Thursday 30 July 2009

The Enemies of Writing

For the last session with my writing mentor, after having finished a whole novel under her care, I was asked to write a list of ten enemies and ten allies of my writing.

I found it very difficult to name ten enemies because an enemy is somebody who wishes you harm, or a thing that is bad for you. However, it is perfectly possible to be an enemy of Fatima, the writer, while at the same time being the beloved of Fatima, the wife or mother.

After compiling the list and looking through it, it turned out that most of the enemies were given power by none other than myself. In a sense, I am the worst enemy of my writing.

Why have I come back to that list now? I have just finished a novel and although I may not be ready to start writing another one I am ready to start researching another one. My next novel is going to be a historical novel, God willing, and the sooner I start the research the sooner I will be ready to write it. Yet making time for research is no different from making time for writing. The same enemies are attempting to hinder serious work. I shall be listing them here now in the hope that looking at them with the eye of reason will take away their power and give me back the time and discipline for writing.

I am at heart an intuitive and spontaneous person who likes to be busy and active but prefers doing things in her own time and according to her own rhythm. This worked very well for me while I was single and a student. Everything changed when I got married and had children. I had to function according to the rhythms of others, and I had to plan certain activities in advance. When you have got three children under four you better go shopping when there is still some food in the house, not the moment they are hungry and you realise that the fridge is empty. Shopping, cooking, washing, going for walks, everything was now planned. I started to make lists because I felt overwhelmed with all the responsibilities. From domestic chores to doctors’ appointments, classes for the children, exercise for me, my part-time work, guests, everything and everyone was put on my lists. These lists have been with me for about twenty years now, and although the children are grown-up and can buy their own food if the fridge is empty, I still write the lists and I still want to tick everything off before I go into my office. Of course by the time I have ticked everything off I am either too exhausted to focus on creative work, or there isn’t enough time left of the day to get started. Because after my lists the next enemy of writing is the idea that it is not worth starting unless I have at least three to four hours uninterrupted time. How many days a week do I have this long empty stretch of time in my day planner? Hardly ever. I have been back from my annual holiday in Austria for over three weeks now and I had two or three magical days like that. I had a week of catching up on housework, a week of guests, and lots of other minor interruptions. This is quite usual for me and I will have to learn to accommodate these events into a writing routine. Guests must learn not to expect constant attention from me. Most of my guests invite themselves, because we have space in our home, we are near airports and near London, and I hope they also like our company. What they don’t do is ask whether the time of their visit is convenient. As they don’t ask they should not expect to be treated like special guests. I know that they would not mind if I disappeared into my office for a few hours a day but I find it difficult to do. It seems rude to me. Yet my husband will disappear for the whole day without feeling guilty. His activities are called work. That excuses everything. When necessary I shall have to call my writing work too. This is the only way forward.

Not only do I need uninterrupted time of a few hours, I also can’t focus and concentrate on my writing when other people are in the house. Most of my writing in the past got done when my children were at school and my husband at work. Two years ago my husband moved his main office into our home. He is at home a lot these days. His physical presence makes me aware of his rhythm, when he wants lunch for example. It just seems too mean to make myself a nutritious salad and not share it with him. Or to ignore his comment, ‘I’m going out at 1.30,’ which translates as ‘I would love lunch before that’. Don’t get me wrong, my husband is no tyrant. If I don’t leave my office before 1.30 he’ll make himself a quick sandwich, even bring me a cup of coffee, before disappearing. I alone am to blame for interrupting my writing to have lunch with him.

The same need for quiet and solitude prevents me from writing when workmen are in the house. In a big old house like ours they seem to be permanently stationed here. No sooner had we painted the windows this summer, damp problems appeared in the loft. A bathroom needs redecorating, and so on. Two to three months without workmen are the most I can ever expect it seems. Again, the workmen will not enter my little office. They only interrupt very occasionally to ask a question. My husband has learned that I will not communicate with the workmen; that is his job. All I have to do is to ignore the noises and get on with my writing.

Having a big house to look after, and an obsession with healthy home-cooked food adds another pressure on my time. I never had a cleaner while the children were young, for the main reason that I believe everybody should clear away their own mess. This was no major problem while my mother-in-law, who lived with us, was alive and looked after her half of the house, and later when my children were old enough to help with the weekly clean on Saturday mornings. Now my daughters are at university and my son works full-time, we have added my late mother-in-law’s half to ours, and I am left in sole charge of cleaning. Maybe it is time to change my mind on this topic. Maybe all these cards put through my letterbox, of Polish women looking for cleaning jobs, are a sign that having a cleaner does not necessarily mean that I am selfish and exploitative. Maybe these women would rather clean my house than go back to Poland where work is even more difficult to find. I could see myself letting go of the cleaning, handing it over to somebody else, but never of the home-cooking. This is non-negotiable. I like freshly made food, from healthy ingredients, and as my husband jokes, my repertoire includes only dishes with a preparation time of less than twenty minutes. Surely these twenty minutes will not hamper my writing.

Likewise I don’t feel like giving up my charity work. It may take up two half days a week but since the death of both my mother-in-law and my mother I have hardly any contact with people older than myself, apart from seeing my father and aunt and uncle when I am on holiday in Austria. Working for Age Concern keeps me in touch with the outside world and the world of the generation above me.

After listing all my writing enemies it is only fair to acknowledge that the list of my writing allies is longer than the list of enemies, and that I am thankful that I have all this support in my life. I am helped by prayer, by long walks, by yoga, by my husband’s and son’s patience when I ask them to solve my computer problems, by my women writers’ group, my freedom to go on retreats and to travel, by having my own little office, by all the other writers whose books I read, by the cups of coffee my husband serves me (his espresso is the best!) and last but not least by my husband’s financial support. As a Muslim he considers it his obligation to look after the financial needs of the family, and never once has he made me feel self-indulgent for having opted for the life of a writer. Surely this army of helpers should be proof to me that the enemies of my writing have no chance. I will not let them stop me writing.

1 comment:

Yafiah said...

Salaam Fatima, I have just discovered your blog and enjoying reading about your writing life. I've also written a novel but done nothing towards getting it published as yet. I think it needs some editing first and at the moment I am mainly busy with academic writing and research for my PhD. Nevertheless the creaative voice is always there and I can relate to your problems of writing better in an empty house. When my children were young I used to write at night when they slept and I enjoyed the silence of the night too. I'll continue to follow your blog and will put it on my blogroll too.

Ya Hayy!