The pram in the hallway: Some thoughts on writing and babies.

Actually, ‘the pram in the hallway’ is misleading; you can tell it was surely a man who described the particular challenges of writing with a baby in this way. If only it were that simple.

For, as those of us who write around babies know, it’s not the pram in the hallway that’s the problem (apart from when you’re tripping over it on one of your hundred and five trips up and down the stairs) – it’s the baby strapped to your chest, ready to wake at the too-heavy hit of a finger on keyboard or a shift slightly in the wrong direction in your seat, trying to get your leg to come back to life. It’s the baby at your breast,  holding on to you with grabbing, fat little hands, pinching your flesh between their fingers and pulling your attention back to them lest it should dare to wander. It’s the baby on the video screen of the monitor, blurred and slightly pixellated in the night vision camera, turning their head and sighing in their sleep – are they waking? Or merely murmuring?

It’s baby brain – but not what people usually mean by that, the confused, key-losing new mum wandering around the supermarket staring blankly at the shelves, trying to remember what baked beans are. It’s the baby in your brain. It’s  her presence ever-hovering at the edges of your consciousness, her image blurring with those of your characters as you dream them into being. It’s shouts from the TV and the call of a seagull and the whistle of a kettle that meld into a question mark of – is that her cry? And the tug on your whole being as you are jerked back by it, back from the world you are trying to create into that of the one you have created.

So, that is the problem. Or, because it feels a bit wrong to call your beloved baby a problem, that is the challenge. What, then, is the solution – if there is one?

Here is mine – how I have approached things thus far.

When she was tiny I wrote with her in a sling, strapped to my chest, as I sat mostly on one of those big inflatable balls, bouncing gently in an attempt to keep her sedated by movement for as long as possible. This worked pretty well for a number of weeks – I was editing my fourth novel when she was 3.5 weeks old, going through copy edits at the 3 month mark, checking proofs a while later. Once I had started writing, I couldn’t stop – I wrote a spec TV script, two short stories, two book proposals, two more TV outlines… It churned out of me in an urgent splurge. The time I had to write in felt so compressed, the need to achieve something pressing. I walked, for miles along the seafront, the wheels of the buggy trundling along, coaxing her to sleep and my brain into action, emailing myself notes on my iphone as I began to plan and plot a new novel. I read on my kindle, and then on the kindle app, as I sat up in bed at night feeding her.

Then, as newborns do, she woke up. And suddenly she could no longer be relied upon to sleep, folded up like a sheet of crumpled paper on me. She wanted to look around, explore, pull hair and earrings and gaze up, smiling in that most distracting way. Out went her fourth trimester and with it, my peaceful hours of time to think and write. Now when I pushed her along the seafront I could not focus on the characters clamouring for attention, because she was craning her neck up at me and her need was greater and more beguiling than theirs. I could not read at night because I was busy walking up and down the bedroom floor, counting to a hundred once, twice, five times before I could risk laying her back down in her cot and praying that she would stay soft and floppily asleep. I couldn’t lay her in a swing chair to gurgle contentedly up at a dangling toucan for half an hour at a time, as she was straining at the harness and kicking her little legs determinedly. She turned into a little owl, her head swivelling around to almost 360 degrees, following me wherever I went.

So I changed things again. For a while I stopped, my focus directed on getting her to sleep, nap away from me, gently attempting to slip her into a sleep in a cot rather than my arms, a sleeping bag not a swaddle, a pink rabbit to hold as she drifted off in place of a breast. Easing her from a world with no edges and no corners into one where things happened at certain times and she was expected to learn a new way of living. A routine, where before there had been simply her, and me, and her wants, and her needs.

And now she is almost 9 months, has almost been out of me for as long as she was in me, and she is gradually moving further away from me still, happily rolling across to the other side of the room in great swirls of movement – though she is not yet efficient enough to reliably work herself back, so frequently strands herself under the sofa, or too far from my side where she flaps her hands and demands rescue. She naps in the morning and again at lunchtime, and though the sand of the timer is always slipping through my fingers as I do so, I write, turning on Freedom and pushing the internet aside so I can power through words, challenging myself to write faster – can I get 1400 down in an hour? 1500? Can I push it to 2000, if I run downstairs as soon as she is asleep, and I don’t make a cup of tea before starting and the dishwasher remains unemptied as my bladder?

I have discovered the advantages of planning. Whereas in my previous four novels I have worked to a vague road map, a collection of ideas and a sense of the structure, this time I have become rigider in my approach. Before I started writing proper I spent a month in front of a spreadsheet, fitting scene outlines into little boxes, setting up columns to track locations and dates and characters and themes, so that when I sit down and open up the document I can pick up from where I left off the day before easily, so that I know exactly what I am meant to be writing in each session. It’s not inflexible – at the end of every day, semi-brain dead in the evening (usually in front of some recorded drama or DVD I am watching for research, the sort of thing I would have previously allocated to the slow afternoon work slot but which now gets pushed into the evening and dinner and downtime), I amend the spreadsheet, adding in what I have written that day, altering what is to come next accordingly. I make lists, I read in the bath, on the train, on my phone as I feed her still. I continue to send myself emails with hastily typed ideas for plot twists and scenes as they occur to me while walking along the seafront. I thank the Gods of technology for all the things that allow me to work in this way – Freedom and Scrivener and Apple and occasionally even a pen and piece of paper, or more usually the back of a receipt I should be saving for my tax return. I walk, and I write, and I watch as the baby in front of me grows and the baby in my brain shrinks a little, and I weep for the day that she will one day turn from me and I try to remember that before long I will long for these hours of holding her close to me in the still of the night to return, and that I will have long forgotten the feeling of being constantly pulled down two opposing paths, always in more than one place, never quite able to mentally be entirely present anywhere, and I will remember only the soft fuzz of her hair rubbing against my cheek, and the pull of her fingers and the soft little sighs of her turning in her sleep.

8 Comments

Filed under News, Writing

8 responses to “The pram in the hallway: Some thoughts on writing and babies.

  1. Loved this. I can tell you – even as a guy – I have done the “home from work, barraged by endless stream of news by little people, walk to shop because we have run out of XYZ, stare blankly at shelves in shop because your brain is oozing from your ear” thing. We have three daughters :)

  2. parky

    You’re doing remarkably well to hold it all together … when do you get to sleep?! xx

  3. Blimey. I’m impressed, Jess!! Couldn’t have done any of that when my lot were small… though I did start writing after second was born. I remember a glorious period when eldest was at nursery and second slept for 2hours in the morning, and i used to write (I had a nanny two days a week, but was using that time to edit other people’s books) – but sadly it didn’t last long. Mine are long past babyhood and I can write when they are at school, but as soon as they are at home any creative thoughts get shoved out of the way by Ivehadabaddayneedacuddleamhungryamfedupneedacupoftea type attentions. They’ve been off this week and I haven’t done a thing.
    Beautifully written, you brought me right back! I’ve always thought every step of parenthood from day one is about preparing for them to leave us. First we have them inside us, then in the bed next to us, then the crib, then the cot, then the next room… and suddenly they’re turning 18 and leaving home (well not quite, but only a year to go for me!). At every stage just disengaging themselves from us a little more…

  4. B

    THAT dear J is a stunning enthralling piece of writing ………..inspiring and inspired……you are X

  5. Lovely blog post, and I totally sympathise. I’m a mother of three and a struggling, as-yet-unpublished children’s fiction writer. I’ve written freelance from home before and gave it up because I felt the children weren’t getting enough attention. I’m about to take it up again though and hoping I can manage my time more effectively this time round. Sounds like you have a great system and, more importantly, are prepared to be flexible as your daughter’s needs change, which I think is the key. Well done.

  6. Such a lovely piece. It speaks to both your determination and hers. I love the thought of you striding out with your little owl creating new characters on the sea front. X

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