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, so 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 about my dreams; I’d never told any of my kids. They had no idea how much this meant to me because I’d kept my hopes and desires private. I hadn’t shared with them that I wanted to leave something of myself behind other than my children, and 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 it 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 me spending time writing since.
A few nights later, my husband came up to the attic. He showed me a text message from our neighbour, in which they were 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 and how 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 I wanted to do more with my life and 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 stop 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—I am 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.
I don’t just ‘like’ this post, I love it. I have very similar conversations with my kids when they say that I spend more time with my computer than with them. But I think they’re starting to understand.
I think our default position is to put everyone else’s needs first, but it’s amazing how understanding teenagers can be once they realise how important some things are to their mums! xx
Thank you Louise for your honesty. It all rings true and reminds me of my self and of my children in so many ways. I’m so glad you found the courage to have the conversations you had to have with your family. There is a sub-text, for me, in that it is traditionally women who do the most domestic work and parenting, and traditionally, men have taken it as their right to put their careers (sport, golf, whatever) first. so the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts that you describe in your family dynamics are important, not just for you, but for your family, that they come to understand the need for balance and sharing.
You’re right, there’s a lot more background to this story and many discussions led to this point. I’ve just presented the turning points here, really. Many of our discussions were about how my husband and I have both played our stereotypical gender roles—he the provider and me the carer—and neither of us minded too much for a couple of decades. But I think turning 50 made me realise I didn’t want to go to my grave having just cared for other people for my entire life—which is very noble, but I have dreams I want fulfilled. My kids are older and it’s time! 🙂
This is so beautiful, Louise; it made me cry. I’m so glad you followed your dream. xx
Thanks, Natasha! I’m glad I followed my dream, too! 🙂
PS. Your comment got caught in spam, so I don’t know what happened. :/
This is such a moving post, Louise. You had me in tears when your son finally realised you have dreams, too. I’m sure this post will encourage others to take their writing seriously. It’s certainly made me realise that something still needs to shift for me. Thank you. xx
I know, bless him. I could see the dawning on his face—I’m sure he’d never even thought of me as having dreams of my own, separate to him and his brother and sisters! It’s been really nice to share that part of me with my kids, actually. They’re more empathic than I gave them credit for! 🙂
It all sounds so familiar, Louise, this guilt over taking time out for yourself to write. I’m like you. it’s taken me years to get past the idea that I’m selfish if I go off to write, or to do things that facilitate my writing. I still write in the nooks and crannies. I still write with the door open, ever available to those who might interrupt my flow, but at least I insist on taking time out to write and that’s a start. You’ve done so much more than that. You’ve made your writing your career and I admire that. I’m not sure I could make writing my entire career, not yet. I need other things, and this might be one of the reasons why I stop short at the slide into fiction. To write fiction you need time to immerse yourself in these fragile imaginative worlds that only come in peace and quiet. They do not come in a rush or at times when your mind is off elsewhere. We all have our needs and our styles and our ways of approaching the task. I’m glad you let us see that it has not always been smooth sailing for you, your foray into writing, because sometimes I’ve imagined it has been for you. The fact of being able to survive on one income for one thing. Others can’t manage that. But more than the actual loss of income, it’s the courage as you say to take your writing seriously. Writing costs as much as it gives, both literally and metaphorically. Thanks for a great post.
I so wish women weren’t labelled ‘selfish’ for wanting more than motherhood. It’s a very hard mental and emotional block to overcome. It’s taken me seven years to get to this point and it could only be done little by little, small changes at a time. You’re doing well—baby steps!—and at least you’re writing!
I didn’t really go into the guilt I felt for not working and not supporting my husband financially when I had the means. That’s another post for another day. I did work until we were financially secure enough for me to be able to stop, but I do realise how lucky I was to be able to afford to stop work.
Thanks, Lis. x
Well done for sticking by your dreams Louise! I’m only at the very beginning of motherhood and I already feel so much of what you’ve described. Unless you are a writer, you’ll never understand the time and effort that it requires. I always used to hate it when people said to me ‘you couldn’t possibly understand until you have children of your own.’ At the time I scoffed, and now I know exactly what they meant. Consequently, I never use that line on people who aren’t parents – because it’s true – you can’t possibly understand so why try explain it. Sometimes writing feels exactly the same, but if we don’t share with the people around us, we’re actually not giving them the chance to be supportive, either. Thanks for sharing this series x
I love your line, ‘if we don’t share with the people around us, we’re actually not giving them the chance to be supportive’. It’s so true—people understand, even kids, when you’re honest with them, and they come on board. Mine are a little older than yours, though!
Just don’t feel guilty for keeping your own dreams alive, the ones outside of motherhood. (There, I’ve gone against my own advice and given you advice!)
Best wishes. xx
Oh wow. This one must hit every writer in the solar plexus, and women writers especially. How we can undervalue what we do, doubt ourselves, subjugate our needs too readily … until we don’t.
And it occurred to me too how important it has been for your family to learn to support you in this endeavour, how much value this must have for your children to learn about supporting others, now that they are on the cusp of becoming adults themselves.
Thank you for being so honest here. It helps the rest of us take courage, avoid pitfalls, and feel more understood along this writing journey.
Oh good grief, I said ‘journey’. I blame watching ‘The Bachelor’ last night.
The Bachelor, eh? I can hear your brain cells dying from here! 😉
We don’t even realise how many of our own needs we push aside, and how hard we are on ourselves if we give in to them.
I’m glad you appreciated this post! Thanks for your support, too. x
Thank you Louise for a great post. Made me feel teary. Families are absolutely wonderful and it is heartening to know that when we communicate with them they immediately come on board, but that is the crux of the matter isn’t it? We Mums are not very good at asking for what we really need. Somehow we try to be everything for everyone and on top of that try to squeeze our own needs in between the cracks. Still, I can’t manage without my family.
Families are gorgeous and I’d be very lonely without mine. I think you’re right about mums being reluctant to ask, so we try to meet our needs without disrupting everyone else. You can do that for a while, but not forever. Thanks for your lovely comment. x
So much of what you’ve said resonates with me. I think you are very brave as I find it hard to bare my soul in public.
As I write away day and night, I’m so pleased to have gotten to a point where my housework comes second and my writing first! Neither suffers! As for interaction with family, as a grandparent, I have the benefit of being one step removed, though there is still a balancing act. It has been a lifelong process getting to this place of freedom to be myself. I find immense joy in writing. Nothing ever removes tears quite like total absorption in crafting words into my own pieces of writing.
Thank you for your openness and honesty, Louise.
I recognise baring your soul in public isn’t for everyone! I don’t mind it—I love that other people relate to what I write.
I completely relate to it taking a long time for you to get to ‘this place of freedom to be myself’—it takes ages to shake off the shackles of duty we feel. It’s lovely to read about how much you enjoy writing, and thank you for visiting and reading. xx
Oh Louise! This post spoke to me in so many ways, I’ve had to read it a few times to absorb it all. I am still writing between the cracks of everyone else’s’ timetables, feeling a tinge of resentment when I’m doing chores rather than writing, yet they’re all happily getting along with whatever pleases them late in a Sunday afternoon. And you’re right! It’s largely my fault for allowing it to happen, for not saying ‘writing is important, how about someone else cook Sunday dinner for a change.’
This has been inspirational, Louise and I think it’s given me the courage to eke out a little more writing time for me. Thanks!
I suspect you’ve had to read it a few times because it’s a bit all over the place, Marie! It’s such a complex topic, and I’ve had to omit so much—I’m not sure I’ve done it justice, to be honest. I could have gone on and on about the constant tug of war I feel between looking after my family or looking after myself.
I’ll be thrilled if this pieces helps give you courage to create more writing time!
It definitely wasn’t your writing that led me to reading it a few times – it was the very thing that prompted you to write it! I’d read some of it, then get asked a question, then read it again, faster – because I desperately wanted to finish it before school drop off, then the other child came over and asked a question… I was finally able to read it again in a moment of serenity 😊 It was beautifully written and in no way ‘all over the place’!
Whew! I’m really glad I wrote and shared it—it’s nice that it’s resonated with so many people. xx
What a captivating story of your writing epiphany, Louise. Thank you for sharing such a personal piece, Louise. xx
I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, Maureen! 🙂 Thank you. x
Hi Louise, I’m crying reading this. I love that your family get it xxxx
My family are great! As I’m sure most families are once we tell them what we need from them. Mine have come on board in the most supportive way. I love them dearly! x
Well freaking hell, that spoke to me on many levels. I understand the resentment, I feel it sometimes and like you wrote, if I don’t talk to them about my writing and how important it is to me, how are they suppose to get it? Hopefully when I do they’ll understand like your family has. And I like your point about finding it liberating now that your kids are getting older 🙂
I do think kids who grow up with mothers who’ve always written or worked don’t know any different and are used to it, whereas mine had to cope with a big change. As your family gets older, it will get easier and easier. Your kids will understand more, and then will come a time when they actually want to help you and will take on some responsibilities! Kids are amazing given the chance! 🙂
I agree and yes, kids are amazing!
They sure are! 🙂
I think it’s a wonderful thing for children to see their parent as a person not just as a slave. Your commitment and dedication is astounding.
I think it’s been great for us all to break out of the traditional gender roles in a family. I’ve never been one for housekeeping—there are so many other things I’d rather do! 🙂
Wow, that’s something that bravery to take on. I can see why it’s hard.
Thanks, Simon. 🙂
Always a pleasure ☺️
Thank you. 🙂
This means so much to me, they could be my own words and feelings and fears.
Don’t feel guilty for having dreams, and grab any opportunity you can to do something about them. 🙂
Just read this Louise. Brought a tear to my eye. It’s so important to follow our dreams, and to support the dreams of those we love, if we can. Thank you for writing this inspiring post.
Thank you for your kind words, Warren. You’re so right about following your dreams and supporting those we love to follow theirs, too. 🙂
Oh gosh! What a heartfelt, touching post. I have those tears that are never far from the surface threatening to spill. I have shallow tears. I am affected even by discussions on the radio. I must take my writing and myself seriously, I think. 😊🤗
You must do what you want to do. I think that’s what those tears are telling you, Anne. 🙂 xx
You are most probably right… I do need to do something about it. Thanks so much, Louise. 🤗
Good luck. 🙂