Sit under your novel in progress, lessons from motherhood

As I mother of four I am very familiar with having to wait, to rein in speed and impetus and to go very slowly or not at all while being present for my children in some way or another. Walking with a toddler or even my 5 year old now there is more standing than proceeding, where special things such as pebbledash walls and ‘baby leaves’ need to be examined, legs are short and cannot do distances at speed. I take a step forward but my stride is too long, I stop, I wait. These days we might be on the school ‘run’ and I can feel frustrated at my lack of progress with the 5 year old as I watch my older children stride ahead of us down the hill. I remember breastfeeding in particular (since only the mother can do it) as one of those experiences where it was  a question of sitting under the infant for long swathes of time (perhaps up to an hour) at each feed and all thoughts of being elsewhere or achieving tasks of any kind needed to be put aside. Right through pregnancy and right up to the late toddler years there are physical restraints, whether it’s a cumbersome body or trying to negotiate a pushchair in the town. There are things that young mothers miss; having their arms loose as they walk, walking straight out of a house without first cajoling an army, getting into a car and just driving without negotiating with a plethora of awkward straps and resistant toddlers.

This society is geared up for achievement, for awards, for the spectacular rather than ordinary mundane heroics. As writers now we need to be everywhere, building a platform, marketing ourselves, we need to keep up a presence and be productive. But what we keep needing to be reminded is that the occasions when we need to stop, sit under our book and it’s themes for a while are absolutely necessary and valuable and part of the process.

I’ve talk around this before, about how Kirsty Gunn spent seven years on her book, about incubation, the benefits of walking for creativity and so on. I’m thinking about it now as I’m looking at how I go about writing books, how expression and structure interplay, how the first excitement of an idea needs to be followed by thought and observation.

I’ll add more specifics of my own current experiences with a new project in a further post but what I will say in general is that if you come to an impasse at any stage of a project, don’t let your lack of progress dismay you, first, just sit and wait, follow your train of thought, read more things that are tangential to your work, look out the window, spend the necessary time, as this beautiful post by Kim Triedman explores, staring at trees to live ‘on both sides of the brain’.

The  children grow up in time, and your novel will too, there will be less need for stopping but the stopping has given you greater insight, added a whole new depth and dimension. Never apologise for your lack of speed.

(By the way, if any of you have joined us for the #15KinMay (which is a very reasonable/non manic wordcount target) I have now reached 10K words but many, many of these are not sections of the book per se but thoughts on what the book is. Many writers, including Irish writer Claire Kilroy who I spoke to at a writing event, say that they write many many thousands of words beyond what is required, including notes of all kinds, then they extricate the story afterwards, many of you are more methodical than that but we all need to find our own way.)

26 thoughts on “Sit under your novel in progress, lessons from motherhood

  1. Alison, thanks for this.
    ‘Never apologise for your lack of speed’ and the beautifully described insight of being a young parent and a writer. It was as if I was meant to find this, this morning.

  2. alisonwells

    Hello Rinelle, good luck with getting some words down. I think I’m cheating as I’m really just in the preliminary stage chucking down thoughts but it all counts!

    1. alisonwells

      Twins, a year old. I had my first two children close together but not that close and I did no writing at all while they were tiny. It IS frustrating to be at that stage. I’ve really only got back to the novels once the youngest stopped waking up at nights, before that shorter pieces such as flash fiction were brilliant and kept my spirits up. Now that I’m out of the woods, I should post about the old days!

      1. It would be wonderful to read about your experiences. I know what I’m going through, but knowing that I’m not alone is handy.
        I suppose I should be grateful, in that case, that I’m getting anything done at all. I know full well that others aren’t that lucky.

  3. Yet another relevant and inspiring post Alison, thanks! I am in the young mother phase of my life, still breastfeeding my toddler, dealing with the extra long walks and carrying my second baby (due in July), so it all makes perfect sense. I love being a mother, but I do get frustrated at my own perceived lack of progress on the writing front. Actually, so far I have written 5 novels within the last 3 years, and 3 of those have been published with another due later this year, so I guess it can’t be that bad. It seems motherhood has improved my focus and productivity in some strange way… ; )

    1. alisonwells

      Am sure I replied to you but it appears to have disappeared. What you have achieved at this phase of your life is tremendous, we need to take lessons from you! I think we definitely find focus as mothers. I remember having two small ones at the same time, the hands on stage really revs up but I think you can be pleased with what you have done so far. Good luck with the it all into the future. 🙂

  4. June O'Connell

    Gees Alison, breasfeeding was also a time when I had to reassess my constant moving and rushing. I think we get into a habit of defining our day as a “good day” or a “bad day” depending on how many things we tick off our infinite “To Do” list. I resolved at the end of a “bad day” where I didn’t get out of my pyjamas all day, and never moved from the couch all day feeding my new baby that I would start a “To Be” list and make sure I ticked a few things off that every day. Things like resolving “To Be” Listening to birds ……. noticing colours…..smelling food……listening to music…..Now some days go by and I find I’ve slipped back into my bad habit of the endless “doing” and I have to pull myself right back again and remember “To Be”. Being in Kerry helps that enormously where its not so rushed. Looking forward to the Summer.

    1. alisonwells

      Hi June, yes it’s so true how we had to learn to be still for a bit not a bad lesson, and yes Kerry is perfect for stepping out of the rush.

  5. Chris Mills

    Wise thoughts. I always feel you can’t beat walking for loosening up your brain cells if you feel stuck in a writing rut. Mind you, also just sitting down and writing someone a letter can have a similar effect. I’m long past the small child phase, but I also find it can be frustrating to get the call to help with homework when I’m trying to do something ‘for me’. Ho, hum….

    1. alisonwells

      Yes, I really like that idea of changing the mindset, writing a letter is wonderful, especially for us of that era when letters really resonated. I really wish I knew how to keep a train of thought when interrupted but can’t say I do!

  6. Alison,

    This was a great post from many viewpoints.

    Just picking up on your theme of the way the world today,
    expectations, targets, deadlines, shortlisting, prizewinning,
    book launching, the need to market yourself and your book.

    Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten the word “quality”.
    Someone wrote a book recently on the thesis that you
    need to spend 10,000 hours on something before you become really
    proficient at it. Someone else made the point
    that that is the same length of time as a 5-6 year apprenticeship.
    So no matter what your profession this is a rule that doesn’t change.

    Some people are born writers but most have read libraries before
    they have picked up a pen to write seriously themselves ie they’ve
    done a lot of their training.

    Unless you are reading and practicising your writing, getting proper
    feedback, you cant seriously expect publication success.

    I went to a book launch some years ago, the author was well promoted,
    well endorsed, had an aura, was very marketable, the snippets
    I read prior to the launch, promised quality but the book didn’t deliver.

    I’d rather write one very book that 5 ok books.
    In this season of The Great Gatsby take a leaf
    out of F Scott Fitzgeralds book, put in the graft,
    and aim to produce masterpieces only. If the result
    is only a very good book. Posterity will remember and
    thank you.

    Thanks for reading.

    1. alisonwells

      I completely agree. I see the vapour and hype infiltrating so many areas of life that it can be very wearing. It’s all about production and success. There are many versions of success I think and what makes people happy. There are different styles of book I guess, some are meant to be lighter but it’s always evident who has a flare, ability and puts in the hard graft along the way. Personally I agree that I’d rather write less and better and experience is the only thing that can tell you how high to aim and when to let your manuscript try for a place in the world. Thanks for your thoughts Gerry, very much appreciated.

      1. I agree with all of your points Alison. Being the best that we can be, at whatever point along the spectrum of light or heavy writing we want to pitch our tent at, and in whatever genre, is the goal. Ultimately we judge ourselves. Although we compare our work to others, our own judgement of our work, is what is most important. Time in production and quality control allows us to make fewer mistakes.

        Of course in 3 years time when I’ve written a novel and have some real experience I reserve the right to take all of this back (smiley face).

        Thanks for a very interesting post again Alison.

  7. In Cornwall, we talk about doing things “dreckly” — it stems from “directly” but is altogether more relaxed.
    One of my worst nightmares is that i write fiction and forget to put my soul into motherhood; for that reason, I’m writing the square root of nothing the moment. I miss writing, but missing something, like going slowly, is not always a bad thing. I ‘ll start again soon enough (emphasis on enough). I look at your progress as being one step ahead of mine (since my youngest was born and our conversation about youngests going to school), so will watch your progress with interest and cheerleading pom poms!

  8. so true, Alison. Thank you for the reminder. There’s a lot of stopping and starting when you’re nursing (or as you put in my mind, breastfeeding) your novel…LOL…when juggling it with 500 other motherhood duties, and it’s very frustrating, and I must admit I’m still at the point where I’m wondering if all the catch-up and re-entering my novel dream world after stopping (it takes days sometimes) is teaching me something else about my novel, the characters in it and the creative process. I very much hope you’re right that it’s necessary, and beneficial.

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