We talk to Ann Russell who worked as a nurse and midwife in the UK and Western Australia before becoming a writer. She recently finished her debut novel, The Longing and is currently writing her next one, The Old Green Bicycle.
1.What made you decide to do what you do?
My midlife change was to take early retirement in my 50s to focus on writing full time.
I was a teenager in the 70s and from a working class background, and frankly there were few career options available. I’d always wanted to write and when I dared voice this choice to the ‘careers advisor’ at school, they laughed me out of the office, not before suggesting that nursing would be suitable for a “girl like me.” You did what you were told back then, bearing in mind the other options were secretarial work or shop work, before ‘settling down with a nice young man.’ Don’t get me wrong, the NHS served me well and I was good at what I did. I continued to dabble with writing, not daring to share my dream with anyone else, not least because saying I wanted to write sounded so pretentious. I was shy of sharing my work too.
I worked in the NHS since I was 18, qualifying first as a nurse, then a midwife, and later as a health visitor (don’t get me started on how I feel successive government policies have adversely impacted how we deliver services to patients/clients. That’s a whole other interview)! For many years I was commuting to London from Kent, working very long hours – 18 hour days were not unusual. I had to take work home most nights and weekends to meet my ‘targets’. AND I was going through menopause. I was lucky if I got five hours sleep a night.
Year after year this pattern went on. I felt I was losing my mind on lack of sleep, and inevitable poor diet and lack of exercise. One day, I decided enough was enough, though there wasn’t one trigger moment. I realised I was no longer happy and that lifestyle could not have continued for much longer. I was digging myself an early grave. I wanted, needed, to get off the treadmill focus on what I really wanted to be doing and that was to write. “If not now, when?” I asked myself.
2.Why did you wait until you did to do it?
Life gets in the way. Work takes over and you feel powerless to change anything. Lack of funds to do anything different, or so you believe. Lacking the courage to change lanes and travel a different journey, believing there isn’t a safety net to catch you if you fall.
3.What are you hoping to accomplish?
I’m hoping to publish my novels. Sounds simple doesn’t it? The publishing world is so different from what I knew before – a steep learning curve. Initially I didn’t know anyone else like me, or where to start. Slowly but surely I’ve begun to make inroads into this new world I’ve discovered.
4. How did you make the change? What or who helped you?
Like anyone who is deliberating a change of direction, I don’t think you can just stop working (or whatever), not by choice anyway. Do your homework. Can I downsize, for example? Have I got financial matters in order (am I paying out for things I don’t / won’t need)? Find out what’s possible and the steps you need to take to reach your aim. Having knowledge to make choices is empowering. Once I realised early retirement was financially viable, there was no looking back. I then started to research where might be a good starting point to kick-start my writing mojo.
The Internet is a wonderful thing (how did we exist without it)? I’d heard of Faber Academy, based in Bloomsbury London, and applied to do their one-day ‘taster’ in writing, lead by Richard Skinner, published author and poet. The date advertised was a month after I would stop working. Serendipity! Turned out to be a fabulous day and knew I’d made the right decision. Richard Skinner as it turned out is the Director of Faber Academy’s six month ‘Writing a Novel Course.’ Serendipity once more! All I had to do was apply in writing with a thousand words of my best prose and a covering letter of why they should take me on.
There followed a nervous couple of months wait before discovering I was accepted on the course. Starting in the autumn and on through winter and into spring, Wednesday evenings and regular all day Saturdays were given over to exploring the writing process. With a dozen like-minded people in my group, under the guidance of the writer, Joanna Briscoe, I committed to writing 5000 words per week towards completing a first draft of my novel manuscript. The course was invaluable in providing the opportunity to have your work formally critiqued twice by your peers and Joanna. A scary but necessary part of the process and I received invaluable, constructive feedback that spurred me on. The course was also useful in gaining insider tips on the business side of publishing that would otherwise have remained a mystery.
I went on to complete that first draft, and many further drafts and edits later, felt my manuscript was polished enough to start sending out to agents ~ hoping to secure a publishing deal (by and large you need an agent to represent you, but there are other routes to being published). I’ve experienced rejection and I’m ok with that, it’s a rite of passage. I’m earning my writer stripes. I’ve had positive feedback from agents about my writing and my ‘voice,’ but as yet have not secured that book deal!
When you meet other writers, two questions are always asked:
“Are you published yet?” and “How many rejections have you had?”
Trying to get published is a cruel form of torture and a lonely business too. Which is why connecting with other writers is invaluable for moral support, and who ‘won’t blow smoke,’ if you get my drift. Somebody somewhere will take me on, I’m sure. By the way, there’s no real money to be made, the JK Rowlings of this world are the exception to the rule. I’ll continue to write regardless because it makes me happy (mostly)!
The other thing I’d say about making a midlife change is that having worked within a stressful working environment for so long, I was ‘burnt out.’ I had to make myself a priority – both mentally and physically. I needed to rediscover who I was and the other things that bring joy and happiness. Good food, being able to sleep for as long as I needed rather than rising to an alarm. Going on holiday without asking permission from others. Read. Go to the cinema. Reconnect with old friends you’ve not had the time to see in a while. Get out in the fresh air and see new places. It takes time. Be kind to yourself.
5. How did your family and friends react?
Not in the least bit surprised. One or two did say that I’d found myself a nice little hobby! Er, no – you have to be committed to the writing process and all that it entails, applying a strong work ethic to something that goes beyond being a past-time. Family and friends have otherwise been supportive.
6. How has your life changed having gone down this path?
I’m busier than ever – how did I find time to work in the way I did before? Of course, now it’s me who sets the pace and my own agenda! I’ve kept in touch with people from the Faber course (essential for moral support) as I’m discovering my own ‘creative space.’ I have been to book launches, attended writing festivals and am now reading more than ever (I’ve always loved to read since I was small, and reading widely inspires and improves your own writing). I also have my own website where I undertake book reviews (no spoilers), interview fellow writers and blog about, well, me! This has been the hardest change in a way after years of being a self-deprecating nurse (it was the rule), to selling myself as a writer – even as yet an unpublished one. I need to develop my platform as they say. It doesn’t come naturally flaunting myself (friends might disagree) so I’m working hard to change that mind-set of mine; I’m getting better at it.
7. What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
Go for it! Be brave in taking that first step, even if it feels like jumping off a cliff. I now have the freedom of no longer working for a huge organisation and all that entails. I can please myself, and that is so liberating. When you first start off in a different sphere it takes time to build these new networks but don’t be discouraged and don’t give up. Get tech savvy, or build upon current IT skills. Luckily I have a teenage nephew who is content to advise or teach me a new way of doing things ~ building on my level of expertise.
It’s not about being ambitious per se, but I really do believe that when you take that midlife change of direction, you need to find something you are passionate about, something to wake up for in the morning, that’s beyond the four walls of family life (important though they are). Mourn your old life by all means, but move on! Find courage in doing something new. Don’t settle for comfort and being cosy as a lifestyle change – that will age you more than anything! When you dare open a new door, you’ll be surprised at what lies on the other side. This year alone, I’ve met some amazing new people who’ve brought wonderful opportunities into my life that may never have otherwise happened. I appreciate that
8.What are you proud of and what keeps you inspired?
I needed to muse this for a while and give some serious thought. I guess, having a successful career within the NHS, considering it was not my first choice. It took me to Australia, despite some people thinking I was brave or foolish to go half way round the world on my own. I was in my late twenties and went for a year and stayed three. It changed me as a person. I’d been married and divorced and felt a failure. By going to Australia I knew then that I was independent and capable of achieving what I’d set out to do and more. So glad I didn’t listen to those naysayers. Have courage in your character and abilities!
Being a second mum to my teenage nephews and watch them growing into young men, who make me laugh and see the absurdities in life like I do. Importantly, they don’t see me as old as, “you laugh a lot and want to have fun.” The moral of the story is …!
I place great value on female friendships, including the women I have known since I was 18 years old, all my adult life. That fact shocks me for a start, it’s not possible to have known them for over 40 years surely? Recently I met up with two long-term friends in London, and we just picked up where we left off a year ago. I like that. I do think you acquire friends for different reasons or maybe for diverse facets of your life. Not all my friends know one another, but they all have the ability to make me cry with laughter, as well as sharing support and advice as and when needed. I know I’m very lucky to have such warm, colourful, witty and extraordinary women in my life.
I’m proud of the fact that I’ve jumped into the deep end of all things writing and keep going at it. The world of publishing is a challenging, crazy one! I know I have a toolbox of skills and attributes to propel me on.
What keeps me inspired? Well, curiosity about the world around me. Keeping an open mind, whether it is about people, opinions or the world. Don’t judge people as you probably have no idea what’s going on in their lives – though I might make an exception for one or two world rulers right now. Don’t look back, look forward and better still, try to live in the moment. I spent far too long at work with a diary full of meetings and appointments documented a year ahead. Such systemic madness when I think of it now!
Time blurs the weeks and months, and before long you realise you’ve missed out on so much, and you don’t get that time back do you? I’m a people watcher – always have been. If you see me in a café or other public space, notebook and pen in hand, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m seeking inspiration for a story line. Watching how people go about their daily lives and observing interactions. I don’t do this ‘close to home,’ that wouldn’t be fair. On the other hand, upset me and you might just end up in my next novel!
9.What do you love most about being the age you are?
“Ageing is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength,” Betty Friedman.
True isn’t it? Being this age is liberating! How did I get here when I feel I’m still in my thirties? Time is passing all too quickly. I love being 60 because what’s the alternative? I know far too many people who haven’t made it this far, be it through illness, accident or suicide. So I’m grateful for the life and energy that I have. Besides, I don’t feel 60 and have always had a young at heart approach to life!
Each decade brings its own dimension and challenges – positive and negative. I wouldn’t be twenty again if you paid me. You think you know it all but really you haven’t even started to make sense of who you are in world – that’s the confidence of youth, if only you knew it. Without youthful arrogance though, we’d never move forward in life.
Being 60 today is not like it was for previous generations of women. It’s not perfect, but our lives today are full of opportunities and choice, beyond our grandmother’s dreams. There is so much to do and celebrate – my life is nowhere near over yet! Older women should be able to see ourselves as part of the wider societal mix. We have the wisdom from our experiences, and the will and confidence to ‘go out there and do. I’ve become more chilled and no longer worry what others think of me, you just have to be yourself. Not everyone is going to like you, but you know what? It doesn’t matter.
We are pushing back the boundaries of what it means to age well. I think we’re taking better care of ourselves and it’s never too late to undo bad habits. A tip would be, if you hadn’t already, find a form of exercise that you like doing. I’ve discovered running (I use the term loosely) and found a lovely country park near to where I live. I lay my exercise clothing and running shoes out the night before, ready to go ‘first thing’ before my brain and body realise what I’m up to. It’s then done for the day and I can feel smug knowing I’ve done my 5k or whatever. It’s good for the soul and clears my head – it’s energising. Although I prefer to run solo, going at the same time each day I’m likely to see the same people, dog walkers, to say hello to. I don’t go for a PB because I keep stopping to chat to people. I use the ‘Map my Run’ app on my phone to log time and distance.
Could I loose a little more weight? Probably, though I’m happy in my own skin (and that took a long while to achieve). Please don’t wait until you think your slim enough, or whatever it is, to wear bright, beautiful, colourful clothes. I spent my working life either in a uniform, or an informal uniform of black trousers and a black tee shirt or blouse, that morphed into my off duty clothes as well. My wardrobe was permanently waiting to go to a funeral. Never again! Wearing dark clothes doesn’t do much for promoting a positive mind-set either. My friends now seem to take the same approach. I have a friend who totally rocks green hair. I mean, if you can’t experiment at our age with trying something different, when?
What I dislike is the focus on youth culture and the anti-aging philosophy. As though being older, or more to the point, being seen to be older, is a sin. Really? I believe we are positively changing the idea of what it is to grow older but not to get old ~ there’s a difference. We must avoid the stereotype pitfalls. Women our age can be overlooked, although I think that perspective is changing gradually. I don’t think we’re being put out to graze as such quite as often. Besides, what’s wrong with appreciating the decades and the wisdom we’ve garnered as wrinkles or a little sagginess? “Don’t judge a book,” as they say.
The notion of having to wear ‘age-appropriate’ clothes ~ what does that mean? I hate to read articles about what I should or should not be wearing at my age, or the way I ought to do my hair. For me, it’s about does it look good on and does it make me happy, rather than the numbers (age or size). I also have a fantastic (younger) hairdresser who ‘gets’ where I’m coming from too ~ very much on my side. I have to say I did try embracing my grey last autumn but it made me utterly miserable. If you can do it, all kudos to you! My least favourite word is ‘sensible,’ more so than ever and especially when applied to clothing. As some of you may know, I recently purchased a pair of floral DM’s and also have a black sparkly pair for winter. Take that attitude into the wider world I say!
11.What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
So many things! Don’t sweat the small stuff, because it doesn’t matter.
Not everyone is going to like you, regardless – it’s about him or her not you.
People cross your path in life for a reason – even if they don’t stay in your life. They teach you something about yourself and the world at large, a lesson of some sort. Maybe it’s how not to be as a person. It’s ok to cut people out of your life if they are not nice or toxic even. Don’t let your mental health suffer because you want people to like you, or to be popular – it’s never worth it.
Trust your intuition – it is embedded experience after all. The times I’ve ignored that little voice in my head, it’s always had a negative consequence.
Be true to yourself – you’ll earn your integrity ‘badge’ as time goes by and respect from those who matter.
12.What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Be true to yourself, and know what qualities you value in yourself and others – I place great importance on integrity, honesty and kindness. Sometimes, as I’ve found to my cost, this puts you on a collision course with other people. I once had to undertake compulsory psychometric testing at management level for some restructuring process or other. The test uncovered many positive things about me, but also that I wasn’t ruthless enough. I cheered, even though it was the ‘wrong’ answer. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be that type of person they were looking for. Needless to say, I moved on to another post more to my liking.
Be it work or relationships, know when to stay and when to move on – it’s not failure to say ‘this isn’t working for me,’ and learn from the experience.
Nurture/mentor other women – offer a ‘hand up,’ to women coming up behind you. I had some amazing women who were generous enough to provide support and encouragement. Work / life is hard enough without worrying about unnecessary obstacles. Pay back! Be a grown up and unless it’s sport, don’t be competitive with other women – it really isn’t necessary.
Be kind – always. It’s not a sign of weakness it’s a sign of strength, especially in adversity.
Value your time and take care of yourself – don’t learn the hard way like I did – it’s difficult but not impossible to undo bad habits, and it’s never too late.
13.Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
Tomorrow’s never promised.
Also, if you can be anything in this world, be kind. Kindness is everything.
14.Which woman do you most admire and why?
An impossible question and just as impossible to choose one woman, so here’s a sample:
Iris Apfel, in her eighties I believe, and just rocks fashion. Or should I say, dresses uniquely in a colourful style. We could take a leaf out of her book. Let’s not forget our own Suzi Grant, who not least, has got me wearing headscarves again.
Tracy Emin, an artist from Kent, who has pushed the boundaries in the art world. Fearless it would seem in exposing her vulnerabilities and unafraid to be herself. You either love her or hate her, but she can’t be ignored.
Dawn French, Helen Mirren, Judy Dench and Julie Walters, I mean, come on! What role models for women. Growing older with attitude and spirit.
My friend’s who weather life’s storms like a lifeboat to their friends and family. They are supportive, witty and funny. I continue to learn so much from them.
The many other women out there in the world, too many to name, who are able to push the boundaries in their field of expertise, or unafraid to speak out or to be different. Showing strength of character in the face of opposition, or immeasurable grief. They demonstrate the many sides of womanhood and what it means to be female.
15.Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
That I’m standoffish when in actual fact I’m shy. I also have one of those faces that if I don’t smile I appear grumpy and bad tempered. So not true. Once you get to know me I can be the life and soul.
16.How can Mutton Club readers find out more about what you do?