Sunday, 6 January 2013

How Chrissy became my Launchpad into Journalism

I'm not a great one for New Year's resolutions as I've never managed to stick to any but this time of year often brings us fresh perspectives. As you can see from this blog, I've been caught up with my struggles to get Chrissy better and to get her the care she needs - so much so that, recently, I've let other things in my life slip, like my journalism career.

I've had over 1000 articles published in Glamour, Woman, Woman's Own, Best, Reveal, Take A Break, Pick Me Up, Sun, Mirror and Daily Mail, among others, but in my mid-thirties when I started working as a freelance journalist I was untrained and inexperienced.

I had always enjoyed writing for pleasure but never dreamed I could write and get paid for it. In fact, like many mums of young children, I struggled to get paid for any kind of work! It's even tougher when your child has significant difficulties, as it's hard to get childcare, there are more medical emergencies and hospital appointments, and of course the dreaded school holidays! I took on various jobs from party-plan to medical secretarial work but never earned enough to make a significant contribution to the household budget.

Back then of course, there was no internet and I was always on the lookout for stories in newspapers and magazines about children with disabilities but everything I found was about better known disabilities such as Down's Syndrome or autism. I never read anything about a child like Chrissy, who then, didn't have a diagnosis - not even autism. Her Geneticist at Great Ormond Street Hospital told me that Chrissy wasn't unusual - they were unable to pinpoint a cause for problems in 30-40% of their patients. 'There has to be an article here,' I thought.

I bought a book called 'The Writers & Artists Yearbook,' to get contact details for all the magazine publishers, and sent around a synopsis about what it was like not to have a diagnosis or medical label for my child. I didn't even have a fax initially - I posted it out to commissioning editors on all the leading women's magazines.

Two magazines came back - Woman's Realm, which folded in 2001, and Woman's Weekly. I went with Woman's Weekly because they were the first to offer me a commission. I was honest with them about my inexperience and they kindly gave me a detailed brief to follow about how they wanted the piece written.

My first ever published story (Apologies for the poor copy. It's the only one I have!)

Disability Now also published our story. It's a shame that they will no longer consider pieces written by anyone other than the person who has the disability. It means that people like Chrissy, are given no voice in their publication.

The two magazines had a similar readership so Woman's Realm couldn't run it too but they asked if I had any similar stories. I did! I knew lots of women with great stories - some of them mums, some single - all happy to make a bit of extra money and see their story in print. My friend's story about being at loggerheads with her husband over whether to take their disabled son on a family holiday was my next published piece. I was also invited to an 'Ideas Meeting' at Woman's Realm. What an honour! I guarantee it wouldn't happen today - much more difficult to break into the industry. The commissioning ed took me under her wing as she was keen to plunder my contacts. In return she helped me to hone my feature-writing skills without stealing my stories or my bylines! I asked her if she could recommend any correspondence courses and she told me about one that she'd heard good reviews about - unfortunately no longer operating. While I was learning how to build a freelance journalism business, I was still getting articles published and getting paid for them.

I branched out into training, and wrote and delivered trainings on managing challenging behaviour using communication strategies. I also trained and advised aspiring young journalists at an FE college and worked as an external verifier for journalism courses at colleges and universities. Meanwhile, I did a stint teaching adults with learning disabilities at an FE college while gaining a Further Adult Education Teaching Certificate.

My career success gave me the boost I needed to approach publishers about my book idea. My self-help book 'Bringing Up a Challenging Child at Home: When Love is Not Enough' was published by Jessica Kingsley, London in 2000. Ten years later I wrote a chapter for a book published by the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled the ‘Genetics of Mental Retardation,’(Karger).

Chrissy's story continues with this blog. Did I really start it over two years ago?! It seems like only yesterday when I was grappling with HTML and the like!

Through this blog I've been offered some great stories but I also want to let you know that, although my own story is about raising a child with a learning disability, I would love to hear from you about stories on any subject!

To give you an idea, here are some topics I've written about and am looking for stories on:

Seasonal stories - currently those with a Mother's Day or spring/easter hook
Health stories - an unusual take on a common illness works well.
Funny, quirky, heartwarming & shocking real-life stories.
Age gap relationships.
Weight loss due to shocking photo.
Cheating saved my relationship.
Botched cosmetic surgery.
Strong fertility story.
Someone who found out partner was leading a double life.
Woman whose wedding went wrong, was engaged many times, or suffered any sort of betrayal.
Mum whose child has problems with alcohol or is very overweight.
Strong relationship or true-life stories that you can imagine reading in a magazine.

Alternatively visit my Facebook page to connect with me, see examples of my stories and get more info.

Look forward to hearing from you soon!

I am a SWAN UK (Syndromes without a Name) blogger


  1. Wow, Jane, you've written loads of stuff - and all thanks to Chrissy. :)

    I love your book, 'Bringing Up a Challenging Child at Home' I've read it through twice and often pick it up and let the pages fall open to read an odd chapter.

    I have so much admiration for the way you coped in those early years when there was no help or support or even knowledge of how to manage Chrissy's disruptive episodes. Even today, in Chrissy's adult life, you're still very much a hands-on mum. Lots of people would have given up through sheer exhaustion. I don't know where you find the strength but you're always there fighting on the front line for Chrissy's rights and I expect you always will be. xx

    1. Thanks Michelle, I'm lucky to have good support networks too, through family mainly, & friends II've met through Chrissy - online & in person. Also had great advice & help through Unique, SWAN, Challenging Behaviour Foundation & Menacp. Coming through those tough early years made me determined to speak out about the challenges we & many other families face while caring for someone with a complex learning disability. Writing is a wonderful way of giving our daughters a voice isn't it & pretty handy that it's work we.ran do around them when we need to xxx