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Children & Writing? How to balance family life and writing life?

This is a big question, but it’s as important as anything I’ve ever been asked.  My first book [of short stories] was published before I had a family, but everything else, eleven novels in total, has been published against the background of being a mother with five children.   I take comfort from the fact that Edna O’Brien wrote the wonderful ‘The Country Girls’ from her children’s bedroom window whilst they were at school.  In other words, it can be done.

I didn’t know that, though, when I started out.  I had five young children under the age of eleven, one of whom was not much more than a baby, and two of whom weren’t yet in school.  It was fourteen years since I’d written anything, and the urge – and need – to write was overwhelming.  I was heading nervously towards forty, and half my life felt over.  If I didn’t do something, the other half could so easily be over too.

I didn’t have the time for what I thought of as ‘big writing’ on the Edna O’Brien scale, so I embarked on small pieces instead.  An article for Homes & Gardens. A short story.  A radio play which never was performed, but I enjoyed writing anyway.  These eased me in, not only to writing again, but to the idea of seizing every available moment and not wasting them on other things.

Then, when I was truly back into the swing of things, I embarked upon what I’d always wanted to write – my first novel.  I sat down with it every time the older children were in school and the younger ones either in playgroup or having morning naps.  I might only get an hour, but an hour a day was worth more than nothing.  And on the days when there was no playgroup, I set my alarm for five in the morning and wrote for two hours before the children awoke.  That way there was continuity to my writing life.  I didn’t have great bursts of writing with deserts between.  Every day my novel moved forward.  Every day, even if I wasn’t writing, it was in my mind, and I’d be taking notes and the whole thing would be developing.

Well, eventually of course all my children made it to school, which meant that when my next book came along, my days were clear for writing in easier circumstances.  But that habit of rising early has remained ever since.  Maybe I’ve trained myself for it – certainly by now there’s an element of habit about it - but more than that, I’ve discovered that it suits me. 

Every writer has their best time, and the early hours are mine.  There’s something very special about that stage between sleep and proper, truly-alert wakefulness; if nothing else interrupts my thought processes, that’s when all my best writing gets done.  It’s when the problems solve themselves from the previous day’s writing.  It’s what I always call ‘cream on the top of the milk’ writing.  The richest and best.  

I’m doing that now.  Six-thirty and at my laptop in the quiet kitchen.  All my children have now long-since left home, and the little voice I hear upstairs is my grand-daughter’s. That first novel, Midnight Blue, was published with great success, so this method plainly worked for me.  It was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, won the Smarties Grand Prix, even beating Roald Dahl, and has been translated all round the world.  Recently it’s 21st anniversary e-book edition came out on kindle.  As I worked through it, editing it for a new generation, I could scarcely believe all those years have gone by. 

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