I recently lost my paid writing work. Understandably I was a bit bummed by this, but I have done the sums and if I’m careful, I can afford to spend the next six months writing and not earning.
So there it is in front of me, the writer’s dream: a vast stretch of uninterrupted time.
Which as it turns, out, also happens to be the writer’s nightmare.
At last you can try your hand at a novel you nod to yourself.
And then as soon as you sit down at your laptop, a dark shadow taps you on the shoulder and starts cackling.
So how to persevere?
Well the dark shadow is right: I do not know how to write a novel.
But it struck me yesterday that this is only a negative if I decide to write a novel.
What if, instead, I decide to learn to write a novel, well the shadow can’t torment me because I don’t know what I am doing, because my ignorance is the de facto starting point.
And it’s not like I am trying to do something totally foreign – like learn to play the saxophone. I’ve spent the past twenty-odd years making my living from research (aka learning) and writing, and have produced two books: one narrative non-fiction, one factual non-fiction, both of which required truck loads of discipline and tenacity.
So what do you say, shadow self, shall we give it a go?
So many notebooks begun over the past year. Entries of just a few pages, and then the book abandoned, forgotten on a desk, under a bed, in a handbag. Little blasts of energy that have punctured through the veil of motherhood, attempts to capture and distil the fleeting thoughts and feelings of these first days of her life, all inevitably railroaded again by another set of teeth, another breastfeeding no-slumber party.
It’s fine (kind of) if you try to do nothing else. If you dedicate yourself to the altar of motherhood and expecting nothing more from your day than to meet the needs of your baby/toddler. But every so often you get a peek through the window into that other life – the one where there is time and energy for something other than mothering – and you remember.
You remember when thinking wasn’t a leisure activity.
When you would “quickly pop” to the supermarket instead of lingering in its aisles in a bid to drag out the half hour you have to yourself.
You remember the long hours reading books on the couch.
The silence. The cups of coffee.
The casual decision to go out for dinner, or take a bath.
Now there is no casual. Now you are the CEO of the most important company in the world. Your decisions are strategic, all made to make sure she grows and flourishes. You want to set the best example, be as present as you can for her, socialise her, introduce her to the best of the world – the worst can come later. The first three years are the most important they tell you. And so you commit to building the best foundation you can. To creating the best bedrock possible so when the storms of the future come, and they will, she will have resilience, patience, compassion, love programmed into the fibres of her being, to stand firm in its path.
Why are there so few women in senior management, the world wants to know? Because we are already CEOs of our own self-created empires.
“You will fail her,” the crowd says. “We all do. We all fail them.”
Yes, but there are a few ways I don’t want to fail her.
I want her to know I am listening. That I won’t leave her to cry without comfort.
I want to nourish her sense of fun and celebrate her creativity.
I want her to know that she is seen by me, but that I also respect her need for privacy and independence.
I want her to know that when the days are long, and it’s all too much, I am there for her and I want her to know unequivocally that she is safe with me, that home is a safe space.
I guess I want for her the things that I wish for myself. Is that what we do? Parent ourselves through our children?
Today is my first day back at my writing desk in 17 months. It is a beautiful space. It has a wide wooden window overlooking the washing line, a flowerbed and the small enclosed garden that we created for her, where there is a swing and a slide and a hammock. My floor is painted pale blue cement, the walls are white, and in the corner is a bright orange wooden armchair with African wax print cushions that I made when she was tiny and I had no energy for words.
My desk takes up most of the room. I bought it from a neighbour who lives on the edge of the village and who had come to despise the thing because her sons used it as a dumping ground. I had initially wanted something small so I could also fit a sleeper couch in the room but now I’m glad it’s huge and there’s no room for anyone else. Except the spider. He’s taken up residence in the second drawer on the right hand side with a bottle of glue and a two-prong adaptor. He’s not always there, but when he is, I shut the drawer quickly. We all need a room of our own.
The pictures on the walls and shelves are both familiar and foreign.
A framed aeronautical map of Joburg given to me by a dear friend, resting against copies of the Secret Joburg book I co-authored but could never promote because it came out at the same time as the baby.
An Artist’s Proof of ‘Check Mate’ by the Joburg artist Senzo Shabangu in which faceless overlords oversee a chess game being played with the iconic buildings of Joburg and a church, a bungalow and a thatched hut; alongside a poster that reads “Who is Responsible for Our Freedom?” that promoted our dialogue café at the Grahamstown Arts Festival’ across the room from an illustration that I tore out of a magazine and framed: a whitewashed map of South Africa, sketched over with an African face, and written the words “You still love her. How can you not? She’s in your blood and bones?”
Everything political. Everything from another life before I fell in love with a little girl who is totally of my blood and bones, and left me without the energy or desire for anything else.