I started writing while still at university: short stories, crap poetry, and a couple of (even crapper) novels. Medicine for me at that point was all about taking in vast amounts of knowledge, so it was good to be doing something that felt completely different.
I’ve never been on a writing course, so learnt through failure (lots of it). I reckon courses are a good way to speed things up – though I also reckon you have to learn the 10,000 ways of writing a bad novel as well as the 20 bullet-pointed ways to write a good one – and the only way to do that is through practice, failure, then more practice.
Several years ago I got a short story published in Granta’s New Writing; at the launch for that I met my agent. Two years ago when I completed my third novel, The Last of Us, she pitched it to several publishers, and Borough Press bought it. Sounds simple – but getting to that point involved one shelved novel and took ten years!
Being a GP it’s always been challenging finding time to write. Now I work six sessions, so there are two mornings and a lunchtime per week where I can get some words down. The rest is stolen half-hours, which forces me to be efficient.
Little details of the professional make their way into the stories. For example, The Last of Us has a young girl called Elizabeth who’s the daughter of rural GPs who job-share on a Scottish island (my wife and I job-shared on the Hebridean island of Barra). The novel I’m currently writing is based around a GP practice in Glasgow, set just after the financial crisis.
The writing and editing involved in creating a novel feels substantially different to anything I do as a GP, which helps me switch off and stay sane. Reading, I think, is the key: is there not some research which suggests that reading fiction can make a person more empathetic? (Although if you Google ‘reading fiction’ the first result you get is ‘waste of time’).
If any other GPs wanted to become novelists my advice would be start by writing short stories; they help you discover the voice and viewpoint you’re good at. Reading and writing poetry helps you appreciate the cleanest, simplest, sweetest language. And by all means go on a writing course, but also be prepared to learn by failure. As Samuel Beckett wrote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Dr Rob Ewing is a GP in Edinburgh. You can buy his novel, ’The Last of Us’, here.