Writing & Motherhood
Words by Charlotte Philby
When I interviewed the crime writer Lee Child on the writing process he told me, “I’ve never met a writer who does that compelled-to-write thing, it’s not a professional quality.” Personally, I think it’s simply that writing and being a professional writer are not the same thing. I started my first (doomed) novel whilst on maternity leave with my first daughter, nine years ago. She was an easy baby who slept at regular intervals—unlike both my sons—and I was not so much bored as in the throes of an identity crisis. I was 27 and desperate for an escape from the domestic drudgery, so I signed up to a cheap creative writing course at a local polytechnic. One afternoon a week, I would drop the baby with my mum and head to my classroom in Holborn where I'd revel in the thrill of adult company.
In those strange, metamorphic months, writing became a means of escape. It was the only exit I could rely on when the seismic shift from hedonistic, unencumbered young journalist living at my mum’s house to parent-with-a-mortgage became too much. Writing allowed me to slip back into the world I’d left behind, through my own imagination; to sift through the people and the places I’ve loved in my life and make sense of them, and myself, within this new framework of motherhood, having had all the cues and props as to who I was pulled from under me. Writing made it possible to do and go and be and think things that the emotional, physical and moral constraints of being a parent would never allow.
As soon as my eight months’ maternity leave was over, I hastily scrawled “The End” on the last page of the first draft I’d written and impatiently pinged it out to several agents before returning to my job on the news desk at The Independent. And, funnily enough, each one rejected it. It might have provided the evidence I needed that being an attentive parent, an employee and a novelist don’t mix: proof that you can’t have your head in two, let alone three, worlds at once. However, I found the opposite to be true. I needed to write. So, I joined a local writers' group led by the Irish poet and novelist Martina Evans, slipping out at night when my daughter was asleep. I wasn’t working towards anything in particular, just jotting down passages here and there, for enjoyment rather than with any great intent. I remember Martina saying that being a journalist was the perfect way to kill off any creativity in writing because it teaches you to work within rigid structures, and she was right. But it also taught me to work with discipline and at speed.
When my second son was born and I found myself leaving my newspaper job to start an online magazine, Motherland, the commitments became too much and so I had to stop going to my writing group. It wasn’t until I closed that business, not long after having my third baby in 2015 and finding myself in the depths of a breakdown, that I started to write again. This time, I had a strong idea for a novel, and it was one that would drag me away from my own reality and into a world of international espionage.
When I look back at the themes of the novel now—a mother walking out on her children—I realise this was my way of exploring my own darker, unthinkable thoughts. Pulling it together took around a year of writing and rewriting, between my multiple jobs as a freelance journalist, copywriter, and in-house magazine editor. It was mind-blowingly exhausting, balancing it all with gutting a house and having three young kids (we had no childcare for the first year and then three days a week of nursery after that). But I wasn’t prepared to give it up. When the novel was bought last year by HarperCollins, the relief was physical as well as mental. What until that point had seemed like a bloodied dirt-track marking out my failures step-by-step—distracted mother, failed businesswoman—revealed itself as the necessary path to getting where I've always wanted to be.
This month I accepted an offer to write two more novels for HarperCollins, with the emotional and financial security of an advance. Having officially swapped writing for being a writer, and having just finished the second draft of my second novel, I see that I am still compelled to write. Perhaps not in the same way. Partly now it’s to meet the gruelling deadlines that producing a novel a year dictates, accompanied by an almost constant sense of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. But mainly because stepping into my office and shutting the door three days a week on the countless demands of motherhood, means that in those moments I can still go and be anywhere my mind dares take me, and still make it the school gates at 5pm for pick up.
The Most Difficult Thing is published on 11 July 2019 by Borough Press