Writing Motherhood at the Swindon Festival of Literature

6 May
Writing Motherhood

From left: Rowan Coleman, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, C L Taylor

The mostly forgotten writer Cyril Connolly thought the pram in the hall ‘the sombre enemy of good art’.

On the face of it I’d agree: good motherhood is generally the enemy of good sleep, good sanity, good brain cells and good bank account. Children come first; not least because they scream louder.

But did Cyril mean this the same as me? Or did he comment with an inherent sexism born of early twentieth century attitudes, implying that the women’s place was in the home with the hallway pram? Hormones and responsibilities meant that women could never aspire to good art? Or was he commiserating with women because the relentlessness of motherhood (especially pre-washing machine era) left little room for anything else?

I prefer to think the best of Cyril and thank him for his sympathy. But, as it turned out, his concern may have been misplaced.

In my own personal writing journey I came back to creative writing after the birth of my first child. Was this coincidence? I didn’t feel more creative, particularly; the opportunity arose to set up a writers’ group and it went from there. Since my second child, it’s been a way to claw back time to live in my own brain where I set the rules and I only have to think about my fictional world; my responsibility is to breathe life into my characters. But they can die too.

With the first child we were still clinging onto the the vestiges of our old life; after the second, frivolities such as weekend socialising became a distant memory. I needed a distraction, an alternative all-absorbing pastime I could fit in whenever, where ever.

At the Swindon Festival of Literature yesterday, best-selling writers Carolyn Jess-Cooke, CL Taylor and Rowan Coleman, discussed what the ‘pram in the hall’ gave to their writing life.

Life experience was a benefit. Living longer and experiencing more.

“Motherhood is wonderful and terrifying,” said Carolyn. “Just a mother?! It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“After children it’s almost as if your nerve endings become more exposed…the precariousness, the joy of life. Children gave me an awful lot of great lines to put in my books,” said Rowan.

Regimented time and boredom was another common theme: “My vocabulary halved but writing gave me back my life. I plotted the book at night while I breastfed. But there are some subjects I wouldn’t touch now that I covered when I was single,” said C L Taylor.

A year or so after the birth of my second child, I read a fellow writer’s book which began with the death of a baby. I almost couldn’t bear to read it. One of my favourite TV cop series featured the joint death of a mother and small child and, combined with the lead character’s pregnancy, I couldn’t continue to watch the show. This is experience and chemistry at play. But raw emotion is the bread and butter of the artist. Men have had to cultivate a drug habit to achieve what we mums have for free during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

The time and energy issues become a question of priorities and focus. “I have become a lot more productive, and organised in the time I have,” said Carolyn. C L Taylor choose writing over unfulfilling snatches of sleep.

Nannies and supportive partners also help. As does earning enough from book sales to write full time. And being able to put the guilt to one side: should I be spending this time with my kids? Am I being selfish? Am I putting too much back onto my partner?

Sometimes I wish I’d worked it out earlier, when I had more time, energy and money. But perhaps I needed all this extra life-experience to have something to write? To understand. To have things to say.

And the reception given to writing mothers?

“I write what my publishers call women’s fiction. I call it fiction,” said novelist Rowan Coleman. “Everything that a women feels, is valued less than when a male writer feels it.”

One high profile poet, said Carolyn, found her work rejected several times because of the perception that motherhood could not be sold.

The reassurance I’d take away from Writing Motherhood is this: keep on writing, let the work speak for itself, ignore imagined and real limitations, and some day the rest of the world will catch up.

Writing Motherhood was at the Swindon Arts Centre, 5 May 2015, part of the Swindon Festival of Literature.

Words by Louisa Davison.

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