When I started writing Falling Off Air I was a former journalist living in London with a newborn and a toddler. It was hardly surprising, then, that Robin Ballantyne turned out to be a journalist and a fraught mother of two. She juggles a job as a broadcast journalist with parenthood; unlike me, she’s also a single mother and a suspect in a murder case.
Logistically, juggling writing with parenthood should be a lot easier than juggling an office job and children. The writer doesn’t have a boss who’s poised to fire her if she’s late to the office. In theory, the writing parent fits the writing around his or her children. With any luck there might be an hour during the day when the would-be writer has swept up the crumbs from dinnertime and, with the happy sound of tiny snores in the background, is able to lurch exhaustedly towards the computer and tap out 500 words of sheer poetry before she lays her head on her keyboard and starts to snore herself.
I’ve done my share of snoring at the keyboard. My first published book, Falling Off Air, took four or five years to write, with three small children and part-time work.
Now that the children are older, sleeping through the night and spending their days at school, the challenge is not so much finding the hours in the day as finding mental space. For me that means finding physical space. I’ve worked in all sorts of nooks and crannies around the house, places where I can close the door on filing and bills and groceries and dust.
Since I’ve been published, I have the luxury of treating writing like a job, instead of a dirty secret. I’ve been lucky enough to rent a small office in a quiet block opposite my home. It contains a computer, a kettle, a fridge, a loo, and a sofa where occasionally, after lunch, I succumb to a creative nap. My desk looks out over a high school sports field, and I find the noise of cheering pleasantly companionable. Sometimes I lift my eyes from my screen to watch a penalty shootout. I have no phone line except my mobile, for emergencies. I have no internet access so I can’t waste hours and kid myself it’s research. I can’t even email my friends to report that I’ve made it to the office and am hard at work.
Still there comes a point with each book when even my office sanctuary isn’t enough. I need to get away, just for a few days, to focus entirely on the book, so that I don’t have to drop my writing mid-sentence when the children come home from school. That’s when I turn pleading eyes on my husband, James, and he takes over at home in the evenings, doing battle with homework and piano practice, while I go into retreat. I’ve tried everything from hotels to house sitting when friends go on holiday. And everything works.
It’s hard, when you’re an unpublished writer, to create time and space to complete what seems like a hopeless task. It feels ridiculous, selfish, unrealistic…you imagine that your family and friends are collectively rolling their eyes. It can feel mortifying to ask for other people’s help, especially if you’ve never summoned the courage even to tell them you’re writing a book. But it has to be done. Persuade yourself that afterwards you’ll be better able to describe the sensation of mortification, and you’ll be a better writer for it. Come to think of it, Mortification is not a bad title for a book.