Domesticity, motherhood and novel-writing

There are days when the challenges of sitting down and writing seem to be insurmountable. Recently I have been struggling to write.

I am fortunate to have my own writing space: a tiny room crammed into the eaves of the house, but a space nonetheless, and I am ferociously protective of this space. There are, no doubt, parenting debates to be had about unsupervised play. I have always argued, and will continue to do so, that my children thrive from occasional periods of unsupervised activities: this is the time that they read books, build complicated role-play structures with all their teddies, and turn the sitting room into a theater for a play that they have devised. This is when I write. But I know it doesn't work for everyone. A good friend recently sought to emulate my 'mummys writing' strategy, but her children were less willing to play along. I explained to my friend that my girls know that I can only be disturbed in an emergency while I write, and my friend carefully explained this to her girls: mommy is writing now, she will play with you in one hour, but until then you may only interrupt her if there is a safety issue. She arranged activities, gave her children snacks, and sat down at her desk. Within the first five minutes, one of her children burst into the room to ask how to switch the oven off now that she had managed to switch it on, and a few moments later the other child knocked politely and asked, in her sweetest voice, where mommy kept the fire extinguisher. My friend no longer tries to write when her children are at home!

So, I have my tiny slope-roofed room of my own and I have children who are happy for mummy to do writing, but still I struggle. Part of the problem is that everyday life has recently spilled into my den: paperwork relating to medical insurance and car tax; bags of presents and rolls of wrapping paper for pending birthdays; random electrical wires and leads which look as though they might be important but which don't obviously belong to any appliance we are currently using... And as my room has become more crowded and messier, my desk has become smaller and my writing has become less prolific. In fact, let's not mince words, my writing has recently been non-existent. And as the days pass, my contact with the characters in my novels and the things that are happening feels more and more remote.

In an earlier blog, we wrote about how we like to write in airport lounges and coffee houses and the corner table in the local pub; places where we can disconnect from the demands of our daily lives and immerse ourselves in our thoughts and words. But it is not only the space of my office that has been contaminated by everyday life: the time I have available to write is increasingly constrained as my office becomes more of a mess: two days ago, I spent three hours sifting through bits of paper trying to find the dog's license. I would rather have been sitting with my computer in my favorite cafe, but without a dog license, my dog doesn't have a tag on his collar, and without a tag on his collar I am not allowed to let my dog off his leash and so forth and so forth...

The only solution is to step back from my desk and put my house, and my writing, back in order. I'm good at housework - this isn't something that makes me proud, but keeping an ordered clean house feeds some obsessive element of my soul. The way back to my writing is to organize my study: to stop seeing the time spent on the tidying as a distraction or an interruption, but to see it instead as part of the fertile groundwork of writing. One of my characters is a domestic servant, so I'll imagine that I'm her as I'm picking up books from the floor and finding the space to return them to the shelves; while I'm sweeping and mopping and dusting. Perhaps I'll find notes that I had forgotten which will drive my plot forward, or perhaps a possible new twist to the story will reveal itself.
And once I'm focused on the tidying, perhaps I need to lend that kind of thinking to the writing that I have already written: spring-cleaning my earlier chapters by polishing up the metaphors, eliminating unnecessary words and phrases, and carefully arranging all the punctuation marks into the right places on the page.

I'm sure that there are writers who have cleaners and house-keepers and proof-readers galore, but that's not where I am at the moment. Rather than wailing about my inability to write, I need to do some proper spring-cleaning. If I want to be a writer, then I need to get my hands dirty - literally and metaphorically!


  1. I think clean house definately equates to a clear mind in my case. I also believe that after spending a few hours on domestic tasks, I have earned the time to sit and write. Quite often, whilst scrubbing to toilets, ideas, plots and character developments pop into my mind so I find housework helpful in many ways!

  2. Loved this piece, yes I totally understand. Sometimes it's best to stop seeing necessary housework as a distraction and try to use the time to think about the novel while washing, cleaning, etc. and sometimes it's even more productive just to spend that time in my head I find. The repetitive and mundane nature of a lot of the tasks also helps as this allows you to daydream. But yes, domesticity and writing are incompatible in many ways, I do agree, and I can't even imagine motherhood and writing...! It makes me want to put off having children even later..... and later.... though thankfully my tolerance of mess is such that my writing may stand a chance of survival, Inshallah. And who knows, perhaps I might even be able to afford a cleaner by then!

  3. A singing teacher once told me that a singer is someone who sings - it is not just about having a beautiful voice that no-one ever hears.
    Having not written anything in months and months and months (possibly longer), I realise I have a bit of a cheek to respond thus to your post which deeply resonates with me. But, I have just come to the same conclusion about writing. The only way to be a writer is to write. So I guess we just have to make time to do it. If you have 5 minutes you should feel OK about that and just jot down ideas. If you can find an hour, that is fine. I think the trick is to be flexible in what you expect yourself to achieve. Maybe you only have time for a writing exercise, or you jot down notes for a poem or a short story that you can do when have more time.
    Make space in the mess of it all to write, if writing is what you want to do.
    Sinichi Suzuki said you should only practice your musical instrument on days that you eat. Perhaps we should only write on days when we eat. That being the case, I should have written rather a lot by now. But I have not. However, with the same kind of zeal with which a non-smoker responds to her previous bad habit, I intend to make time for writing even in the mess of my life from now on.
    Dislike of mess, judgement of being considered a bad parent or fear of writing failure will not put me off any more. I will start tomorrow. And not just blogs. Mess and children be damned.


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