last us a lifetime, and for the first time since I started working on this story seven years ago, I’m starting to think that we both deserve a happy ending. And for Rachel, this will just be a matter of writing a couple of thousand words. Mine will only come with an acceptance of my limitations, and this will take a lot more work. But I will get there, and hopefully finish this godforsaken novel in the process.
(Not today, though. It’s far too hot!)