Ten years ago, I left teaching to travel and do volunteer work abroad, and I planned to honour my childhood dream of writing a novel. Yet, ironically, even though I had more ‘free time’ I never actually started. It wasn’t until I undertook a PhD in writing that I began to hone my focus on a longer work. But several months into the course, my life changed. Dramatically. And so did my writing. I fell in love, got pregnant and married all within seven months. Before, time felt fluid and expansive, now I felt the pressure of time restriction: nine months and my baby would be here.
For the first time in my writing experience I was diligent and focused, approaching my writing like an occupation, and the narrative gained momentum. I kept my daily journal separate to my writing notebook where I recorded ideas and notes for the novel. But, as time went by and my belly grew, the baby pressing against my writing desk or the notebook balanced on top of my growing baby, so these two worlds merged. The melding of novel and baby became reflected in my journals: baby names and character names side by side; dialogue and character sketches next to an outline of my labour plan.
Our baby was born. In what author Nikki Gemmell calls the ‘coalface of living’ (Power, 2015, p. 206) I felt all of the key emotions daily—awe, joy, sadness, love, fear, anger, resentment, envy, longing. And I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the chronic sleep deprivation and the impact this would have on both my emotional state and daily life. My sense of self was forever altered; in this early period of life with a newborn, I was unsure where ‘I’ ended and ‘baby’ began. I felt swamped by the over-riding feeling that there was never enough time to do everything demanded of me, much less begin to process all of the new experiences. And through all this, how would I finish my novel?
Mothering made me work-savvy. I wrote willy-nilly on scraps of paper, receipts discarded on the kitchen bench bore jottings for a character, a plot point would be recorded on a serviette at a cafe on a much-needed escape from the house. The constant tiredness brought a different lucidity. During the night-wakings when my daughter breastfed, I scrawled ideas in a notebook by torchlight. I have often had insights at this time; life somehow becomes clearer, certain ‘truths’ make themselves known. Both at night and during the day, breastfeeding hormones provided me with healthy doses of oxytocin—the sleepy, dreamy result often proving an effective cocktail for creativity.
In the brief interludes when my baby did nap, I wrote feverishly: a few sentences, a paragraph, sometimes several pages. The novel is written in fragments (the ‘chapters’ range from three hundred to several thousand words) which reflect these sporadic snatches of time afforded me. I wrote intuitively and erratically but this method worked with a newborn to care for, and when permitted any morsel of time, I was motivated and industrious. I also daydreamed. On those long days when my husband left for work, and it was just myself and the baby in an isolated cabin in the forest, I often thought about the destinations to which I had traveled. The love I had for my daughter was unquestionable, but I found myself rallying against the monotony and isolation of motherhood and longed for escape, and thus, memories of other places returned to me vividly which are woven into Bloodlines:
She starts thinking of travelling again. In her mind, she re-traces the path she’d taken, dodging scooters and mangy dogs, from the Chow Kit market back to Mrs Lee’s Guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur. She sees herself as if in a film, outside the Gateway to India in Mumbai, the junkies and their Bunsen burners tucked down some grimy alley. (p. 235).
In my exhausted state, memory and imagination readily coexisted: I flitted from present to past and back again, and this extensive pondering and daydreaming was reflected in my writing—both in the different points of view foregrounded and the shifting times.
Once my daughter was older, and we were graced with predictable sleeping periods, my writing practice became more routine. The house was a mess, dinner was a rush job late afternoon, and the washing piled high. My writing practice embodied what Isabel Allende suggests: ‘Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the muse shows up, too’ (cited in Popova, 2013).
Walking became a lifeline. I pushed a pram or strapped my baby to me in a sling and headed for the forest and continued the writing process. I sifted, I sorted, I edited in my head. If necessary, I stopped and scrawled on a piece of paper shoved in my pocket. Repetitive domestic chores such as hanging clothes on the line or folding nappies also allowed moments of creative freedom and insight. Something I was mulling over could percolate away, and while folding a nappy or pushing a baby in a swing, a solution presented itself. I learned to trust the creative process and realised that so much of it is hard work. Focus. Discipline. And a baby, invariably shrieking an hour later.
I made sure my manuscript was completed before our second baby was born. Another great motivator! Juggling the editing before publication and two very small children was the hardest part of the entire process. Many parents – particularly women – know what it is to feel torn between our working life and our creative life and our children. I often felt I was doing a bad job of both writing and mothering.
People often ask how I wrote a novel while my children were so young. Not easily. But the fact that I had young children forced me to become efficient and determined to snatch any moments of creative inspiration.
Nicole Sinclair’s short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Review of Australian Fiction, Westerly, indigo Journal and Award Winning Australian Writing, and also forms part of the artworks along Busselton Jetty. Her short stories have won the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award and the Down South Writers Competition. Nicole has lived and worked in Papua New Guinea and now lives in the south-west of Western Australia with her husband and two (very young) daughters. Her first novel, Bloodlines, was shortlisted for the 2014 T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and will be published by Margaret River Press in March, 2017.
Popova, M. (2013, February 18). Order to the chaos of life: Isabel Allende on writing. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/02/18/isabel-allende-on-writing/
Power, R. (Ed.). (2015). Motherhood & creativity: The divided heart. Mulgrave, Australia: Affirm Press.