"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway" (Cyril Connolly 1938)
“What would I do if real children came padding at the door, smiling their sticky smiles, smearing my printout with sticky hands and pressing ‘delete’.” (Hilary Mantel, Giving up the ghost: a memoir; 2005)
I walked into the kitchen, doubtless carrying washing or empty cups or orange peel found stuffed between the cushions of the sofa. “Mum, I’m sorry. I think I’ve broken your computer.”
A sticky fingered child. A black screen. The start of a novel which was almost working and as yet not saved to the cloud. Childless genius Hilary Mantel guards her keyboard from ghosts – mine is at the mercy of real small people searching for bastard “Let it Go” on youtube. Does having children have an impact on a writer’s ability to write? Logistically, it would clearly be easier to write without the little scraps demanding nurture. Obviously. If I could hermit myself, even for a few days, I imagine my productivity would soar. (It’s taken me two hours to write the last few paras. “Muuum”; “Waaaahhh”; “she hit meeeee”; “bedtime” etc)
Creatively, I’m not sure it makes much difference. The question is, anyway, philosophical rather than practical – I’m not about to siphon them off to a Home and see if my writing improves – and as with all such questions, it is framed for debate rather than resolution.
Instead, I have been thinking about the opposite question: Does writing make me a better parent?
Here are 5 ways that I think, perhaps, writing helps me be a sane parent, if not a better one.
CONCLUSION: It probably makes bugger all difference. But at least I get to pick them up from school so they can harangue me about what snacks I have or haven't brought them.....
- The Boredom factor. Looking after children under the age of 5 is unbelievably, relentlessly tedious. Your life is reduced to hovering over a small person who is seemingly intent on a) killing themselves and b) behaving as erratically and illogically as possible at the exact pitch designed to drive a sentient adult to head-banging distraction. Writing lets me retreat to a place inside where interesting, grown-up things happen. On the surface I’m all “wheels on the bus” and “please don’t put jam on your sister’s feet”. Inside I’m wondering why Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament, and how to translate historical action into historical fiction.
- The Helicopter Parenting Backlash. The latest parenting wisdom seems to be anti-helicopter parenting – the sort of irritating style that involves lots of playing and interacting with them. My style, if it had a name, would be Fobbing-Off Parenting. Jog on, small child with puzzle/play-doh/colouring. Do it yourself, Mum’s trying to write/read. I’m properly on-trend parenting-wise, me…..
- Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Unless you write tortured kitchen-sink novels set in Surbiton, or chick-lit, the chances are your imaginary realm will be full of Bad Shit. Wars, plagues, death, serial killers, lost love, orphans, murders, starvation. To emerge from this into a nice house, clutching a nice cup of tea, with your kids entirely safe and whole and unlikely to catch the plague, is always a delight. So the milk’s spilled or the homework’s messy or the baby’s vomited an entire egg on my head. Boff. Shrug.
- Perspective I spend much time trying to inhabit other perspectives. My next novel is about a 12th century Scottish warlord, not entirely similar in occupation or outlook to a South London Mum with 3 children and a laptop. There are few perspectives more different from a sane adult’s than that of a small child craving chocolate at breakfast. “Please Mum. But I love chocolate. And it’s nearly lunchtime.” It helps me to understand her pain. To empathise with her frustration (The answer’s still bloody NO!).
- Gruffalo Tolerance. I have read The Gruffalo an unbelievable number of times. I could recite The Gruffalo at gunpoint, should a crazed Donaldson junkie demand it of me. I should loathe The Gruffalo – and that smug mouse. But the writer in me can read The Gruffalo forever and still not tire of the question: is this the most perfect book ever written? Perfect in plot, in character, in pace, in style, in tone, in the completeness of its imaginary landscape. And the Nut was Good, people. The nut was good.