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.
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.
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!
Lou, I love to hear how you have balanced your life you are a credit to what in your family makes you a great parent, something that makes me, as a Mum very happy also.
Thanks so much, Liz. You’ve warmed my heart!
Lou, I’m in the same boat! xo
I know you are and you’re really in the thick of it, too! When my kids were at your kids’ ages, I couldn’t have written—I didn’t have the mental energy. You do very well to write as much as you do!
Your kids aren’t babies anymore. They have a stable home with a mum and a dad. A rarity these days believe me. I think your children will get so much out of having a committed, creative, artistic mother as a role model rather than a slave who is there for every little request. You should never feel guilty because it’s perfectly natural for them to learn independence at this age and they know you’re there anyway. Go for it Louise. Spontaneous and flowing creativity doesn’t happen every day.
Thanks, Pinky. You are so right and I know it. I reckon I’ll have to revisit this post in my journal—it’s about more than than me feeling torn between my kids and my writing. It’s about me giving up some of their lives, too …
I took twenty years. Not much of a solution I know but it was all I could manage.
It takes as long as it takes. For you and me anyway!
That’s a beautiful post Louise & whilst it is study, not writing, that I am juggling, I do relate to the constant pull in different directions. Ultimately I too remind myself how short a time I have with these beautiful children needing & wanting me & I get up from my desk & go back into the fold of family life & feel grateful for all that I have pulling at me. bx
Thanks, Briony! You are right, too. Everyone is right, and I think it’s about finding that balance between family and self. Unfortunately, mine tipped too far one way for a while, but it was necessary at the time.
I love your phrase, ‘go back into the fold of family life and feel grateful for all that I have pulling at me’. It’s beautiful and so true—it’s a nice feeling to be needed and wanted and cuddled by one’s kids!
Another thought provoking post, Louise. Although my active parenting days are long past, it seems that other people in my life don’t take my writing seriously, and I get seduced into half believing them and then resenting their intrusion into my writing time. Perhaps writers like us need to think about our writing as ‘work’ although most of us love what we do with a passion. Just maybe we should call our sitting at a computer (or notebook) a part time job and allocate a certain number of hours a day to it. Best of both Worlds!
Oh Maureen, you and I need to have coffee! I know what you mean about being taken seriously by others. People think because you’re at home sitting in front of a computer, that they can call for a chat. And I find it hard not to answer the phone, although I am getting better at that. I know, too, that I don’t always value my own time sitting in front of a computer, especially when at the end of a few hours I only have a few crappy sentences to show for it!
I needed to write this post to hear all of these responses and kick my own butt back into gear. That’s it—full steam ahead, again. But with some time out for family!
Since my husband passed away and I made that promise that I would be okay, I have committed myself to volunteer at the library every Saturday, develop a Facebook page for them, serve on the executive board; volunteer on Wednesday nights to the hospital; involved myself in online writing courses; and writing novels; and most important to my husband a promise to take care of myself which at my age includes many doctor appointments — all of which interfere with my desire to write. While none of these are even close to the commitment of taking care of a family, they are my promises to my husband and therefore must be kept, for if they are not I become untrue to myself and my marriage. No doubt I took on too much too soon, but I am stuck with my decisions. I have one advantage over you, as when I sit down to write, there are not the interruptions of loving children needing my personal care, but the need is still there as I became a primary care giver for my son during his open heart surgery. I understand your frustration in trying to be two people at the same time. Your novel will be completed and you will have the thrill of accomplishment but you will also have the love, admiration and respect of hour children. Be patient. It will all come together. Many hugs. Just don’t forget to breathe every once in a while.
Supposed to say your children. Sorry for the typos.
Thanks for your words, Betty. You do so much and are such an inspiration to the rest of us. I also see that at every stage of life there are going to be intrusions into the writing time, no matter how old your kids are. You just have to strike a balance where it gets done, but you don’t neglect your family.
PS/ My husband made me feel better this morning—he said words to the effect of, ‘If every eighteen years you have a couple of months where the kids are a bit neglected, so what?’
I endorsed everything bettynearing said, so eloquently and beautifully put. All I can say Louise, is hang in there. You’re still very much in the “engine room” of your life. p.s. I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tratt earlier this year, and absolutely loved it. It took her ten years to write it. Ten long years! But it’s already won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, and no doubt will win a whole lot of other awards.
Thanks, Marlish. I’m sure my book will not be in the realm of anything of Donna Tartt’s, but I get what you’re saying. I could punch out a ‘plot-driven’ story, but I don’t want to (not that I’m putting down ‘plot-driven’ stories—they just seem to be able to be written a lot quicker). I want to get into the minds of my characters and write a novel with meaning. It’s hard to do that when dipping in and out of the story in short snippets, whilst spending most of my time in the real world. So, if it takes ten years, or twenty as Elisabeth’s did, so be it.
Hi Louise. I think you’re doing a great job as a writer, and as a mother. Each enriches the other in quality, if not always quantity, and your life experience as a loving mother will only make your writing better. I’m hoping it’s the normal thing to take a break from the main manuscript every now and then. Even without such pressing family responsibilities now, I do.
I agree absolutely, Iris. Motherhood might use up my time, but it enriches my writing, just as it enriched my doctoring.
And yes, after an intense creative period, we do need space and time to refuel and recharge. The creative well is not endless! Maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve written so little since my return from Varuna …
Don’t feel guilty, It will come together when you are ready and not beforehand. You have had a full on year so far and it’s only May xxx
Thanks, Rae. Thanks for your wisdom and support. Thanks to everyone for all their wise words in response to this post. It’s really helped me gain some perspective and stop beating myself up for neglecting my kids and then not writing.
Louise, just take a moment to acknowledge all that you do – it’s all part of you – you wouldn’t be the writer you are if you weren’t the mum you are – and it’s not a race even though it feels like that sometimes. I thought my novel was finished last year and now I know I’ll be lucky to have it finished this year, and I try to write all the time and it still takes time – you are creating something that wasn’t there before you thought of it, that’s wonderful and exhausting and if you can do it and stay sane, you’re wonderful too, my friend.
Thanks as always, Rashida, my lovely friend. I know what you’re saying—be patient, have trust, all of those things. I have to be patient and trust that the story will get written—it will just take time.
Good luck with your novel—I know it will be beautiful, and beautifully told, too. And both yours and mine will be all the better for the extra time we’ve taken!
I think you’ve nailed it , Rashida! And so eloquently too. Especially – you wouldn’t be the writer you are if you weren’t the mum you are. Blessings.x
Thank you, Marlish, for your support and encouragement. I am very grateful for everything I have, especially my beautiful family.
Varuna House looks like a lovely space to sift through things and just write and just be. I remember Eleanor Dark’s work from when I was studying 1930’s and 40’s Aus womens literature, but didn’t realise her house had been restored and become a haven for writers. Perhaps you can go back there another time, Louise, and get your book further along to where you want it to be.. you must have written heaps by now!
Varuna is perfect for writing, Dixie—I suspect you’d enjoy it. It’s old and creaks and you have to stay quiet because you can just about hear the person in the room next door when they roll over in bed (slightly exaggerated!), but it is worth it to be surrounded by the history, the gardens, the mountains and the other writers. You should consider going as you’re a very talented writer …
What a great post, Louise. And I can see from the comments that it has resonated with many people. Being a creative person and a mother is a tricky balance. I almost went crazy with frustration when after 3 years I was 90% finished with Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and then my son was born and I didn’t write a word for months. I was so close to the end… and yet so far. As he’s got older I’ve gradually carved more and more time for my writing, and for the last 2 years he’s been at school and i’ve had a grant so I’ve been able to devote all his school hours to my own writing. I am fiercely protective about that time. I don’t chat on the phone or go out to lunch – and my friends understand this. I STILL find it hard to tear myself away at 2:45 and would love to keep going when I’m on a roll, but I also know if I did that i wouldn’t know what was going on in his life and I would probably regret it in later life.
Don’t ever think you’re selfish, though, for taking time out to follow your own passion. By doing that you’re being a great role model for your kids and teaching them that their parents have needs too – an important lesson! You sound like a great mum. And your book will be ready eventually. Whenever I feel panic at not producing work fast enough I think of Annie Proulx, whose first book came out when she was 59 or thereabouts.
Good luck with working out the balance. Kirsten Krauth has a great series on writing mothers, and there is also a wonderful book called The Divided Heart – essays on juggling creative careers and motherhood.
Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Annabel. It’s a life of constant compromise, especially right now as I just want to write until I’ve finished the damn story. But as Maureen Helen said, it won’t end when I finish this story, because there’s always the next one …
I love hearing about writers who didn’t publish until they were older—that’s great to hear about Annie Proulx—I so love her work. I’ll look up The Divided Heart, and read Kirsten’s series. The best thing about this post has been the responses from creative/writing mothers—we all understand each others torn loyalties!
I forgot to say, Annabel, that I do not know how anyone manages to write when they have a young baby, especially their first. I could barely find time to shower and dress, let alone anything else …
Also, good on you for being protective of your writing time. I need to start shielding mine again.
I know! I guess it depends on your baby. My little boy was one of those who never sleep during the day so no writing time for me. Shielding your writing time is important. People might be baffled at first but if they really care about you they will accept that it is important to you.
It took until my fourth child for me to get a sleeper, so I understand!
I am getting better at protecting those between school hours. Coming out of the closet about my writing helped, but I still think I’ve upset a few friends along the way. I just say it outright now—that I’m not a very good girlfriend! And you’re right—the ones that really care will understand.
OMG three non-sleepers, that is doing it tough! As you say, coming out of the closet is an important part of it – admitting that you are taking your writing seriously, that it is more than just a hobby, will hopefully help people to respect that you need to set time aside for it, and that you will protect that time against other non-essential activities.
Sometimes, I think it’s the writer who needs to tell themselves that it’s okay to protect that time! 😉
I saw Annie Proulx speak here in Perth in 2003, in the chapel at Christ Church Grammar. A truly remarkable woman. What really struck me about her was her unbelievable passion for reading anything and everything. From reading about bike riding to ornithology to preserving beetroot and cattle rearing. She called herself a reader first and foremost. Claimed she spent much more time reading than writing, claimed it was more important to read. So Louise, if you can keep up your reading… 🙂
Lucky you to see her speak! I heard her interviewed by Margaret Throsby on Classic FM (you’d be able to hear it on podcast) a year or two ago—she was inspirational. She revised Brokeback Mountain something like sixty-four times. She’d just finished Bird Cloud, and talked a lot about her house in the mountains of Wyoming, which she’d just put on the market, reluctantly. As she was getting older, she was too cut off, especially over the winter when the only road in was under snow! I’d love to be able to hear her speak one day …
Like you Louise I am a busy woman. I run my own company, and while only having two children, one is doing year 12 and both are playing elite sport. My husband is busy too. I call my writing and my guilty pleasure. It is what a long to do all day every day. I know that soon enough my children will be grown and gone and I look forward to the knowledge that I won’t be bored or lonely when that time comes. While my children at 17 and 14 years are capable and independent young men, we are a family and we like to spend time together when we can. They won’t always want to spend so much time with me, so I push my urge to write to the back burner and try to be a present mother. Occasionally my yearning gets the better of my ( like last night) where the bug just overtakes me, everyone goes to bed without me saying goodnight and I am up until midnight, only to be up at 5.30am to do the swimming run!!
It is great to know to know there are more of us out there!!
I just spotted this comment from over two years’ ago, Caroline, and I’m sorry I didn’t respond to it at the time. I don’t know how I missed it. A belated thank you for this thoughtful response.
For some reason, this post came up in my feed and I read it again. It brought back all the guilt I used to feel trying to balance writing and mothering, especially the guilt at finding something I loved to do, and needed to do, even though it meant spending time away from them. I remember the feeling well, although a lot has changed in the intervening two years, and it’s actually a long time now since I felt like this—the kids are older and that makes it easier, but more importantly, they accept my writing as my ‘job’ now, and give me time and space. It took a couple of years for everyone to get used to, but we’ve found a workable compromise.
Once again, I apologise for not replying sooner! I hope you’re still writing, even if it’s until midnight after everyone’s in bed! x