Parenting and writing: more similar than you might think

Having had my first book published last month, I can now call myself a writer. Of course, I could have called myself a writer at any point over the past twenty-five years, since that’s how long I’ve been at it, but it always felt a little pretentious, given I have barely made a penny from it. It would be like a postman, upon being asked what he does, saying, ‘I’m a fisherman,’ because at weekends he takes a rod and some maggots to his local river and casts about for fish. While he might want to be known for doing that, it’s not exactly an accurate answer, is it?

And yet, throughout my writing life, I have met no end of people who proudly introduce themselves as writers, authors, novelists, poets and even philosophers, despite never having had anything in print. On top of this, there is a really weird thing that many of the writers I’ve met have in common: none of them actually write.

I’m always amazed by how many people pack up their laptop and go to a busy cafe, park or pub in order to write in a loud, bustling and incredibly public place. I’ve had long conversations with writers about their writing, their ideas, their characters, their themes, the depths of their literary ambitions, and how if only someone took a chance on them, they’d shake up the publishing world – all without ever having written anything. I even had a tutor on a creative writing course I was taking tell me she wanted to write a novel one day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already written eight. What’s stopping you?

It seems to me that while many writers love being writers, they don’t particularly like doing writing.

That’s understandable – writing is hard. All the other aspects of the craft – planning, plotting, themes, character biographies, working out the front cover and the blurb, giving imaginary interviews in front of the mirror and picturing your book at the top of the bestseller list – those are the easy parts, the fun parts, the parts you can do with an audience. The hard part is sitting down and actually writing, day after day, week after week, churning out tens of thousands of words, editing, rewriting, reworking. Most of that stuff you can’t do in public – you do it in private, in loneliness, in blood, sweat and tears. The only publicity is the book itself, because nobody is meant to see the struggle that goes into it.

The fact is, writers write. They don’t sit around pontificating about their ‘art’ all day, worrying about which jacket makes them look the most writer-ly, or which is the best place to write where they’ll be seen and acknowledged. They knuckle down and work. They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them. They cram it in whenever and wherever they can. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. Some days you have no idea if you’re doing it right and if you’re wasting your life. But you persevere. You keep going in the faith that you’re on the right path and that tomorrow it’ll all click. You keep going not because you want to, but because you need to, because it’s in you and it’s who you are.

In this way, it’s a lot like being a parent.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the superficial aspects of parenting. You take the little one to a cafe and she sits there all well-behaved and you play a game and she laughs and an old couple comes over and tells you what a great parent you are – I love that stuff. It happens to me quite often, in fact – I can’t go a week without a stranger coming up to me and telling me how awesome I am, which makes me walk around all day with a massive head, going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the shiznit.’

Trouble is, sitting in a cafe playing with a well-behaved child as you bask in the adoration of the public is not all that different from the writer who sits in the pub and delights in telling people about the books he intends to write when his writing credits to date total zero. You’re wallowing in the glory of being a parent, without actually doing any parenting. Because parenting, like writing, can be bloody difficult.

A good parent, just like the good writer, does most of their work unseen. They do it day in, day out, and all through the night, despite the aching spine, the headaches and the tiredness. They face the monotony, the boredom and the isolation with stoic fortitude. They work, work, work, because they have no choice but to do so. They get pushed to the edge but keep their cool somehow; cuddle a kicking, screaming toddler at two in the morning when all they want to do is stay in bed; and endure the torture of a hundred mealtimes in a row that involve more tears and thrown food than spoonfuls successfully swallowed.

Sometimes they’re driven to tears themselves. Sometimes it seems utterly hopeless, and they don’t know how they can possibly get through it all. Sometimes nothing seems to work. But they still get up and do it, because it’s the only thing they can do.

The mark of a good parent is not measured by being good when everything is going well – it’s how you do when your precocious twenty-two month old is driving you up the wall by testing you, pressuring you, challenging you, from dawn to dusk each day and then again from dusk till dawn. It’s measured by what you do when you’re in a cafe and your little one is screaming bloody murder, by how you react when they’re not behaving themselves, by whether you can remain calm when everyone’s looking at you and judging you for the behaviour of your child.

Nobody sees the work that goes into a book, just as nobody sees the work that goes into a child. By the time it is ready to be released into the world, you have poured far more of your heart into it than you even thought you had in you to give. But when all is said and done, you’re only assessed on the finished product, not the work that went into creating it. So you just have to press on in the faith that one day it’ll all come good. And then maybe your kid will write that bestseller that eluded you so long!

Aspie Family Update, Pt 1

It has been over a month since my last post. I’d like to say it was a deliberate attempt to track incremental change over a longer timescale, but that would be a misrepresentation of reality. The truth is I could neither find the energy to write nor think of anything to say. It has, however, led to a benefit, in that, all bullshit aside, I have been able to track incremental change over a longer timescale. Which is good for all concerned.

You see, in the first thirteen or so months, Izzie changed dramatically and so did our lives, giving fertile ground for blogging. But by the time you’re over a year into parenthood, the changes become rather less profound. For one thing, by this point you’re used to the whole parenting lark, so dramatic, soul-searching incidents occur with less frequency than at first; for another, the changes in your toddler become developments in extent rather than in kind. What I mean by this is that first steps, first word, first use of a spoon, are milestones that require an entire post, but more steps, more words, and further use of the spoon don’t really warrant much comment. It’s like a person confined to a wheelchair after a horrible mountaineering accident – the first time they get up and walk they’re in all the papers and magazines, but as they continue to walk and gradually get better at it, nobody gives a crap because it’s just a person walking. We have to wait for them to climb Everest before we hear about them again.

All of this is a longwinded way of saying the time away has been a good thing, as I’ve been able to notice and reflect upon things that, had I been writing every couple of days, would surely have slipped by unnoticed.

Here, then, are the developments that have occurred in the past two months to my almost-nineteen-month-old daughter.

Communication

Izzie still can’t talk, but that’s okay, because she communicates just fine. By which I mean she points at things she wants and then grunts, nods emphatically if we pick it up, or shakes her head and screams if we fail to understand.

Which reveals a mistake that we, as first time parents, have made with our daughter – responding to her non-verbal communication. Don’t do this. It is bad.

When she first started her snippets of words and what have you, she seemed to be coming on quite well; then we started understanding her, and she suddenly stopped advancing, because who needs to talk when you can just point and grunt? So now when she asks for things we have to feign ignorance, which makes her incredibly stroppy because we hitherto understood her, but it must be endured if we want a human daughter who communicates in full sentences, and not a pet monkey.

Speaking of which, her monkey impression is great: oo-oo ah-ah. And she’s got a whole other bunch too: baa (sheep), oof oof (dog), guck guck (chicken), gack gack (duck), choo choo (train), oooo (Frankie Howerd or possibly a cow), sssss (snake, though I have no idea where she learnt that from), and ‘Ummm,’ which is her impression of a teenager and the sound she makes every time you ask her a question. At least, I hope it’s an impression and it’s not that she really is that indecisive!

To be fair, though, while she doesn’t have a broad vocabulary, she understands freaking everything. She knows all the who’s, what’s, where’s and why’s of everything you say. Over there, the other one, not on your head, where’s your bellybutton, no that’s my bellybutton, sit down, stand up, if you splash me again there’ll be trouble, get out the way of the telly, shut up and go to sleep, put the knife down, let go of my leg, stop feeding your breakfast to the dog, what happened to my youth, oh God I’m old, and the like.

In fact, what I’ve noticed is that while she understands most things, she doesn’t seem to understand negatives. For example, she understands ‘eat it’ but doesn’t understand ‘don’t eat it,’ and while she seems to grasp ‘sit on the floor’ she doesn’t understands ‘don’t sit on the floor.’ So instead of saying ‘don’t touch the plug socket’, which invariably results in her touching the plug socket, you have to distract her instead by saying something like ‘go get your crayons, we’ll do a drawing’.

And nor does she understand it if you say ‘no’: she just shakes her head and laughs and does it anyway.

At least, I hope these last few examples are because she doesn’t understand it, and not because we’re raising a right little bastard…

 

Mobility

I’ve been taking Izzie to soft play. I was brought up to believe in hell. I have found it.

Over the past two months her mobility has come on leaps and bounds, pun entirely intended. All day she runs and jumps and falls and bounces off every surface imaginable. She has inherited her mother’s total indifference to danger, and it seems that the higher the object, the more determined she is to throw herself off it.

Her favourite pastime at the moment is crawling under the dining table, dragging herself up onto a dining chair, then clambering onto the back of the sofa. Perching there a moment, she checks to make sure you’re watching, then does a forward roll/somersault onto the seat cushions and bounces onto the floor with a thud, whereupon she pulls herself to her feet, gives herself a round of applause, and then repeats the whole terrifying stunt.

The self-congratulation appears to be an important part of the whole process. I think it comes from swimming – she’s been taught to stand on the side of the pool and then, ‘One, two, three, go!’ and jump in, after which we praise her. If I’m helping her down the stairs, every so often she stands, says ‘Doo, doo, doo, oi!’ and then leaps into space. She does the same from the coffee table. She even does it standing on books, all of 5mm from the carpet: ‘doo, doo, doo, oi,’ jump, clap, repeat. Half the time, it’s really cute and entertaining; half the time it scares the bejesus out of me!

A slightly safer pastime is her newfound love of dancing. She always enjoyed gyrating to music, but now she’s turned it into an art form. We discovered this in December while watching a film scarier than any horror. I don’t normally mind kiddie movies, but this one is painful. In TV, the moment a show exceeds the point of ridiculousness, it is called ‘jumping the shark’, after a diabolical scene in Happy Days. Having now seen the abomination that is Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! I would like to suggest a new term: ‘lowering the donkey’ – the point in a movie at which you realise it truly is an irredeemable piece of crap and you are wasting your life watching it.

Needless to say, Izzie loves it.

For the duration of the songs, she laughs and skips and dances and claps, and points at you to join in, and shouts at you if you don’t. Then, when it’s over, she wants you to rewind it so she can dance all over again. If you dare to turn it off, ouch, you’re in for a tantrum.

Don’t put it on, I hear you cry. Well, every day she points at the TV, points at you, points at the TV, starts to dance, points at you again, and then goes up and starts tapping the TV screen – come on, where the hell is my movie? I have nightmares I’m going to be watching this awful tripe until October, when it’ll be on again.

So we’re channelling all this talent and energy into ballet. One lesson and she’s learnt ‘tippee-toes’, so prances around the lounge all day waving her arms with better balance than I have.

And when bedtime approaches, the craziness increases. You can always tell when five pm arrives because Izzie starts to rotate on the spot, giggling and wobbling, until she cascades into the furniture or face plants into the floor. After twenty minutes of spinning she then charges the sofas, throwing herself face first into one, shaking her head to clear it, then charging at the other, like a turbo-charged, pint-sized pinball. I sometimes wonder if there’s not a little insanity mixed in there somewhere.

Which might explain the intensity of her tantrums…

(Cont’d…)

 

Failure and success in writing

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that the frequency of posts has dropped off lately. For this I must apologise and explain.

In my core I am a writer. Ever since I was a child, four or five years old, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I always said I’d write a book one day, and then when I was eight I wondered what the hell I was waiting for and started. The result was Mystery of the Samurai Kidnapper. Needless to say, it sucked, but I was hooked.

I wrote all kinds of stories and read everything I could – action, adventure, crime, horror, science-fiction, war. When I was sixteen I began writing seriously, and at eighteen started sending samples to magazines and agents and publishers.

Skip forward eighteen years and I’ve written nine books, several scripts and dozens of short stories – over two million words of creative writing. I’ve come close a few times – I had a call from Ian McEwan’s agent once to discuss my novel The Butterfly Collection, and nearly nabbed an agent from Blake Friedmann for Beyond Wild, only to fall at the final hurdle – but other than a few short stories, I’ve been remarkably unsuccessful at getting into print. It goes with the territory.

But earlier this year I felt I was on a roll. I entered twelve writing competitions. Normally I just take a punt, but these were twelve of the best best things I’ve ever written – I actually thought that this time I had a shot.

Some were for short stories, some for the first 5000 or 10,000 words of a novel. I worked like a dog, polished them to perfection, then waited with bated breath. I hoped to win, but I knew I’d be happy just to be short-listed in one of them. It would make all the years of sacrifice worthwhile.

Over the past few months, the competition results trickled in, one at a time. And with each one, my hope and joy gave way to bitter disappointment. I didn’t win any. I wasn’t short-listed for any. I wasn’t even long-listed for any. It might sound like sour grapes, but that last rejection in early July crushed me.

Rejection is part of being a writer, and you have to be resilient. To put it into perspective, JK Rowling recently spoke of her pain at having Harry Potter rejected twelve times. When that last competition declared, it brought my rejection count up to 327.

As a father, I have to act happy for my child. I have to make out like everything’s fine and dandy and be the same as I always am. So I did. But inside, I was broken. It took all my focus and energy to hide it. The last thing I wanted to do was write this blog.

So I sat, and I festered, and I wondered if I would ever bother to write again.

But, to quote a cliche, it is always darkest before the dawn.

I’ve been awarded a publishing contract! It’s for a book I’ve written on living with autism, provisionally entitled An Adult With Asperger’s: A Guide for the Newly-Diagnosed. It’s being published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be coming out in the spring, and so I’m working around the clock to get the final draft ready in time.

As you can imagine, my mood and my self-esteem have both improved no end. I’ll try to keep posting every week on this blog as normal and I’ll keep you posted on the book as more details emerge.

I guess the moral of this story is: never give up, because you never know what’s around the next corner.

Thanks for reading,

Gillan Drew, author (yay!).