I am not normally sentimental about such things, but when I finished the final set of edits for my book, I took my coffee into the garden and raised it to the sky. I was feeling triumphant because I had delivered the manuscript a day early, because I had worked hard, because I was feeling proud of what I had achieved. And because I had just enough time before the school run to pick up an order from Uniqlo.
Like many of us, I hold in my head a picture of a Great Writer. He is holed up in a log cabin, or, possibly, a suite in a New York hotel. He writes late and long, accompanied by a tumbler of bourbon and an ashtray of spent cigarettes. He — and it usually is a he — is white, of late middle age and grizzled by success. He has a clutch of awards and a healthy bank balance, a devoted agent, several children he doesn’t see and two or three ex wives.
He is above and he is beyond; this is why his work can transcend the humdrum mediocrity of human experience. Indeed, his work achieves greatness precisely because he is apart from everyday; if his body is not athletic — and let’s face it, not with that liver and those lungs — his mind soars.
The Great Writer is certainly not distracted, and never in a rush. He would not drop an idea mid way through its execution in order to shove a chicken in the oven, and he would not be found the day before a book deadline at a counter labelled Click and Collect.
Look, I’m not an idiot. I know that to create a book, a painting, a song; it’s a job, and like any job it needs space and time to be done well.
My God I know it; the book I am about to publish, I wrote during the pandemic, across multiple lockdowns, while caring for two young children. If I have thirty minutes, I write. If I have one minute, I make a note on my phone. If I have six hours, I spend the day in terror for fear that I will not put them to the best possible use. With nursery fees in my part of town standing at around £100 per child per a day, what parent can afford to stare into space? Frankly, with living costs as they are, how can anyone? If I want to produce something then I must put sentences on the page, right this second, now. I write as though I am being chased.
But for all that I hope that these words are good, a part of me hisses that they are not. They can’t be, because everyone knows that the good books come from the writers who wrestle for months with the story that will not come, the writers who stay up late to snatch at the diaphanous skirts of the muse.
When I think of the lives of the greats, I think of Booker winning John Banville saying, “I have not been a good father. No writer is.” I think of Saul Bellow’s five marriages, Rushdie and Hemingway’s four. The narrative of the Great Writer tells me without anything needing to be said that if my output were truly decent, it would be because I had pushed every deadline to its limit and beyond, whatever left after good only for drinking whisky and booty calls.
In this other, better iteration, I would let everything else collapse. There would be nothing but me and my work, and if the kids are mad and the husband has fled, so be it. Indeed, shouldn’t that be it? If I am to do this writing thing properly, is there any other way?
There’s so much that’s wrong with this image of Great Writer, and most of it, we already know. It excludes nearly all of society; people of colour, women, the disabled, the poor, the young, the old; publishing is, rightly, in the midst of an upheaval, trying to push this stereotype aside.
How, though, to evict him from my head?
For even if we are no longer explicit in emulating prosperous, middle aged masculinity, we do not want our writers to be ordinary. The pen names, all those rent paying jobs that never quite make it onto the little bio decorating the book jacket’s inside flap; writers are under constant pressure to project a self that only exists for their work.
And I just… can’t. Not because I don’t want to; the glamour of this identity sings its siren song to me, too. But in writing about motherhood, I have given myself away. By very definition, I have another life, priorities away from the page.
Indeed, perhaps motherhood is the one role whose expectations manage to exceed those of writing. Writer, mother, both are roles that demand everything, that come freighted with the assumption that the only way to do them properly is with a devotion that is absolute.
For the voice in my head says motherhood is my story, now. Who in their right mind, it asks, would think that a book, an unwritten book, is more deserving of a child, the child standing right there on the other side of the door? I recall Shelia Heti’s book Motherhood, how carefully she weighs children vs art and self, one against the other. Lauren Sandler’s essay in the Atlantic, The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.
My children, plural, kick off their shoes by the front door and I pick them up, shove them back where they are supposed to go, and it seems to me in such moments that this is where I am supposed to be. That the writing must stop. Indeed, maybe it has stopped already, and I am just too foolish to notice.
And when I recall that day, edits sent, what I remember most is how victory evaporated under the blowtorch of my fear, that my work, my best, simply would not and never will be enough.
It’s a strange thing, this belief that to depict life’s complexities, one has to spend life not greeting them, but turning away. While I do not hold the notion that we can only write about things we have experienced, if I’m opening a book to explore what it is to be human, it seems reasonable to ask at least some authors, some of the time, that they know what love is, the kind of love that strives to balance one’s own needs and desires with those of another. To feel joy and pain, to reach out and to invite others in; to be able, then, to step back, move away, gain just enough distance and perspective and time to sift and sort and transfer it onto the page.
How humdrum and unromantic this sounds. How dull. How little it reveals of the pain, and the wonder.
But when I am feeling hopeful, which, given all of the above, is not nearly as often as my social media presence would suggest, I think that perhaps my words are better from having come from this place, hard though it is to access, and tight though it is for space. I think, too, how the vast majority of writers must feel like this, whether they have children or not. That we all portion out our energy and love and time.
There may not ever be enough, not for what I want, for my family and my work, my love and my life. Greatness seems so distant; perhaps I am foolish to believe I will ever reach even its foothills.
But, dammit, dammit, I will try.
Don’t Forget To Scream will be published by Phoenix on July 21st 2022.
To pre order a copy, click here https://geni.us/DontForgetToScream
To find out more and to read my other pieces, go to www.mariannelevy.co.uk