Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On Zadie

I don't have a lot in common with Zadie Smith. Zadie finished her university education while I am a drop-out who ran off to au pair in Paris. Zadie published her first novel to great acclaim while mine is still sitting in a cupboard, typed up on yellow paper and smelling of moldy house. Zadie has acquired a broad-based and supportive readership, some nitpicking detractors, and has won awards for her work, allowing her to build a career in teaching writing at a university level. She also writes delicate articles with a punch in reviews no less glorious than 'The New Yorker', dealing with issues dear to her heart. She is doubtless a hard worker with much talent, and has just published her fourth novel, already receiving glowing reviews.

Phew! Just taking a breath as there is so much to admire here.

And here's an even bigger difference. Zadie had her daughter in her thirties, while I started reproducing in my mid-twenties while I was a young diplomat's wife in Mogadishu, and then, ahem, continued my output over the next twelve years. Much has been said about having a career versus being a stay-at-home home. (Whose children are more intelligent and well-adjusted? Whose bunions are bigger?) But how does mothering affect creativity, that daunting endeavour?

In this week's 'Guardian' (which I feel less and less like reading for various reasons, not least of all the fact that they haven't reviewed my novel there!) I read an article accompanying a review of Zadie Smith's new novel 'NW', which struck a very familiar chord.

According to the newspaper, Smith said that 'motherhood had changed her in an extreme way', especially by nibbling away at her time and concentration. She says: 'I wasn't interested in 80-page chapters any more - I couldn't stay in that mindset for that period of time.'

And even more tellingly, she spoke about being shoved off the writing cliff into the freefall of childcare: '..there's no down time. I would stop writing and would have no chance to think about the book at all, nothing. Then in the morning, it was as if someone else had written it.'

Has anyone else ever felt this? After the school run, the escaped dog, the tipped-over rubbish, the maths homework lies, more washing, a missed train, stolen wallet, unpaid telephone bill, broken dishwater, nagging ex, unwatered plants, the odd fever... YOU THINK I CAN SIT DOWN AND WRITE ANYTHING MEANINGFUL NOW?

It's all about brain twisting, if you like. Gymnastics. Focusing. Not always easy, not ever easy.

What is interesting is that Smith then spins this brutal detachment into an advantage, saying that it also gives the writer essential distance, a crucial objectivity that is difficult to achieve when one is bathed in the work.

I do like this one. I am clinging to it.

* * *

I have an interview about my publishing experience up with Brit Writers!
www.britwriters.com

22 comments:

  1. Thank God for multi-taskers,Catherine? I have loads of time...but it seems to vanish into the ether...like so many bubbles! Like most men I can think of only one thing at a time...& fortunately,it's...well,if only it was as simple as that! Cheers for now!

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    1. Thanks Anonymous! I think multi-tasking is only what I pretend to do. Meaning, I have loads of things of my plate and do some, forget many, while usually doing one thing at a time with shifting concentration. Sometimes I do wish I could clear the deck! ciao cat

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  2. Love the blog post title, Cat.

    "Zadie has acquired a broad-based and supportive readership"

    As have you, my friend, as have you.

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    1. Oh dear Downith thank you!

      I do hope work is going well and the school holidays are... finished??

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  3. I certainly can imagine but cannot relate to motherhood at any age - currently 42 and yet to 'grow up' !
    Loving the new tag line BTW !

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    1. Ingrid, thank YOU for egging me on with the tag line! It's really my desktop's fault. She is so tetchy...

      And as for motherhood - I don't think we are all designed for it. And though I realise there are many reasons for starting late, the magazines forget to tell us that kids are in the house for 20 years, and in and out of your thoughts for most of that and beyond! That means you are never really alone again!

      I have quite a few friends who are loving, accomplished 'aunties' who have no wish to change nappies. I totally understand that!!

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    2. You're welcome on the tag line - sometimes the smallest things are the hardest to change!
      I love being an Aunty - and yes who wants to have kids still at home when one wants to retire ;) !!

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    3. Agreed! Today school starts in Italy and I realise I have ONLY ONE CHILD STILL GOING TO SCHOOL. That means - Cat calculates - I've been a school mum for eighteen years! (Arrigo is 23, he started school in Ghana at 5). That is what I mean - motherhood is crazily long! It's not just the image-of-you in a nappy, it's school reports and cheek and bus timetables and lost phones...

      I'm all for Aunties!

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  4. Sometimes I think it's exactly that ability to compartmentalize I developed while parenting/working outside the home/ etc. that allows me to write.

    And then I think about money and commuting and I'm paralyzed. Damn it.

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    1. I think I'm great at compartmentalising, but you should see my house... And when I have the money monkey on my shoulder, I'm useless, sleepless and cranky. About as far from any form of creativity as I am from EL James royalty cheques right now !

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  5. Oh my word, I just wrote the longest response and lost it !!! Aaaaaaaaah!

    The gist of which was that I recently read an interview with Jane Smiley, where she said her writing, though more limited by time and energy after children, became much richer than she'd ever imagined.

    Yet one of my writer friends, one lauded and courted by the New York literati as a young woman after some New Yorker stories and one collection, seems to have completely disappeared after having her children. She's been working on her first novel for, ahem, 12 years with no end in sight.

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    1. Dammit! I hate it when my text gets eaten up.

      I agree, child-rearing has this beautiful outcome of enriching your writing - when your brain is available. I really feel for your writer friend. Motherhood can be isolating and undermining and I have also taken so long to be able to organise a presentable piece of work. It's hard enough to carve out a valid writing identity and take yourself seriously - without the patter of little feet and the hammer of dubstep music!

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  6. Oh, sigh! I am afraid I can make no comment more meaningful than that, especially after a summer holiday that has not gone according to creative plan at all...

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    1. I know the feeling. Creative plans often seem to slide.. My summers used to be endless days of heat waves and insects and kids fighting. Writing? Nearly impossible. Concentration? At best, 30 minutes... and then the guilt crept in because they were watching even more television.

      Thanks for dropping by. Ciao cat

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  7. Mommy mushbrain does not disappear as the kids get older and start to leave the nest. I've only got one at home and he's an easy keeper, but still I find it hard to marshal the mental forces to a task. I have to break the work down into tiny little pieces: Today I'm going to write a description of the house, tomorrow I'll lay down some dialogue. Small bites.

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    1. Yeah I have one at home full-time, and the others are grazers. They really take the cake. Sometimes I look back to the days they were all at school, coming down the drive at 5pm. A luscious day of working. I'm pretty piecemeal too at the moment. Plus book promotion eats into you and there is always something to be done/revised/proposed. I have another big push with Book 2 and therefore no clean new writing time ahead anytime soon. Good luck with your small bites!

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  8. Having yesterday's words seem like they were written by someone else would perhaps make editing easier, for a bit at least? I like that perspective, or perhaps even just the perspective of always trying to frame our life situations in the most positive light.

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    1. My dearest wandering Hannah,
      Yes I also think it is the best way to become a frenemy of your work! The morning after... Ahh ! Everything tends to make sense.
      Well not everything.
      Xx

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  9. Agree agree agree... Motherhood changed me cataclysmically, irrevocably and for the better - but the little b*stards don't half screw up your teenaged plans for a writing life.
    I popped the first at 23 yrs and the fifth at 36. I am 45 - and the years have not been kind to my adolescent dreams of winning the Booker Prize (and the Nobel and being Poet Laureate and....). Wains f* you up - never mind your Mum and Dad.
    I reckon that by the time I've got the time and energy to finish the novel I'll have forgotten I started it.
    Liking this blog - I feel blessed you left your calling card with me. And very very liking your style - fluid, effortless, funny, insightful (and that's just for starters).

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    1. Thank you for the lovely warm compliments and for stopping by! Me too first at 25 and fourth at 35. Not five though, how admirable! It's always a toss-up, isn't it? Them or me? Usually thoughts/responsibilities/worries of Them sabotage everything in any case.

      Do push ahead with the novel thing though.. It's just a thought. The kids will be out the door one day!

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