You may notice, maybe when you are half way through this ill-thought out ramble, that I don’t have an opening line to this post, but that I am writing it anyway. And although it is supposed to be a list, it’s actually just an overly-long series of ideas that would probably best be described as ‘over-caffeinated’. Better yet, you will see that I have over compensated for its failings by cleverly pointing them out in advance and making a feature of it.
Friends may recognise all of this from the other regular activities I undertake around my children such as ‘Baking Shit Cakes’ and ‘Making Shit Art’. But, not content with my triumphs in these areas, in recent months I have honed my technique and decided to extend it to ‘writing’.
I am not an expert at ‘writing’. I wrote pretty much my first words of fiction a whole 9 months ago, and am now the proud author of no fewer than two (no, three!) blog posts, a handful of short stories of varying quality and, oh, easily 50 crappy poems of varying gloominess.
Therefore I now consider myself qualified as an expert. Not at writing, obviously, but in beginning to write. Despite being the primary care-giver to two horrid and excellent little children, I have worked out how to carve out literally quite a few minutes every day to think creatively. Not well, you understand. Or very much. But not very much is better than nothing at all, which is what I wrote for the first five years of parenthood.
And it is that rare thing for parents: fun. I don’t wish to be melodramatic (although if you love melodrama, I do too). However, writing has given me all kinds of new skills and courage and I wondered if there was anyone else out there, dealing with wonderful children whose needs, they find, seep into the furthest corners of their minds and soak up every creative thought. Anyone who wants to grasp those wisps, those waves of feeling that we float in most days – to join the dots, pin them down, map them out. And yet, currently, find it totally beyond them.
And since I am newly confident and gobby (see point 7) I have therefore listed all the things that I think stopped me writing, and what made me realise that they were total bullshit. Also, if you are thinking about writing for the first time, I want to kind of grab your face like a drunk school friend at a wedding and tell you about how fucking amazing that idea is and how you should totally, just, do it.
So. Do you like to consume prize-winning literature, and also not-prize-winning literature that is actually popular, and leftover fish fingers? Do you have a penchant for blistering prose and anything up to 4 consecutive hours of sleep a night? Do you harbour a secret, desperate wish to tell a story, any story, that isn’t the official book of the film Frozen?
Welcome then, welcome all, to my guide to beginning to write when you are a parent of small children!
- GET READY.
If you don’t think you’re ready yet, here are some things that might help you to write (and keep writing) when you need to:
Keep the faith in yourself.
If you are tired – sorry, of course you are tired – and unable to do anything except maybe wear a bra (you too, ladies!) and lie on the floor while Shopkins figures are put all over your face to pay for passage to the underworld by your morbid children, then you have my heartfelt congratulations. You are a goddamn hero. You are the Bear Grylls of parenting, pushed to your physical limits in a terrible environment, eating things you have literally just found on the ground, simply to stay alive. There is not one parent who has seen Bear sleeping in a camel carcass and drinking his own pee and not thought about what a sweet fucking gig that is – getting paid to go on a mini-break without the kids. Where do I sign?
But know this: your actual brain – the bit that isn’t just humming the theme tune from Go Jetters – but the bit that is you, the bit that used to make dirty jokes and confidently start reading articles in newspapers as if you were going to finish them – well that isn’t sleeping either. It’s taking notes.
Keep a diary/write terrible things on the social media platform of your choice.
I spent years skirting around writing, moving around it like something ridiculous that I couldn’t quite bring myself to look at directly. I talked about how I should. I posted little stories – the kind that are funny once you have stopped crying in the bathroom after the kids are in bed. But actually writing – writing seemed awfully bold. As if somehow it gave too much value to my silly little thoughts, prompted as they were by the experience of caring for others, which is not real work at all, as we all know. Turns out these are a rich seam, my friends, and looking back through them is also the best contraceptive available to you, should you suddenly decide babies are adorable and that it would be a real hoot to impregnate yourself again.
Go outside. Move about a bit.
Turns out I had to run* before I could write. Surprisingly for someone ideologically opposed to exercise, I discovered that moving quickly is a real draw when journeys of 200 yards are normally a 15 minute marathon of coat refusals and checking for injured woodlice. How thrilling to leave the house in under an hour, without any felt tips. I would pass my partner in the doorway at bedtime, hand him a screaming child and literally run away, loping along for a bit and stopping whenever my lungs hurt. There were no apps, no measurements – of my fitness, my purpose. My brain ticked along to the rhythm of my feet and found new pathways. Buried phrases rose up and rattled along with me. I would come home – earthy, flushed, believing I could do anything. On a day when the sum total of your achievements is making a ham sandwich and not killing anyone, this is a great thing. Recommended.
*If you think running is terrifying and it also makes you look a knob, I totally understand. Just walk about in the park and stuff instead.
Find people who inspire you (and make you laugh).
To begin to write, you need a core group of people around you who think that writing is amazing and want to talk about it. I spent a few years chewing the fat with a small number of excellent women who inspired me with their words, written and otherwise, and their talent, obvious even to me. When we met, surrounded by small children, we did not speak about sleep routines or weaning – we discussed moral relativism, vaginas, feminism, fascism, ageing, our favourite books, poems, dick pics, short fiction. They introduced me to the very notion that a parent can be fiercely creative and clever and funny and exhausted all at once, and I consider myself very lucky to have met them.
And if you don’t know these excellent people, you can find others! Just as I was beginning to write, I stumbled across a stupendous group for writing mums on Facebook called BRILLIANT+AMAZING+WRITERS+MOTHERS and I cannot recommend them enough. They are warm, welcoming to everyone, even a rank amateur like me, and write professionally and otherwise in a huge range of fields. The purpose of the group is simple: to recognise everyone’s writing achievements no matter how small or big and provide inspiration and support. The effect of being accountable in this way is transformative, believe me. I felt so inspired by these peeps that I got all cocky and started my own small spinoff group for the people I actually knew, so that we could keep bloody going with our often amateur efforts, meet up in the pub maybe and have somewhere to share poems and stuff (we are the more prosaic ‘High Five Group for Writing Parents’ and are mostly in Gloucestershire). If you want to meet us all online, then do! Or if you have friends that write and you want to set up something similar, then bloody well do!
Read as much as you possibly can. Bonk-busters, obscure poetry, murder mysteries, myths, fantasy, teen fiction, philosphy, highbrow, lowbrow, mix it all up. You can read without writing, but you cannot write without reading (I read that somewhere). The form, the plot, the individual words of others are your first language; your mother tongue. To try to write without them would be like suddenly trying to speak Danish without even binge-watching Borgen first and saying ‘tak’ for a week like you could potentially speak Danish.
Step out of your comfort zone and try new genres. I had never read any poetry – and I mean literally none – apart from a bit, reluctantly, at school. And then I read the amazing Hollie Poetry’s work, which led me to other poets, and within a couple of months I was reading poetry all the fucking time – every dark winter morning in the kitchen, stirring the porridge with one hand, holding up Frost or Larkin with the other, squinting, ignoring my children. I mean, I was unbearable. And just think – you could be too!
Don’t wait for an opening line.
Those will come to you out of the blue one afternoon while your child is lying on the floor howling and you are on your hands and knees trying to retrieve a beeping panda key-ring from underneath a parked car. Everything is an entry point. Every bit of information, every weird little thought that you have is going towards something that will pop out of your mind and onto the page when you least expect it.
Start with one word. Or two if you are feeling unassailable.
Just to give you an example, the first things I ever wrote down for fun were two words on the notes app on my iPhone, while my children were arguing over the rings they got on their cakes in Greggs. They were (and get ready to be bowled over by my poetic soul): ‘manifest’ and ‘knotted’. That was it. I then had to stop to remove the plastic rings that were now being used as tiny knuckle dusters. And nothing else came of those words for several weeks. But there they were. I had noticed them somewhere; I liked the way they made me think of trees and open hands. And they had clung onto me somehow – tiny spores about my person, nudging into the fabric of my thoughts, unnoticed. Months later, they popped up again. If I had not dashed them down on my phone, they would have evaporated into the ether, a little part of myself, my voice, drowned out by the beat of my children’s fists on the table. Another little part of my experience, forgotten.
Salman Rushdie (and the BRILLIANT+AMAZING group) has provided me with My Favourite Quote About Writing:
‘…never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves, that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.’
I sense that Mr Rushdie never felt compelled to keep a hold on that time both his children and the cat shat on him at the same time. The very same time, you understand. Of course, I could be wrong. But you get the drift.
- WRITE QUICKLY
Listen up: you do have time.
If you are waiting for that day alone where no-one is going to interrupt you and you can bang out the purple prose, then you are going to be waiting a bloody long time. OK, you may get the odd day here or there in the eye of the offspring storm, but the crucial thing is that you need a very different mind-set to be creative now:
If you have an idea, a word, a phrase, write it anywhere, on anything, right then.
Roald Dahl kept scraps of paper with him so that he would never forget things while he was out. Thomas Hardy scratched things down on the backs of leaves while walking, if there was nothing else to hand – I’m not entirely sure how that is possible but then I have once used a leaf to wipe my child’s arse with in a stream in Dorset, so there’s my Hardy homage. Anyway, it doesn’t have to be good, or scratched on a fucking leaf, but just get it on the page. You can polish it up later. If you have a smart phone, as I understand some people do now, that’s always to hand. I always have glitter pens and heart-shaped princess notebooks in my coat pockets, along with a bunch of stones the children keep giving me, just like a shit Virginia Woolf.
Real or imaginary ones are equally good. Set goals, write them down and stick them somewhere visible. Tell people what you are going to do this week, so you feel committed to it. Personally, I like to imagine an angry bald man is shouting at me to just get on with it, but that’s something for my therapist. Without a deadline for a piece of work, all those other bullshit priorities will sneak in and steal your time. Really.
- WRITE EVERY DAY
Yes, every day. One word if it’s all you can. Delete it later if you think it is a stupid damn word. But every day.
The first actual things I wrote were, unbelievably, poems. A writing parent friend of mine talked me into joining a closed group on Facebook, where you were given a prompt and shared a poem each day for a month. And so I started writing poetry. Terrible, pretentious, teenage poetry. About death and sex and a bit more death, about my cooking (sex) and wrinkles (death) and my boobs (hard to say these days) and my children and poo and running and cleaning my teeth and that time I saw a famous person and spoke to them against their will for ten minutes about farting because I thought they were someone I knew from that yoga class I went to. And death.
And I shared them with a few hundred people – terrible, pretentious as they were, which at first took so much courage I had to press ‘post’ while closing my eyes and drinking. And then I didn’t care, because for me it was amazing, funny, moving, and I didn’t give up in disgust after one sentence because I had to do it every day. The genie was out of the bottle – I was quite uncorked.
If necessary, you can take inspiration from Martin Amis, who once said “I’m one of those terrible shits who works on Christmas Day. It’s what I want to do.”
What a guy! ‘Dear Father Christmas,’ he wrote ‘Thank you for my nice new pen. I will write with it while my wife cooks dinner and deals with the family. Yours gratefully, Martin xoxox’
See? Every day.
- WRITE ANYWHERE.
Forget a room of your own – writing can occur at literally any time at all, anywhere.
All my horrible little stories are completed while sitting in front of children’s TV, often Mr Maker. They make him jump around to pop music at the start now, and it doesn’t feel like it’s entirely consensual, so my fiction turns out pretty dark. But don’t worry because they are all almost certainly just an involved Brexit metaphor, which is thrilling for everyone.
All times are writing times.
At midnight holding a bucket for a child to be sick in, standing at the cooker boiling eggs, in the car waiting for Let It Go to stop (it never stops). I once wrote most of a silly poem about my tits while waiting for my daughter to finish having a poo, folks! I’m a fucking pro! I have sat in garden centre soft play areas, frantically tapping out pithy paragraphs while balls bounce off my head. ‘Sylvia Plath didn’t have to put up with this shit.’ I thought. Although, as a friend pointed out, perhaps I gravely underestimate Ted Hughes.
- DON’T DO ANYTHING ELSE.
Just… fuck it all off. Prioritise your time to write.
After keeping your offspring warm, fed and learning occasionally, and doing the things that may or may not pay the bills, the next, the very next thing on your list should be the thing that you love and want to do.
If vacuuming, laundry, ironing and Pinterest worthy interior design tick that box, then great. But if you think it’s bullshit, it can wait. You can do that when your children are around, that’s why God gave us BBC iPlayer. You can spend a decade of your life doing those things and you and I both know that your kids will remember jack shit about it. You know what, YOU will remember jack shit about it. In 20 minutes, everything will be dirty and chaotic again, because you have children and this is your life now. It’s occurred to me that it’s almost as if it isn’t even a coincidence that the more freedom women have, the more things they are told they should be fannying about with (workouts, clean eating, day to night looks, gratitude diaries, fulfilling careers, date nights, wine tasting, vintage dressers, spiralizers, breastfeeding, grinding your own coffee beans, knitting your own yoghurt, beach ready body, looking relaxed), so let’s all have a think about that.
Anyway, just so you know, I fucked that right off. In those precious minutes where I did not have to directly keep my children alive, I no longer ran between floors with armfuls of clothes, kicking a couple of dirty nappies towards the bin as I went. Instead, I drank tea among the dried-on Cheerios, looked up at the pubes on the ceiling and pondered my own mortality. I left the house entirely as much as possible, going to the library, the park, the cafe for even the shortest little slice of free time. I took to drinking espresso because it was quicker. And also, obviously, because I am cool. I wore enigmatic scarves. Had I once lived abroad somewhere picturesque? Had I won over the gruff locals with my excellent wardrobe and love of pastry based goods? MAYBE. Was I essentially Juliette Binoche in the film Chocolat? Yes, yes I was. Did I think about that film’s questionable handling of the issue of domestic violence and it’s excess of middle-class whimsy? I did not. Obviously, I looked intelligent while writing alone. A stranger once asked if they knew me, because (stuck on a rhyme for constipation) I had been frowning, half-focused, in their direction for some time. ‘Perhaps’, I sighed, ‘perhaps’.
- DON’T FEEL GUILTY
This is so important I’m going to say it again: DO NOT FEEL GUILTY. Own this time, it is yours, you have earned it. A friend once looked in desperation for an emergency nanny for the day. Turns out emergency nannies cost £25/hour. Stay-at-home parents do not earn £25/hour, because the invisible hand of the market is flicking them the invisible V’s. So you get the odd half an hour here or there free instead. Frankly, we should all be using that time to overthrow the government. These days, whenever my partner offers to take the children so that I can write, the end of his sentence is addressed to the empty air, my receding footsteps and the sound of a distant, slamming door.
- HAVE CONFIDENCE.
Don’t worry that your writing is shit.
It is not shit. No one else will think it is shit. You will learn new things, but that’s part of what writing is, it’s not saying that your previous stuff was shit. Don’t write what you think others want to hear, write what you want to say.
Don’t worry if somebody (OK, millions of people) have written or blogged about the exact same thing.
A piece of writing is like a baby – loads of people produce them but none of them are quite as weird and amazing as yours.
Don’t worry that you are not a literary ‘type’.
At school I thought that proper writers were serious people (men) who sat at desks surrounded by great literature, pinching the bridge of their nose and hammering out the Great American Novel. These are not people who surreptitiously hide the Dan Brown novel on the bookshelf when people come round for dinner (it was a gift! I did not get that because it was half price at the Sainsbury’s checkout and I am fucking mental these days would you like another glass of wine HAHAHA!). I haven’t studied literature. At all. I don’t know what the rules are. I have not done a course about plotting, structure, pacing. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just that it did not prevent me from beginning to write, and it shouldn’t stop you either. These are things that you can learn later, if you want.
Don’t worry that writing is wanky.
It is not wanky. Well, maybe some of my stuff is wanky, but I no longer care about that, and neither should you. Nine months after I wrote down ‘manifest’ and ‘knotted’, I am actively considering going to a flash fiction open mic night – and whenever I consider this there is a bit of my brain just holding a pint of mild and shouting ‘wanker’, because that bit of my brain is essentially the dad in Billy Elliot. Ignore it – by the time you get your first bit of positive feedback it will be crying tears of northern joy and suggesting a night out at a feminist poetry slam.
- SHARE! WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY IS IMPORTANT.
Don’t hold those words in, believing you cannot present anything until it is to an awestruck panel at the Man Booker Prize (‘Who IS she?’ they will gasp. ‘Where has she been?’). That is how to write nothing at all. Present it to your friends, some people online who love what you love, the whoooole world. Present it to me, to us, we’ll read it! Go to things – readings, lectures, courses. And if no-one will go with you and you can’t get a babysitter, go on your own! RADICAL, I know. You will meet brilliant people there and feel wonderful afterwards, I promise. You are not ‘just’ a parent now – you are devastating, fascinating, you are a badass. It is totally worth keeping your bra on after 6pm for.
Submit to competitions, join in with conversations, change the set text. Especially now. You know why. If you don’t, I’ll thrill you with something about that another time when the kids don’t have evil colds and they sleep occasionally. Any week now.
If you don’t share it, you won’t hear what others have to say and they won’t hear you. Speak up. Hold it out and wave it. Show your workings. Dig your heels in against that grain and try and fail and try again. Throw your rocks in the pool and watch the ripples spread to the far shores of now and our listing horizons.
Be a pain in the arse, be a bit much, be pushy, self-promoting, loud, be awfully keen, be all those sly little phrases that people who are supposed to be quietly at home with the children are taught to be afraid of. Imagine your children wanting to tell a story, and what you would say to them if they were too scared of what people might think.
Who knows what you can achieve with your manifests, your knotteds? You have nothing to lose, and you won’t know until you try.