In this episode we speak to author and former psychiatrist Dr Susan Mary Ruben. We chat about returning to creative writing later in life, being inspired by interesting interactions and how writing groups and mentorships can help us push ourselves creatively.
You can hear more from Susan on;
And read more of her short stories here: https://www.stories.standard.co.uk/competition#l-sue-ruben
You can see more from Yorick Radio here:
I'm a retired consultant, psychiatrist. I worked for the National Health Service I went to medical school in, in Edinburgh, and then I trained in psychiatry and I've mostly worked in addictions for, most of my career in Liverpool. Where, where we still live.
I've got two adult children, two grandchildren. I've got a husband and a cat. And we have quite an interesting life.
My husband's a writer, actually mainly for theater. So our social life is quite creative, we go to a lot of theater, cinema, read a lot of books, that sort of thing.
How long have you been writing and what was the start of that journey like for you?
I really liked English at school, but Because I was a bit sciencey, I was kind of pushed in in the science direction.
And to be fair, I really, really wanted to be a doctor. Then the writing really took off when I gave up paid employment. I've been involved with some writing groups through a Buddhist organization that I'm involved with. And one of the guys who was leading a session was really encouraging me of my writing.
I. Joined a writing group and I started going on more writing courses and just sort of started realizing that I enjoy it very much indeed. I try and write something. Every week probably not every day. So that's my, writing Journey, if you like.
I like a deadline. So if I see a you know, something I can enter or something that I think I've got something to say about I've taken to just sending stuff off. And it's very easy these days with the internet and email, you know. I've had a little bit of success, so that kind of boosts you.
And people seem to quite enjoy my writing my medical school year. So it's art. This is, makes me really feel, oh, so we're having our 45th reunion. They've asked me to read some of my poems. So I write poems based on my career. So I'm, gonna be doing that for our reunion up in Scotland
would you mind telling us a bit about what your writing process looks like?
Generally when I sit down, I start with a scribble on a notepad usually a sort of free writing.
So I've got a topic or an idea or a prompt, and then I'll basically just write. And write and write, not worrying too much, whether it's makes sense or whether I'm going to use it. And that would be my start. And then I usually go over it. I'm kind of underlining bits that I think are quite interesting.
Then I'll move on to writing it on the, straight onto the computer from my notes. And then, I leave it for a bit and what I've learned from both my husband and writing courses is that you really need to edit your work rewriting is the key I think, to writing.
You can be really quite pleased with what you've written the first time. And then you leave it a while and go back. And that's when I think you have to be a bit more rigorous. And so that's my process. And usually I get people to read it and make some comments but I'm quite careful who I choose.
And quite often I leave something for quite a long time and then go back to it and eat. And, and that, I think that's very interesting cuz you, it gives you that distance and you suddenly think of other things that, work might use that might improve it.
I do write about. Things I, I have knowledge of, if you like. But I've learned to kind of not worry about it being true, you know, that it's quite okay to fictionalize it.
You can start from an incident, which I quite often do, and then you can just, Go wherever you want to and I think that was a bit of a revelation, I used to think, oh, oh, I'm not being entirely honest here. And then you think, oh no, it's, it's a story.
Do you think that your career informs the writing that
you do now?
Definitely. Because I met so many people and I've heard so many stories and I've seen how people cope with a range of things in life.
So, you know, it's given me a really rich understanding maybe so, but, you know, a rich knowledge of the human condition. I think my writing is about. The human condition. I'm interested in character and personality and people's stories, and of course I'm very privileged that so many people shared bits of their lives with me.
But of course, the other thing that my career taught me is that you might be with a, person in a particular time in their life, but when they leave you or you don't see them anymore, you don't know what's happened. Hopefully they've sorted themselves out and occasionally people get back to tell you that.
So that's very freeing because then you can meet your character, go in any direction you want, so I guess that's kind of, may have influenced me a little bit as well in how I think about things. But the other thing is, I do like people, you know, I like meeting people, I like talking to people.
I like hearing their stories. That's kind of means that, I've got a lot of stuff in my head that I can draw on and then play a bite with, if that makes any sense.
Your, the story closer to midnight explores a lot of different themes.
So what led you to writing closer to midnight?
I wrote it basically that was through my writing group, so it was a prompt from the tutor. It was a prompt a boy time, and I started with it thinking about the, the closer to midnight clock And, and I was also had a friend who'd gone on a gray Gap year. And I sort of thought that was quite funny. And then I was thinking about people who'd got trapped in.
Various situations than how they got out of them. So it kind of emerged. When I started it, I didn't have the ending. I didn't know how it was going to end. It's based on a conglomeration of various characters. So the central character Isn't based on one person, but is based on various sort of things that I've thought about over the years.
And I'm interested in, women who've, who've sort of got stuck. And then what do you do when you get choice? And how difficult it is to know what to do with your choice. Given that it's a very short story, it has got a lot of things that people could, I think, discuss that they wanted to.
I'm not sure that I think the character made the right decision, and that would be something to be interesting. Me personally, I'm not sure that my character made, made the right decision,
I hope if people read it, they would give them food for thought, but it's not actually an answer, if you see what I mean. Obviously medically. It was also very influenced by a colleague of mine who worked in a cancer service.
And she once said to me I've seen a lot of terrible things in my work, and death isn't the worst. And I've always been very struck by that. I think it was there in the background when I wrote it. But also I wanted my character to not feel sorry for herself, but,
something to do with acceptance. I've got a sort of Buddhist. Leaning. So from a Buddhist perspective I also think it's quite an interesting idea of what matters in life or, , how you lead your life. I don't have any answers.
Your work covers some quite big questions that as far as I'm aware, There aren't solid answers for the decisions around life and death I feel like your piece is all about choice and living with the consequences of those choices and building on them and either trying a new
compounding those choices,
Yeah. All, all the way through the character.
Has got lots of choices. I think one of the things that I feel quite strongly is that we are overwhelmed with.
So many possibilities. You know, high, high. And you don't know what one decision is gonna lead to or not as the case may be I suppose it's also a little bit about the uncertainty of the human condition that you think you're going in one direction and then something turns up that is unexpected and how, how to deal with it and, you know, There's no answer to that really.
Your piece was narrated by an actor that you chose. Would you tell us a little bit about what it was like,
Working with her? Well, Le Lisa's somebody who lives locally who, we've seen in various pieces.
She was also part of the writer's group for a while. And , she understood the piece and I think she was able to bring out both the humor and the path in the piece. So working with her was really easy. We just did a bit of rehearsing and recorded it. It was very harmonious and, you know, she's a friend. It was very nice of her to agree to it. I think she's immensely talented. It was nice to, for us to record it and wait and send it to you.
Yeah, we had a lot of fun actually. And gen, you know, actors like performing slightly of the job
Exactly. You know, so you're asking somebody to do something that they enjoy doing. And she liked the story, so, yeah. Let's hope Lisa gets lots more acting work. Cause I think she deserves it.
You have previously participated in a writing mentorship. Could you tell
us what that process was like? Last year I entered the evening standard short story competition. Won it so the support, the prize was a year's mentorship with The head of new writing at the bbc, who's a very nice woman who what she's done is encourage me to, to keep at it.
And she'll read anything I write, give me feedback. And it was actually her who read closer to midnight I'd written a while ago and I've kind of left. And then because of her, I did a rewrite and submitted my rewrite to you. So I think what mentoring does is give you a.
Kick up the proverbial to keep at it, and to say she's been very good at say also what I liked was she said it's great to have an older, somebody a bit older to mentor. Cuz I noticed that there's quite a lot of thought that some of us more maturely women should be.
Getting our writing out there. So she, was very encouraging about that, you know, because obviously, You tend to think that, writing and new writing is more for younger people and I think it's been good to have somebody who said, no, not at all. It's really interesting to have a, a a, an o, an o.
I mean, I don't really consider myself as old, but I, I suppose I, you know, older voice. So yeah. So she's great. But obviously. I've got to do the writing. That's the bottom line. But I think having people who are encouraging you and are a critical friend I suppose is really important.
And I've got her, but you know, I am, I do also have my husband, which is very useful. I don't always agree with his feedback on my, so we do have, little tussle sometimes. If you agreed
all the time, wouldn't life be so boring?
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So I've been very lucky and obviously the story that I wrote, what was that? Won? The prize was semi, semi autobiographical. it has got some naughty little kind of, Bits in it that are, or yeah, a bit, you know poetic license. But it's basically true, you know,
arguably, I suppose you could say that about all stories.
They are basically true because even if they're about fantastical things, there's always truth in
them. Yes. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that, that one was, was much more true than closer to midnight, I was unfortunate enough to be a disabled child.
So that did mean that I spent a lot of time when other children were running around reading and, observing. So I think that's probably helped me in good stead as well. And it also gave me a lot of stories that, you know, because I had a disability at medical school , in the seventies when they didn't really look after you very well, that gave me other kind of stories that were, quite kind of funny in a way and a bit shocking to this generation.
So I had an experience that, that is quite unique,
one thing that I like about that is that you took opportunities in the uniqueness of your experience and found value in that.
And I think that's so
important. Yes. I think I was kind of lucky in that I had that ability I find a way to do that. So that I was able to narrate it and see the of humor rather than, be a victim. I'm very lucky not, not everybody is able to do that, I'm not advocating that my way is the way to do it, but I I was fortunate.
And I've always been able to make people laugh somehow. You don't quite know. What I also understand is you laugh with yourself, not at yourself. I've had some situations that have been, quite funny. I, I, I'm bleak at the same time, to me, everybody has got interesting stories from their life. It's just a question of whether they are able or get the opportunity to access them.
What do you think are some of the ingredients to a good story? Because every, every style of story is different, but there are some building blocks that are, constant as writing craft.
Yeah. I, I think For me, characters, you have to be engaged. You have to find a character that is believable and interesting. And a story needs an arc. It needs a beginning, it needs a be a middle, and it needs some sort of an ending. It doesn't have to be definite. And also for me , this sort of show not tell, in other words, it needs to engage people but not tell them what to think or, you know, be too prescriptive.
I mean, this is just me, you know? And I think, it has to have some element of surprise or interest or. A twist of some description probably helps, I think it has to be something that you are Amber, you know, as a writer you have to wanna write it.
I would only write stuff that interests me. If it's a topic that I'm not interested in, I'm probably not going to engage and write a story, but at the same time, sometimes you can be surprised by a, a prompt that leads you somewhere that you never thought you were going to be.
I love the short story format because I think what I really like about that is in quite a short piece of writing, there can be a lot of. Stuff if you like, you know, whereas in a novel, what is often joyous about a novel is the kind of detail that kind of draws you in, but doesn't, you are not pushing the story along quite so much.
I'm trying to write a novella at the moment which is gonna be a little bit longer. And that's taken quite a lot of time. Really my advice to people, if you've got things that you know out, be true to yourself as well, I think, but that doesn't mean that your characters are all you.
And be prepared to. Have wars and all, you know, so that, not that there's the goodie and the baddy perhaps sort of you know, as somebody who's worked in mental health, I kind of know that, you know, the spectrum of within us all is, is quite contradictory. I love an unreliable character as well, surprise yourself. Sometimes I surprise myself by the stuff I write, and when I come back to it, I think, why the hell did I write that? I don't even remember writing it. And I think if when you are writing, you are so absorbed that you don't notice that three or four hours have passed.
That's, that's probably quite a good sign. I didn't really give up didn't really retire from the NHS with the idea of becoming a writer. I want to keep it that I don't see it as a chore. And I'm very lucky in that I've got a pension and so on.
So I'm not dependent on it financially, and that is an incredibly liberating place to be, it can be, Just what I want to do. Rather than feeling I've got to right to, to, you know put bread on the table and so on, if you see what I mean.
Everybody's experience is different. And as you said, that's important. It would be. A very dull writing world if everybody was coming at it from the same perspective. And I completely agree with your mentor having an author like yourself somebody who has a wealth of experience, is a goldmine, honestly. So from that perspective do you think that you would have any advice for people of any age getting
into writing? My only advice is if you want to get into writing you have to write. My writing group, we're just an ordinary group of, of people are very mixed,
find people to encourage you. Because it's so easy to give up. And I would also advise people to, , if they've written something that they're proud of, send it off to places like you and various, because if you don't share it, I mean, most of the time. You, you're not gonna get anywhere.
But if you don't do it, you are, you definitely won't get anywhere. It gives you something to. I need a bit of structure I was very structured at work. I had deadlines, I had to finish it, I had to get reports on, on time, blah.
But now I'm, job free. I don't, I have to set myself some deadlines. So sometimes saying, oh, this looks interesting. I think I can do that. That gives you, something to aim for. And also, share it with your friends. You know, have people rhyme and have little write it.
I enjoy listening to other people's writing. Even if I don't particularly, you know, it's not to my taste. It's very good to hear how other people have tackled things, and you do get really nice nuggets of ideas from people. They don't all have to have the same outlook ideas. Ideally, people who don't have the same Right. Look as you is probably quite good. And. Also, if you wanna be a writer, my other kind of thing is engaging life. You know, don't just sit in your room all day. Be out, out and about.
You know, like yesterday I was, I, I do this litter picking. I'm a litter womble. I go out with my hoop and my grabber and I always have to tell people I'm not on probation. You know, it's not a punishment, the really great thing about that is that, you know, I had a couple of really random interesting conversations with strangers,
just something that somebody said that will then spark me for an idea. I always loved, you know, Alan Bennett diaries cuz he'd be sitting on a boss and he'd just, jo no note dying. Some random, mad conversation. And David Sadara, who I think is another fantastic storyteller about, you know, humans.
And I think if you want to write be out there and watch the world, and enjoy the foibles of the world obviously that's, that's me writing from a character perspective. You know, I'm not a, I'm not a, a nature writer but if you wanna write stories, There are I work for somebody once who said, I don't write fiction be, or I don't need to write fiction because I come to work every day.
And the stories be that I see this is a psychiatrist I work with are so much more, are so, you know, fascinating. You know. So there are fascinating stories out there that we can tell and you know, why not. Also it passes the time, you know, we gotta do something to pass the day.
I think that's, the root of all storytelling way back in the history of time when we all crowded around fires to escape from wild beasts.
Yeah, let's tell some stories because that's all we have to do. Is that
Yeah, exactly. I'd like to leave some of my stories behind, that people might pick up and, and if they don't, they don't. This sounds bit of my Buddhist thing, Do what you do in the moment and, and make the best of it, and if writing is your thing, then do it.
But enjoy it. It, and if it's not working that day, just go, do you know what? I'm gonna leave it. There is nothing wrong. And I have learned this with thinking I'm really stuck on this piece. I dunno where I'm going. Just leave it for a while and go back to it. And you know, in the meantime, wander off and collect litera, do whatever.
And you might find something emerges, I suppose it's that thing about not trying too hard and not thinking that every piece you write has to be perfect. So a lot of stuff I write just a way of writing down lots of words in a notebook. It's not going to become a story.
But then sometimes you go back through your notebooks and you suddenly read something. Oh. Oh, that's a really good idea. I would encourage people if they've got an impulse to do it and not to think it's going to be you know, gene Austin straight away.
Find your voice, I think everybody has a unique voice and it's their voice. Don't try and copy somebody else's voice. I know that from patients. So patients used to say to me, they knew the doctors who weren't genuine.
They knew the ones who were sort of trying to be what they thought they should be. And they didn't read that. And I think that's the same in writing. I think your voice is your voice and there has to be something I think that where you, you kind of buy into that.
I it's quite mysterious, I think. Well, I would fully
agree. It's and, and thank you very much for sharing that. Very good, grounded advice. So if people would like to hear more from you, is there somewhere they could go, other stories they could
see? Well, the evening standard story is available via the evening standard website, which is easy to you Just look.
On that through evening standard short story competition, and you sort of scroll down, you'll eventually see a picture of me and my story, which is called Dr. Dandruff and Me, which is available. Other than that, I sometimes put stuff up on Facebook. I'm hoping to work with a, a guy who's a, a local publisher and actually do a little book of my stories and poems.
I'm on Facebook, Sue Rubin Liverpool. I'm on Instagram, if you go on Instagram, you'll see my art I draw as well.
And also is there somewhere that people would be able to reach the actress from this short story?
Probably via me to start with If anybody wants to have anything to do with Lisa and I'll make sure it gets
to her. Thank you so much for coming to talk to us today.
It's been really lovely to speak to you and I think people will get a lot from this conversation.