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Christie Watson: 'Everyone has their own unique voice, and a story that belongs only to them'

BY Katie Smart
2nd Aug 2022

Christie Watson's first non-fiction book, The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story was a number one Sunday Times bestseller. Her second, The Courage to Care: A Call for Compassion was published in 2020, and her latest book, Quilt on Fire: The Messy Magic of Midlife was published in July 2022. Christie has also published two novels, including the Costa First Novel Award-winning Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. A registered paediatric nurse for 20 years, Christie is now patron of the Royal College of Nursing Foundation. She spent most of her career in paediatric intensive care in large NHS hospitals.

Christie is also the tutor of our upcoming Writing Your Memoir course in London, across three months she’ll lead a group of 15 writers during weekly in-person teaching sessions and workshops. Course begins 13 Sept, apply by 7 Aug.

We’re thrilled to have you on board as the tutor of our upcoming Writing Your Memoir course. What’s your favourite part of teaching?

Everyone has their own unique voice, and a story that belongs only to them. Drawing out confidence in this authenticity is possibly my favourite part of facilitating workshops. Much of writing memoir (and all writing) is digging down for treasure. It’s hard work and takes such grit and energy but watching a student discover their personal gold is quite magical. In learning something new about a character or story, writers learn something new about themselves too. It’s a transformative process, and two-way. Everyone I’ve ever worked with creatively makes me see the world a little differently.

Your nursing career formed the basis of your first two non-fiction books: The Language of Kindness and Courage to Care. What initially sparked your interest in writing about your own first-hand experience of caring for patients?

I’ve always loved medical memoir and When Breath Becomes Air remains one of my favourite books. I spent years reading Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, Gabriel Weston, and many other brilliant doctor writers, but could not find any books by nurse writers in the UK. As a novelist it didn’t occur to me to write narrative non-fiction or memoir until I found a gap in the market, a hole in my reading. As Toni Morrison said, ‘if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t yet been written, then you must write it’.

Your latest book Quilt on Fire is all about living through midlife. What inspired you to shift focus from writing about nursing to focusing in on some of those more personal moments of your own life?

All my books are deeply personal, even the novels. For example, I write extensively about my dad’s death in The Language of Kindness, and adopting my son in The Courage to Care. Quilt on Fire has a chapter on sex so maybe people assume it’s more personal, which I find interesting, but it’s really a mixture (I hope) of the personal and general, the minutiae of life, as well as the profound. I choose to balance my ideas in this way stylistically because, like patchwork quilts, we are all made up of many parts, though I shifted the tone from narrative non-fiction to memoir perhaps in Quilt on Fire.

What is the most challenging part of writing about real life?

Writing about real life means that when people critique your work, they are also critiquing your life, and that is quite terrifying.

What memoirs have you enjoyed reading recently?

I’ve been re-reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking which gets better on each reading, and Original Sins by Matt Roland Hill, a beautifully powerful exploration of his greatest loves: heroin, and Jesus.

Do you have any routines or rituals that help you get writing?

I am lucky enough that it’s my day job, so I treat it was such. I write during ‘office hours’ (and some), but before I was writing full time I had to squeeze in snippets of time wherever I could, often writing at 5am with a massive pot of coffee before my children woke, or I had to go to work. But all of writing however much time there is takes sitting down with a pen and paper, or computer, and just doing it.

Could you share your top three tips for writers who want to write a memoir?

  • Read. Memoir, obviously, but also poetry, scripts, fiction and non-fiction, essays, graphic novels. Read everything.
  • Write. It’s a muscle like any other and you can train it. Write memories, dreams, characters from your life, your grandmother’s risotto recipe, it doesn’t really matter. Write every day, even if for only a few minutes.
  • Walk. Much of writing is thinking, (most of writing, in fact). Walking helps.

If you want to be taught by Christie this autumn, apply for our three-month Writing Your Memoir course. Deadline 7 Aug.