The '1000 tasks of maternity and matrimony' Isabel Allende talks about in her new memoirs come thick and fast this time of year don't they? At the end of a six day stint with children without the pilot (last report: admiring iguanas in the Dominican Republic), all it took was Kate Bush coming on my playlist for the new novel as I worked late last night wearing several jumpers to battle the gale whistling through the cottage, and I was in pieces. A combination of working late and the little one waking at four because Daddy's away is ... challenging. You don't need Macbeth to 'murder sleep' - three year olds can do that all by themselves. Do any of you remember 'She's Having A Baby'? It's a perfect cinema moment - life and love in the balance as this song plays.
Your comments and friends' emails after the last post have all been so interesting. This struggle, this relentless dance we are all part of as we keep partners, children, family, clients, editors and bosses happy takes some doing. Kate Bush herself famously took a decade off to raise her son. That was her priority. Marta's comment reminded me of the brilliant writer friend whose child was asked at school 'What does your Mummy do?' He thought for a moment - 'She's a typist,' he said.
So how do our books get written? I asked Joanne Harris recently, and her thoughts are wonderful: 'In my case, my advice would be: Cut your hair (saves on maintenance). Buy crease-resistant clothing (see above). Forget dusting - forever - and lastly, make sure all the balls you are juggling are balls you really, truly want to keep in the air. There's no shame in pruning the non-essential aspects of your life to make room for the essential ones...'
That's the key - decide what is essential for you. It won't be what's essential for your mother, your best friend or the girl next door. This has been a tough couple of years - but it has been my choice. Some events recently have been beyond my control - but it was my decision to write. I've always written - the deal was if we sold up, put everything into the pilot learning to fly then he would support me while I had the chance to do it full time and take the MA in creative writing at UEA. Best laid plans ... we all know what happened to the airline industry post 9/11. So, you end up working full time, then running your own company while you have one then two babies and your husband scrapes together the hours of experience you need before they'll let you fly commercially. Where is the space for writing in this? The truth is if you really want something you can make it happen. As we moved countries, towns, I carried the first manuscript with me. I read every single book on writing I could lay my hands on. I stole each precious moment I could to write. I taught myself.
A couple of years ago, I was headhunted to set up an auction house's operations in the Middle East. It was a dream job - the ultimate reward for everything I'd done in the 'day job'. The salary was amazing - the perks (house, help etc) tempting ... but I turned it down. It would have meant the pilot moving just as he'd made it to flying big jets at Gatwick, it would have meant me not being there for the children - and it would have been the end of writing. I decided what was essential for me, and writing is. It's three years now since I was able to go back to the book, a year and a half since I finished it (thanks to the blissful summer where Great Aunt Rose's legacy paid for the nanny who painted the children and hound blue). There have been countless times where I wondered if I'd made the right decision it's been that hard. The truth is books are written against the odds. One word at a time.
A long time ago, some friends in Brighton set up a lunch for me to meet Mick Jackson - he'd just been nominated for the Booker prize for 'The Underground Man', and we had a fascinating conversation about writing. 'So what's your process?' he asked. (I'd just started writing 'All the Lovely Ruined Things'). Process? Writers have processes? I didn't want to say 'well I get up an hour earlier before work and write with my keyboard balanced on a sock drawer in the corridor ... or long hand on the top deck of the number 22 after work'. But I bet a lot of first books get written like this. It's only once you've made it that success buys you hotel suites, studys, garden offices - you have to earn that space and time.
Everyone knows the stories about JK Rowling and her coffee shop. I wish I could write in a coffee shop, but one whiff of Cafe Nero (or Happy NoNos as the three year old calls it), and he kicks off. With very small children you are tied to home, which is where my 'process' comes in. During the day, I write short notes - word pictures, snatches of dialogue as I think of the new book. Backs of envelopes - post it notes if I'm being organised, till receipts, a dictaphone in the car all come into play as you go through the day. Everyone knows that frantic moment as you arrive home - groceries, hungry children, leaping hound, calls to return. The notes are sent tumbling down to the dark basement like offerings to an Oracle. They are safe down there. Someone asked me 'why don't you just have a folder in the kitchen?' Let's see - because someone will either scribble over it, rip it up or eat it (the dog not the children - well possibly the children). Every night when the house is asleep, I go down and divine what all the pieces mean, where they fit in the puzzle of the new book before I start to write. It's not perfect, but it's how I've managed. A friend asked me the other day 'So what happens when you're published? When you've bought a place, settled down - what happens when you're happy?' In other words, will I still have the same drive, the same determination to succeed against the odds? Watch this space. So that's how I do my work - what about you? From JK in her coffee shop, to Isabel Allende's handwritten manuscripts on yellow legal pads (House of the Spirits was delivered to legendary agent Carmen Balcells in a basket apparently), we each find our way. What's yours?
TODAY'S PROMPT: Maybe you know the saying 'fall down seven times, stand up eight'. I've been thinking a lot about that recently. We all fall down - or are knocked down - again and again. Life blindsides you, maybe you're unlucky and come up against poisonous people in relationships or at work - what makes you pick yourself up and start over? Sometimes I am very glad to be descended from prime ministers and bare knuckle boxers - my genes have stood me in good stead. Perhaps with everything else going on for the holidays you - and your work - are getting pushed down on your list of priorities. Today, why not take five minutes to think about what is essential to you. Do something simple for yourself - a long bath, a proper meal, an early night. We're almost into a new year ... what do you hope it is going to bring for you?
If your juggling skills could give the Cirque du Soleil a run for its money this is definitely the blog for you. Books, art, music, family life and daily prompts to help you write that book you have in you.