What does ‘being in the middle’ mean to you?

A few weeks ago I was asked what being in the middle meant, and I replied, ‘mundane.’ If you’re in the middle you’re either winning nor losing. The middle is neither success or failure. Neither happy or sad. Being in the middle is nothing, right?

I went to a one to one Pilates class this week as I’ve been struggling with my core and pain in my left hip that I’m seeing a physiotherapist for. During the hour I learnt more about my personality than my body, although I did also find out that, unsurprisingly after three children, I don’t have much of an actual strong or stable core. My instructor said she could clearly see that I don’t do things by halves. She asked me if I’m an all or nothing kind of girl and I didn’t realise until I had to answer that question that I undoubtedly am. First, she asked me to move my knee in and out as I was lying on my back, and instead of taking it slowly I moved my knee far too much and far too fast. Again, I didn’t wait in the middle to analyse stuff and see how I was doing and what I was feeling. The move was completed with gusto and efficiency. In. out. Done.

And when I got to thinking I realised that this pretty much sums up how I live my life. I go from zero to immediate fight or flight behaviour. I am in a constant state of flux, never stopping in the middle to just, dare I say it, ‘be.’ And it’s the same with my writing, I love the early creative bursts where the story is unfolding and I’m discovering new things about my characters and their motivations. And then when it’s done I want it published and I want it published now. I want it to be good enough already. I don’t mind admitting that I struggle with that middle part, the editing, the slow and steady unpicking of what’s going on, the close observations and discoveries. I’m too impatient. The end goal, the success, is always what I’m chasing. I’m not sure why the middle part of everything fills me with such dread. It’s not that scary. Editing can be enlightening. It can perfect an almost perfect sentence, or chapter, or story arc. It’s what makes the whole thing so much better.

Yet every time I get feedback and know I have to do the inevitable next edit and start another draft I have a couple of days of frustration. I’m annoyed that I’m still not at that desirable end goal. And then I start thinking and mulling the feedback over and something magical happens. Every single time I somehow find a new enthusiasm for my work-in-progress and I have new ideas and I get stuck in. Every single time I say, ‘this is the last draft, if it’s not good enough now I give up,’ but I never do. And why? Because I can’t. Because I’m not at the end yet and like it or not I have to endure the tortuous middle part if I ever want to get there.

And so I’m sat here somewhere between lunch and dinner, writing this blog post and I’m thinking about what I can do to help me enjoy ‘the middle’ more. Because the middle is important, especially in a novel or short story. The middle is where stuff happens, good and bad. (Think Gone Girl.) It’s where decisions are made, secrets are revealed, characters fall apart, a twist is revealed. It’s where the pace can ramp up or slow down. It’s where the action happens. It’s where you can be pulled away from being all or nothing and where you’re so invested in it you have to see it through.

Being a writer isn’t just about writing. In the early days it’s also about learning what kind of writer you are. I met with the lovely Emily Koch recently whilst in the middle of submitting my novel to my editor and waiting for her feedback. She had some wonderful words of wisdom, as she always does, and told me to remember how much I love writing. Because whether I succeed or not, whether I am published or not, whether I win awards or not, I write because I love writing. Because – like so many other writers – I can’t not write.  I don’t just write for success and notoriety, I write because it would be impossible for me not to.

And maybe this current middle bit where I’m waiting for a response isn’t so bad after all. At least it’s not another rejection, right?

Writing and prams in hallways.

There’s been a lot of talk recently on social media and in newspaper articles about prams in hallways and whether in order to be an effective writer you need time away from your children and familial responsibilities, think Doris Lessing. And then there’s the ongoing gender pay gap debate, talk of glass ceilings and the fact that having a baby quite often fucks your career up. It’s all age old stuff.

But, age old or not, it affects women today, and after seeing an interesting thread/discussion on Twitter about writing and motherhood earlier it got me thinking. Mainly about me and my writing and whether having those three prams in the hallway over the last seventeen years have stopped me succeeding in my chosen careers. And whether those children have been a hindrance to my creativity, or whether they have enhanced it.

Before I became a writer, in the formal sense for I’ve always been a writer, I was once a primary school teacher. And I was once promoted on to the senior leadership team whilst on maternity leave. I was also once humiliated during a senior leadership training day, where the boss (male) held his hand up to my face after I’d challenged him on something, and then told the course facilitator that I’d just come back from maternity leave and didn’t know what I was talking about. I did. During this time, whilst I was working part-time as a teacher, I wrote a blog, and some short stories. Sometimes I scribbled away in the middle of a night full of insomnia, and sometimes at my desk when I should’ve been doing paperwork when I wasn’t teaching. My children didn’t stop me then, heck no, they gave me stuff to write about.

Several horrible months later, when I had the pram of my third child in the hallway, I embarked on my writing career. And whilst currently I’m not affected by the gender pay gap as such, I am the one who works from home, the one who is always the first port of call when one of my children has a hospital appointment or is unwell or has a parents evening at school. My husband is usually home to put the children to bed, but he never has to compromise on his job. It always comes first. Always. He’s off snowboarding in a couple of weeks, for an entire week. When I asked him if I could go away for the same amount of time the answer was a resounding no. He wouldn’t be able to get the required time off work. And yes, I am ever so slightly annoyed by this. I don’t want to go away anywhere exotic, but a few days away to write uninterrupted would be blissful. I always manage to write, but when I am able to immerse myself in my novel for more than a few hours at a time it can be a game changer.

When I started taking writing seriously and started an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University is was a dark time. My middle child was seriously unwell and admitted to hospital for three weeks for many, many investigations. But I didn’t take any time off. I didn’t defer any of my assignments. I wrote. Again I wrote in the middle of the night whilst he was having his cannula changed, or during the day when the wonderful hospital physiotherapists came and pummeled his lungs. Then, when he was in theatre for over six hours having his permanently damaged lung removed I didn’t stop writing. It gave me something else to focus on and think about during one of the scariest few hours of my life.

That’s the amazing thing about writing; you can do it anywhere and at anytime. But that’s also the annoying thing about writing; you can never use it as an excuse for not coming home or for not attending your child’s Harvest festival. People think it’s a fluid and adaptable thing that you can pick and drop at will. But it is not. You have to work bloody hard to ensure that writing does not sit silently at the bottom of the importance pile (by the way, I am not saying that writing is more important than any child; just thought I’d better point that out.) You have to want to do it. It has to be an itch that you cannot bear to not scratch. Pram in the hallway or not.

And sometimes it’s hard to get someone to take writing seriously, especially when you’re not a published writer. They don’t get the process. How it takes months, maybe years to even get a first draft of a novel to a point where you can actually send it out to publishers. I am pretty sure my colleagues from my last primary school think I’ve failed as a writer because in the four years since I’ve left I’ve had nothing published. It doesn’t mean I’m not working my ass of every day. It doesn’t mean I’m not getting closer to that all important goal.

And every writer goes about that in different ways, whether they have children or not. Some writers love a retreat. I’m pretty sure I would if I was ever able to a) physically be able to get to one, see previous dig at snowboarding husband, and b) afford it.

There’s no right or wrong about that as far as I’m concerned. Children adapt and I’m a firm believer that the more people they have look after them the more loved they feel/adaptable they become. Childcare shouldn’t all be down to one person and one person alone, it certainly wasn’t when I was a single mum many years ago. But, I do not think you need to leave your children permanently in order to write, and I do think of the stories surrounding Doris Lessing doing so in order to write may not be the whole truth.

But one truth I’m dealing with is this, whilst a pram in the hallway doesn’t mean you can’t achieve, it does mean that you have to adapt your working ways in order to do so. It is not always the enemy of good art, in fact, it can mould art and force it to take an altogether different, but equally creative path, but it is something that needs to be considered. Things are changing, but the world is still, in my experience at least, geared towards the man and his role in the home coming first.

But I will continue to write and be successful and creative in spite of that. I can be a damn good mother and a shit hot writer.

And I am.