When I was a teenager, getting locked out of your head meant getting drunk. When I had a baby, I got locked out of my head on a more literal level. Such was the clamour, the level of constant panicky demands, I could no longer think. I barely had time to speak in full sentences, let alone write them.
It turns out I have a mind that needs writing. It needs to make sentences. Sentences iron life out on the page. I understand this now that I've had to live for several years without the freedom to write. I had to give up writing when I became a mother because childcare is so expensive in Ireland. Without the thinking and wondering and mental straining that goes with battling away at a novel, I have developed some form of cognitive disruption. I don't always understand the symbols when I look at the clock or, if I'm pulling out onto an empty road, I can't remember which side I have to drive on and, oh God, all the stuff I have lost, the amount of stuff that I have left behind on buses, on benches, on tables and chairs. So I now regard writing as something I must get back to. Either that, or remain locked out of my head for the rest of my life, which is not as much fun as it sounds.
The trick now is to get locked back into my head. I published four novels before I had a baby, one every three years. My baby was born in 2012. I haven't published since. Best case scenario, we're looking at 2021 for my fifth novel. Next year will be better for my writing life as the school day will go up to five hours and forty minutes, 183 days a year. The primary requirement for me for writing is to be alone. I have always written. Since learning to write, it has been a compulsion. I wrote my first story when I was maybe seven. It was about a child entering a haunted house, that is, it was about mystery and fear. Writing is how I get by in a world that I find confusing and alluring in equal measure. By structuring the world into sentences which reflect that confusion and allure, I feel – in my own head at least – that I am keeping my head above water, that I am living. When I'm not writing, when there is no response to the world on the page, I feel I am just treading water.
I used to keep a diary. Technically, I still do, but the entries have gone from being daily to maybe one every six weeks. The only entry for last June was “I'm enjoying the bit I'm working on – getting lots out of it. She's walking on the beach.” It made me sad because now it's November and I'm still on the same section. It's eight pages long, but I couldn't write all summer because I was teaching and my son was off school, then we moved house and, now that my son is back at school, I find it almost comical, the unavoidable obstacles that crop up on an almost daily basis to keep me from the page – my son is sick, one of my parents is sick, the dog is sick, I'm sick, the school is shut, I've to write a piece like this instead of returning to my narrator where I left her five months ago still walking on the beach in the middle of the night with her teething baby as she chases a wraith. The section is called Death of a Girl.
There is no such thing as a wasted emotion, a friend once told me, and the difficult emotions are the ones that fuel the endeavour, the ones that are messy and painful and inconclusive. My novels look quite structured on the page but they all delve into chaos. Although I don't have the mind for it, I am drawn to physics. Physics uses precise scientific language to describe the world in terms of phenomena that I can't quite get my head around. I like to employ the terminology of physics. I've done it in all the novels but particularly in Tenderwire, a novel about a violin, because music and physics are both mathematical and operate on wavelengths that are difficult to adequately explain. A definition I am particularly drawn to, and which I will misquote here, is that chaos is what existed before matter. I regard myself as descending into chaos when I write, and trying to fashion matter out of it. I am frightened of chaos (the blank page, the messy emotions) but feel I have to descend into it, otherwise I am giving in. Without writing, I am not living. Without that mental calibration, I am going to pull out on the wrong side of the road and crash the car.