Pram in the Hall

peter barwick
Flickr Creative Commons: Peter Barwick

You know that question everyone always asks writers? The one about what we do all day? In my experience most writers spend their days doing a lot of nothing — interspersed with trying in vain to organize vast teetering piles of books and papers, totally forgetting the thing we swore blind we’d be doing this afternoon, along with wasting endless hours on the internet. If you add, say, half an hour of writing to that grueling schedule, plus getting your child to school and back, some dog-patting, searching the mail for checks, answering frivolous e-mails, paying bills, napping and snacking, the day passes in a flurry of relentless activity.

On top of all those aforementioned vital time eaters, there are school visits, book tours, and correspondence to factor in. And if I haven’t mentioned it in the past, much as I love a good book tour, it’s impossible to arrive home from one without being a.) exhausted, b.) ill, c.) guilty from having abandoned the family for so long and d.) weeks behind in everything. By the time I’ve unpacked, it’s usually time for another one, which doesn’t go to show how often I go on book tours, only how infrequently I manage to unpack.

Then there are the Just Say No time-eaters, particularly bad for me because I’ve always had trouble with ‘no’, and am usually so flattered that people want me to do things that it takes a supreme effort of will to refuse. That’s how I end up writing book reviews, or the very scariest things of all, The Charity Short Story. Before you accuse me of not being a charitable person, what I’m not is a great short-story writer. I’ve so far managed about four for various good causes and I swear that’s it.

Of course if you subtract social media from that schedule, which (let’s be brutally honest here, guys) is far more self-indulgence than self-promotion (and when was the last time you bought a book because some author was relentlessly flogging it on Twitter?) there would be plenty of time to write. Other suggestions are to divorce the partner and have the child(ren) taken into care. Hire a personal assistant to keep control of the papers that breed on the desk. Shoot the dogs (look, this is theoretical — I’m not going to shoot the dogs, I love the dogs, but they are huge time-wasters – all that looking sad and pretending they’re hungry or bored or lonely or want to go out and chase squirrels? And they’re not good at accepting explanations about deadlines, they just look more and more mournful). You could also lower your standards and get used to living in utter chaos and disorder and never cooking or doing the laundry (I’ve already taken that measure).

I remember reading an article in which Jeannette Winterson said she couldn’t possibly live with another person – in order to write she needed pure peace and quiet and to be surrounded by just a few beautiful objects (I laughed till I cried at that one).

The 20th century English literary critic, Cyril Connolly famously said that “the pram in the hall is the enemy of promise.”  In other words, children and attachments and mess will stunt the most promising of literary careers.  And this was before the internet.

But here’s a radical thought.

What if all the mess – the children, spouses, emotional demands, the dogs, the volunteer work, school visits, journalism, book reviews, the things we do to make money and to keep life ticking over for other people – what if they’re the fuel that runs the fire?  What if the distractions and chaos of every day life are what give our books a heart and a pulse and an understanding that life is conflicting and complex and frustrating and full of unexpected pleasures?

Surely that includes broken relationships and friendships that go wrong, divorce, penury, loss, bad parenting, crisis, change, misery…and resolution, rebirth, joy that reappears when you least expect it to.

It’s life – and it’s death – and it’s what makes writing worth reading.

What do you think?

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About Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, educated at Harvard and worked in NYC for ten years before moving to England permanently in 1989. She wrote her first novel, How I Live Now, (released late 2013 as a feature film starring Saoirse Ronan), at age 46. Her books have won or been shortlisted for 19 international book prizes, including the Carnegie medal and the Michael J Printz award. Picture Me Gone, her sixth novel, was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Award . She lives in London with her husband and daughter.

Comments

  1. says

    What would you write about if you lived in an ivory tower? Writers make sense for other people of the piece of life they’re given.

    I wouldn’t be writing the novel I’m writing if a whole lot of things hadn’t happened to me to force me to understand, among other things, how disability affects not only the disabled person, but everyone around her. I wouldn’t know what I was talking about: the little things that are overwhelming.

    And how to make sure that disability gets not one iota of time and energy more than absolutely necessary – so there is space for the rest of life.

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    • says

      Oh my god, Katherine. Do you know, I start nearly every talk I do with kids with that quote? That is so weird. Synchronicity, or something. (Though I understood it came first from the Talmud).

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  2. Justine Spencer says

    Great post. I’ve often thought this myself. If I actually had ideal circumstances to write . . . would I even write?

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  3. says

    I became a better writer after my children. Sure, I could pen good stories and make my deadlines before motherhood, but now, there is an extra layer of, oh, I don’t know, feeling or empathy I never had before.

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  4. Morgyn says

    LMAO. “The papers that breed on the desk.” What is it with writers and the Hogwarts that their desks turn into?

    THX!

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  5. says

    You absolutely nailed it, Meg. Juggling life’s demands can be madness. And sometimes it can be a madness that does feed us. I do think lowering the bar helps so the madness doesn’t drive us over the edge! Learning how to say no is a task in itself; I’m still struggling on how to do that gracefully.

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  6. says

    You’re absolutely right. What would I write about if I
    wasn’t writing around the school deadlines, the editing deadlines,
    the friendship requirements? All the “time-consuming” things I’ve
    done/encountered thus far in my life have only fueled a.) my desire
    to incorporate my new found experiences into my work, b.) my
    appreciation for the free moments that I do have for my writing.
    Our creativity relies in large part on external agents, I think.
    Without those external factors, we’d be rather empty on the
    inside.

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  7. says

    “What if the distractions and chaos of every day life are what give our books a heart and a pulse…?”

    Are you saying that computer solitaire feeds our writing?

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  8. says

    What do I think? I think I adore you.

    I also think I need to rethink the “few beautiful objects” I have arranged around me: a needy cat, my kids’ overdue library books, three empty tea mugs.

    It’s suddenly so clear that once I beautify my objects, all my problems will be solved!

    Thank you for your wit and wisdom.

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  9. says

    What you wrote, Meg, is absolutely true. The longer you live, the more you have to write about. We use our experiences to enrich our writing. What else do we have. Reality will show up in any kind of fiction. We need other people to enrich our lives.

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  10. Michael Kelberer says

    Great post! I received this same wisdom in a totally different context: when I was young (okay, very young) I was determined to become a priest. I wanted to go directly from high school into the seminary. But our parish priest advised me strongly to go to college first at least: “We have too many priests who only know the insular world of religious life and theology – we need priests who understand first-hand what it’s like to live in the real world.”
    Same could be said for writers!

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  11. says

    I think I was in my own metaphoric pram yesterday. I frittered far too much of my day away. It started with Dave King’s excellent post about rating your own work, and the comments that followed. Somehow after reading it, everything I’ve ever written suddenly sucked. I wallowed. Then, to heap on the self-indulging misery, I opened a file of pictures of a dead dog.

    As I tossed and turned last night, thinking about how hard my wife had worked the prior day, even taking a business call in the evening while I watched a travel show on PBS.

    Perhaps the wallowing, the travel show, and the pet grief are part of the pulse. But I must be diligent. She offers me a priceless gift. The gift of time to pursue my art. It’s a gift I appreciate deeply. And I had squandered too much of it. It’s incumbent on me to strive to honor it.

    Timely post. Thanks, Meg.

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    • says

      “Then, to heap on the self-indulging misery, I opened a file of pictures of a dead dog.”

      Damn, Vaughn, and I thought I was the only one who occasionally succumbs to the compulsion to soak in melancholia’s tub. (I have done it with photos of a long-lost sweetheart.) It is an unsettling indulgence, but for me it feels like I need to become fully jello before reconstituting my bones from there.

      Anyway, Meg, thank you: that life and death stuff—the seeds from which rich writing flowers.

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  12. says

    I’ve often fought to remember the same thing: this messy life is simply material to use. Not sure which I enjoyed more, this post… or the picture of the evil babies…

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  13. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Meg.

    Yes, we are people first, writers second. Our stories benefit from remembering they need life to come to life.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and (coming soon) GOT

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  14. says

    Great observation. We are the sum of our circles that
    intersect our life. Our thoughts are not created in a vacuum and
    thus cannot be expressed in one either. Our past shapes us but does
    not define us, our future points the way, but the life we life in
    the present is the only place we can choose to express what is
    truly on our mind and within our heart. The clutter and chaos of
    relationships is where our creativity draws its inspiration. Thanks
    for your comments…

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  15. says

    I knew there was a reason I never had children. Of course,
    I do have two King Charles Spaniels who insist I carry them up and
    down the stairs. Not to mention forty plus piano students under the
    age of ten. So not enough time, right. But ideas? Inspiration? I’m
    drowning in those. Wonderful post, Meg. Thank you.

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  16. says

    It is nearly noon and I’m still in my pjs and the dog is looking up at me with those liquid brown eyes. I’ve been indulging in a marathon letter-writing session. But that walk will invigorate me to write something before my children come home. They are returning from a field trip involving mud … so I envision piles of laundry to do in the very near future.

    I agree with you 100% — I wouldn’t have this writing life if I were a lab rat. The very people who take time away from me give me something meaningful to write about.

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    • says

      I knew I was plagiarizing Katherine Paterson. Here’s her quote in the Gates of Excellence: As I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time are those who have given me something to say.

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  17. says

    “…what if they’re the fuel that runs the fire? What if the distractions and chaos of every day life are what give our books a heart and a pulse and an understanding that life is conflicting and complex and frustrating and full of unexpected pleasures?”

    Yes! So true. And such a lovely way of looking at things.

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  18. J. F. Constantine says

    Bravo, bravo, bravo! Funny and perfect and awesome. I could not have said it better. LOVED it! Well done! :)

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  19. says

    Good gravy, am I weepy today. Thank you for this post, this sweet dose of reality and the balm of kinship in knowing that someone I admire-you- does not write beautiful prose among beautiful things and stillness. I think we are best in writing and life when we find the stillness and beauty (and sometimes the chaos and monsters, too) within ourselves.

    I, like Vaughn, had a bout of melancholy where in the end I found myself crying on my bathroom floor telling myself what a deplorable mother I am and I should really just throw all my words out the window. I didn’t. I came back around to my senses, which are really nonsensical because I am a writer after all and wrote a few hundred words before tossing and turning all night.

    Then, I find gifts like your post and another by Pressfield, and a song or two and I am weepy but quickly pulling my head out of my bum.

    I, too, adore you. Thank you for your wisdom and honesty.

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    • Natalie Shannon says

      “Other suggestions are to divorce the partner and have the child(ren) taken into care.” This quote suits me. I have thought theses things about my children and husband.

      I have 3 children (8, 6 and 3 months.) I started writing my first novel mostly as a “hobby” I would write when my younger child spent 3 days a week in pre-school. My older son was in school full time. I tried to write during the summer when my kids were home, but there were too many distractions. I would want to write after the kids go to bed, but then my husband would want me to spend time with him. (he did not like it when I said “I need to do my writing.) I tried to write every day, most of the time I was busy with my family.

      Then I got pregnant with my 3rd child. I stopped writing because I could not concentrate while I was pregnant. (It was a very difficult pregnancy) Then after my baby was born, I had severe post partem depression. I recently began to write again.
      It is very hard to write with a newborn baby. She cries to be fed or changed. Sadly, I do get upset. In my darkest thoughts, I resent my new baby. I planned on writing when my kids went back to school, but now I have a baby to take care of.

      I think think that “instead of getting my novel done, I have to take care of her” I am so ashamed for thinking this way. My husband gets upset when I write. He thinks I should take care of my daughter and children all the time. He makes me feel like I neglect my children when I write. He gives me dirty looks when I am writing and my baby cries. He gets upset when I ask him to take care of her so I can write. I feel that “it is because of them that I never have time to write.” I often think that I should give up on writing, that I will never get anything accomplished.

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      • says

        Dear Natalie,

        First of all, there is nothing wrong with you, your thoughts, or your wanting to write. Babies do take a lot of time and they are exhausting and you’re not the only one who has felt the way you are feeling now. What I wish is that, even though I don’t know you, I could come over and take care of your little one so you could write, or nap, or take a long, hot bath. You deserve all of these things. Being a mother is hard work, being a writer is hard work, and often, it’s hard even when we’re not writing. That desire to write, to have just that little bit of time, sometimes it can feel more like acid rain that a blessing.

        I’m not going to try to offer you advice, but the most important thing I can think of to say to you is that you are not alone in your struggles. Not all of us have supportive families and friends who are understanding and supportive in our urgency to tell stories. I have been fortunate enough to get to know more than a few members of WU and you do have friends and allies here.

        Also, writing, even when it feels like a curse, is a gift. It’s not one that goes away either. I know this from experience and there are countless others who came to writing later in life. I’m not saying to wait, but that it won’t go away. Don’t let that be a fear for you. It will sit and wait for you, and possibly even grow while you find your way out of this tough time. As Meg Rosoff is saying, I believe, you will come to your writing when you can with more compassion and a more open heart because you’ve come through this and all the emotions tied in with it.

        I woke up with your story on my mind this morning and I just want you to know that you are cared about, and someone does value your desire to write. Sending you virtual hugs.

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        • Natalie Shannon says

          Thank you for responding. I appreciate what you said. I am glad you told me that I am not alone in my thoughts.

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      • says

        Don’t be in a rush, Natalie. The moment arrives when you least expect it. And everything you’re going through now will come back into your writing. Promise.

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  20. says

    Children’s author Katherine Paterson, with four children of her own, said if she had a room of her own, she wouldn’t have anything to write about. A coffee shop of my own would help me out.

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  21. says

    This post really resonated with me. I started writing a humorous weekly column when my twins, the youngest of five children, were three. The chaos at our house provided plenty of fodder for my columns, and I could satisfy my creative longing.

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  22. says

    Thank you for the great post; I’m going to start using
    “shoot the dogs” as an expression for overcoming all the
    time-sucks. Social Media has been especially…dogged, today
    ;)

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  23. says

    Oh yeah, Meg. The lines: “The longer you live, the more you have to write about. We use our experiences to enrich our writing. What else do we have. Reality will show up in any kind of fiction. We need other people to enrich our lives,” are just plain….
    PERFECT.

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  24. says

    I think yes! I think absolutely. Without all of the living
    and the excuses for the not writing were non-existent my pages
    would be empty.

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  25. says

    What I think?

    That you wrote the perfect post that captures exactly what all of need to face. Sort of face the music, dance, jump, choreograph too.

    :)

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  26. says

    Ah yes, beautiful solitude sounds divine, but I have a need for those sometimes annoying, sometimes lovely, but always distracting elements in my life. They are indeed the fuel that runs my fire. The ones that keep my writing real.
    Thank you for an entertaining read!

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  27. says

    I 100% believe that the chaos helps fuel the fire of writing, at least for me. Calm is great at certain moments, but if I didn’t drive to my dad with a truckload of trash to the county dump and slip in a pile of sludge, or get distracted by the delightful little monster that is my niece, or any of the other wonderful zany things that live brings, then I wouldn’t be telling the stories I’m telling. They’d be different stories entirely.

    As Sylvia Plath writes in The Bell Jar, “I knew what the problem was. I needed experience. How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?”

    Also, while it’s true that I’ve never bought a book because an author was “relentlessly flogging it on Twitter”, I have bought books because the author I’ve been following on twitter was generally awesome and I figured their book must be awesome, too.

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  28. says

    No, that stuff only fuels you so far, and then it just becomes this relentless avalanche that can’t and won’t be held back.

    The more you give in to it, and make excuses or find reasons, the more it swamps you. Because you can write for just 30 minutes a day and write a whole novel in less than a year, but only if the rest of the time, you have those blocks of time alone and headspace for the novel to grow and rumble and spark and develop depth.

    Experience is one thing – an overwhelming shambles is something else to be pushed back!

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  29. says

    I love the mess of life as much as I occasionally hate it. Without distractions, though, there wouldn’t be the fuel for my stories. I am a full-time teacher, and though I wish my life were less hectic, I can acknowledge that it has given my writing a certain priority it wouldn’t have if life were less busy.

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  30. says

    So glad I read this article today. I sooooo feel like a slacker when I’m not hammering out 2,000 words a day. But you’re right – life away from the computer is what brings life to what happens when we write. Thanks!

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  31. Lynn says

    Well, if a sterile environment worked for those writers, fine for them. But, I agree with Meg Rosoff. The life and people around me are what make my writing and make me want to write. I write about them, the things they taught me, and the things they meant to me. Why else would I write?

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  32. says

    Great piece. Being a mother, wife and RN as well as part of various communities fuels my writing. Discipline helps the writer get the work into print. Living creates the work.

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