Hannah Foley originally trained as a nurse before returning to education to study Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art - a decision that inadvertently led her to a career in writing and also back to nursing. She tells us about the challenges of working in the creative sector and why stories are important when working as a nurse.
|Year of graduation
At the moment
I work part-time as a district nurse, and part-time writing. This is the best balance I have had creatively since graduating. The constant freelance hustle for work was really bad for my mental health. I live back in my home county of Devon and I'm a mum of three.
Your time at the University
Stories are at the core of good nursing – the stories of how people got to where they are, and why, and what they imagine the future holds. Listening to my patients’ stories, and sometimes sharing my own too, has been a form of life support for so many.
I came to Edinburgh College of Art as a mature student (although 28 doesn’t seem that mature now!). I’m from a working class background so art college was never an option straight from school, despite my teachers encouraging me to apply. I moved up with my partner and 18 month-old daughter. The University’s childcare grant was the deal-breaker for us as to whether we could make it work financially. Each year we’d re-apply and be on the edge of out seats waiting to find out whether we’d be able to stay or not.
We couldn’t afford rents in the city so we lived in a cottage on a farm in the Borders. We had loads of adventures out there, and got snowed in lots! I loved being part of the local community. The three of us travelled into the city each day together. My daughter attended the University's day nursery, which was like a wonderful family.
There’s so much going on in Edinburgh and I was eager to get into everything I could. In my lunch breaks I headed over to the National Gallery for their lunchtime lectures. In the evenings I attended extra classes through the Adult Education programme. I loved my art theory lectures, which opened my eyes to whole new ways of seeing the world. But it wasn’t all straightforward and I wrestled with what on earth I was doing there, and fiddling around drawing bad pictures – or that’s how I saw myself anyway! I’m grateful to one of the lecturers on the Illustration course, Vivian French, who went on to be formative in my postgraduate direction.
Your experiences since leaving the University
After graduating I worked as a freelance illustrator and designer. I did any work I could get my hands on, from designing logos for plumbers' vans through to illustrations for national charities, and even a couple of picture books. I was working very hard, earning very little. The slog of finding work, negotiating contracts, and chasing payments took its toll, and I could feel myself sinking. I’d kept in contact with Vivian, who was generous enough to informally mentor me and two other illustration graduates.
All illustrators carry a sketchbook with them. Every time I travelled to see Viv for a mentoring session, I’d get my sketchbook out, but instead of drawing I found myself writing. Over a period of time I’d written a story about a girl who is part-cat. Despite Viv’s support, my mental health got worse, and I decided that I just couldn’t carry on with illustration. When I first left school I’d trained to be a nurse, so I applied for a Return To Practice course.
Around this time, I heard about the Scottish competition for unpublished children’s authors, the Kelpies Prize. I typed up my story and entered it - a swansong as I bade farewell to a creative life forever! You can imagine my shock when not only was I shortlisted, but actually won the prize. 'The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle' has just been published (March 2021).
I did return to nursing, but I also write. I have a very wonderful agent who is helping me to develop more of my stories for publication. It’s not where I imagined I’d end up when I first went to Edinburgh, but I’m really happy it turned out this way.
Life during Covid-19
During the pandemic, it has been easy to feel that the only parts of my identity that counted were being a nurse and being a home-schooling mum. I think a lot of people working in the creative sectors can relate to that feeling. The arts have really suffered. But stories are at the core of good nursing – the stories of how people got to where they are, and why, and what they imagine the future holds. Listening to my patients’ stories, and sometimes sharing my own too, has been a form of life support for so many.
Don’t be afraid of reversing out of a dead-end, and don’t take rejection personally. Someone once told me, it’s just the universe redirecting you.
Be nice, and people will always want to work with you again.
Keats said, “That which is creative must create itself”. If you’re from a working-class background like I am, you’re going to have to make this up as you go along – there’s not going to be the financial support or connections you need to get on in the creative sectors. Be as creative about yourself as you are with your work.
Hannah's website (external)
Hannah's book 'The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle' is also features in the March 2021 Alumni Bookshelf.