On Not Frotting the Dusty Image of a Very Dead Thomas Chatterton (1)

Chatterton - Poet

I don’t often write about writing – but here we go. Not so much getting it off my chest as doing a little literary tombstoning.

This is what I have to say: Don’t tell me writing is a lonely, isolated business.

Anything is an isolated, lonely business if that’s what you want it to be. Accounting. Basketball. Gardening.

I am an actor (too) – I could choose to spend years touring a one-woman show. I know people who do. I don’t. But it’s an option. I could video myself and post on Youtube – never even see an audience. It’s an option. Some writers choose to write alone. Some don’t. Some make it work when they don’t have a choice.

None of those jobs (accounting/ basketball/ gardening) is any more lonely than they need be.

Just because you can do it in the nude at 3am does not mean writing is isolating. A writer has choices. Write in the nude. Or write in overalls and gas mask. Something in between. No-one cares. They’ll care when you come up with the writing and then they will only care about the writing. Not your gas mask.

The 19th century romance about the wasting, tubercular, attic-living, candle-eating fringe-dweller is a ROMANCE. It is useful for people who want to “be a writer”. It is easy to confuse wanting to “be a writer” with “writing”. Don’t tell me I need to live in an attic. I just want to write. I am wishing for time – not a hermetically-sealed writing-bunker.

I tell you this: I would kill for lonely and isolated. Not because it fits the image – but because I am desperate to write. But there are kids and family. Then there are the summer holidays. Then there is the world. Mostly, the world.

Mum working - photo by Joey, 9.

I applied for a grant recently, one established to assist women writers, which would have given me uninterrupted time to write. I was very, very eligible for this grant. I was recommended by a friend in the right place. All boxes ticked. Except one. For reasons I won’t go into here – but largely procedural, historical and nothing to do with my work – I was finally ineligible for the grant. Well, that’s how it goes.

But – there was a long time on the phone listening to how the grant was set up to address exactly the issues that Virginia Woolf addressed in the 1920s – conditions which still dog and disable so many female artists (the inequitable burdens of children, elderly parents, wider social expectations). I listened. I did a lot of agreeing and recognising of the issues. Finally, the CEO administering the grant asked me:

‘…and how many children do you have?’

I said: ‘Three boys. 5, 7 and 9 years old.’

‘Oh…,’ she said, ‘…you make the most of them!’

And she terminated the conversation and with it my hopes of a bubble of time which would have made an enormous amount of difference to my work. Immeasurable. The sign off “you make the most of them” is: “wait your turn – you’re not finished your day job yet…” it was: “Three kids? What are you thinking? And who is going to look after them?” It was: “…go and stick to what you know. I’ll decide when you’re ready to leave your kids.

And she knows as well as I do that she wouldn’t have said it if I had been the Dad.

Mum working (2)

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12 thoughts on “On Not Frotting the Dusty Image of a Very Dead Thomas Chatterton (1)

    • The grant (which was a space to write in) would have helped. What still smarts (sometime later) was the inconsistent attitude.
      I think I am still working out “the lesson”.
      x

  1. Seems weird that a grant-making body established to assist women writers does not count childcare as one of the time pressures female artists need help with. Putting on my devil’s advocate robe for a moment, though, this woman’s response was parentist rather than sexist, wasn’t it? I was for a number of years a male single-parent bringing up two children – they are now in their thirties – and I had to put my writing ambitions on the shelf in those days. I would have been ineligible for this grant because I was male – *that’s* sexist.

  2. Aha – spotted, that man! (and welcome) … you’re right: my beef is about the prejudice that springs from a lack-of-imagination. Of course time-poor writers are not just women. Neither are all time-poor women, mothers. Neither are all single-parents (or main-child-carers) women.
    And Virginia Woolf wrote in an age when unaccompanied women were not welcome in Oxbridge libraries. Of course what I am tombstoning about is simply how I wish it were easier – for me – and how I haven’t worked it out yet. “Tombstoning” because saying it out loud is predictably and dangerously simplistic.
    And how I hate to be precious but sometimes it all gets a bit much.
    (Don’t even start me on the age-issue…)
    Every writer will have something to hurdle before they can write. Today, for me, it is Mum-ness. For another it will be a poor education. For yet another it will be fame. (Yes it will.)
    Tonight, after the kids are asleep, I will add a bit more to the MS – wish I had days not hours – then sleep quite well, really, because it could be worse.
    x

  3. I recall reading of an academic intending to attend a conference, whose organisers sought her assurance that she had made proper provisions for childcare prior to her attending. Shame I can’t track it down now, but you get the picture…

    • Hey Dru,
      … these academics are so dizzy. Anything could happen. The children might go neglected. Worse: Mum might bring them in to work!
      Familiar picture.
      x

  4. This really resonates! I hope you won’t give up applying for future grants, and hope you will also consider grants for writers’ retreats. Then you’ll need to organize the child care for it. A week or two can really get you started. You’ve earned it! Best of luck.

    • Thanks Louise!
      No, I am not put off! I am still keeping an ear to the ground for grants/ residencies/ any kind of support – it’s a learning curve… we all have to ride it now and then.
      Fed

  5. That phone interview was an audition right? Or part of some sort of doco on ‘how-it-used-to-be-for women-writers’? Oh I get it – there were three studio cameras wheeling around you with a crew of twenty standing behind them, canteen caravan out the back as the 4367th episode of ‘Eastern Enders on Coronation Street Bill’ was being filmed…usual cheesy depressed, repressed female role…yeh?

    • That’s absolutely it – it was a canny reconstruction. And at the end the director calls out (on his megaphone) “…ok, now let’s finish with the shot on the would-be-writer-chick in tears – ok? Hey girlie – cry when I say: “Action!”…’
      I was awfully good. But then, I get a lot of practice with that kind of script.
      xx

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