Tuesday, 29 April 2014

In Praise of the Pram in the Hall – Anna Wilson

Last Thursday, a fellow Bath author, Clare Furniss, launched her first novel for teens, The Year of the Rat, at Mr B’s. The little shop was heaving with friends, family and well-wishers as Clare talked about how she had come to write the book, before reading a tantalizing extract, which now has me itching to read my copy.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding the novel as it has already received high praise, and was also announced as one of Radio 2’s Book Club choices the very day of the launch.

Almost more remarkable, some might comment, is the fact that Clare wrote this book whilst looking after two pre-school children. Almost as if to illustrate the enormity of this task, her two young sons were at Mr B’s with her, clambering over her while she spoke, evidently keen to share the limelight. Clare did a fantastic job in delivering a speech while encumbered in this way, and it led her to make a passing comment on ‘the pram in the hall’; a phrase which, more often than not, is used negatively as a metaphor for how motherhood can prevent women from reaching their full potential in their careers. However, as Clare said, for her, ‘the pram in the hall’ actively helped her to achieve her dream of writing a novel, as it meant she had to concentrate her efforts into the small amount of free time she had available.

‘I worked while the boys were sleeping, or while my parents took them off me for short periods; I wrote late into the night – I took any and every opportunity I could to sit and write,’ she said.

This resonated strongly with me, for I share Clare’s conviction that if it were not for that pram in the hall, I too would not have found the drive necessary to get on with it and become a writer.

When my son was born and my daughter was just two years old, my husband’s career took us to France. I had been working in London and had to give up my job to go with him. I found myself thinking I should use my enforced career break to finally do something about being the writer I knew, deep down, I had always wanted to be.

It was tough. I was exhausted a lot of the time and had no friends or family to call on. My husband worked long hours and often travelled, leaving me with the kids for days and nights at a time. Although my daughter went to a little garderie des enfants a couple of times a week, I still had a newborn baby to look after. 

I decided that the only way to get anything done was to use the children’s rest times to my advantage. Luckily my son was a good sleeper, so while his sister was out, I would feed him, put him in his car seat and rock it gently with my foot while I sat at my computer. He would eventually drop off to sleep while I tapped away at the keyboard.

Recently Maggie O’Farrell wrote an article in the Guardian on how she combines motherhood with her working day:

‘How to write looking after a very young baby: get a sling . . . Walk to your desk, averting your eyes from the heaps of laundry on the stairs, the drifts of cat hair on the carpets, the flotsam of toys in every doorway . . . Do not check your email, do not click on your favourites . . . do not be tempted to see how your eBay auctions are faring: go to work, go directly to work . . . Write. The clickety-clackety of the keyboard will soothe [the baby] and you. Write without looking back, write without rereading . . . Write until you feel her twisting her head from side to side, until you lift her out and into your arms. You might be in the middle of a sentence, but no matter. Type “HERE” in capitals and then push yourself away from the desk, carrying her out of the room, shutting the door until next time.’

I am sure many mothers will recognize this description of making the most of the free time they can grab for themselves. O’Farrell’s experience mirrors my own: this is pretty much how I wrote my first picture book, my first short stories and it is how I began to see myself as a writer rather than a mother taking a break from work. The added bonus of motherhood was that it actively contributed to my writing life: I was seeing the world through my children’s eyes on a daily basis, and realizing that was how I wanted to write it.

The kids are teens now, so I have a lot more time to myself than I did when they were babies. The demands are different and sometimes writing time is still broken up, particularly in the school holidays when I am asked to drive them here and there and everywhere. And of course I still have to walk past the laundry, the drifts of cat hair, the piles of washing up . . .

It hasn’t always been an easy ride, mixing writing with motherhood, and I am certain I would not want to go back to those sleep-deprived days, those snatched half hours of writing time interspersed with breast-feeding, nappy-changing and Lego-building. Yet there is no doubt that having only tiny amounts of time to write did focus the mind and keep me keen, not to mention giving me valuable material. I agree with Clare Furniss: in the end, it was the pram in the hall that set me on the road to being the writer I had always wanted to be.

So if you want to write, but think, ‘I haven't got the time’, draw strength from the fact that it can be done, how ever little time you have. I have learnt that one concentrated hour (or even thirty minutes) is a golden opportunity, not to be wasted; and all thanks to the pram in the hall.

Anna Wilson


John Dougherty said...

Really interesting perspective, Anna. I was first published when my children were very little (3 & 1) and can hardly remember how I fitted my writing in, although my wife's flexible working arrangements did mean we each had time for our own stuff when the other was on duty - I don't think I was efficient enough to write much on days when I was in sole charge!

C.J.Busby said...

I wrote my first book in the time my youngest was at nursery - 2 and a half hours per day. I do think it can be a creative time, being at home with small children - although you are busy, physically, your mind is relatively free to play around with ideas - while hanging the washing out, pushing them on the swing, washing up, tidying toys... But it's also dangerous, because their demands can feel very intrusive when you're following an elusive thread of an idea - sometimes I used to get quite ratty with her (guilt, guilt)...

Clémentine Beauvais said...

This is a lovely post and as a mostly undecided/ leaning on the side of no-kids mid-twenties woman it's de-dramatised the issue a little bit. I do write much better under pressure, so I recognise some of the things you're saying here; nothing like 3 or 4 essays to mark in an evening to make me write 1000 words...

A Wilson said...

Apologies for the delay in responding - I was travelling yesterday and could not reply on my phone for some reason! I too "feel the guilt" almost constantly, if it's any help. Sometimes I go off into a trance at the dinner table and my son gives me a look and then says, "You're writing again, aren't you?"

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Anna my husband says that, when I go off in a trance! This was a lovely encouraging post that I only came across this morning when I put my own post up... (see I went straight to work these past few days and didn't get distracted by ABBA blogs).

Oddly I mention 'the pram' I saw at the LBF in my blog today so there's a connection here. And I'm reading Clare's book right now. My son was at the launch too because he was at Bath and he mentioned how lovely it was that the children were around as Clare spoke.