Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The pram in the hall

'There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.'

So spake Cyril Connolly, the English intellectual. But was he right? And if he was, does that mean that the creative work of mothers is relegated to some kind of second tier? Clearly not, as the works of many famous writers who are also parents show. Writers such as Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Trapido, Alice Walker - all mothers. The other shining example of the victory of creativity over domestic circumstance is actually the experience of a father - JG Ballard, who brought up his three children after the death of his wife, and still managed to write Empire of the Sun. Here he is talking about it in the Observer. (I'm definitely going to take up his habit of starting the day with a large scotch and soda..!)

But he did have something, did Cyril. There is something about becoming a mother that is all-encompassing, and threatening.

It is not so much a risk to creativity itself, in my view. I have never felt as creative as since I have had my children, and they most definitely foster and inform my creativity. Being a parent has also allowed me to experience a range of emotion that I would have not had access to without that experience. I actually think that having children has concentrated my mind and forced me to discipline myself and my creative priorities, instead of drifting about, waiting for the muse to alight on my shoulder.

Becoming a mother more a threat to productivity and output; both from a practical time perspective, and to the head space, to the mental energy that is needed to produce a piece of creative work. The problem with being a mother is that it is eternal, twenty four hours a day and forever. And, here's the kicker, being the archetype that it is, it nearly always takes precedence over every other role that a woman can assume. So there is no doubt that the mother and the writer (or artist/musician etc) will be constantly warring for supremacy. So how did those famous writing mothers (and fathers) do it, and how do we do it now? How do we do the right thing by our children, and the right thing by ourselves as writers and creative people?

There is no doubt, in my view, that what children need is to be with their parents or at the very least a one-to-on carer such as a nanny or grandparent during the first two years of their lives. Research into child develpoment is pretty conclusive on this subject. So how do you as a mother and a writer square that circle? I'm not sure if you can. Most women's CVs have a kind of hiatus that coincides with the birth of children. In some ways you have to resign yourself to it. If you want children, that is the sacrifice you have to make. There is something about especially the first year of any baby's life, when writing becomes some strange far-off thing, somewhere way down on the list of priorities, of which the number one is sleep! Some writers, such as Michele Roberts, are not prepared to make that sacrifice and take a deliberate decision not to have children. Some days I wish I'd joined them, especially on reading 'This Be the Verse', by Philip Larkin, and 'They F**k You Up', by psychologist Oliver James.

However, it is also true that children are happiest when their family life and parents are happy too. This means that there is no point in sacrificing yourself on the altar of your children's needs. All you will end up with is bitterness and resentment. When you emerge from the baby stage of your children's life, it does get a little easier. Then it becomes more of a practical challenge of working out how to manage the enormous amount of work involved in looking after children, how to manage your working life (if you are back in the workplace) and still carve out time for your creative work! It ain't easy, that's for sure. Throwing money at the problem does help, as does letting go of guilt (ha!) and many writers are grateful for the help of legions of child-minders, after-school clubs, cleaners, housekeepers (oh, I wish!!). That's not to mention all those wonderful partners/husbands and grandparents who take on their fair share of the work.

That's a lot of effort and organisation - as sure as eggs are eggs, you'll be the one with the overview of which child is where when, and what they need to have with them, what they need to have for breakfast, lunch and tea, and every other little detail. This can just fill your head up with admin. It's not so much organising it all, it's the thinking about organising it all that gets you....

The bottom line is that if you want to succeed as a writer-mother, you have to have written through your core, like a stick of Blackpool rock - Writing is important and I am determined to find a way. You have to stop wasting time. You can be as productive as your single male counterparts. Just think how much time they waste 'playing the writer' in Starbucks, posing with their Moleskine notebooks/laptop!!

And you have to stop using motherhood as an excuse not to write. You have to look inside your heart and really think about what is stopping you. If it is practicalities, you will always find a way. If it is something else....then you have to face up to those demons.

So. You need the organsational efficiency of a major general, the stamina of an downhill skier (sorry, been watching the Winter Olympics!) , Margaret Thatcher's need for sleep and the focused mind of a zen buddhist. Not much then, but as Confucius said,
'The greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.'

And there is time. When you're in the grip of life with young children, it is easy to feel like your own life is slipping away. But that stage, like all others, doesn't last. There is, and will be, time for writing.

Good luck and don't give up.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Half Term

This week the kids are around as it's half term. This, although great fun, tends to reduce the writing to furtive scribbling in any spare moment or two. The other day, Dear Daughter came into my room, saw me with my notebook, promptly turned around and went out again. I heard her saying to her brother, 'There's no point, she's doing that writing again.' Of course, I then felt guilty, so I have resolved to try and give them a bit of attention this week, rather than have them jostling at my elbow, as they're doing as I write this on the laptop at my parent's-in-law! Today we had a lovely walk at Wyming Brook in Sheffield. The walk runs along a valley with a babbling brook in the bottom that tumbles over huge mossy rocks, with pine trees and beech trees growing on the surrounds. It is really very beautiful.

I'm always interested in women who write and have children and have to juggle the opposing demands on their time and attention. The novelist Sophie Hannah, has always been quite open about putting her children into nursery in order to give herself time to write. Others seem to manage writing at the kitchen table while the children play aroung their feet, although I do remember reading, I think, that Fay Weldon said she hardly wrote anything for the ten years that her three children were small! She did however publish at least one novel during this time, so she can't have entirely been concentrating on child-rearing!

So how does everyone else do it?! Is it just a matter of compromise, like a lot of other things in family life? (I'm multi-tasking as I write this - brokering a peace agreement between Small Son and his little cousin!) Will have to close now, as am being kicked off the dining table so we can all have tea....!

Friday, 12 February 2010


I have a lot on my mind at the moment. Mainly choice of schools or otherwise for the kids. It's an agonising decision process that has led me to question my attitudes to education, society, money, parenting, aspiration, risk-taking and control, amongst other things... There have been tears and sleepless nights. Maybe I would be better off if I didn't think about things so much, indeed some might say that I am prone to over-analysis. But I can't help it. I am a thinker. That is what I do. I can't not think, and I can't not be passionate about the things I believe in.

Here is not the place to enter into a discussion about the politics and ideologies of education and my views and emotions on it all. Suffice to say, it has distracted me from my writing, and I have achieved half of what I normally would this week, mainly because my time has been taken up with school visits and meetings. However, we have a limited time in which to make our decisions, and I think I will feel better once it is done and we can move on.

Life does sometimes get in the way of writing, but I am hopeful that no experience is wasted, and can be mined for inspiration later on!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Back in the saddle!

Picking up my notebook and writing my 1000 words was really hard this morning. I avoided and procastinated, until I couldn't put it off any longer.

I wrote rubbish, no doubt of that, but the engine is clearing and hopefully good things will come, eventually.

The thought of how hard it is going to be is so much worse than the reality of just sitting down and getting on with it. But I think that ploughing on with it, even when you would far rather be doing something else, is what it takes to get a novel written, even a novel of dubious literary merit, such as mine.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Well, he can fly a sleigh, can't he....?!

This blog occasionally has the tendency to slip into becoming a record of funny things my kids say. Here's a cracker:

5 Year old Daughter has a tendency to embark on deep and meaningful conversations over breakfast when The Consultant and I are just struggling to wakefulness with the aid of caffeine. The other day she started quizzing us about gravity. I just looked the other way in a 'that's not my area' kind of fashion, so she zoned in on her dad.

First of all, she tells him what she knows about gravity; that everything has it and that it is what holds everything down. Then she pipes up,

'But what exactly is gravity?'

The Consultant gives what I think is a very coherent answer for that time in the morning,

'Well, no-one really knows. There are a group of scientists in Switzerland who are doing experiments to see if they can find out the answer.'

She ponders this for a moment. Then,

'But why don't they just ask Father Christmas?'

Friday, 5 February 2010


I'm feeling a bit better today. The antibiotics have clearly started working. However, I feel like I haven't slept for a week, even though that's all I've been doing for most of it. I've had the stuffing knocked out of me, as my mother used to say.

Anyway, on the mend now and will just have to write this week up to experience. It has certainly reminded me what having a fever is like. Could come in handy sometime.

Although I haven't done much writing on the long project this week, I have still written my morning pages, and on here, so it hasn't been an entirely barren writing week. I do still have this sense of not wanting to let the engine stall for fear of it not starting again. I'm already a bit anxious about the thought of going back to my long project notebook on Monday. But I do want to get that word count on this first draft up a bit, so will be there bright and early to knuckle down to it.

I think I'm concerned because I've been writing this long project almost every day and the story has been flowing and now I have stopped for nearly a week, I'm worried about picking up the threads again. This is when you start wishing you had planned a bit and made notes...

But this is an experiment just for me, to see how I get on with producing something more spontaneously than usual. So we shall see how the week's interruption affects it all. More next week, undoubtedly...

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Take up thy bed and dance...

Music has the power to heal the sick. Honest, it really does.

Go to Youtube and listen to this, and I defy you not to be uplifted! At the very least you should be dancing around your laptop. If you ever get a chance to see these guys play live, GO! They are just brilliant. Totally and utterly life-affirming.

I feel better already...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


So my week isn't going so well. After my resolution to keep on keeping on, I have been struck down by tonsillitis. I haven't had this since I was a student and just goes to show that I have perhaps been a little under stress in the last few weeks. I've got some stuff I'm worried about and I have been going over and over it in my mind, to the extent to which I'm even boring myself, so I won't subject you to it here.

I feel horrible, hence I'm up blogging at 3am. My body clock is all over the place as I have spent the last day and night sleeping and waking and sweating and shivering. My throat feels like it's full of slimy razor blades, and my head is hurting like you would not believe. I have maxed out on the number of paracetemol and ibuprofen tablets I can take in one day, so here I am, trying to take my mind off it all. I've started on some penicillin so I'm just hoping and praying that it will start working soon and make me feel better.

I guess sometimes we just have to stop. We don't get a choice in the matter. And maybe it's for the best. Maybe I just need to rest and get myself well and concentrate on the basics. And I could probably find the good in it if I really had to... But it is just so damned inconvenient when your life slides to a standstill and you stumble out of the wreckage completely askew.

Is it time to try for some sleep again? Would probably be a good idea. At least I might stand a chance of making it through tomorrow. Goodnight!

Monday, 1 February 2010

That's life.

You have all these commitments, plans and good intentions. On a normal week you can just about squeeze in under the wire, having contorted yourself physically and mentally, to manage all the tasks you have set yourself for that allotted time. It's like a very complex juggling routine. Like the ones where the man in the leotard stands on a barrel and rolls it at the same time as juggling flaming torches and holding a bunch of flowers in his teeth.

The problem is that if one single element goes wrong, then the whole thing goes spectacularly, badly, disastrously wrong, and no-one wants to see a man in a leotard lying spread-eagled across a barrel with a flaming torch stuck in a sensitive place. (I think I've taken this man in a leotard metaphor as far as I can without it threatening to become the most interesting thing about this post...)

So, last week I was ill thanks to the generosity of my best friend and her cold virus, and this week Small Son is streaming with cold and looking a bit pitiful. He is presently ensconced in the spare room watching Fireman Sam DVDs. So what happens? All the writing and all the other stuff planned while everyone is out of the house is seriously threatened. What can you do? Well, just your best really. I have started to realise that despite my best efforts, the wheels will just come off sometimes and there's not a lot I can do about it. So I will perhaps pick up my notebook and get a few minutes in which to scribble things down. I can even try for my 1000 words, but in all likelihood, it ain't going to be happening.

I could get all antsy about it. That is my usual technique - to crash about in a horrible mood if I don't get time to myself. But that takes a lot of energy. And I'm a bit over unnecessary effort. So I shall just do my best, and keep on keeping on.