There is a constant effort to secure writing time in my life, and, no doubt, in virtually every writer’s life. Last year, when I was pregnant with my first child, some mothers would gaze wryly at my bump and, along with the Oh-you’ve-it-all-ahead-of-you-style platitudes, tell me I’d have no time to read a book, never mind write one when the baby came. The notion of being trapped in a book-less world for the next decade frightened me so I fought that prediction tooth and nail. Yes, I’ve had to prioritise writing over sleeping, over physical fitness, over TV binge-watching, but it was worth it to keep a semblance of my former self in a time when that seemed under threat.
I wrote my first book several years ago, having never published a short story before. It was something I’d wanted to do, to be able to tell myself I’d done, like running a marathon. I was giddy writing it; I found pure pleasure in taking on the persona of a very eccentric character and describing her world. My debut novel, Eggshells, is about a socially isolated woman called Vivian who walks the streets of Dublin searching for meaning and belonging, taking notes of street-signs with letters missing and place-names that might hold a deeper significance and help her find a way home. Vivian returns home after each of her walks and plots her routes on a map, tracing them onto greaseproof paper. Researching the novel involved lots of walking and note-taking and map-drawing. I had more free time then. I had no children, and I had recently been laid off from my job when I walked Vivian’s walks and took notes of street-signs and place-names that would interest her. After a year of job hunting I found work and was working full-time when I finally wrote my notes up as a novel but hours were easy got, snatched before work and after work and days off and weekends.
A few years on, I tried to finish my second novel while I was pregnant, but life conspired against me: daily vomiting, an early-morning cleaning job in a university, doing all the feature writing and media work necessary to promote my book in America, getting work done at home and trying to paint every wall in the house before the baby came. Writing couldn’t compete with those practical concerns. Then came the baby and maternity leave from work in which I found myself writing notes and snippets and various bits and pieces that I couldn’t even begin to collect as a cohesive whole, but which made me feel part of the writing world again.
After maternity leave I went back to my job as a cleaner in a beautiful old building in the university. I was quite happy to have colleagues again, people to chat with about the weather and other ordinary things. Also, the physical nature of the work appeals to me—there is great satisfaction to be had in making a dirty surface clean again and getting paid for it. When I write, I never know when I’m finished, when I should stop tweaking and honing my words, but when I clean, the endpoint is clear.
However, a 4.45am wake-up after getting up multiple times a night to comfort a sleepless baby was not conducive to the major restructuring my novel required at this point; snatched hours here and there with a very tired brain were just not enough. And then, I struck literary gold in the form of a burst appendix. I had surgery and a cert for a month off work (a physically demanding job is best avoided after abdominal surgery). I couldn’t lift the baby so full-time childcare was required. And this meant…a month of full days which I could fill as I pleased. I felt rough, physically rundown, bad about taking a month off work so soon after I was back from maternity leave, bad about not being able to lift a baby who only wanted to be lifted, and so I made a very conscious decision to turn a tough time into a productive time.
That month broke the back of the second novel. I worked and worked and worked on the novel and by the end of the month, got it to a workable state. Still nowhere near finished, but I knew what needed to be done now. Since then I’ve been chipping away at it, distracted by various life events and holidays and other nice things, but for the most part, I make time for writing. I’m finished my cleaning job by 9.30am. Three mornings a week, I have some hours to write before I collect my child from crèche, and those two and a half hours have to be used productively, otherwise what’s the point? I used to fritter away writing time on emails and find myself down internet labyrinths; now I write without WiFi and try to make it count. I write in libraries or cafes because writing at home is too fraught with domestic duties; I struggle to ignore the piles of clothes to be washed, the rooms to be hoovered, the meals to be cooked. I prefer the background noise of strangers chatting and coffee machines hissing to the silence of an empty home.
My writing routine doesn’t always work. There are days when I can’t see solutions to problems in the novel, days when I wonder if it’s any good or if there’s any point, days when I’m barely able to focus on the screen for tiredness, but for the most part, I think of the large sum from my paycheque spent buying crèche hours so I can write, and that’s enough to spur me on. But, before I sound like I have this thing sorted and figured out and boxed up nicely with a bow on top, life is set to change again. I’m expecting my second child, which, all going well, will mean another round of sleepless nights and even greater efforts to find writing time. Financially, I will be working for minus sums of money if I pay for childcare for two children a few mornings a week, so I hope I can maintain the confidence required to make writing a priority. My current routine will be shaken up before it settles back into the next wave of juggling and muddling through. Whatever happens with work and childcare though, the writing will find its own hours; if the words are there, they will push through.