There’s a pram in my head and it must come out.
When my twins were born, I had no time or energy to write. But the day they started school I sprinted home to my desk and haven’t stopped writing since. That was two years ago. All I have to show is a couple of published stories and a dreadful draft of a novel. What happened?
I’d heard Cyril Connolly’s warning: ‘There is no more sombre enemy to good art than the pram in the hall,’ but I mistrusted a decree from someone I doubt changed a nappy in his life. Anyway, he’d missed the point. Motherhood brought a creative license to make mud slides into rivers, dig clay from ponds for finger pots, build skyward ski jumps and all pile onto the sledge to test them, keep snails as pets, make vinegar and bicarb volcanoes– the list is endless and beguiling. Admittedly play doesn’t transform anyone into a good author, but it does demand sensory experimentation and tireless curiosity. Good traits for a writer. And though play makes irresistible calls on one’s time, it’s time that would be spent with children anyway. Then there’s the freshness children bring to language: ‘We run through muddy darks!’ my toddler announced when plunged from the brightness of a meadow to the sudden shadow of the woods. How could such a fertile time have diminished not strengthened my writing?
I thought at first it was rustiness, that practise would free it. It didn’t. I needed feedback then. Joining critical forums just proved the work was mundane but not how to fix it. Then one day a spritely woman from church approached me for the title of an anthology I had work in. She wanted to recommend it to her book group. I couldn’t believe how loudly, ‘Nooooooooooooo’ rang inside my head as I feigned an emergency and scarpered. The idea of anyone in the village reading what I used to write had me up all night. What would they say about that prisoner losing control of his bowels? Or those sexual fantasies of an underage teenage girl? They must never read that work. It was uncensored. The problem had come to light.
I’d spent five years programming myself away from the writer’s instinctive role of impartial social observer to that of Pillar of Suburban Morality. Joyce Grenfell had nothing on me. Five years of, ‘Don’t slurp your milk! Don’t prod the cat! Pull your pants up! You know we never say that!’ had quite simply whipped my voice into submission. I now type with a straighter spine (sit up at table!) and there’s no longer rolling tobacco between the keys (a good thing, alas) but the words are as sterile as a bottle teat. My writing wasn’t particularly salacious or explicit, but it was direct, and now it’s sanitized. Or was, until recently. For me, the antidote was to return to basics. I picked up my dog-eared Natalie Goldberg, whose Zen-babbling enthusiasm I’d long scorned in favour of more stringent tutors. I read her in the bath and in bed and at dawn. I applied her rules (don’t think, don’t stop.) The pram is freewheeling downhill.