Returning to Work: From the frying pan into the mire

The commute

My poor blog has been more neglected than a bikini line in winter. 

I’ve been working full-time you see, and I’ve also been letting things fall through the cracks.

Like many working women, I am still holding the domestic space together while trying to cope with the demands of full-time work. (This survey found that working women generally still do + 17 hours of  housework per week compared to men’s – 6 hours . Hang on, what?)

I’ve managed to forget music lessons and food shops, I’m haphazardly organising birthday parties, homework and play dates. I’m burning pizzas and missing school plays, concerts, and parent’s evenings.

I’m out of the playground and into the commute; away from the frying pan into the mire.

I’m trying to rally the troops, the children and my partner, with lists and memos; I have employed help – a cleaner and a child minder, and I know what a luxury that is.

And yet, and yet…

The jumble and scatter of life squeezes out my writing, these words that are my yoga and my Prozac.

Working life smooths out my edges as I polish myself down and re-imagine a woman I had forgotten; Our Lady of the Meeting, Doyenne of the Filofax, Director of Deadlines. Employee.

No more coffee mornings. No more spending hours honing a blog piece about pants or being a wanker mum.

I’ve been away from office life for so long, I fear that my brain is no longer malleable enough to accommodate the new connections I need to make. All my neurological pathways lead to my kids; they are my entrenched pattern, my learned behaviour.

While my part-time existence as a writer was isolating and badly paid, there was space. Time to reflect and get some perspective… too much fucking perspective to quote what’s-his-face from Spinal Tap.

It is a special kind of asthmatic wheeze, this squeezing out of the days, this stringing out of the hours to the last mote of air. Where are the morsels of time, those spaces in which we breathe?

Tell me how you do this thing you fellow working mums…

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Author Matt Haig: Loving the Alien

CatchingTheCometsTailThis week, Catching the Comet’s Tail features author Matt Haig. I like to imagine that if, by some time-bending miracle, Rene Descartes could meet David Bowie at a space cafe where the only thing on the menu is peanut butter served on slices of philosophical bread, Matt would be there taking notes. Haig’s latest novel, The Humans, is a simple yet moving story that will have you weeping at the beauty and futility of it all. Welcome to the world of an author who puts the ‘sigh’ in sci-fi.

Matt Haig

Matt Haig photo by Clive Doyle

Matt on creativity…

“I think writing sometimes comes from intense experiences. You are not necessarily writing about those experiences but it helps me that I have had them. I think the body and the mind are very closely linked. When I used to have panic attacks, it was my heart and my mind going crazy together. You feel things and experience things and somehow these experiences turn into stories. It is a mystery. If you write non-fiction then you write with a clear knowledge of where your words stem from, but with fiction you are generally asking questions, not giving answers.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary influences?

“I was quite bookish but didn’t go to a school where being bookish was a good thing, so I often used to hide the fact from my friends. I loved all the usuals – Dahl, Jansson, SE Hinton…then, as a teen, Stephen King in a major way. But I think a lot of the writer sensibility comes from staring out of windows. I used to do that a lot, wrapped up in the comfort of my own imagination. My parents also took me to the theatre a lot and our house was a house of books.”

How long did it take to write The Humans and can you recall the first spark of inspiration?

“The Humans took me over a decade, technically, because I first had the idea for it in 2000 when I was suffering from panic disorder, and feeling alienated from the rest of my species. However, I was scared of writing it as a first novel for 2 reasons – firstly, I didn’t want to be labelled as a sci-fi writer, which technically this story is (in subject if not in spirit), and secondly, even though it was a fantasy, the story felt strangely personal, and it took a while to get the degree of honesty necessary. I needed to look at myself properly, and when you are 25 and trying to be cool that’s hard. The concept changed through the editing process. I am deeply proud of this book and don’t mind shouting about it from the rooftops. I think it is by far the best thing I have ever done, but it only got that way with the help of my editor at Canongate, Francis Bickmore. You see, the first draft would have literally alienated most readers. He told me to think of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and feed the weirdness in gradually and that is what I tried to do. And you know [a book] is finished when you have exhausted your editor and he says it is finished.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what? And what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?

“I can only work at home. Preferably in my attic. But I can have music on or even the TV. I have tinnitus, so quiet is more distracting than noise. Twitter is a creativity-killer though.”

 What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“Go for a run. Or, if in a serious slump, get away on holiday.”

Please share a photo of something that connects with your writing process.

Matt Haig's Peanut Butter

Every writer needs it…peanut butter.

“My writing staple… peanut butter.”

Is there a collaborative element to your work? 

“Well, I have a great editor. And my wife is a writer, so I show her stuff and she tells me what she likes and what she doesn’t. But I am a shut-myself-away kind of writer to be honest.”

Where do you most like to be when you write, and do you have a daily routine? 

Matt Haig Writing

Matt’s favourite writing place.

“I hate writing at a desk so I can normally be found lounging around my house. This is my favourite spot.

I work three times as well in the morning as the afternoon. For every sentence I write in the afernoon, I can write a paragraph in the morning. So my rule is: START EARLY, FINISH EARLY.”

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?

“I’d like to be a film director. My Dad is an architect. I’d love to design a building.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?

“You have less time, so you become more productive. You use the time you have more wisely. You become more disciplined. I also think I have a more optimistic world-view. My style has become a little bit sunnier I think.”

What are you working on next?

“I have been asked to write a screenplay for The Humans. So, that!”

The Humans Matt HaigYou can find out more about Matt on his blog, or find him on Twitter and Facebook. His novel The Humans is out now from Canongate  Books.

Anything you say or do…

someecards.com - Warning: Anything you say or do may be used against you in a future blog post. #mummybloggers

In Andalucia

Spanish bullBy the time you read this, I will be floating on a lilo in a pool. I will have a blank, can’t be arsed facial expression, like someone whose OD’ed on Botox, been slapped by a fish, and then had a shock.  I will be roasting like a piggy on a spit, slowly browning like the meat gyro up the kebab shop on the Harrow Road. I will occasionally look up from my paperback, its spine melting and pages wrinkling in the heat, and utter the words, “more figs please” to whoever will listen. I will have a sweaty lip ‘tache and clammy nethers, but this is not the point. The point is, I’ll be in Andalucia, Southern Spain, one of my favourite places in the world. Land of the poet I love the most, Federico Garcia Lorca, and, more importantly, home (via La Mancha) of the best cheese ever, Manchego. It’s from SHEEP!

I’ve always had a bit of a ‘thing’ about Spain; it’s been a long-term crush. In my late twenties, I took myself off to University having originally bypassed the whole degree thing, choosing instead to pursue a rock n’ roll life on the road armed with my acoustic guitar and a handful of songs about being dumped. Ultimately, my rock n’ roll years were actually spent in the back of a transit van that smelled of vomit and boys. Disillusioned and practically brain-dead after saying, “Check…1… 2…check 1…2..” for the 35,000th time, I decided to go to back to school and exercise my brain.

My chosen course was a BA in Humanities with Hispanic Studies. Over the four years of my degree, I was immersed in all things Spanish and South American in terms of literature, art, music and language. I spent some time in Madrid. I conjugated a lot of verbs. And I sussed out the many things that pull me in about Spain.

For a start, I love the language. It is BRILLIANT because there is something that I call the verb of diminished responsibility. In Spanish, it is perfectly legitimate grammatically to say, “The car crashed itself” or, “The table broke itself” or, “The wee, peed itself all over the floor mummy”. You can blame inanimate things for human weakness linguistically! Genius!

The hair. Gotta love Spanish hair. It’s everywhere! The men are all, “Ooh, you may look admiringly at my Erik Estrada ‘tache and rest your head on my wiry chest forest while I read you something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a schmexy voice.” Yes, I like it.

And the women! Those long, black, shiny tresses. Sigh. As the owner of some flaky, brittle, blonde fluff up top, I am so envious of that long, black, shiny hair.

And I love the whole flamenco thing. Yes, it may be a cliche, but stomping around on the earth and shouting is EXACTLY my kind of medicine. I ended up doing my thesis on the Spanish concept of duende which is this intangible thing that happens in flamenco; a cross between frenzy, enlightenment, excitement and an existential moment of realisation about death, sex, love, pain and the futility of human experience. As far as I can work out, most women experience a moment of duende in childbirth at some point, and will tell anyone who can hear it exactly where they can stick their duende, but I didn’t know that when I was in my twenties studying it.

I like the way flamenco as a dance form is directed at the earth. None of this pointy uppy toward the sky stuff or being contorted into a masculine shape like in ballet. Flamenco dancers usually have busts, waists and curves, and that’s just the men! Some of the best female flamenco dancers are bloody ANCIENT and have all the grace and power of fire. They strop around with a pained facial expression like I do at parent’s evening.

And the time signatures in flamenco music, wow. None of your standard 4/4 stuff here. No, time signatures are in things like 78/3, 196/4.8. They make prog rock bands sound like kids with a Casio drum machine when the batteries are wearing down! OOh and the cajon. That big, booming box that is used to beat out the rhythm. That’s what I like. I nice, big, phat cajon being slapped by a hairy man in 78/5  time on a hot, steamy night. I also like the way flamenco embraces musical notes that aren’t generally considered part of the standard music scale. They use quarter-notes, eighths, wibbly-wobbly-in-between stuff that only Andalucian dogs can hear. What’s not to love I ask you?

The wild poppies and the stars. In rural Spain you still get incredible starscapes at night as there is little street lighting. By day in the spring, the wild poppies mirror Orion, Perseus and Cassiopeia on the scorched earth. It’s heavenly.

Everyone has their ‘other’ land do they not? The place where we sketch out a fantasy other life, places that speak to parts of our soul that lie dormant at home. Spain speaks to my wild places; I am barefoot all the time, I eat with my fingers and swim in the moonlight, shedding pounds of London grey and lard.

Where does your heart sing that is not called home?

I blog therefore I am…

someecards.com - I blog therefore I am... No longer in therapy.

Little Alchemies: BritMums Live 2012

Sleepy MummyLike most of the 500 mums and handful of dads attending the BritMums Live blogging conference this weekend, I found doing something out of the usual routine pretty damn special. As a consequence, I am experiencing a come-down of Glastonbury-esque proportions.

Perhaps the air at BritMums had a special quality to it, or maybe it is just the nature of any collective experience, but I suspect that few of us were unmoved or unchanged by the things we heard this weekend . I love how just the right blend of adrenaline,  inspiration, insight, empathy and empowerment can weave the kind of magic that can turn a simple conference room into a crucible. Alchemy at its finest. Mothers, among the most unheard, unexpressed, economically frustrated groups in the world, are beginning to respect themselves, shedding layers of guilt, self-depreciation and anxiety about ‘getting it wrong’. Revolutions are rarely this quiet, but in the shared tears and laughter of recognition during sessions and keynotes, BritMums Live felt like more than just a conference to me. It is a truly exciting time to be a writer, and a mother.

When I got home last night, it was to an empty house as the husband, the Teenage-Songbird and the 6-year-old Biscuit-Thief were still out. It was strange entering a completely darkened space, shutting the door on a noisy London street and climbing our stairs into unfamiliar silence. I was greeted by an abandoned pile of laundry in the shape of a lioness, desolate cups and plates piled high in the kitchen sink, a scrapyard of crockery. A window left ajar let in a cool, evening breeze and the blinds tapped out eerie morse code against the wall.

Our home, the heart of us; tapping and ticking, both empty and expectant.

The family cat circled my legs, demanding either food or love (I’m never sure which, and often get it wrong).  I was not yet ready for noise or light so I ran the hot tap to fill a bath, and  sat in the semi-darkness. I need more of this, I thought to myself. More solitary time. Not all the time. But just some of the time. Decompression. Each day is stretched to the edges of itself, there is always something more that needs to be done even though I am one of the lucky ones.  Even in sleep, time is spent unravelling complexities; my children, my marriage, my work, my life and what the hell it’s supposed to look like.

Lying in the warm bath, the silence meant that I could hear my heart for the first time in years. I had almost forgotten how it feels to actually BE HERE. Just, here.

How many of us skate above life, keeping going and keeping going, until all we have time to know is the surface of things?  The more I heard my heart, the more I knew I would have to let the thing happen,  the thing I always deny. The thing that is always in the corner of my mind, threatening  to climb aboard my raft and sink it. The thing is surrender; surrender to the imperfection of it all, to the inevitability that they will grow and they will leave, and that you can’t fix it all for them; surrender to the fact that it is joyous and also painful to mother.

Last night I surrendered to the fact that I am Just. Bloody. Knackered.

I allowed fifteen years worth of tiredness to pull me in, all syrup and quicksand, and on a current of restless dreams, I gave in to the Mother of all Sleeps.

Nature’s Peep-Show: Notes on camping

Camping I’m back from a camping sojourn in the sodden British countryside and I have to reveal a shocking truth; everything in nature is about sex.

Stuck in my urban flat, I don’t notice these things; my  ‘outside’ world mainly concerns fighting or buying stuff.  In the countryside, it’s all different.

I am almost embarrassed to witness greedy stamens of Queens Anne’s Lace forcing themselves upwards to the bees. The frisky sheep, the bucking horses, the pelvis-shaped sycamore wings fainting to the floor like damsels in a ‘take-me-now’ twizzle toward the fertile earth. Stags, deer, cadavers on the road, the fenced-in versus the wild. Flowers open shamelessly towards the sun and coyly close in the night air. Our campfire greedily sucks up the air and all of our wood. The earth, voluptuous in her mounds and curves, defies the copsing and mowers that try to tame her. She just keeps on saying it; “Love me, love me just the way I am. You cannot contain me!”

Everything in the countryside wants to shag or be shagged!

And the kids, my God the kids are free, combusting and instantly feral!  No need for chastening sex education videos or tightlipped lessons about ‘nocturnal emissions’ and ‘The Curse’ here. No, my six-year-old girl, just get a load of those rampant poppies in the upper field!

Camping in the dank grey, our tent is a seed pod of dreams. Our sleep is odd, incorporating the raw sounds from outside, a canvas sheet between us and the pelting rain which batters us out of our slumber saying, “Submit! You are so much less than all of this.”

Elemental, feet blackened with dirt and damp in our bones, we head home to the Big Smoke where I run a bath so hot I burn. I wonder if camping is not so much  about being at one with nature, but about proving we can still build a home that keeps her out. We try to humanize the wild with our Bell tents and trangias, but looking out from the comfort of our canvas porches, we are just voyeurs at a demented peep show, catching a glimpse of who we really are.