Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Joanna Kavenna

GET UPDATES FROM Joanna Kavenna
 

Squashing the Toad

Posted: 30/05/2012 09:42

I have no work life balance, in that there is no distinction between my work and my life. The two fields, planes of existence or manifestations of pure/impure id, whatever you want to call them, merge incessantly. This was the same before I had children, though now the mergings are different in emphasis. (More lego, less scotch.) I always worked when I was living and lived as I worked - I am a writer, and so I wrote before any one paid me to write, I wrote incessantly, from childhood onwards. For a long while I couldn't imagine anyone would ever pay me to write, and, for some years after I left university, no one did. So I earned money by temping and spent a lot of time surreptitiously writing novels while pretending to do whatever I was meant to be doing to earn money. Needless to say, I was often fired.

Philip Larkin wrote, 'why should I let the toad work squat on my life?' - for me there is toad work, work you do solely for money and which oppresses your spirit and generally bums you out, and then there is work you do out of pure, passionate desire, 'real work'. If you're working at something you hate then your job is like a mask that you put on in the morning and take off at night. But 'real work' is connected with your own personality and unique vantage point, so every experience you have feeds into this work, even experiences that prevent you from working for a while, like moving house, or being ill, or birthing children. All these things rearrange your sensibilities and, at times, usefully transform the way you work.

A lot of people told me, before I had children, that parenthood was anathema to writing but I haven't found it to be so. I remember going to some random literary prize evening when I was pregnant with my first child - I was elephantine, conspicuously failing to garner that particular trophy - and one of the judges said to me, 'Oh, well, if we'd known you were pregnant we might have given you the prize, because you won't be writing another book for quite some time, will you?' I assumed he was just being a reactionary old veloceraptor and thought little of it at the time. But it's surprised me how this view proliferates, still - the notion of absolute Either/Or - particularly for women. I think women writers field far more questions about how they combine writing with parenthood than male writers do, for example. But then men get whipped with the whole breadwinner business equally: if mothers get forced - by the Either/Or - out of work or into underpaid part-time work then fathers end up having to abandon their own dreams of finding fulfilling work, so they can earn compensatory dough.

How I combine motherhood with writing is really the same as how I combined being a human with writing before I had children. I combine it by slamming the two realms together so there's no danger of them becoming mutually incompatible. Before I had children, I had no office, no study with the walls adorned with leather-bound books, no designated work place. I wrote sitting in bed, I wrote on trains and planes, and, if I was doing temping work to earn money, I wrote while I was doing that work. Still now, I have no office, no study, I sit in bed like some perpetual neurasthenic, writing novels or journalism, reading, editing. The difference is that now I work within the strict parametres of the school day, and I am sporadically interrupted by queries (from my younger child who is not yet at school) about the behaviour and opinions of the duck billed platypus or why Milk is called Milk or why the sky is black at night.

This collision of worlds is at times logistically awkward, but I think it's fundamentally quite a good thing. Most writers know that a lot of the time when you are working on a book you are not precisely writing anyway. You are not sitting in your oak-panelled room at a vintage typewriter, honing your epigrams. You are doing slightly weird ritualistic stuff that you hope will allow your nascent ideas to flourish: sketching out phrases in notebooks, reading in a diffuse way, going for walks, sitting on trains watching the clouds move across the sky, listening to half-understood conversations, discarding drafts, beginning again. Much of your inspiration comes randomly, when you least expect it, and very often it comes when you are distracted by something else. It can come, as I've discovered, from the unfettered flow of words spilled out by young children. It can come while walking around a disorienting city pushing a baby in a pram. It can come at three in the morning when you have been jolted out of sleep by the cry of a child, again. It can elude you entirely - but it can elude you childless, or with child.

So monomania is not necessarily a great thing, for a writer. A novel doesn't come from sequestering yourself in a tower called Art. (Or not in my experience anyway...) It comes from muddy, compromised, awkward existence, it comes from pain and love, it comes from real life. If it doesn't come from real life then it is just passing itself off as real, borrowing other people's maxims and conventions of 'reality.' In all my novels I've tried to take archetypes and fill them with inconsistencies, anomalies - the stuff of life as I experience it. In my last novel, THE BIRTH OF LOVE, I tried to take the archetype of the pregnant woman and reveal her incoherent thoughts, dreams, meanderings, everything that occurs to her, the whole way reality seems to change around her, as she births her child. And in my latest novel, COME TO THE EDGE, I wanted to take two archetypes - the suburban housewife and the rural widow - and rearrange them entirely, for comic effect and also to craft a parallel reality that exists only within my novel. In any novel you create your own off-shoot of general reality, your own personal version of things. It's the same with parenthood and life in general - you can only rear your children, you can only live, as yourself, not as some archetype. You are not The Human, or The Mother. (I am not a number! I am a person!)

Writing with children is about Time, of course - quite literally about finding the goddamn time to write. But this applies for anyone who is doing something else as well as writing. And with writing you can at least work as and when you can, an hour snatched here and there. You can take (unpaid) leave whenever you like. You have complete job insecurity but at least you know that as a fact, from the start: you can get half your novels rejected and the rest bought for bargain prices but you can't exactly be fired - or not until, you know, the Great Firing that awaits us all...Also, with writing you don't, despite what the veloceraptors may say, have much of a dilemma about whether you will carry on working after having children, because you've always written, it's always been an entrenched part of your own messy, finite, real life. And it comes out best when everything has merged, in those bizarre, apotheotic moments when you can't tell the difference between life and work anyway.

 
FOLLOW UK LIFESTYLE