On writing and motherhood

I wrote this post a while back for the Faber blog, and thought I'd share it here:

The pram in the hall, far from signaling the end of creativity, can be its spur, or so it was for me. Motherhood sped me up: I completed a draft of my first novel, Homecoming, in six months, writing each day in a race against the moment the baby would stand up in his cot and yell for me, telling me in no uncertain terms his nap was over.

Prior to that, I had spent ten years on languid, pootling passages which seemed to go nowhere. Give me a day’s writing back then, and I would gaze out of the window, waiting for some fairy-muse to transmit its magic through my much-chewed pen.

I think I had some notion that writing ‘came to you’, if you waited long enough. What proved more productive, for me, was learning that writing thrives on confinement – the confinement of a purposeful structure, the tight corners of a story which needs to be told. It doesn’t waft in through the window on puffs of pink air and travel wherever it will. (Or if it does, those are the passages you should probably cut.)

My own writing began to thrive in the confinement of having children – snatched hours alone, the small spaces in which I could think about something other than them. When you are with small children, it is extraordinarily hard to achieve anything that isn’t tending to them, so the contrast was positively exhilarating.

They are not babies now – school has elongated my writing time and to some degree, made it less urgent. But there are still times when the small rotations of looking after the children will allow some idea to percolate in my unconscious. We will be trudging ever so slowly up the hill after school, for example, laden with bags and coats and they will be regaling me with Important Facts About Superheroes and often I’ll find myself saying ‘Really? And can he fly?’ and at the same moment a knot will be untangling itself in a particular scene and I can see a way forward.

At bedtime, I have found myself reading a passage aloud to them from Enid Blyton or a picture book we’ve read a thousand times and some other part of my mind is writing, and it is as if it has been freed from its controlling other half.

There is something else, which might have come from age as much as from motherhood. I came to respect the dogged, patient aspect of the work. How much a novel relies on sheer persistence, like chipping away at the rock until the shape emerges. In the past, I have likened it to knitting because it has an artisan quality, but one sexist reviewer used this reference to belittle me as men down the ages have belittled the dogged, patient and creative work of caring for small children: the revisions and revisions and self-correction of motherhood and of writing. I don’t think we have ever given this work its due: it’s time we respected the nature of it, instead of idealizing the hard-drinking 3am freedoms of the male author.

Once a mother, I couldn’t wait for the muse – there wasn’t time, the baby was about to rouse – what mattered was getting it down on the page, and then doggedly going back and making it better, and going back and making it better. And going back and making it better.

It is a long game, with children and with novels.