“How do you manage to write with small children?”
This is the question I’m asked most often at public readings, usually with an expression of bemusement or sometimes suspicion, as if I’m concealing a phalanx of secret nannies behind my front door. My answer amounts to a mumble about utilizing evenings and nap-times, so I decided it was high time I write a more detailed description of what it’s like and how I do it.
Here is my guide to the much-discussed pairing of babies and books.
1. If you are a writer who becomes pregnant, there will be no shortage of people who will seek to slap you down.
“Every baby costs you a book,” they will gleefully chant at you, or — worse — quote Cyril Connolly
’s odious assertion: "She [the artist’s wife] will know that there is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall." Ignore them. Or, better still, reel off this list of writers who balanced babies and books: Mary Wollstonecraft
, Mary Shelley
, Mrs. Gaskell
, Sylvia Plath
, J. G. Ballard
, Toni Morrison
, Alice Munro
, Jhumpa Lahiri
, Zadie Smith
, Curtis Sittenfeld
, Kate Atkinson
, J. K. Rowling
... and so on. Keep going until the porlockian person backs away.
2. To my mind, the most somber enemy of good art is the router in the hallway.
When you have a precious 20 minutes or half an hour to write, the last thing you need is to be distracted by an email or a reminder about that eBay auction or an urge to check the news headlines. Switch it off; I repeat, switch it off.
3. Buy a sling.
Invest in the most comfortable, ergonomic one you can afford.
New babies are never happier or drowsier than when close to their mother’s chest. Slide them in after a feed, walk about for a bit to settle them, then as soon as they are asleep, head to your desk. When my children were babies, I often wrote sitting on one of those inflatable birthing balls. If the baby showed signs of waking up, I’d bounce gently up and down, lulling them with motion. They got used to the sound of the clattering keyboard; I could swear that my daughter’s eyelids still droop when she hears the sound. NB: this only applies to babies. Your nine-year-old might take exception to being strapped to your chest.
4. When you are trying to listen to one child who is telling you about something that happened at school, while their sibling is yelling about lions into your other ear, while their elder brother is asking you, can he get some sheet music for his trumpet, can he, can he, can he get it right now, don’t despair.
Try not to scream: “One at a time, please!” Or: “For the love of God, will you all just take turns?” Just think to yourself, this is good practice for handling multiple voices in my novel. I am gathering excellent skills in polyphony, in differing viewpoints, in overlapping dialogue. This is all good. I am not going to lose my rag here.
(On a related note, I have, on occasion, resorted to putting on the oven timer for two minutes and saying, "If nobody asks me anything until that bell goes, you all get ice cream after dinner." It works. For every one. But you can’t do it too often.)
5. You’ll have no headspace or quiet reflective moments for about the next 15 years. Get over it.
The consolation prize for this is that it acts as a highly effective filter. Only the good stuff will make it through, will become manifest on the page. Not having enough time to write or think means that not only will you learn to concentrate with the intensity of a telekinetic but that you won’t be going off down blind alleys and up shit creeks in your work. Children are brilliant editors, not in that they will go through your manuscript with a red pen, but in that they occupy so much space in your mind that the bad and weak ideas will be cut off at the pass. I cut much, much less from my books that I used to before I had children.
6. There will be days, weeks, even months when it will feel as though you never get time to sit at your desk, to pick up a pen, to open a notebook. Remind yourself that only a small percentage of a writer’s job is done while physically writing.
Much mental labor is achieved while you are otherwise occupied, while you are looking the other way, while you are engaged on some other, perhaps mundane task. So it may look as though you are washing up, folding laundry, slicing the crusts off toast, but you are, deep inside your head, actually working. I’m a great believer that, no matter what you are doing, an engine is running somewhere inside your head, generating ideas, solutions, questions, metaphors, even though you may not be aware of it.
When I read through the final draft of my latest manuscript, I was bothered by the fact that I’d used the word "penumbra" twice. "Penumbra" is a beautiful word, but you can’t use it more than once, not even in a 500-page novel: that would be wrong. I spent weeks puzzling over a synonym that would do instead. "Meniscus?" I would wonder, as I served soup to my kids. No. "Adumbration?" Too ugly. "Halo," "veil," "shroud?" One night, my daughter woke me in the middle of the night, feeling sick. I was scraping puke off a sheet at 3 a.m. when the word "corona" slid into my head. "Corona," I thought with relief, as I loaded the washing machine, as I cuddled my feverish child: perfect.
7. Your kids won’t care if you get on the bestseller lists or win a prize.
Think of this as a refreshing detox for your ego. I had the following conversation with one of my children:
Me (putting down the phone): I won the Costa Novel Award!
Child: Oh. What’s for dinner?
8. Keep notebooks everywhere.
In the kitchen, in the living room, beside your bed, behind the cistern in the loo. You never know when you might need to get something in ink. But be prepared to share them. I once went back to what I’d thought were some pertinent images that I’d scribbled down in the middle of the night, only to find them obliterated by drawings of neon, airborne unicorns.
9. Holidays. Forget them.
The word "holiday" now means exactly its antonym. Writing is now your holiday and, just think, you don’t even have to get on a plane.
10. Defend your writing time with ferocity.
Don’t pay any heed to the siren song of domestic tasks. If your child is napping or out at school or with a partner/grandparent/friend/babysitter, use your time for working and nothing else. Go to work, go directly to work: do not pass Go, do not collect $200. It’s crucial to develop the skill of turning your head and walking past the piles of laundry, snowdrifts of dust, ziggurats of dirty dishes. These things can wait; your writing can’t.
11. Don’t feel guilty about taking time to write.
Guilt is no use to you here. Throw yourself headlong into whatever is in front of you, whether it’s writing or doling out small bowls of pasta or making potato prints. It’s good for your children to have a fulfilled parent, not a frustrated one. A child witnessing their parent working and being gratified by that work is an excellent lesson for them.
12. Develop a handful of ways to buy a little bit of time now and then.
Giving a tape dispenser to a small child is a surprising way of keeping them happy while you finish your paragraph (although you may find your drawers and cupboards taped shut or your phone stuck down for the next few weeks). I sometimes let my kids play with my address stamp or, if desperate, let them decorate the windows with Post-Its. If you have the space, a small kid-sized desk right next to yours is useful. A place for them to sit and "work" can buy you a precious five minutes here and ten minutes there. Stock it with paper, crayons, stickers, snacks. My three-year-old loves it when I give her my spare (unconnected) keyboard: she will sit for maybe two minutes, tapping away on it, saying, “Look at me working.” I have finished many a paragraph/phone call/email in this way.
13. School yourself to think of life with small children as a healthy antithesis to creativity.
No one can write well if they shut themselves away, if they don’t get out there and engage with the world. Children are brilliant at dragging you out of your ivory tower, your fictional landscape: they live in the moment, for the moment. It’s invigorating; it’s good for you. Trust me on this. If you stay in your room, writing, you’ll meet yourself coming back, like a mobius strip, and you’ll end up writing about someone sitting in their room, writing. Isabel Allende
once said that she didn’t believe in writers’ block, rather, “You just have to live a bit more.” Children will make you do this.
14. Lastly, make them aware that they come first and your writing comes second, whatever happens.
Don’t let them think for a minute that your work is their enemy, that it takes their parent away from them. This way resentment lies. I never wanted to be the kind of writer-mother who locks her door and keeps them out, like Oscar Wilde's
Selfish Giant and his garden. Yes, there will be times when they wake up much too early from a nap and burst into your study and you have just hit your stride and you’ll want to weep. But force yourself to smile joyously at the sight of their pajamaed self, shut your laptop with a snap, and hold out your arms, saying, just who I wanted to see. They are a living, breathing person, after all, and they need you. The people in the laptop can be put on hold. There’s always tomorrow.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of This Must Be the Place
and six previous novels, After You’d Gone
; My Lover’s Lover
; The Distance Between Us
, which won a Somerset Maugham Award; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
; The Hand That First Held Mine
, which won the Costa Novel Award; and Instructions for a Heatwave
, which was short-listed for the Costa Novel Award. She lives in Edinburgh.