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Children and Writing Don’t Mix – or Do They?

I wrote this one for my writer’s group, so it has more of a focus on fiction – but the same can be true for any self-employed working mum, juggling various commitments. Enjoy!

“Children and writing don’t mix”

Jenni O’Connor – novelist, sometime haiku poet, journalist and copywriter, and mother to Zoe, aged four, muses on the unlikely fusion between writing and parenting.

Children and writing don’t mix. So said one famous male writer, whose name escapes me, presumably as he hastened to the haven of his oak-panelled study, slamming the door to shut out the sound of a wailing baby.

I was musing on this truism today, as I juggled a lorry load of commercial writing commitments with a two-hour long school day, as my daughter has just started school and is in the midst of an extended settling in period. Having picked her up, fed her and admired a motley collection of leaf paintings and drawings, and reassured her that it really is OK not to have been able to recognise all the numbers from one to twenty in her second week at school, I then fired up the laptop and CBeebies simultaneously, so I could finish a press release while she enjoyed a bit of time out.

Oh, the guilt. Looking at it that way, children and writing really don’t mix. There’s never the head space, even if there are – on occasion – periods of twenty minutes or more when it might, just might, be possible to pen anything more profound than a shopping list. If only you weren’t so tired.

“How did you write a novel with a baby?” I’m often asked. The truth is, I didn’t. I wrote it before she came along, having very sensibly negotiated a four-day week with my very understanding employer. (I’ve never been a pre-dawn writer, nor a midnight-to-two-am one).

But, around naps and short periods at nursery, and Thursday mornings with gran-gran, I did manage to edit it, and eventually (in 2012), Reach for a Different Sun was nominated a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. When it came to the Unchained anthology, I’m embarrassed to admit that my story was the only one to show up at the first editorial workshop as a first draft stream of consciousness, and it was only with the many thoughtful, insightful and diligent insights from my ‘writing buddy’ that I managed to knock it into any kind of shape.

And yet, and yet. When Zoe was one, and I was just about able to step back and reflect on the wonder and madness of becoming a parent, I wrote a collection of haikus, exploring the journey into motherhood, the marvels and miracles of a baby’s first milestones, and the evolving relationship between parent and child. Perhaps this shortest of short forms – along with flash fiction – are best suited to new (and new-ish) parenthood, given as they are to capturing and distilling the essence of a given moment in time.

But the greatest gift which parenthood can bring a writer, to my view, is the opportunity to see the world through a child’s eye once more. The chance to regain the awe and wonder in simple things, to stop running just to stay still (in theory, if the laundry, washing up and ironing are ever done), and smile. Children smile, on average, 400 times a day – but by the time they reach adulthood, this is generally reduced to just 20.

So even if it seems impossible; even if there isn’t, in this moment, the time to connect the creative neurons and put fingers to keyboard, I’d urge all writers who are also parents of young children to do this: stop, breathe and observe. Your child or children will bring you untold insights, truths and delights – just by existing. If you’re so inclined, you can jot them down and save them for the day when you finally have more time. And even if they don’t refresh your writing mojo, these moments have the capacity to enrich your life, as long as you’re prepared to stop and listen.

UNCHAINED, an anthology of short stories and poems written in celebration of Bristol Library Services’ 400th birthday, is being launched at Bristol Central Library at 7.30pm on Weds 23rd October. All are welcome!

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