Desk and view at Varuna

Desk at Varuna

I haven’t spent much time on my novel since I returned from Varuna. There are many reasons for this—every time I’ve sat down to write, the phone has rung, or there’s been a knock at the door, or a child tapping on the attic door, or someone off sick from school, or another one with exams. Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t a Mum so I could just do what I wanted all day.

Before I went to Varuna, I needed my manuscript in the best possible shape it could be, so for a couple of months beforehand I closed the attic door and sequestered myself away from my family. My husband looked after the kids in the evenings and weekends. I got up early and wrote while my husband sorted the kids for school. I wrote during school hours, picked them up, cooked tea, and returned to the attic as soon as I possibly could. If they didn’t do their homework or music practice, or if they forgot something, well, too bad.

I completed two drafts of my novel in only a couple of months and I was happy. It was so nice to make my novel my #1 priority, and the kids #2—almost like being childless again.

I went to Varuna. Two whole weeks on my own. I felt only slightly guilty—after eighteen years of being a Mum, I felt I deserved it. Plus, I’d won it and I had to take the opportunity and make the most of it.

My bed in the 'Ladder Room' with handmade quilt. Each of the quilts are named after one of Eleanor Dark's novels. This one was called 'Lantana Lane'.

My bed in the ‘Ladder Room’ with handmade quilt. Each of the quilts are named after one of Eleanor Dark’s novels. This one was called ‘Lantana Lane’.

Off I went. During the first week, my daughter sang in a competition. My husband sent me a text telling me that she’d won—the first time she’d ever won anything for singing. Oh well, I sighed, I can’t be there for everything.

My phone rang hot during the first week but I couldn’t answer it—you can’t take calls at Varuna in case you disturb the other writers. When I checked my message bank it was always full—could I help with the raffle for the music concert; could I call my son’s violin teacher and rearrange his lesson time; could I call about the clash of dates with my son’s school camp; could I call my daughter’s teacher about her assignment. I texted or emailed back, telling them to contact my husband, and I changed the message on my phone to, ‘I’m away at the moment, so please call my husband if it’s urgent.’

I lobbed it all onto to him. I had to—I had to push ‘real life’ away and make the most of my time at Varuna to write.

I immersed myself in my novel’s world and the characters and their lives grew fast and thick and full. I could live in their world and I didn’t have to come out of it. Their lives filled my thoughts, and their stories were constantly running inside my head. I knew how they thought, how they acted, what they would do next. They were all I had to worry and think and dream about. If I had an idea in the middle of the night, I could get up and write the scene because I didn’t have to get up early the next morning. I could sit at my desk in my pyjamas until midday because I didn’t have to leave the house. I could write a scene and complete it in one sitting because I didn’t have to answer a phone or tell kids to stop fighting or pick them up from school. I could wake up thinking about my novel, play with it all day, and go to bed still thinking about it.

My ugg boots got a work out ...

I made good use of my ugg boots.

Oh, it was blissful …

Within two weeks I’d revised about 80,000 words, and had 20,000 words to go to the finish line. I’ll finish this in the first week home, I thought.

It’s now four weeks later, and I’d be lucky if I’ve revised another 1,000 words.

I returned home and my kids had missed me and I’d missed them. Nothing was awry, not really, but I felt a kind of disconnect. I’d lost the thread of their lives. I knew exactly what was going on with Ida and Nora, the characters in my novel, but I had no idea what my children were up to—if they had a test or an assignment, or what music they were playing or singing, or how their hockey games were going.

I felt as if I’d neglected them—I was still a Mum first and foremost, and they’re still young and need me. My eighteen-year-old might live on the other side of the country, but she still needs her Mum from time-to-time. My sixteen-year-old is getting to the pointy end of her school career and she needs her Mum. I have a thirteen-year-old who is changing from a boy to a man and he needs his Mum. And I have an eleven-year-old who, like all eleven-year-olds, still needs his Mum.

It was too early to devote myself to my novel in the way that I had been. I had to return to real life—answer the phone; meet with teachers; worry about what’s for dinner; help with homework; go to music lessons; watch them sing. Be there for them. No more sitting in the attic all weekend trying to ignore the noise outside and getting annoyed when they interrupted me.

Unfortunately, it’s meant losing the thread of my characters’ lives.

Until now, I’d never had a problem with the work-family choice—family won easily. Now I’ve found something that I love almost as much as I love my family and at times I resent that I can’t write whenever I want to. Sometimes, I’m annoyed that my family wants me and my time, annoyed that I still have responsibilities to them. Annoyed that I can’t live in Ida and Nora’s world all day, every day until I’ve finished their story.

Then I take a grip of myself. I made choices eighteen, sixteen, thirteen, and eleven years ago, when I wanted these beautiful children. It’s not fair to neglect them now.

As much as I’d love to immerse myself again in the world of my novel and live in that world until I’m finished, I can’t. My brain must stay in the real world, too—cooking dinner; cleaning the house; talking to teachers; dealing with the day-to-day worries of kids. Caring for my family.

Our family will find a compromise—one that keeps the family functioning but still allows me to escape into the world of my story sometimes. It might mean finding a quiet place away from home for a few hours a day, or spending a couple of weeks every six or twelve months on my own, purely for writing. Nothing will be ideal—at least not until the kids have grown up and moved out of home!—but I’m a Mum and my kids need me. It’s the choice every mother makes and I’d never wish it any other way, not really. It’s how it is and as much as I’d like to be selfish, I can’t. My novel will be finished one day—it will just take longer. Such is being a Mum.

It reminds me of Joseph Rotman’s dedication in his book:


I’d love to hear from anyone in the same or similar situation and who is experiencing that pull between their work, or their art, and family. I’d especially love to hear ideas for how you solved it!