Continuing with my series on ‘How to Write a Book’, this week I thought I’d write on another aspect I found particularly difficult to put into practice: Taking my writing seriously.
I’m never comfortable giving advice—I prefer to write about my experiences in the hope my story might resonate with others. In this post, I’ve written about the guilt I felt for having my own dreams, and how I managed to overcome that and ask my family to come on board.
It’s quite a long post and it’s also very personal.
Seven years ago I stopped paid work because of the frenetic pace of our family life. Four kids, working as a doctor, running a breast cancer clinic— it was unsustainable and had been for about ten years. I was exhausted, saturated with exhaustion—you could have wrung it out of me. I was running from the minute I woke up, missing school events, forgetting appointments, and always driving at just over the speed limit because I was late.
And I was forever battling to keep tears at bay. One night as I was hanging out the washing at 11 o’clock—a not unusual experience—I started crying and couldn’t stop, and I realised I couldn’t keep going like that anymore
I handed in my notice at work, and because I knew I needed something intellectually stimulating to replace my job, I began a writing course. That course unearthed a treasure I hadn’t even realised I had: a creative side. Looking back now, I see that I’d always been a creative person, but I’d locked it away, straitjacketed it even. I see, too, that it was part of the reason the tears were never far away.
By the time I’d completed that initial writing course, I’d already decided to write a novel. So I began. At first, given I’d stopped work to be with the kids, I only wrote in the time between family commitments—while the kids were at school, before they woke, after they went to bed, while waiting poolside or in the car. I tried not to let my writing take me away from being with them.
But writing in-between like that wasn’t enough and I wanted more. I wanted to write all the time, and it began creeping into parts of the day I was meant to keep reserved for family responsibilities. Instead of preparing dinner, making beds or vacuuming, I wrote. I let it take over as much of the day as I could get away with without the family noticing. I stopped helping at school, I didn’t meet friends for coffee and I left the household chores, so I could spend as much time as possible writing.
At the same time I felt guilty, as if I was being irresponsible. I also felt selfish—I was doing what I wanted to do instead of my maternal and domestic duties. I felt undisciplined and neglectful. Not only that, but I wasn’t contributing to the family income anymore. I’d given up a well-paying job and was now spending my day chasing a pipedream that might never materialise.
Winning a writing residency at Varuna was an affirmation, yet I felt guilty accepting it. It meant leaving my husband to manage the family as well as his work, while I went off to the Blue Mountains for a fortnight with nothing but myself and my writing to think about. (I’ll add that these were my worries—my husband was completely supportive.)
I still went. I took a few other weeks away on my own, too, but each time I left the family I felt guilty. I felt bad for leaving my children and for giving my husband the sole responsibility of home and children and a full-time job.
Nevertheless, I didn’t let my guilt stop me from going. I had my eyes on a goal, and despite the guilt and the nagging thought, ‘What if it’s all for nothing?’, I had to aim for it. Looking back, those few weeks of writing in uninterrupted settings were invaluable and I’m glad I didn’t let my guilt deter me.
Then came the publishing contract and my dream became a reality. Earlier this year, I was sent the edits from my publisher, which were extensive, and I was given a tight deadline. As soon as I realised how much work was involved and how little time I had in which to complete it, I told my family that they would have to take care of themselves for a few weeks because I needed to write without interruption.
I might as well have been p!ssing into the wind.
‘Mum, I don’t have a clean shirt.’
‘Mum, we don’t have any milk.’
‘Mum, when are you getting groceries?’
‘Mum, hurry up. We’re late …’
I started to feel resentful that my family weren’t co-operating. One night, my 16-year-old son came into the attic and asked me to help with something (I can’t remember what). I snapped at him and told him to ask his father. He stood to leave, and I could tell he wasn’t happy.
‘Please ask your dad,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to get this edit done.’
‘You only seem to care about your book now,’ he said. ‘And not about us anymore.’
His words stung and they broke my heart. It wasn’t true; I did still care about him and his siblings, but I had a deadline. I was so tempted to do what he wanted and prove to him that I still cared about him, but instead I defended myself. I explained that I was under pressure and I couldn’t let my publisher down. This was my book, I said, with my name on the cover, and if it was badly written, it would be my fault.
I could tell my words weren’t registering. Then I said, ‘I have dreams, too, you know.’
He looked up, and I could see it had never occurred to him that his mother might have dreams of her own. Which wasn’t his fault, because I’d never told him, or any of my kids for that matter. They had no idea how much this meant to me because I’d not shared it with them. I hadn’t told them about my own, very private hopes and desires. About wanting to leave something of myself behind other than my children. I hadn’t told them because I didn’t want to hurt them by telling them I wanted more from my life than just being a mum.
That night, I told my son of my dream and how much they meant to me, and I watched his face change as I spoke. I could see he got it, he understood. He didn’t say much, but he kissed me as he left and he’s never uttered a word of complaint about my writing since.
A few nights later, my husband came up to the attic. He showed me a text message from our neighbour, complaining about our dogs barking*.
‘Have you been walking them?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I told you I wasn’t while I’m editing.’
‘Well, I don’t have time to do it,’ he said.
‘Neither do I,’ I said.
(I’ll skim over the next bit of the conversation because it involved raised voices and swear words.)
I reminded my husband of many years earlier when he was studying for his fellowship exam, the hugest exam of his life. At the time, we had two small children, and I took on the running of the family and the home and did everything to clear the way so that all he had to do was go to work and come home and study. He didn’t have to walk dogs or spend four or five hours a day on family and household commitments as well as his study. He could work without interruption.
During those months, his daughters saw so little of him, he became a stranger to them. I reminded him of the first time he went to bath them after his exam was over, when they screamed because they barely recognised him**.
I took on the load of caring for the family so he could achieve his dream. ‘I want you to do the same for me,’ I said. ‘For 21 years I’ve put my dreams on hold so one of us could be there for the family. Now it’s my turn.’
And the penny dropped. Not just for him, but for me, too. I’d been resenting my family for not taking my writing seriously, for not giving me uninterrupted space when I needed it, but I hadn’t told them how much it meant to me. I hadn’t told them how much I wanted to do more with my life, achieve something for myself.
It’s been a big adjustment period for our family. Of course there are days when I can’t write as much as I’d like, and there’s give and take. But I’m getting more from my husband and my family, because I asked. And I asked because I gave myself permission to have my own dreams and I stopped feeling guilty for them.
My family now realise how important this is to me. My husband has said he’ll be more prepared next time now he knows what’s involved, and as my kids get older, they’re becoming more independent and can manage fine without me. Instead of making me feel redundant, that’s quite liberating.
My family also seem to like this new mother even though she spends most of her time upstairs in the attic. They like her because she laughs more and doesn’t cry as much.
For me, I’ve discovered who I am and what I’m meant to be. And that’s a writer. The tears that were never far from the surface seven years ago have disappeared.
So after being a mother for 21 years, I’ve finally let go of feeling guilty for having dreams outside of motherhood. I don’t have to write in the cracks between everyone else’s timetables anymore. I’m allowed my time, too.
I want my chance to go for my dreams. I don’t want to die and take my hopes and aspirations with me to my grave. I’ve helped my family on the way to their goals, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, but now it’s my turn.
I’ve given myself permission to chase my dream and do what makes me happy.
*In our dogs’ defence, it turned out to be another neighbour’s dog making the racket.
**The girls soon got used to their father again and there doesn’t seem to have been any long-term adverse effects.