One evening in November, two years ago, I gave a reading from a recent story in a bookshop in Belfast. It wasn’t a good story, but it felt an important one. Writing it, I had obsessed over balancing it exactly; 926 words, as it worked out, in each half. The story needed to balance because that was how I felt: I’d reached one of life’s fulcrums, and couldn’t yet tell which way things would tip.
That autumn I’d had two miscarriages; then a play, my long-dreamed of version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, slaughtered by the Belfast critics. I felt I might never write, or indeed create anything, ever again.
I stood at the front of that bookshop and talked about feeling at a crossroads. In just over a fortnight, I would (officially, implausibly) be already four weeks pregnant.
To be hollowed out; to be replenished.
For almost all of my writing life, when explaining to students, others, how creativity works, at least for me, I have used the image of a well. You drain your resources and then somehow have to believe that slowly, the well will fill again. You may not notice the slow seep of it; the moment when the groundwater’s ebb becomes flow. But it does happen; drop by mysterious, precious drop.
I’d had a surge of creativity after the birth of my son, two years earlier. He’d been very ill shortly after birth, and for some weeks we hadn’t known if he would survive. That experience unlocked or unleashed something deep within me: I felt emboldened, I felt fearless. I didn’t care what people thought of my work. I suddenly felt, as never before, the imperative to do it. I’d written, in the space of a year, what I considered my best work to date: my short story collection, Multitudes, about life in 90s Belfast, and a life lived between Belfast and London since; and my adaptation of Three Sisters, set also in 90s Belfast. They came from the same time, the same place, in so many ways; they felt like sister-works.
I’d written them furiously, in whatever scraps of time I had; my son’s nap-times, evenings, the two sacrosanct writing mornings which were all I had in a city where we couldn’t – still can’t – afford childcare.
I’d ridden the crest of that wave, and crashed in exhaustion on some far shore, with no idea what to do next.
And it was more than the usual sort of depletion. I knew I’d used up everything I had to say about Belfast, and my life there, but I didn’t know how to move on, or whatever to write about again. Maybe I’d written the story to explain this to myself, or to psychically work it out; to nudge things on, or force them one way or the other; at least that’s what I think now. It hadn’t worked, and I stood there, ashamed of the story, fraudulent, unable to articulate any of it.
Halfway through the reading, I gave up on my story, and read someone else’s, better, words, instead.
There is a poem I love by Louis MacNeice called “Star-Gazer”. In it, he remembers a starry night from his boyhood, forty-two years ago, and how he darted from side to side of a railway carriage trying to see all of the stars. He remembers marvelling then at the fact that the light he was seeing had left them “long years before I was”; now, he thinks that the light that was leaving them then, forty-two years ago, “will never arrive / In time for me to catch it.” I have been thinking of it as I write this.
Six months pregnant with my son, I’d had dinner with Lennie Goodings, the legendary Virago Books publisher. We talked about Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, first published by Virago in 1938 and lately reissued by Persephone. It was one of the few novels I’d read about motherhood and we talked about this, too; wondered at the paucity of fiction about motherhood.
Write us some new stories, Lennie said, and I demurred and laughed, gestured at my bump. I have to get through this bit first I think, I said.
It is a peculiar state, the passive-receptive phase. I love the wide casting-of-nets at the start of a project, where you can read with abandon, everything and anything that might be of use, and have licence to go places, talk to people, with no obligations but the vague notion of “research”. I love the feeling when something starts to take shape, and you’re carried along on the currents of it. Most intoxicating of all is the brief phase which can come towards the end of a project, a sort of terminal velocity, where you seem weightless: the words come easily, inevitably, and everything makes a perfect sense. You have to be careful what you read, watch, listen to, where you go, in this phase, because everything seems relevant, has a tendency to seep in. It is the opposite of the passive-receptive state, where your instincts seem to hibernate. And there’s nothing you can do, beyond just simply trying to be – be kind to yourself, be trusting, that deep down, things are resting, or settling, or accumulating; preparing for something new.
I had my tarot cards read recently by a writer-friend, who is also an art historian. One card that came up repeatedly was La Temperanza. The tarot card of Temperance, she told me, as depicted in the Rider-Waite deck, shows a winged angel-figure, one foot on a rock, the other in a stream, pouring water calmly between two golden cups. The angel represents the importance of balance, moderation, patience, control. In some modern tarot decks, the card is called Art. She is not the devastation of being struck by lightning, or the raptures of the Lovers; she’s not even the playfulness of the Fool. She’s the virtue of staying grounded, of not rushing, not hurtling; of equilibrium. She’s the opposite of everything that I thought that “art” was supposed to be, until I had children.
The burst of creativity I had after my son was born feels now like a last hurrah – the intensity, the urgency of it. The afterimage of something flaring bright on the retina just as it is lost: of something suddenly apprehended, or finally understood.
With two small children, work is much more plodding, much more mundane. When my designated writing hours are up, that’s it: there’s not going to be any more time until the following week. I’ve had to learn patience, and to trust the value of incubation; that my subconscious will keep whatever I’m working on alive. But when my publishers asked recently to contract a second collection of stories from me, I was surprised to realise I’d finished half a dozen. The stories are a departure from anything I’ve written before, in setting and in style. They are almost all about motherhood. Those precious mornings filled with new sentences, new stories, not in any great rush, but drop by drop by drop.
As I write this, that night in the bookshop in Belfast is two years ago to the day. My daughter is 15 months old, my play had a triumphant production by a Chekhov specialist company in the USA this summer, and just yesterday I signed the new deal. The seasons, the cycle, the cosmic dance.
I didn’t know, that evening, what I would do or write next. The seeds of everything were already there.