‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’
Ten years ago I stood outside Michael Rosen’s old east London home, clutching a tupperware box full of dark chocolate cupcakes. I was nervous and now looking back, completely unprepared.
To start with, Michael Rosen, (who is perfectly suited to a Quentin Blake illustration), answered the door in his dressing gown. This was unexpected, but also remarkably reassuring. It confirmed to me that, aside from the Children’s Laureate bit, he was just like my uncle Geraint – as not only did they share the same politics, postcode (they were neighbours) and accent, they had the same taste in robes.
I offered the cupcakes to him, by way of thanks for agreeing to see me and he carried them through to his daughter, who was colouring in the warm kitchen, to see if she wanted one. She took one bite and decided to leave it. I apologised, wishing I baked something more enticing. Now years later, with two daughters of my own, I realise I should have brought something sweet and colourful with rainbow icing and a unicorn on the top. Hindsight and all that. Anyway back then it left me sitting in their kitchen floundering. Rosen kindly offered me a line:
‘So your uncle says you want to be a writer?’
‘Yes’, I say. ‘Any advice?’
To the point, not dressed up – much like his attire. His response was so simple, I felt foolish for even asking. I don’t know what I expected. A magic formula probably, something I could stir into my morning cup of coffee. Anyway I didn’t really know what to say to that and watched the golden ticket I’d been given fade away. Still, despite my obvious lack, he was kind to me and sent me away with a gift much better than the one I brought- a copy of his ‘Sad Book,’ a story about his grief at the sudden death of his son. A poignant, wonderful, necessary book, that is very treasured in our house. But alas, in the same spirit as everything else I did that day, I forgot to get it signed.
What Rosen didn’t say was how difficult it is to ‘just write.’ When the subject of what I do comes up in the school playground, as it invariably does, I think the other mums and dads don’t know whether to take my response seriously or not. ‘How nice,’ they reply, as if I spend my days dreamingly staring out of the window, occasionally penning a word or two. An easy, simple life that must be. My husband, Kenny knows different. Last week he said: ‘Why are you still writing?’ You’ve chosen two of the hardest jobs in the world,’ by which he means writing and being a mum.
Writing is a mountain of work with little pay, crumbs of affirmation- if you’re lucky, with a lot of lonely fumbling around in the dark, hoping that in the end all your efforts will produce something good. You waste a lot of hours battling self-doubt, thinking you could never ever write anything near as good as the award-winning book you’ve just read while at the same time trying not to refresh your inbox just in case someone somewhere thinks what you’ve written is worth publishing. I know, an enviable job spec- right? A dream? Well yes. No. Sometimes. And this is probably why you should be a writer- that in spite of everything, you keep going regardless. Because while being good with words and loving stories are the foundations to being a writer, they won’t help you finish a first draft. Or a second. Or even a tenth. But perseverance, grit and determination in the face of everything – will. And it makes sense. To be good in any job you have to put in the effort, time- you have to turn up.
The problem is finding the time or money to turn up when your other job is being a full time mum. It’s not as if you can leave your kids back in the office- or that being a mum supports your writing in any way. And you don’t get weekends off, holidays or days in lieu. Let’s just say you have to be flexible, ideally have a supportive partner and be prepared to go a little insane- waking up at 5am to write sometimes, writing with a kid on your lap, taking a notepad with you to the park. Now my youngest is in nursery I have a few dependable hours to write in the morning, but it would be great if there were more spaces and opportunities for mums to ‘just write,’ for mum’s who choose creative careers, because they can’t imagine not being creative. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if more residencies offered a creche or a family space or there was funding available for childcare costs? Just think of all the writing we mums could do then. In the meantime these little pockets of time are all I have and so I am going to try, with all the grit and determination I can muster, to use them well.