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Amanda's blog

motherhood and creativity

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Posted on: 03 September 2009

It always amuses me when I meet male novelists in the summer holidays who ask how my next novel is coming along.

"It isn't," I say, for the umpteenth time. "It's the school holidays."

"Why don't you just let them eat pizza?"

Well, some of the time I do indeed do that. I buy an embarrassingly large number of DVDs - ones with lots of bangs for the son, and lots of art-house gloom for the daughter - and relax the eternally vigilant maternal eye a fraction. I also take them to a gastropub which does nice lunches for £6, and the odd film and play and exhibition, plus lots of walks. They are good kids, and try not to disturb me too much. But they do. I am their mother, and therefore a utility to be turned on or off at will.

Doing creative writing (as opposed to journalism) is almost impossible in these circumstances. To write properly demands unbroken concentration, and solitude. You can just about manage a couple of hours early in the morning when they are sleeping in, but it's in many ways worse that when they were very little and needed constant 24 hour attention. Teenagers get into scrapes, and need rescuing from the place where they've lost their Oyster card/mobile etc. They probably are less resilient than my generation, but when I think what that cost me in terms of fearfulness (catching an international aeroplane every three months aged twelve,alone, and having your passport stolen or getting on a flight diverted to another country are two of my least pleasant memories) then it's something I'd rather not put them through. I don't believe in that  nonsense about what doesn't destroy you makes you stronger.

So, no woman novelist of my acquaintance works at fiction during the holidays. It's the same reason that you never find women with children going on those tempting-sounding writer's retreats in places like Hawthornden Castle or Lake Como. Though, let me tell you, we need them rather more than the chaps and childless women who do go there, get served hot and cold repasts and bond.

Candia McWilliam, one of the most gifted and tragic writers of the generation above mine, once said that "every baby costs three novels". It's not exactly true because when you're young and your babies actually sleep for a lot of the day you can manage a sort of frenzied output. I wrote three in this sort of state, and it's possibly no coincidence that my health then packed up for several years. Babies are physically exhausting, but much less so mentally. When, however, you need to shepherd a teenager through serious exams, rise to a fierce debate on politics and deal with violent emotional outbursts it's another matter. Of course, if you absolutely adore your children it's something you do willingly, in the hope of giving them enough love and stability to ensure a safe passage to adulthood. But it does undoubtedly exact a huge price on creativity. 

This leads me to ponder the rationale behind the Orange Prize. Initially, it was set up because the discrimination against serious women novelists became so glaring in the early 1990s that something had to be done (I think it was the way Pat Barker's great novel, Regeneration, was totally overlooked by an all-boy panel of judges for the Booker - though the third, much less striking novel, won.) Since then, the field has been somewhat more level even if three times more men than women still win, and get long-listed. Women's fiction does seem to be taken more seriously - and yet the handicaps for those who are living lives that are not like men's - ie, with children - still remain astonomical. Just as in the past, the women who get the most praise and prizes tend to be either gay or childless or post menopausal.

. Of course, men writers always claim to do as much as women if they work from home....strange, that I never hear of them at the school gate, the hospital etc. My own dear husband, though a devoted and excellent father has, I think, taken our children to school for all of....five days ... in our sixteen years as parents. The rest, whether I was recovering from major surgery, sick, on deadline etc was all me.  

Sometimes, I can't help wondering if there shouldn't be a special category - a Navel Orange Prize, perhaps - for those battling with the effects of motherhood.

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At 10:12:50 on 03 September 2009,  jackie wrote:

Ah solitude. A summer of children, and lover and builders has almost driven me mad. And it all started when I decided to get a bigger studio by having one built in the attic. Now I have a bigger studio, but everyone seems to think that they can come and sit in it, work in it, read in it, watch films in it. I have been chasing a text for a picture book for weeks now as well as trying to finish the art for another book. I need solitude to paint too. Ah well, soon the house will be finished, the builders will be gone and everyone can go find a place to sit somewhere more than 6 yards away from me and bliss and peace will return. I sympathise. Though I also know the odd dad who looks after his kids too.

At 10:56:01 on 03 September 2009,  katherine langrish wrote:

Yes! and yes again! I get NO writing done during the summer, and have been feeling guilty for weeks for not even completing (or getting much beyond starting) a short story. And the summer, by the way, extends BEYOND the summer holidays, especially now some of my kids are university students and are around for longer than the school holidays. Not that I don't love having them around - and am delighted that they want to talk to me and ask me stuff and share their anxieties, opinions and fun etc. But work? Ha! I'm hanging on for the beginning of October. So I'd go for your Navel Orange Prize!

At 09:15:45 on 04 September 2009,  Amanda wrote:

So we are all in the same boat. I liked your metaphor, Lucy, about feeling like a backed-up dam. Only five more days to go....though if your children are at state schools, they''re already back. Funny how the more you pay, the less days of education you get isn''t it?

At 04:51:59 on 12 September 2009,  Bee wrote:

A Navel Orange Prize! Yes, propose it. (Candia McWilliams' quote is rather horrifying. And although people love to say that their children are their most important/lasting accomplishments, it's just not quite the same, is it.) My mother once noted how many female politician/journalists are childless -- or only really get going in late middle-age when their children have grown up . . . and ever since, I tend to notice that type of thing, too. It's taken me a rather long time to get to this blog post . . . because I've had children underfoot all summer!

At 13:03:24 on 03 September 2009,  Caroline Sanderson wrote:

Amanda, you've helped me feel less guilty about today's feelings of joy at being back at my desk in a blissfully quiet and empty house for the first time in six weeks! I do enjoy having time with my children but you're quite right, holiday creative writing is just out of the question even though I keep thinking I should be able to do it if I really put my mind to it. And, with my elder child just starting secondary school, it's dawning on me that older children need just as much if not more parental support than little ones as you say. To feel there are kindred mothers out there managing to keep writing and getting published despite all our other responsibilities is very encouraging! So thank you.

At 10:34:33 on 03 September 2009,  Lucy Coats wrote:

Do you know, Amanda, it's just such a relief to read this and be reminded (in a most timely fashion) that other writers are also mothers of teenagers, and understand the problems of NOT WRITING due to other duties. By about now I am trying hard not to be extremely snarly--the backed up dam of stuff-in-my-head is about to burst. And this year I won't have the back to school relief for the left-school 18 year-old non-driver--who has to be taxied to and from work every day. Luckily the 15 teen goes back on Tues. If and when my adult novel gets finished (after the 3 children's ones stacked up in front of it), I shall certainly enter it for the Navel Orange Prize!

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