Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Writing about not writing

I find it staggering that my son is a year old.

Since his birth my writing productivity has dried up.  I always knew it would drop off, but even in my most despondent moments about becoming a parent, I didn’t think it would be quite this bad.  Babies sleep a lot, I reasoned.  Things haven’t quite worked out as expected.

There are various reasons for this.  Most obviously there is a lack of time, compounded by a lack of sleep which creates a fuddled mess of an imagination no longer able to hold a thought through to conclusion.  Surprisingly the lack of a routine has created a lack of momentum.  Previously I would normally complete a first draft of a scene or of a whole piece in a matter of days.  Now it takes weeks, or longer, until the end of it is an abstract thing so disconnected from its start as to no longer be coherent or even relevant.  Another human in the house causes a lack of space.  And there is a lack of urge. 

Time is stolen away from me.  There’s no real shock revelation there, but prior to Dadness I hadn’t appreciated that as well as baby supervision the amount of domestic and administrative chores increase exponentially and not just by an extra third.  Furthermore the time to complete those is shoved into the unlikely hours of the day where previously writing would take place.  Washing clothes happens late at night.  Researching imagined medical conditions or some gizmo I had hitherto not realised existed let alone grasped its essentialness occurs while he naps.  The inevitable aching for those four in the morning moments spent feeding or comforting to be given back takes place when the alarm goes off first thing. 

If this is all true for me, it is one hundred times more acute for my wife, especially in the early months where her very movements were limited by the lips clamped to her chest.  As he has got larger and more active, the headspace where it is possible to do one thing and to think about something else disappears.  It takes a surprising amount of mental agility to stack plastic beakers or pretend a cuddly lion is eating his stomach.  Similarly, the commute becomes a manic dash where all thoughts are focussed on returning as quickly as possible or trying to overtake on the way in those minutes lost by playing with him.  Paid working hours need to become infinitely more effective so that, where previously, time had paused to allow some notes to be scribbled, anything that adds even five minutes onto my departure time is vehemently resented.

It is only in recent weeks that the constant throb of tiredness has begun to abate.  It is still there, I still pine for bed, but I have stopped falling asleep in meetings, on trains, on the sofa.  I no longer yawn through entire conversations and my caffeine intake has fallen below levels which would kill many people.  Yet still I crave sleep like, in the past, I have craved whisky, an all encompassing urge for the pillows’ soft depth that would be succumbed to, were there not so much to do. 

Every now successful writer has a story about the time they created in the day to put words on paper.  Like many, a friend of mine advocates the early morning, enjoying that time where your brain is not quite clear and the words can slip through the gaps in perception.  Previously I would happily settle down to write when others were ending their day.  Now, I already get up a six to get to work for seven-thirty.  I could get up even earlier, although the idea of disturbing my wife with an alarm at a time she considers the middle of the night fills me with guilt.  Besides, where once I sprang out of bed no matter the time, now I sometimes find it physically impossible to lift my head when the alarm trings.  Instead, I hit snooze and immediately regret the panic of the minutes to be made up – and then he wakes anyway.  My evenings are now occupied with stuff that needs doing.  And after ten?  I am too tired.  I don’t go to bed, but that is only because a day that races full tilt from six in the morning until ten at night needs an hour to unwind, time to read or to think (but not to write).  Despite the weariness in my gut, if I went straight to bed from sixty miles an hour I know I would lie in the gloom, staring at the ceiling, waiting for who knows what?

For me writing has always been a pressurised activity.  I have to splurge.  It has always been a clattering rush to catch the idea before the moment is lost and it drifts away in memory as though never having been there in the first place.  Inspiration is ethereal and fleeting.  The refinement through editing can take years, but, for me, there needs to be something down to play with. 

My hard drive is littered with short stories and fragments of what may have become something bigger where the momentum was lost, the all precious voice reduced to a faint comedy accent, a stereotype so obvious the whole foundation is sliding sand.  These are pieces where I wasn’t quick enough, where some bit of real life got itself miserably in my way, and the words just evaporated. 

Regular readers will have seen evidence of this over the years.  The best posts on here are those captured in a few hours, tweaked and spruced up over a couple of days and set free.  The ones which struggle the hardest are often those I laboured over the most.  That works fine as a model for blogs and short stories, but, obviously, one cannot write a novel in such a way.  Of the two unpublished novels I like best, one was written in an almost feverish six months where I had no other life.  The draft which emerged at the end of that time was short and unpolished, but it was a good base I spent the following year building upon.  The other was written with more care over the course of a year with interruptions for life events, such as moving in with my now-wife.  The fever was abated, but I kept the voice loud in my head at all times, teaching myself to almost think like the narrator.  The finished draft was less patchy, although I was to spend another three years trying to polish the imperfections out.  These revisions would take place over a concentrated period of time, a few months or so where I would find the voice again and in-between I would work on other stuff.

Since my son’s birth I have not opened the file containing the earliest sketches of the new novel I had been working on.  The voice I had is lost, as alien to me now as a sonar bleep across the stars.  I thought that might happen.  Hopefully I’ll come back to it.  For this first year I had more modest plans around short stories and blog posts, all of which were dutifully started, all are unfinished, and arguably unfinishable.      

Space too is important.  I used to want writing to feel a part of the everyday.  I didn’t want to have to make the effort to begin, just to slip into the role.  Living alone my whole flat became an extended desk; when my now-wife and I first moved in together I carved out a space behind the kitchen door, which was more pleasant than it sounds.  It was isolated and focussed.  In our house, I shared an office space with my wife who often worked from home, allowing me to take over the desk in the evenings.  In the summer, I found my thoughts distracted by the views over Lewisham and to Oxleas Wood in the distance, but at least it was a room I could spread my imagination out in. 

That room is now my son’s bedroom.  The desk that was in there is now in the spare room, the chair bumps into the bed when I lean back in it.  The two rooms are next to each other and so in reality I find myself on the dining room table, amongst the fruit and newspapers, the fragments of ordinary life.  It may be uncomfortable, but is better than worrying that every key stroke will wake him from his slumber (even though, logically, I know it won’t).  Except downstairs, life is more prevalent.  The washing up needs doing, the gas bill needs paying, the washing machine roars in a way that can’t be good for it.  I am distracted by a thousand different bits of normal life that need finishing.

But none of this matters.

The poet Jackie Kay once said that we write to understand what’s missing in our lives.  Maybe.  The second unpublished novel, the one  I wrote in a frenzy, sweating in summer sun, cramped in the box sized flat, fuelled by whisky and coffee was about heartbreak, loneliness, rock n roll, no-one listening to you and never growing up.  I stopped refining it and trying to sell it shortly before my wife and I moved in together.

The third unpublished novel was about murder, envy, unrequited impossible love, buildings and never realising what’s important.  In the years it took me write it I doubled my paid-work salary, got married and became the minor shareholder in a house.

Before my son was born I was starting to work on something about politics, about the death of liberalism, about hope, a single history of a family intertwined with the soul of the country.  The scenes I’d written were mainly about fatherhood.

All a coincidence?  Maybe.  Probably not.

The other evening, when I was getting my son ready for bed, I lifted him up in order to tug his top down and he reached his arms around my neck, burying his head into my shoulder, gurgling happily.  There’s that, and there’s the way he babbles along “Dada, dada,” and greets every return with a smile of joy wider than my heart.  There’s the game we have where he chases me around the downstairs of the house, trying to find me in one of the two places I can hide.  The way he looks at me a moment before diving off the bed, or under the bathwater, that glance that says “I know I can do this because you’ll save me.”  All those and a million other reasons.  That’s why writing no longer matters.




Well, except it does a little bit.

As I type I am sitting in a metal storage container in the car park of an old police station, a space I am subletting to escape the chores.  It’s early Sunday morning, barely nine, and there’s a biting chill to the air that cools the coffee next to the computer faster than I can drink it.  My son has been awake, fed and played with and gone down for his nap already and so I am excused to come here.  One eye remains on the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen, watching the two hours disappear faster than the words can appear.

If I don’t write I feel like I am going mad.  If I don’t write there is nowhere for all the stuff, all the emotions, the ideas, the fear to dissipate to.  If I don’t write I only feel half alive.

No, that’s not fair.  It’s not that melodramatic, but it does feel like something is missing.

Maybe Jackie Kay is right.   Maybe I just need to work out, as my life becomes ever better, what it is I am missing.  At the moment it feels as though the things I have lost are space and time to think, to create and maybe understanding that will be one of the hardest parts of becoming a Dad.

So for the time being I am writing about not writing, and that’s better than nothing.

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