Mother Homilies

Manifesto for Living

freshshoots

As (some of) my children become teens, learn to develop relationships with others, forge their ideals and identity and face various challenges, I wrote this (along the lines of the wonderful Desiderata) as a guiderail for their journey.

manifesto for living

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On writing and raising children

It’s been quite a while since I posted here and for good reason. I’ve been making a concerted effort to bring many of my projects to completion. My novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and two women who need stories to survive is on submission, The Exhibit of Held Breaths, about an unusual exhibit and its effect on a town and its curator is in final revision and I am about to begin adding words to another exciting project (a novel based on a flash fiction. The flash fiction has just been accepted for publication by the fabulous Stinging Fly.) The latter is a project that allows me to write in a more visceral, lively and poetic way in a book filled with heart and humanity but looking into the psychology of both loneliness and evil.

Good things have happened writing wise, a shortlisting for the Over the Edge prize, inclusion in the Stinging Fly as I’ve said and also the Arena/RTE experimental fiction anthology New Planet Cabaret. I have at least another five books on the boil in the back of my mind, some begun already. Janet E. Cameron is asking whether you can have children and write and she wants your views. My succinct answer is that it is possible but it takes much longer and its particularly difficult to keep whole novels in your head. I’ve been trying to find out how other writers I admire managed to write fine books and have a family, A.S. Byatt is one. She had four children, – one tragically died aged 11 in an accident, a grief she naturally carried wIth her.

In a biography by Pauline Holdsworth for the Pensilvania Centre Byatt’s struggle to write the books she wanted to write, trying to fulfil both literary ambition and personal desire is demonstrated with reference to one of her earlier novels

Holdsworth says “On an essay on her first unsure protagonist in The Shadow of the Sun, Byatt wrote, “I always knew, as my heroine didn’t, that I must contrive to work (to think, to write).” Through two marriages and three children, (one had died in an accident) she continued to work. It wasn’t until age 54 that she experienced what she called her happiest moment. “I found myself alone in this house, and there was total silence, and the sun was absolutely blazing, and I walked up and down the stairs absolutely boiling with the sense that I belonged to myself, and could finish any thought.”

This I do find is my greatest struggle, to keep Head above Water now that my four chlldren are between 5 and 12 means not the physical hands on minding of infants but still the emotional energy, mental agility, persistence, cheerleading and constant regrouping of optimism and organisation in order to tend to the physical, emotional, organisational, psychological, spiritual needs of these children, one with Aspergers, to keep them on the right track. As every parent knows, September is a demanding month, getting everyone readjusted to the school routine. (This year my eldest had the new challenge of secondary school.) The mental and emotional energy required might sometimes have been put into writing. And yes I get energy and affection back and experiences and understanding of the core human things, love, self-sacrifice, human development, nature, nurture. There is always clamour though, it’s difficult to have your own thoughts as a mother, difficult to think new things and let the mind wander far. Writing takes far longer and there is always a sense (shared by writers in all circumstances of course) that you could have done more, reached further.

I will persist. I will create spaces, I will find the canvas of dark and quiet at 5am and use it. I will sit down when the children are at school and drink coffee and scroll through my document, letting both infuse into my system until I can create more. It is a much slower walk but it’s a walk, I’ll keep moving.

I’ll post next on the things I’ve been doing since the summer to create more headspace and finish those books.

In the meantime, here’s a link to a wonderful contemplation by Marc Nash of the relationship of Fiction to Reality (as compared to Art’s relationship.)  One of the themes of The Exhibit of Held Breaths is how an appreciation of Art might change a person’s view of life and reality, I’m also fascinated by our modern world and how our reality is mediated by the media and social networks. Marc Nash,(whose latest book An Eye for an Eye for an Eye is just released) makes some very interesting and important points about where fiction currently fits into that.

Emotional energy and the writer

The last few weeks have been full on writing my novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities and dealing with family life, getting back into the routine of school. One of my children has been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. These children don’t like change, struggle with social situations and outside stimuli, noise, light, smells for example and are unable to organise themselves. School and homework are ongoing challenges both for the child (and the parent!). There is often a lot of frustration, stress and anger for the child. The other children in the family are also affected by the difficulties and need extra support. Where does this leave the novel writer (in this case me? ) Often mentally confused and emotionally fraught and yet I need resilience and persistence to keep going with a task that requires a lot of concentration and emotional investment in writing the story.

About two years ago, my dear mother in law had a stroke. She was very young and she was a great support, mentally, practically and emotionally to me. Unfortunately she was severely affected and while we still enjoy each other’s company, we can’t share conversations in the same way as we did before. Something has been lost. A sort of grief continues over time.

With this backdrop of real life. I need to find ways to again and again, lift myself up to the challenge, to take heart from the writing itself and also put heart back into it. I talk more on this topic today on writing.ie about the kinds of things we as writers might do to continue to write and work when life isn’t easy and ways we can recoup our emotional energy – sometime through writing and sometimes by doing the things we love

What have your experiences been when life gets too much? Can you still find writing energy or how does your writing help you?

The energy of intention & where the river of stones went

Hands up! Here’s a message from a mum of four who’s blog is about headspace and finding time to write and paying attention and who said she was going to participate in the River of Stones Project this January (posting a few lines of a mindful meditation or observance every day) but hasn’t had the time! The message is Sometimes you can’t do it all. I started on Jan 1st with a stones post, on the second day my computer ate my post, on the third day I mentally wrote a post and even took a picture (it was about the dumplings that I’d cooked in the stew). The next day I thought about what I might write about but none of these observances made it to the computer, which in a way doesn’t really matter. And here’s why.

I met many new people on the blog last year who enjoyed reading my Jan 2010 stones posts and I in turn enjoyed the observances blogged and tweeted by others. However the main point of the project is to orient ourselves towards small observances and mindfullness of place, time or emotion and as a whole, I’m doing that. In December, through Barbara Scully’s wonderful blog At My Kitchen Table I won a Thank You book created to raise money for the Irish Hospice Foundation. The book is on my hall table and just seeing it reminds me to be thankful for something even if I’m having a rotten day. I also encourage the children to write in it or remember what is good. So my orientation is towards reflection, observance and gratitude.

I read earlier in the month an article by Orna Ross on her creative intelligence blog about resolutions vs intentions and firmly agree when she says that

New year’s resolutions are often framed as negative injunctions (giving up, never again) and based on self-judgements and -criticism. Creative Intention is framed as a positive proposal, moving towards something you’d like to see more of in your life.

I particularly identify with the idea that there is movement involved in intentions, that you are orienting yourself towards how you want things to be and even in that first initial orientation is the energy that will propel you along the route you have turned towards. I’ve talked about this before in relation to identifying yourself as a writer – the act of turning towards writing in a positive way puts your mind in the frame of taking further decisions and achieving further momentum along that path.

It’s a question of putting yourself in the mindset of what you want to be engaged in. If you’ve ever been in the process of buying  a house you know that you suddenly see For Sales signs everywhere. Once you are in the mindset of an endeavour, signs and opportunities will become more obvious. Not miraculously of course – you are putting yourself in the way of them. For me, a serious orientation towards being a writer included being involved in blogging, twitter and a writer’s group as well as submitting more of my work. These actions in themselves have generated further connections and opportunities. Learning about flash fiction through #fridayflash (click the image on the sidebar) led me to blog about it, then to be quoted in a national newspaper, then to get involved in the National (UK) flash fiction day, for example. Blogging here led me to be asked to blog for the Irish writing website www.writing.ie.

What is important when you orient yourself towards something, when you have an intention rather than a resolution, is that it is a positive thing, an action that has energy. Sometimes a resolution has an ‘ought’ quality and ‘ought’ means guilt. Resolutions may sound firmer – the stuff of Antarctic explorers but to me they can be ‘all or nothing’. Intentions can bend with you and work with you. In this case, I’m not really letting anyone else down – which is another matter and perhaps a topic for another post (saying yes to too much at once). So it’s okay that the stones have disappeared. It’s wonderful that I’m writing other stuff that I hope you’ll soon be able to read. It’s great that I’m still making still moments and observances in my own life and I may still have some stones for you before the month is out.

School Hols & the writing parent: Week 1

I baked a cake

And what a long week that was!

I want to keep these posts short and I want to be realistic. What is possible when you have four children between the ages of 10 and 3 in the house, one of whom is a night owl, the others who are larks? I’ve had this dream for many years of a continuous span of writing time, a writing retreat perhaps, or a weekend lost in the corridors of my novel. In reality, I work best in shorter bursts with an energetic and engaging activity in between.  I am not a fast writer, even though I wish I was. I do manage to do the 1667 required for the novel writing month by doing odd things like getting up in the middle of the night if I wake up or writing 7000 words in one day when the kids are elsewhere.

But what is the reality of this week since the holidays began?

I am a little adrift to be honest. I have been up early several times (although the children soon joined me) . I have begun to read through my newly stuck together novel and one morning to write a new scene. But I’m too full of thoughts about what my novel might need and all the other projects that are lined up. I have stepped back from Twitter and moved back into life a bit.  I think my novel needs more stewing and I have been giving myself stewing time, taking walks, relaxing (for a change), watching the telly, reading the sunday magazines, listening to the radio.  I have found several ideas along the way. I have written 700 words of a short story or flash about a bug.

No themeparks. The three youngest with Thomas and an ornamental hedgehog at the DIY store

I have been a mother. I have baked a birthday cake for son 2, now 9 and arranged a little  family party with grandparents and cousins. I have run alongside my children on the Wii Fit. I have gone to the local DIY store and bought a sandpit, sand and an ornamental hedgehog.  I have done something interesting. I have taken my three older children on a walk individually, just a circuit from the house, around the local small lane, to the main road and back again. I introduced the idea of observation. I pointed out garden ornaments, poppies, cracks in the pavements, ambiguous painted stencils on walls. I listened to each one of them, noted how they were different. With one it was all about action, leaping up onto walls and gates, running fast and much talk of zombies and codes.  My daughter wanted to gather wild roses, and we did, despite the thorns. The eldest enjoyed discussing scientific fascinations.  Each of them surprised me.

 

 

I saw a rainbow in the morning before anyone was up. I enjoy seeing people catching buses in the nick of time.

My second son inspired the story about the bug through an amusing remark.

In my writing I am edging along very slowly. I become frustrated because there is so much to do. I become afraid that, although I love to write, some of the precious time given over to it may be wasted if I can’t make the novel work, if I don’t finish these projects and follow through on them. It matters, and then it doesn’t matter. It matters again.  It is all a muddle.  Sometimes the challenges of parenting (especially a child with Aspergers during less structured holiday time) can be draining.

A beautiful bouquet of roadside flowers from the walk with my daughter

I read a very helpful post lately on writing time, versus writing energy and it really made sense to me.  Especially as writing parents, we need to use the time we have carefully and maintain our energy, to put something back in, to replenish ourselves for the job of being a consistent, stable and comforting entity in our children’s lives. We need to have a life too, a feeling of vitality, a marriage, a means of income, nothing is in isolation.  As Miranda says in this wonderful post on studio mothers, there is no such thing as balance, we might not ever get everything just right.

So then what? A novel to write. A dinner to make. I sit in the early morning at my writing table. My newly nine year old boy arrives sleepy eyed and wants me to look at his Moshi cards, to chose my favourite. This is the same boy who gave me the idea for the bug story, who leaps on walls and gates, thinks of zombies, is writing his own stories about islands and adventures. I put my writing away, for now.

 

Alive now, on this day, at this time

I’ve been at the sea again. And the sea’s been at me. Loosening my thoughts and making them pretty.

If you read my fiction you will find the sea there, over and over, creeping in along the shore of my depictions. The backdrop, it is the past, where I grew up, it is the continuous, that constant energy inherent in nature, the falling away and returning.

I picked up driftwood, seaweed, stones.

Everything is moving so fast. Events looked forward to, swing past and are gone. The 2 year old is a 3 year old then heading onto 4, the construction of his conversation evidence of the passing of time, the gaining of some things, the loss of others. I am here now, on this day, at this time. I cannot climb over the sea wall as easily as before. I think it is just this day, tiredness, but this happens more and more. I am getting older. I am not seventeen walking in circles on the sand wondering what is going to happen. Much of my life has now happened. The sea is always there.

I have a free morning to write. I have a novel to write, to cling fast to, to make the vehicle of what I hold dear. I have not written much these past weeks, life has taken over, family, the garden, each rose coming out in sequence, one beautifully scented one a remembrance of my grandmother, coming from her garden. I remember her, alive, we were all together. It is getting further and further away.

As I get older I fill with observation, on the beach a child’s sock, a toddler with her grandfather, seed heads. Today the sea went Hooo, Hooosh. I want to live now. I want to say yes to my children. I want to tell you something that will go into the future when I am no longer here, alive, now on this day, at this time. I want to write and write and write all the ordinary glorious, I want to sit in the sun and forget everything.

Mother writer interviews: Humanity and the imaginative hunger

Paul's Himalayan Musk flowering in my garden

And Breathe. I’ve been delighted at the interest in my series of Mother Writer interviews and how you have found them relevant and inspirational . The mothers featured are determined, hardworking, often having a wry sense of humour. They suffer guilt and it’s not always smooth. As a mum of four kids ten and under, with several writing projects on the go, I really wanted to hear from other mums as to how they coped with the juggling of their joint passions, their children and their writing careers. There are practical tips but what has stood out for me is the attitude of the mothers, their persistence, their readjustments to the reality of life’s pressures, their generosity towards not only their families but to others in the writing community when it would have been easy to be selfish, to make their writing more important than anything or anyone else. Success often is said to require singleminded determination but what I admire is the interviewees ability to pursue their writing dream while also dedicating themselves to the welfare of their children, the difficult job of physically & psychologically preparing them for the world, the day to day caring and minding that revolutionizes the life of the child and the person they become into the future.

Which brings me on to my next interviewee Christine Mosler. This particular series of interviews was to run from March to May including today and my final interviewee for this series is to be mum of four, writer and blogger, Christine Mosler. However I elected to give her the day off and to wait until she returns from an amazing trip to Mozambique with Save the Children. As Christine explains here this trip takes her out of her comfort zone but is something that is profoundly important to her to raise awareness about the lack of vaccinations available to the children there. It is bound to be an amazing but very emotional trip and it will be fascinating to hear from her when she returns. In the meantime her wonderful blog about and for families is nominated for a MAD blog award which she richly deserves, so if you care to browse her blog and vote for it in the awards that would be wonderful.

The series of twelve interviews has been wonderful and I have been asked to crosspost them on the Irish national writing resource website Writing.ie where I have a guest blog. So if you missed any of the interviews you can catch up with them there or else here.

I will continue to run interviews on the blog but not every week as I am focussing on finishing the first draft of my next novel The Feeling of Being (about motherhood, identity and memory). There is also a family wedding coming up which I am looking forward to tremendously.

Future interviews will be from a variety of people, not only mothers (I know some writer fathers wanted to be represented!) and on a variety of topics. Since they will be more intermittent you may want to sign up to the blog to receive notification (only if you want!) .

So time to pause and breathe and refocus. Time to be present with family, with the writing, with the causes that are important, to sit in the sunshine for moments and realise that we are pointed the right way, that a calling to be a writer is a wonderful thing.

I was listening earlier to an old interview with well known Irish writer Brian McMahon at the Listowel Writer’s Festival many years ago. He talked about the ‘obsession of being a writer’. He said that there are three hungers ‘the spiritual,  physical and imaginative hunger’. These three hungers combine at a wedding he suggests, which makes the ceremony and occasion powerful (I will soon bear witness to this!). The writer has that imaginative hunger, this desire to create. As Brian McMahon said, the writer possesses ‘a wonder in the face of humanity’. As I listened to Brian McMahon, I felt at home, as if I had found my place. He says we need to keep striving to ‘perfect ourselves as the instrument’ of this telling about humanity. It is something once we know we have to do, that we cannot give up on. What the mother writer interviews show us is how to preserve and develop our own humanity and to dwell in the thick of it alongside our writing ambition.

5 New School Year Resolutions for Writing Parents

Kids back at school

In which I muse aloud and you get to listen in.

Although it varies by a week or two across the Northern Hemisphere for many parents, children round about now are returning to school and the more rigid routines of school days, homework and earlier bedtimes will come into play. As parents we need to be more organised and lovingly firm with our kids as we ease them through the change.

Whether you are a going out to work writing parent or a stay at home one or a bit of both, it’s a good time to think about your own schedule, your priorities in terms of projects that you have to complete, client commitments and projects that capture your heart and that you want to spend time on.

An important question to ask is ‘what is actually possible?’ We can take steps to create writing time by getting up early or staying up late, by being good at using small pockets of time between chores or on commute but believe it or not, writing isn’t everything. Our resolutions need to take account of the current demands of our lives timewise, physically, emotionally, mentally. At different phases these demands will fluctuate. All out commitment to the cause of writing without consideration of your current situation cannot be a good thing. As children settle into school they may require more of our empathy and listening time, will benefit and feel less anxious by us just being around, taking a walk with them, creating space for communication. Later on in the year these demands may change.

But if we get a chance to write, we want it to be as fruitful as possible. I often struggle to feel satisfied with my achievements because I have several tasks and projects on the go and have not identified which need to come higher on the list. At the end of the session, which is never very long, I have achieved not much of anything as I flit from document to document, to my email, to Google etc. A simple thing, but sometimes I’m not really clear what I’m working on. Just writing that down and having a schedule will make a lot of difference.

Sometimes I come to write and just can’t get into it, I have no spark. This is often after a period where I have not had any down time, general pleasant relaxation, a walk, or sit down with a book or even an evening in front of the TV.  It is possible to make writing a stick that doesn’t bear fruit because you are beating yourself with it. (Ah the mixed metaphor, my favourite beast!)

So what resolutions might be good ones for the new school and writing year?

5 Resolutions for the new school and writing year

1: Write less but more fruitfully and watch more telly

2: Pick a project, set a deadline or a mini deadline and work to it

3: Think each day about your current demands/desires emotionally, mentally, physiologically, socially, for family etc and decide what is most important, what is possible and necessary.

4: Take pride and joy in what you achieve even if it is less than what you had hoped, write down what you have done, it’s easy to forget

5: Think about, interact with and support others, friends, extended family members, other writers, create a strong and positive network.

Goodwill and good effort for the most part come back. Writing and life energy can be created by taking care of our time, ourselves, each other.

Confessions of a guilty writing mum

  • I let my children sit in front of the telly during the holidays for great swathes of time (never did me any harm – in fact it taught me about narrative, character, humour). They concentrate on educational programmes like Horrible Histories (surrealism, history) and Greatest TV blunders (media awareness) and Come Dine with Me (wishful thinking about dinner/cookery skills).
  • I tidy up by shoving everything into cupboards and closing the door very firmly by leaning on it. The estate agent who sold our last house told me a funny anecdote about everything falling out of a cupboard when the prospective buyers were taking a look. I wonder why he chose that story for me?
  • In times of crisis my children look for me, not in the kitchen, but in the study.
  • I’ve forgotton the names of my children (joke!).
  • I do all the housework for the day in one hour, including making the dinner. Before my husband comes home I do a breakneck tidy of the kitchen in 5 mins so that it won’t look so bad when he arrives.
  • My two year old makes his own Weetabix (awwwww).
  • I burn some part of the dinner or lunch on 50% of occasions but I always get my twitter friends to remind me when I’m grilling peppers.
  • My oven hasn’t been cleaned in 3 years.
  • In the holidays we have ‘clothes’ days rather than ‘pajama days’
  • I fool the younger children by giving them the ‘priviledge’ of hoovering or filling the washing machine
  • My children have forgotton my name (I wish).

What are your guilty secrets?

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Haven for the Head-Wrecked

Life can be a battle

Life can be a battle

I’ve become particularly aware in the last while that many of the people I am in contact with in my everyday life both physically or virtually (through twitter or email) are struggling in some way and putting a brave face on it. They are feeling confused, vulnerable, lonely, disheartened, unsure or scared and they are mad and fed up at themselves for feeling like this, for not being able to just get on with things and ‘be normal’. They can sense a stronger, more able person on the inside, a person who can ‘do so much more than this’, a Yes person who wants to embrace every opportunity instead of feeling overwhelmed and losing impetus. I understand these feelings, because I’ve been there at various times in my life, where stresses sent me spiralling, grief left me paralysed and self-doubt knocked me into a deep hole where I all I wanted was someone to throw me some kind of rope I could hold onto. At this time of the year I worry that the long dark nights and short grey days will take hold of me and drag me into a perpetual lethargy that will only lift in Spring.

People have real problems, difficulties at work, at home, with their children, finding balance in their lives. There are real tragedies, losses and readjustments. There are some days that are just plain bad. In these circumstances sometimes all we can do is wait for the passing of time, perhaps just a moment where we take a deep breath, half an hour where we do the things we burn to do always, a day, a week, a month, a year to move away from the pain that holds us by the lungs and squeezes.

There are some things that help:

  • Breaking our negative thought patterns:newmoodtherapy

We reinforce many of the negative feelings we have about ourselves and our circumstances through our negative thinking patterns. Pychological studies have shown that depression can be alieviated hugely by using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy either alone or in conjunction with medication. Thinking habits build up over a lifetime but we can work on them and practice substituting more realistic, helpful and positive thoughts. We can use techniques to control our anger and stop procrastination.

Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns is a wonderful book with excellent exercises for breaking mood cycles and destructive types of thinking.

  • Head space
    Create head space by doing what you love

    Create head space by doing what you love

Doing something we love or indulging in our happinesses. On her website Winslow Eliot gathers examples of these ‘daily happinesses’ and on her site Barbara Scully helps us find serenity. It is often difficult to see where we can find time to recuperate, dream, kick back or create but very small changes can make huge differences. I found this recently when I decided to get up at 6 each morning to do some writing, despite having four kids and an almost 2 yr old who wakes in the night. I found that I actually gained energy from the satisfaction of having done something I loved.

  • Connecting

My involvement in the parent-to-parent support group Cuidiu since my first child (now almost nine) was born got me through the hair-raising and hair pulling out first years of the culture shock of children. Similarly my writing connections through twitter and writing courses have shown me that my writing struggles are shared with many others.

  • Keeping going, however slowly, you are doing well

A step is a step is a step, it’s still progression, and even if you step back, you still learned something from going forward to begin with. Congratulate yourself for your effort.

  • Let it out, communicate and express yourself
    Let others know how you feel

    Let others know how you feel

Tell someone, or talk to others with similar difficulties. You will be surprised at how others feel just the same. Many of the struggles a writer deals with on a personal level may find expression through stories or in journals. In what I called the Book of Joy,  I worked through a troubling period in my life, coming to the realisation that life is two sides of a sphere, dark and light.  We can  see joy more clearly  in relation to loss or grief. This is the theme of my poem ‘If we thought that love was gone.’

j0385413Who cares? Plenty.

I write my stories because I want to touch people, to connect with them, to make something resonate within them, to give them words for the feelings they experience throughout their lives. I want to establish a well of common humanity which we can all share, so that we can understand what makes us similar, what can give us empathy for each other. Through my relationships with people in daily and virtual life, at the school gate, in Cuidiu, with relative strangers on Twitter, long standing but unseen friends over email and phone I know that I’m not the only mixed up crazy kid on the block. And I want you to be sure that there are a whole lot of lovely people out there, who not only care and feel, but care and feel for You. I’m one of them and there are plenty more. Here is where it begins and ends, I’m throwing a rope  into the universe to you all, hoping you will catch it and hold on.