Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Writing and motherhood 1

Famous writers and their daily routines conjure up frosty mornings at desks, the gleam of fresh ink on notebooks, the smell of coffee, the rhythmic, steady click of a keyboard, planned, brisk walks through nature that clear the mind and settle words back into their places,  armchairs and stacks of books with pieces of paper stuffed into them, lonely nights of writing, an admirable, torturous self-discipline. I like exploring the "how" of writing, those intricate, personal details of how words end up as stories. It seems to me an incredibly intimate process, those early drafts and struggles with the page and to glimpse them feels a little voyeuristic.

But of course, I can't look away. I am compelled to watch how it is done, my concentration simmering with an unspoken hope of finding that magic formula. E.B. White famously described his writing habits:
"I never listen to music when I'm working. I haven't that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn't like it at all. On the other hand, I'm able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There's a lot of traffic. But it's a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.
In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man - they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."
Haruki Murakami wakes at 4am and works for 5 or 6 hours and spends the afternoon going for a run and reading and is in bed by 9pm. Ernest Hemingway writes in the morning too, "as soon after first light as possible". Jodi Piccoult says, "Writer's block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." For Khaled Housseni writing everyday is important, whether one feels like it or not. He points out, "I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and colour." Henry Miller suggests writing to program and not to mood and to focus on only one work at a time.

All good advice. All relevant. Inspirational. Based on this I invent my own working routines. Things I'd like to stick to, or try to stick to. I nod as a read. I work best in the mornings too, but that's where reality sets in. Mornings don't belong to me anymore. The little one stirs around 5 am. I could at best swap scraps of sleep for a half hour stretch before the day begins and drags me with it. Day time naps are unpredictable - I find it unsettling to not know whether I have 10 minutes or an hour to work with. I'm left to consider the meager offerings of the heavy-lidded fuzz of evening writing , all that's left after a day shredded up by more immediate demands. I do get snatches of work done here and there, a blog post, some notes, a bit of editing, but nothing that really requires stamina. It seems that this is what I lack. 

I re-read the beautifully worded descriptions of their daily practices; confident, resolute, measured and controlled. They are recipes and habits that help produce something. That gives me a flutter of excitement. I picture Joan Didion, resolutely alone at her desk, as I read about her routine: 
"I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day. I can't do it late in the afternoon because I'm too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I'm really working I don't like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don't have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I'm in low spirits."
An hour alone. I know it will come eventually, but right now it seems as far as the stars. 

It seems that writing, like other creative pursuits (or a career for that matter), needs space. It requires time out of which these writing rituals can then be carved. Time and motherhood are two concepts at constant loggerheads, which gets me wondering whether there might be some truth to Cyril Connolly's oft quoted statement: "There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

That might be overly pessimistic (and quite frankly false). There is something about the tectonic shift that motherhood brings that moves you, changes you, and in a way, makes more of you. Experiences are heightened, emotions deepened, the human experience amplified and a new way of looking at the world made possible. Therefore it's not so much a question of whether motherhood dulls creativity (I'd have to argue that it doesn't), but rather a question of diverted time and attention. There, unfortunately, Connolly may have a point.

I know very well how traitorous time behaves around small children and babies to the point where time management becomes a meaningless concept. (You plan on working during nap time, but for whatever reason nap time has now disintegrated into a disastrous series of catnaps, for example). For anyone engrossed in their work, these unpredictable and constant interruptions are a problem. And as much as I would like to think otherwise, I sometimes secretly wonder whether it isn't a choice after all: work or motherhood. Is there really enough of you to be both?

(I will be following up these thoughts with a look at some writers who are also mothers in my next post.)

Sources: herehere and here

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