Read Regional: Book Baby – How to be a Writer and a Mother?

I submitted the final version of my manuscript of How Saints Die to my editor on 4th December 2016 and my little boy, Magnus, was born on the 12th. So I suppose he was always going to be a book-baby I just had no idea how that would work. Shortly after birth and a good while before I sussed babying, people started asking me “Will you still write?” This question can’t be answered. It’s not designed to be answered. It is a series of small fires in an old house. This question implies the following:

  1. You won’t have time to write with a baby because they are all consuming. Didn’t you know? Babies should be all consuming, if they’re not you’re not being a good enough mother.
  2. You won’t have time to write with a baby because writing is all consuming. Didn’t you know? Writing should be all consuming, if it’s not you’re not being a good enough writer.

Boom. Inferno of ‘not good enough’s! But the question I really needed to hear, the question I’m going to try to answer is “How to be a writer and a mother?” (In particular how to write with a baby.) Without the support of some fantastic people, but especially the lovely folk at New Writing North behind the Read Regional Campaign I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Lesson one in how to write and mum: don’t say no. When my baby was seven months old, just out of the ‘we can live in pyjamas and never leave the house, that’s fine’ stage, my publicist contacted me to tell me I’d been accepted onto New Writing North’s prestigious Read Regional campaign. A programme that connects writers to readers via events in libraries and local venues. A programme that might require me to leave the house in not-pyjamas. ‘Woohoo’ she said. I thought ‘Nonononono’. This should have been a moment of big celebration. But I couldn’t leave my flat in under two hours, but he was still feeding every two hours, but I was scared of poonamis in public, ‘but but buttery but’ went the Big-But of post-natal anxiety. If I said yes I’d let people down – New Writing North, the baby, the people who might come to see me. So I let the email simmer, talked to my partner, my friends who’d had kids – they described ways to do it that sounded crazy but maybe doable. But . . . I said yes, not knowing at this point how I was going to do it but I was buoyed up by a twitter pic of Amanda Palmer breastfeeding at a book signing.

The second lesson of how to write and mum is: baby can come too! The initial Read Regional event involved an induction where writers got to meet one another and librarians. Writers must attend this six-hour event. Magnus must breastfeed every two hours (as he hadn’t read the book that said he should be on solids by now). After about seventeen drafts of an email I finally just asked Will Mackie if I could bring my eight-month-old baby. A message pinged back straight away. ‘He’d be most welcome.’ He’d be welcome. Yay. This is how you do it. You ask – can baby come too!

In my head I carry a writer’s room, a messier, portable pop-up version of the thing Woolf had in mind when advising writers to get ‘a Room of One’s Own’, because even before my baby I didn’t have the luxury of a real room. I had to write on trains, buses, kitchen tables, cafes. The lesson here was much bigger than being able to take part, it was a shift in seeing that being a writer and a mother meant seeing that we were in it together now. I’d assumed that being a writer meant separating the mum and the writer part. This assumption is rooted in all sorts of messed up ideas about keeping notions of work and motherhood separate. To move from anxious to OK I just had to ditch the assumption and make a baby shaped place in my writer’s room for him. The room in my head, creaked and groaned, ‘Howell’s Moving Castle’ style, and grew a baby extension.

So how did it go? Here’s a bit from my diary from that day:

Today was an amazing day. We went to the Read Regional event in Newcastle. I was so nervous. I was scared of changing trains with the pushchair. Scared of changing his bum. On the way there a lovely train conductor helped us onto the first class carriage. Said we could sit anywhere we liked. Gave me some free water. Dangled keys to stop Magnus crying. Helped us off the train. That set up a positive “you can do this” vibe for the day. Magnus sat quietly through presentations at the Lit and Phil. During the break he got cuddles from other writers. When it came to my presentation he settled in the baby sling. He was quiet and cosy and nearly fell asleep towards the end of my reading. When he got restless I gave him a feed in the ante-room, from here I could still hear the other writers’ reading. Their words drifting in. The room had a stone floor, an ancient chair and from floor to ceiling huge books of bound leather. Gold lettering caught my eye – ‘Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft’. I’m listening to beautiful stories with my milk happy baby and I’m in Hogwarts for writers. Brilliant day. 

Lesson three in how to write and mum is in this extract: get a good baby sling.

Lesson four is: make a day of it. The best thing about Read Regional is getting to see my actual region and meet folk. I don’t know if writing was ever just about sitting at your hermeneutically sealed desk and writing but it certainly isn’t now. Writers need to go and meet readers, tell their stories and share craft. It’s part of the deal and can be fun. My first Read Regional event was delivering a workshop on Magical Realism in Beverley. I’d never been to Beverley before. After a thorough googling it was definitely a family day out sort of place. So the plan was that I’d deliver the workshop whilst baby and Daddy explored Beverley. I’d join them after for a little wander then home. We rarely get anywhere as a family because when my partner isn’t working he has Magnus whilst I do my work. It’s a ships-night-passing deal with wet wipes. So we had a wonderful family mooch on what seemed like the first sunny day of the year in early April. Beverley is an astonishingly beautiful place and this was a lovely treat.

Of course, I was there to work and this takes me to lesson five: enjoy the adult intellectual bit away from baby. The Beverley group were a strong group of intelligent, engaged and adept writers. We talked in depth about how in magical realist fiction it’s critical the real and imagined worlds must be deeply connected. We talked about paracosms – imagined worlds where trauma is resolved. They worked hard and shared well-crafted and moving work. We ate biscuits. It was delightful and stimulating, like an intellectual aroma-therapy massage. Afterwards, I joined Dad and baby and got slightly weed on whilst changing a nappy but that was cool. All of it – from paracosms to peepee, it was all was part of my new job mother-writer (not mother/writer).

After that it all went brilliantly. No. Wait. That’s a big lie. Lesson six: sometimes it will all go horribly wrong. Because babies’ needs change and grow – and because it just does. After the big Beverley trip my next gig was on home ground at Acklam library just twenty minutes up the road. The first evening gig so far. Easy. I’d do the event and Dad could put baby to bed. So off I went.

Acklam library is a brilliant example of a thriving community library: big windows, large kid’s section, welcoming librarians and a good biscuit selection. I was doing the reading with my fellow Read Regional author David Mark. All the seats were full. We talked about the wonders and perils of becoming a writer, starting with how our own libraries got us hooked on books. I saw lots of faces I knew. A former mentee even turned up with a hand-engraved How Saints Die cup. Whoop. The crowd were lovely and asked great questions. Two hours flew by. Towards the end I dared to feel happy. I checked my messages ‘Come home as soon as you can.’ Magnus didn’t settle. He cried non-stop for an hour. By the time I got home he’d cried himself into an exhausted sleep but he was still hiccuping with sobs. I pulled off my posh event dress, took my body to that quiet place mother’s go to calm their babies, laid him down on me and held him till the hiccups stopped and all through the night. Who did I think I was? Telling people all about how I wrote my book and leaving my baby like that? I was a shit mother. And that’s how it feels. Because just like Ellie learns in the book, you can’t win. But you can just keep going.

The next reading was another evening gig in Newcastle, in a pub. Leaving Magnus at home just wasn’t an option this time. So I emailed the Book Group organiser and asked if there were child friendly places nearby at 6.30pm. I was braced for judgement. Instead she told me the last author brought her toddler to the pub where they met, The Carriage, in Jesmond. Oh. The last author did it so it’s OK. Other mothers do what they need to do. Maybe I’m not a shit mother? Lesson seven: do what’s best for you and your baby. Magnus still needs me and he likes to meet people. He enjoyed meeting the lovely Jesmond Book Group so much they’ve made him an honorary member.

The reading went well. I read whilst my husband took Magnus for tea to a restaurant around the corner then came back to explore the pub. The group were so welcoming. They’d read the book deeply and asked thoughtful questions. We talked a great deal about interweaving folklore into a real story and the seed tales, like Selkie myths, that informed How Saints Die. We touched on Kate, her exile from Ireland because of getting pregnant, the Irish Referendum and the multi-generational impact of that kind of systematic control of women’s bodies. One member was reading How Saints Die whilst travelling back to Ireland to vote and said how important what she was doing felt. I got my brain-therapy massage. Magnus tottered in with Dad and played with a member’s dog under the table. It was the first time I’d been in a pub since before Magnus was born. It was Magnus’s first pub. And it was a proper pub with velvet, brass and heavy tables. I felt like I’d known this group before and was returning after a long journey. I’m still on that journey.

I’m learning that writing and mothering both have something really powerful in common. I’ll never be a writer or a mother. I’ll always be becoming a writer, becoming a mother – because with both arts it’s the making of the thing that shapes and changes you continuously. Whether that thing is a story or a baby, it’s a process of making it up as you go along and letting it make you back. Did you know that? No, neither did I.

I know I’m lucky to be a writer and a mother who has had help to be both. I’m not saying it’s easy. There were times I was up past midnight writing workshops on my phone with my thumb whilst feeding (and that’s still how I do the actual writing part of writer-ing). But there is a how to be a writer and a mother not an or. Just look at Maggie O’Farrell, Zadie Smith, Maggie Nelson, Holly McNish (the list really does go on). I’m very grateful to New Writing North for giving me the chance to learn how. I’m grateful to the venues and readers who took part, for their hard-work, intellectual stimulation and top quality biscuits. This has been an opportunity that I’ll never forget.

I’ve got one more reading to do with a book group in September. It’s a morning session on a Saturday near Whitley Bay. I’ve never been to Whitley Bay so I think we’ll make a day of it and hope for the best.

The gorgeous paperback edition of How Saints Die will be available to buy from 5th July. I’ll be celebrating in a paddling pool with the babba.

Find out more about Carmen Marcus’ debut novel, How Saints Diefeatured in Read Regional 2018.