Riding the ups and downs of the lead-up to publication can be rather nerve-wracking and is much easier if done with a friend, so as authors whose début novels came out within a couple of months of each other, Lauren Chater and I have become friends over the past year or so.
I first met Lauren through her blog, The Well Read Cookie, where Lauren showcases the book-themed biscuits she’s bakes and decorates. Her cookies are works of art and far too beautiful to eat!
Lauren lives in Sydney with her husband and two children. After working in the media sector for many years, she turned her passion for reading and research into a professional pursuit, and began writing historical fiction, with a particular focus on women’s stories. In 2014, she was the successful recipient of the Fiona McIntosh Commercial Fiction scholarship.
Here’s Lauren’s story of how writing helped her during those difficult post-natal days.
‘They say that the first twelve weeks are the hardest; this is true of both first drafts and life with newborns.’
Survival Lessons: How Writing Changed My Life
Six years ago, I gave birth to my son and found myself, for the first time, in a house with no obligation to do anything other than take care of someone. I say this with some irony; anyone who has ever looked after a child knows how that obligation can start to feel like a weight slowly crushing you from above until all that’s left is a puddle of exhaustion. Yes, that was me, too.
I struggled with new motherhood. While the last few weeks of pregnancy had dragged on, the weeks following the birth seemed to disappear before my bleary eyes. Days which previously had been divided neatly into mornings and nights now had no order. Everything was jumbled up; everything felt wrong. The normal rhythm of time had changed without warning and left me dazed. The steady beats of coffee-in-the-morning, get-ready-for-work, eat-lunch, make-dinner, quick-shower, fall-into-bed-with-partner no longer made sense. As I watched my husband button on his shirt in the morning, his mind already focused on what he planned to achieve that day, I felt entirely disconnected. My ears were filled with muffled silence; the only sounds that penetrated were the cries of my son. He was the reason I did anything. If not for him, then I might as well not exist. It was like the world had moved on and forgotten me.
‘I thought there was no way I could have depression.’
Of course, I now realise the truth: I had depression. If I’d known more about it, I would have been able to tell people straight away that my dissociation and withdrawal from society were symptoms of this complex illness that still affects one out of seven Australian women. But I didn’t know; or at least, I thought there was no way I could have depression. I’ve always been so positive, I thought. No way it could be me.
I was wrong.
There’s still stigma attached to post-natal depression. This can make it hard for women to identify their symptoms and speak up. Although the landscape is slowly changing, new mothers are inundated with highly unrealistic images of what motherhood is ‘supposed’ to look like. Happy babies and laughing mums. Not a dirty nappy in sight or a woman crying in the toilets at the shopping centre, wishing she was somewhere, anywhere else.
I was lucky; I had a strong support network. Many women don’t.
‘Surrounded by the comforting presence of old books and shelves of childhood knickknacks, I found a small space in which to breathe.’
Things slowly grew easier for me. I spent a lot of time at mum’s house in the weeks following my son’s birth. Surrounded by the comforting presence of old books and shelves of childhood knickknacks, I found a small space in which to breathe, to let go of all the things which were expected of me, things I’d already failed at like breastfeeding and allowing my baby cry because I should be ‘training’ him to sleep on his own. Fortified by the familiar, I found a rhythm of my own. In between feeding and sleeping, I read and watched television. I spent time cuddling my son and singing to him. As days became weeks, I tried to imagine what it would be like to return to work but I couldn’t. It was a blank space. I was different. Everything was different. Work and I seemed incompatible. For the first time since I was a teenager, I began to imagine what I would do if I had the time and the opportunity to follow a path of my choosing. If I had my time again and didn’t have to worry about paying rent or listening to that voice of self-doubt which told me my dreams were ridiculous, what would I choose? What would make me happy? Because happiness now seemed more important to me than ever, both my own and my family’s. It would be the making or the breaking of us. I needed to find it if we were to survive.
‘How you find your way back and reclaim those parts of you that you thought were gone.’
It was around that time Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic re-entered my life. It had a profound effect on me when I was younger. I loved its themes of sisterhood and magic, and overcoming grief; the grief of losing a husband, the grief of losing yourself and your identity somewhere along the way. At its heart, it’s a story about hope and redemption. How you find your way back and reclaim those parts of you that you thought were gone. As I sat in my old bedroom reading that book while my infant son slept, I remembered how life had once seemed so full of possibility. I remembered I’d once dreamed of being a writer, of telling stories that would entice and enthrall and let people know that no matter how difficult their lives seemed, they weren’t alone. Many things had dissuaded me of my dream over the years; the reality of working to pay for food and a mortgage, the reedy voice of self-doubt, the self-delusion that nothing I had to say would be ever be worth reading about.
I could do it, I thought, and for once, my inner critic was silent. I could write a book.
Perhaps I was so exhausted my mind was too tired to conjure up the usual arguments. Perhaps I was encouraged by the awareness that nobody knew what I was doing and nobody expected to read my work or challenge me to finish it. Perhaps there was some magic in the air that day, drifting through my parent’s house to mingle with the scent of eucalyptus from the tall gum trees outside. Whatever and however it happened, I found myself opening up my laptop. Words poured out of me. They were like a river which formed a flood containing all the things I felt but could not express. The story I wrote was about two sisters, twin daughters from a wealthy family in a country town. A magical orchard of lemons that were always sweet, never bitter. A murder which was the catalyst for a mysterious blight that soured the harvest. A cleansing fire, a long-lost granddaughter, old secrets exposed. It was called The Kingfisher Harvest. It was the first novel I wrote.
‘At around twelve weeks, my son and I turned a corner.’
That novel changed my life. I’ll always be grateful for the experience of writing it. Years before I considered my writing good enough to submit to publishers, I spent a few months writing that book, the book which was in my heart. I wrote without any care for grammar or structure, without worrying about whether people would love my characters as I did. I just wrote because the sheer act of doing so filled me with wild joy. It saved my life. With each word I set down, I forged a new identity for myself. Gripped by determination, I wrote when my son slept and at night during feedings. I wrote on my phone, on bits of scrap paper, on whatever I could reach with one hand. At around twelve weeks, my son and I turned a corner. He no longer screamed all the time, but seemed more content, more secure of his place in the world. He watched me tap away on the laptop, his eyes following the rhythm of my fingers. He tried to help by banging his fists on the ground; we laughed together and rolled on our backs and kicked our legs in the air, giddy with happiness.
They say that the first twelve weeks are the hardest; this is true of both first drafts and life with newborns. When we emerged at last from that difficult place, my son could roll onto his belly and I had a first draft in my hands. I was exceedingly proud of both of us.
In her book Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman writes, ‘My heroes don’t give up, even when the going gets rough, even when they want to. They manage to see the stars in the sky until they disappear from sight, a glittering memory of our world.’
Writing helped me see those stars again.
WRITERS IN THE ATTIC IS BACK!
As you can see, WITA is back in 2018. I can’t commit to it weekly like I have in past years, so I’m going to space it out with posts I write (see below).
I’d love to help authors publicise their books, so if you have a novel coming out and would like to write a post for this series, please contact me.
I’m currently preparing next week’s post, which is on the subject of social media. Readers have already sent me quite a few questions, including about how I started my blog and how I manage the huge time commitment it is, but if there’s anything else you’d like to know about this subject, please post your questions in the comments below or via the Contact page.
Also, I’m looking for future topics that readers would like to learn more about, so please send me your questions about writing, getting published or social media. Here’s a sample of some I’ve already been sent:
- How do you make the time to write?
- How do you cope with negative feedback?
- Is getting a manuscript appraisal worth it?
- How did you make the setting of your novel feel so authentic?
- How do you overcome the fear of writing personally?
- What’s it like working with a publisher?
If you have any more burning questions or topics, please ask—no topic is too big or too small or too silly, so send them in!