Am Wife, Will Write
A WORD TO HUSBANDS
“When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.” (Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write.)
Whether you’re piecing together a collection of short stories, polishing the prose of your debut novel, or pondering life’s complexities in your private journal, there are numerous rules to follow if you wish to thrive as a writer and wife.
DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND
The most important foundation of a writing life is a marriage that’s as solid as a rock. This means finding a man strong enough to shoulder your burdens, one who will support and inspire your creative endeavours and know instinctively when it’s time to step out of the spotlight and allow you to shine. It may be fun when you’re young to date people from all walks of life. However, to ensure a long-lasting union between husband and wife, ascertain early on whether your ambitions are truly compatible.
He arrives late with vodka in one hand, strawberry puree in the other. It doesn’t feel like a party until he’s in the room. He talks with his whole body, spilling sugary cocktail on his trousers that are beige with thin brown vertical stripes. When the other guests have gone to bed, you lie down in the garden and share a cigarette. The smoke is the only thing clouding the sky full of stars.
“What are your dreams?” you ask. The vodka has made you bold.
He smiles, replies, “I want to be a musician, full time. You?”
“I’d like to write.”
This is the start.
Move in together five months later. Marvel at how beautiful he looks in his sleep. Be responsible to your dreams but not your wallet and quit your job. Start writing full-time while he dedicates his life to becoming a professional trumpet player.
Discuss the location of your wedding. You want the town hall, he wants the church. Throw caution to the wind and do both.
Ask for a baby but come home with Napoleon, a black-and-white spaniel on special offer because one of his balls hasn’t dropped.
Console your husband when he fails his music exam. Tell him he has to keep going.
The day after Napoleon turns two, give birth to your daughter, Grace. Watch transfixed as she pecks at your breast, divining your milk with her mouth.
Cradle your husband’s head in your hands when he fails his exam. Again.
Forget the meaning of sleep. Create a cocoon only big enough for two. Watch as your husband moves further away from you and gets into bed with his music.
Listen to him cry when he phones to say he’s passed this time. Cry too but feel uncertain why.
You want to fly home to England. He wants to stay in France.
This is the beginning.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Be careful when selecting your city of residence. Unless you wish to emulate the likes of Ernest Hemingway, smuggling bottles of Bordeaux under your raincoat and dining on roast pigeon that you scraped off the Place des Vosges, Paris might not be the place for you.
Apply for a creative writing MA in the literary heart of East Anglia. Cross your fingers when you’re invited for interview. Visit the local library and get Grace her first card. She loves it because it features a picture of a panda’s face. Your daughter’s already sold on the idea of moving here. Now you have to persuade your husband. Ply him with cheap pints from Wetherspoon’s then realise he’d prefer Smirnoff Ice, that this man is still full of surprises: “If I will get a job, then O.K., I take a sabbatical.” Don’t correct his use of the first conditional. Lick the tiny scar below his left eye that’s shaped like a teardrop. Taste salt on the edges of your tongue. Wonder if it’s him or that second packet of Walkers crisps.
Back home, show him a music teacher job you find advertised online. Look up “peripatetic” in your pocket dictionary. Adopt the French definition – adhering to Aristotle’s school of thought is more appealing than the forty-mile commute to King’s Lynn. Help him fill out the application form.
Refresh the submission status ad infinitum.
A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
A writer’s desk is as personal as the contents of a lady’s purse. Be sure to find a space that encapsulates you, combines all aspects of your personality: the modern woman, the writer, the wife.
Relocate your family from Paris to Norwich. Sub-let a one-bedroom flat from a retired RAF pilot whose cupboards are still full of his stuff. Waste a ridiculous amount of time shuffling boxes around, trying to eke out an extra squared metre of space.
In the evenings, when Grace is asleep, clean the kitchen table and set up your computer. Attempt to write while your husband watches re-runs of ’90s sitcoms that weren’t funny the first time. Try not to let the tin-can laughs of the pre-recorded audience rattle your nerves. Lose your cool when he starts tapping out text messages to his newfound friends. You are halfway through a sentence.
“I just want to come home and relax,” he says, after a day busking in the streets of the city. “Is that really too much to ask?”
Don’t answer. Hear him slam the bedroom door shut.
Get so tired you don’t bother cleaning your teeth, then fall asleep fully clothed on the sofa.
Wake up at three a.m. when Grace shouts: “Mummy, is it morning time?” Lie awake as you stroke her back to sleep, singing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.
DYB, DYB, DYB – DO YOUR BEST
Skilful preparation should not be reserved to the realm of brownies and cub scouts. If you decide to venture outside the comfort of your own home in order to write, equip yourself with the right tools for the task at hand.
THINGS TO LEAVE BEHIND
1. A typewriter. Unless you want to end up with a hernia, leave these cumbersome machines to the Hemingway devotees.
2. Perfectionism. “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dali was right. By all means strive for excellence but remember that perfection is unattainable.
3. Your internal editor. Of course an editor has his place in the creative process. But like a drunken uncle at a funeral, don’t let him in the door too early.
4. High-calorie snacks. Writing is no excuse for breaking out the chocolate biscuits.
AT THE LOCAL LIBRARY
Public libraries are the ideal place to go for quiet contemplation. What could be more heartening than surrounding oneself with books and bibliophiles?
Once you’ve dropped Grace off at nursery, rush to the library and nab a desk on the first floor. Make a good start. Two paragraphs into your story, sigh as a children’s choir assembles on the staircase. Don’t believe your ears when they start rehearsing for tonight’s live broadcast of BBC Children In Need. Wince when their rendition of I’ll Stand by You hurts your teeth. Think, “The dead Pretenders must be turning in their graves.”
“Ooohhhh,” they sing, “why you look so sad?”
Resist shouting, “Because I can’t fucking concentrate.”
“Don’t hold it all inside. Come on and talk to me, now.”
Feel bad about wanting to scream at small children, spoiling their five minutes of kind-hearted fame. Remember it’s for charity and you too have a child.
Coffee houses are famous the world over for providing respite to weary literati. Select your café carefully, taking into account the quality of light and the speed of service. Support local traders and where possible buy organic, fair-trade coffee that has been ground in the past five days.
Take Napoleon to the one place in town that accepts dogs: Caffé Nero. Waste time at the counter as they fawn over his silly face. Trip up on his leash as you climb the stairs, spilling hot cappuccino on your top.
“You O.K. darling?” says the barista in his thick Italian accent.
Nod and smile, but once you’ve claimed your usual table by the window, cry into your scarf. Pat Napoleon and tell him it’s all alright, it’s not his fault. Avoid the couple in the corner who always hog the sofas, talk too loudly and stroke your dog like an old lover.
The tickety-clack of train journeys has always transported me to another world, one of mystery, romance, and Christie’s Poirot. If you are planning on working, book your tickets in advance and ask the travel agent for a forward facing seat with a fold-down table. First class is always preferable.
Attempt to read Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground for inspiration on the train to London. Stop when Grace needs help making play-dough shapes with cookie cutters you found in the depths of your bag. They are supposed to look like exotic animals.
“It’s not a penguin, silly,” says the little boy opposite you. “It’s a toucan.”
Feel ashamed that a six-year-old can identify the correct species more easily than you. When he makes Grace a play-dough poo, suppress the urge to throw it in his face.
Spot your husband ploughing through his recently bought paperback two rows down.
Ships remind me of sailing past the Statue of Liberty and into Manhattan, of all the people who passed through Ellis Island and into a new life plump with possibility.
Cruise-liner voyages are ideal for the vacationing writer. They allow ample time to combine true relaxation, good-quality cocktails and the soothing sounds of the sea.
At Christmas, take the ferry to France because you left it too late to book the Eurostar. Head to deck seven and thank God for the inflatable playpen. Watch Grace as she throws herself against the bright blue cushions, safe in the knowledge that she can’t come to any harm. Open your laptop and start working on a children’s book about an octopus with only six tentacles.
Feel your heart sink when the sea gets rough and the kids turn an unhealthy shade of green. Guess correctly that your husband’s wandered off to play trumpet on the top deck. Save your Word document before Grace comes over clutching her stomach saying, “Mummy, make it stop.” Spend the rest of the journey mopping up sick.
Forget about the octopus and his futile quest to recover his two missing limbs.
TIME WAITS FOR NO (WO)MAN
Bernard Malamud is right on the button: “If you can’t get organised, then you can kiss your talent goodbye.” If you are balancing a career with family life, learn to grab moments when they arrive – it is amazing what you can achieve in a short space of time. I’m often delighted to discover that when I set aside time for a paragraph, I come away with a chapter.
Blame yourself. It was your idea that he busk to Let It Go in the centre of town and now he’s raking it in every Saturday outside the Disney Store. Admit this is what he always wanted, to be earning money from his music. In many ways you are proud of him.
Get up with Grace. When you’re still half-asleep, pour milk into her cornflakes hoping not to spill it on the shag-pile; you cannot face another visit from Steve, the philosophical carpet cleaner who combines stain removal with soliloquies on Jungian dream theory.
Take the bus to ballet class. Ensure you have everything you need: the hairpins, the leotard, the ballet shoes with ribbons, the tutu, the tap shoes, the tights.
Queue up for coffee and make small talk with the other mothers. In the half-an-hour gap before Grace comes back, take out your notebook. Curse under your breath because you’ve forgotten your pen. Grab a wax crayon from the colouring box.
Stop thinking in paragraphs; start thinking in words.
KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING
Not only should you be the master of your craft, but the mistress of your home life too. By all means keep up your creative pursuits but remember to prioritise. Upholding your role as wife and mother is of paramount importance and requires elegance, dignity and decorum.
Turn your laptop off. Tell your husband to put his ukulele down – it’s Grace’s turn to play an instrument. Accept that your daughter has unusual taste for a toddler. Instead of Wheels on the Bus, she wants you to accompany her on the recorder as she taps her tambourine in time to Roar, Katy Perry’s age-inappropriate, jungle-themed pop song of female empowerment.
Open the box of wooden instruments you gave her for Christmas still wrapped in plastic. Don’t think about the neighbours. Turn the volume up and dance round the room. Stay as close to the original tune as possible with your limited range of six notes. Jump around and start to laugh – not high in the throat but deep in the gut.
When the song ends your husband looks at you surprised, “Mummy’s very silly, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” says Grace, “let’s do it again!”
EAT, PRAY, SLEEP
Rising to the challenges of contemporary life without stopping to recharge your batteries is akin to running an automobile on apple-scented bubble bath – useless and potentially dangerous to you and your entourage. The opposite of success is not failure but neglect.
Go to your daughter’s Christmas show alone. Smile and hide your disappointment that her father’s not there. Watch as she laughs and claps and sings a silly song about Brussel sprouts. Feel disproportionately proud when she pinches a mince pie off the tray destined for adults.
Rush to university in time to discuss the short story The Sex Lives of African Girls and Othello, the struggles women face all over the world – the jealousy, the anger, the rage. Articulate what moves you and makes your heart break.
Get to the crèche in time to collect Grace. When she asks “Where’s Daddy?” be truthful but not bitter. “Daddy’s at work darling, but he really wanted to be here.”
Hesitate before opening the front door one morning when you hear Grace’s screams coming from the other side. Dread seeing what you know instinctively has already taken place. Realise you never saw her leave, that she must have followed her father. Extract her tiny hand from the hinge. Squint at the sight of her nail squashed round to the wrong side of her finger. Panic when the screams don’t stop. Yell, “What the hell happened?”
“She wanted to say goodbye,” says your husband, retreating to his car. “I have to go. I’m going to be late for work.”
Hold Grace in your arms. Order a taxi to take you to Accident & Emergency.
To sum up, demonstrate the same level of commitment to your marriage as you do to your craft and you cannot put a foot wrong.
After dinner one night, entrust your latest story to your husband.
“Why do you always write about yourself?” he says. “Can’t you use your imagination? Like that man who wrote Lord of the Rings?”
“J. R. R. Tolkien?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
“It’s supposed to be in the same vein as a 1950s guidebook, you know, for women.” Hand him the cloth-bound edition of The Art of Being A Well-Dressed Wife. As always, it falls open on page 87.
“But that’s the thing,” you try and explain, “I don’t think being a good wife is about the clothes you wear. It’s more complex, more—”
“Don’t worry ma chérie, you look fine,” he replies, turning on the television.
When you return to the flat after a week away at kids’ camp, the fridge is empty. Without milk you can’t give Grace her bottle and the shops are now shut because it’s late and you’ve spent most of the day stuck in the car, listening to Katy Perry on repeat so Grace won’t scream and distract your attention from the millions of cars racing to some other destination.
“You could have got some food in,” you say.
“I’m tired,” he replies.
You haven’t had a night of uninterrupted sleep for four years. You drink six cups of coffee to get you through the day and he’s tired.
“I’m the most tired.”
“I’ve got the most work to do.”
“I took the dog out, so now it’s your turn.”
“If Grace wakes in the middle of the night, you go.”
Lie down next to your daughter and breathe in the sweet smell of her skin.
You cannot find the time to write. You have nothing left to give.
This is the end.
Remember the day you met. Remember the touch of his fingers on the inside of your thigh as you talked into the night, the crunch of gravel under your feet as you strolled down the driveway and looked up at the stars.
Close your eyes.
Listen as you voice your dreams in the dark.