Losing my vocabulary, gaining a goal.
It was early one Sunday morning in 2008. I was on a street corner in Bristol, foggy-eyed, pushing my baby girl in a battered brown pram. I had bumped into two acquaintances. She was a mother of three children under five years, who worked four days a week. He was a father of one who headed up a division in an investment firm.
After the usual pleasantries between the three of us, they began to discuss work. One of the woman's sentences began, ‘Well, it’s always good to triangulate your position…’
Triangulate, I thought to myself.
If I ever knew what that meant, that knowledge dissolved around the time that my daughter was conceived. I think I may have actually staggered a moment, gripped onto the foam handlebars of the pram for support.
This was the moment that I realised that there were yawping vocabulary gaps in the dictionary I carried around in my head. It had shrunk, metaphorically, from the size of a hernia-inducing tome from Chambers to a concise Oxford mini-dictionary packable in a small handbag.
After hours of sleeplessness, I had not only lost vast tranches of my vocabulary, but I had also lost most of my ability to reason and do things in sequence, such as successfully make a cup of tea. And then drink it. Some mothers of babies and toddlers I knew swore by making cups of tea in insulated mugs so that they could return to the brew hours after making it for this reason. I just developed a taste for cold tea.
The same year of the ‘Triangulate’ affair, I was invited back to the university I’d attended as an undergraduate to give a couple of talks on how I had got published. My first book, a work of non-fiction called Muses, had been published exactly four days after my first child was born.
During the Q&A session I was asked if I wrote every day. Yes, I replied confidently. I had a spiral-bound notebook by my bedside which I would reach to at all hours of night and day when the moment struck. It contained lists of how many successful feeds my baby and I had accomplished, how many soiled nappies I’d changed, and reminders to buy more infant paracetamol and pain au chocolat.
Moving on, the same undergraduate gently probed, asking if I read every day. Yes! I do! Here I was on slightly stronger territory, I felt. I had read Hello! once a week at a café while pregnant when I took a break from writing my first book. I read hand-me-down copies of Grazia while breastfeeding, I ventured.
I don't think I was the only one to imagine tumbleweed gently billowing across the room...
And yet, seven years on, I stand by those two responses. They were relevant for me at that time: I didn't read much of literary merit and I certainly didn't write in those hinterland years. Outside this hallowed seat of learning - in the school of hard knocks - I was learning new lessons in early years parenting that no institution other than that of motherhood could have taught me. I don't think I could have developed the stamina to write full-length novel of over 70,000 words had I not given up most of my identity, grey matter and sleeping hours: I had to lose it all before I began again.
Five transferable skills learnt in motherhood and useful in novel writing:
1. How to stay awake for 72 hours without sleep if you are in protracted latent labour: useful for squeezing out the final, final, FINAL draft of your novel before submission day.
2. How to find currency in the everyday moments of domestic life to spend in your novel. In What a Way to Go, the main protagonist Harper is awake at three a.m. when the milkman delivers a pint of milk. I could accurately describe the taste ('as if the cow had just eaten the grass') because I had drunk that self-same glass myself while I fed my baby in the small hours, content in the knowledge that I was not the only person awake.
3. How to write in tiny, bite-sized chunks of time stolen between other important, pressing tasks such as making a third round of toast; removing lego from orifices; soaking two day's worth of porridge pans.
4. How to have faith in what you’re doing, even when society-at-large may frown upon your priorities (getting back into your pyjamas and staying in bed with a hot water bottle and a good book after the kids are on the school bus and there is no clean cutlery in the house).
5. How to believe in yourself, when it is easier to believe in others.
In the event, I was on maternity leave for five years, and in two of those I wrote the majority of What a Way to Go in blocks of three hours in between dropping off the kids at nursery and picking them up.
I now know the meaning of triangulate. I'm sure you do too, but just in case you've forgotten, or recently given birth here is the definition: it means to establish a new position by measuring distances between two set points.
The distance I have travelled as an author between pre-birth and post-birth land me squarely in the territory of debut novelist. I believe that I couldn't have written without experiencing those tumbleweed years where I barely read, wrote nor constructed very complicated sentences.
These days, I possess words of over five syllables in my virtual head-dictionary. I read daily – not only in the precious half hour after my night-owl of a daughter renders herself unconscious by reading Flossie Teacake for the umpteenth time and before I conk out, but also while the kettle boils or the kids play in the garden for a few minutes. I still don't write every day, but if there is a will, I have discovered, there is always a way...