SECOND PREGNANCY SYNDROME


I can only ever give you my experience of the thing. Just because I’ve done it twice doesn’t mean I am an authority. And that’s the thing about pregnancy, and parenthood itself. Yes, I can talk about it, empathise with it, have theories about it but I only know what it was like for me. Pregnancy is like a kind of club. But, much like a club for people who have, say, intentionally fallen down a staircase backwards, the club members can only ever share their particular personal experience, not eulogise on the thing itself. At least, they’d be foolish to.

So, here are some of my thoughts about it. Observational gripes based on my experience, my own special brand of hormonal lunacy.

My top five reflections on the second pregnancy:

1. People forget.
My best friend holds aloft a bottle of wine. Fancy one? Most definitely, I say. I most definitely fancy one. But apparently the thing I’m growing isn’t allowed it. I know, super-pants. Oh, Jesus, she exclaims. Sorry! I totally forgot.

Get used to people forgetting you’re pregnant, or forgetting to ask you how you are or how it’s going. There will be no baby shower (disclaimer, I’ve never had a baby shower and actually, it all seems like indulgent nonsense to me), and no one will drop round with beautifully ironed, teeny tiny  hand me downs, because they assume you have everything you need already. And because it’s just not that exciting second time around. Think about your own friends who had their second babies before you; did you call for a weekly check in and send them booties in the post? No, didn’t think so. Everyone forgave you those nine months (let’s make it eighteen) of party poopery last time. Doing it again is just anti-social. But, talking of which:

2. People assume you don’t know how boring you are.
Here’s the thing: I know. I agree. I’m nuts for doing it all again. I never imagined I’d be a person with an actual brood. A person who would have to use the plural when talking about their offspring. And I know I’m dull now. But forgive me, because I’ll be back at the bar with a glass of Shiraz in about a year and will be able to hold a conversation about something other than indigestion and due dates. I promise. Because I did last time around. In the meantime, this thing is bigger than me, wider and more cumbersome than the bump itself and to not let it completely overtake me would be an insult to it.

3. Electrical appliances can f*ck off
This one is likely to be very specific to me and me alone. But here’s what I mean: If that washing machine beeps at me one more time I’m going to unplug it and strangle it with its own electrical cord. And not even metaphorically speaking. My patience during the second pregnancy is wearing as thin as the elbows in Grady Tripp’s dressing gown (I had to crowbar a literary reference in here somewhere). There is a toddler in the house now. I love him. Would stretch myself across a burning volcano for him. But gosh, he’s hard work. Because, like Frances Houseman, I’m carrying a watermelon (and a Dirty Dancing reference, naturally). I can barely reach my own socks and my son throws a hissy fit if I fail to jump off the bottom step of the staircase in a particular way each morning. And so when my effing washing machine chips in, when my microwave bleeps every ten seconds to tell me its finished, when my hoover gets trapped on the threshold and tips over, or my modem decides to crash, I throw a strop. A violent, anthropomorphic strop. And don’t get me started on the cat. Or, that treadling bitch, as I lovingly described her earlier today. In these circumstances, electrical appliances are designed to take the fall. There’s a statistic about the number of mobile phones broken during the third trimester from women throwing them across the room. It’s a statistic I made up but it’s none the less true.

4. You know what’s coming.
Yes, you remember labour. Yes, you remember the hysterical insomnia and the pain of let down, and the never-ending nappies and the desperate need for gin. But the difference is that this time around, you know. You know that this little person will grow, and amaze and entertain and challenge you every day and all those gushingly cloying things you read about children – the ones you snorted at with derision in the past – are true.  It’s not always fun. But it’s life changing and forever and it’s coming. And somehow that makes it very exciting and much more terrifying second time around.

5. You feel invincible.

If you don’t remember this one then try to. Write it on a post it and stick it on your mirror, or something. In this weekend’s Observer interview with singer Adele, she described how she felt after the birth of her son as ‘invincible.’ And actually, it’s a useful thing to take away. Because you’re going to need it. Because you are invincible. You have survived so much. So okay, people do it every day and bloody hell, stop banging on about it. But when you’ve squeezed something out of you like that, or laid on an operating table, or however it is you brought your first child into the world, you deserve to feel invincible. Allow yourself it. Don’t bang on to anyone else about it apart from yourself. Bore yourself with how invincible you are. Remind yourself on a daily basis. Because some days you feel utterly un-vincible. You panic that you’re not fit to choose your own email password, let alone this. But you are. And yes, it’s only pregnancy, and it’s only parenthood. But it’s your pregnancy and your parenthood and that’s what’s important. To quote Bob Mortimer’s twitter account, This is my life. This is my song. 

READING WOMEN

It's now July. It struck me back in March that so far in 2015, I had only read books by women. My intentions weren't feminist but I was warmed by the idea that I had unknowingly done this. So, I thought, why not extend this across the year and only read books by women? It wouldn't be meant as an act of discrimination against male authors, more of a streamlining of my reading time. Years are short and book lists are long. There are too many books too read.

So, more than halfway into the year I have stuck to the plan. I will post more about the wonderful books I have found.

But this isn't just a personal project, there is a whole movement around women-only literature. I have long been a supporter, follower and contributor to Words & Women, who exist only for women writing in the East of England. And I was very proud to be selected for the women-only WoMentoring scheme last year - and vocal about the difference it made to me. I also discovered Read Women, a campaign to get readers reading women. There is a wider picture to all this. It is about being a woman writer; that there are organisations still battling to create opportunities for women, because apparently we have a tougher time of it in publishing. This is not a hackneyed debate, it's relevant and current and apparent to many writing women. And I can't help feeling that as I grow my second baby - due at Christmas - I find myself back at the coalface of this debate. Is motherhood - as a choice - a resignation to certain barriers? I won't bang on about the gift of parenthood but would like to recognise that it's a privileged position. So, should motherhood - as it often is - still form part of this debate? Questions for another time, perhaps.

But I am interested in the wider conversation about diversity in publishing. In Kerry Hudson's provocation on diversity in publishing this week, she talked about gender, ethnicity, social status, sexuality, and how our publishing houses are producing a mono-cultural output. I love what Kerry has to say about diversity in publishing, not least because she does that rare thing and not only ties her colours to the mast of the debate but suggests solutions. Solutions! Let's cut out unpaid internships in publishing and the literature sector, for a start. Instantly leveling the playing field. Please read it.

I want to be clear - I don't feel that by only reading books by women this year I am 'doing my bit' for my gender. I have always read women authors, I have always supported women's literary events, collectives, initiatives and reading schemes. By reading women only this year I'm simply having a game with myself. But it reminds me of something that happened a year or two ago, when my father - a big reader - admitted that he had never actually read Jane Austen, and, in fact, didn't read women authors all that often. Feeling a bit disappointed in himself, he stole my mum's copy of Pride and Prejudice and discovered a treasure trove of writing he hadn't before considered. (This included Tess Stimson, who he picked up on a surname-based whim.)

I think the point is that if you call yourself a reader then to give proper service to the passion you must be varied in your reading, diverse in your tastes. Going back to Kerry's piece, if the industry itself is not promoting diversity within its output, how will readers find these diverse voices and stories?

You could argue that my reading in 2015 will be narrow. If you can call stories told by the gender representing 50% of the world's population narrow, that is.


INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

I'm very excited to be reading for Words & Women as part of their International Women's Day extravaganza at The Forum in Norwich. A free event in a super shiny location in celebration of women, doing their thing - what could be better? Unbelievably, I haven't read live for five years. Feeling nervous much?...


ONE STEP BEYOND

So, if the last six months have taught me anything, it's how quickly things can take off when you believe. Belief is the foundation on which the last six months have grown.

In June 2014 I emailed my submission to Shelley Harris, who was generously offering a package of free mentoring as part of the WoMentoring project. Within a day she had replied, saying how much she'd liked reading the piece, offering a Skype conversation to talk about how she could help. Six months later and Shelley's generosity still resonates. In that time she has read my novel twice. Twice! Has fed back with a short report each time, and a handful of Skype conversations. And all of this alongside the launch of her second novel, Vigilante.

Her belief in the work single-handedly kept me going. More than that - made me take it to an extra level and made me realise that without some time set aside I wouldn't get it done for years. And I wanted to get it done. I was surging with enthusiasm. All the wrong turns and grammatical glitches and mis-motivations just served to propel me on; there were things to be fixed and I was ready, literary spanner in hand.  Obscene, really. I decided to take a chance and apply to the Arts Council for some funded time to get it done. And they believed in me enough to say 'okay'.

I was off. I semi-quit my job. I ran away for 3 days to the coast with my writing buddy Catherine. I re-drafted and re-drafted. I journeyed up to the wilds of Scotland in December, where I sat in a B&B watching the lashing rain and I re-drafted some more. Then after three solid months of re-drafting I was spent. Shelley suggested it might be ready to show some agents. I wasn't convinced but I believed in Shelley's opinion and so off it went. Within days Juliet Pickering at Blake Friedman had come back to me to say she too believed in the novel and wanted to support it. Flabberghasted, and excited, I have now signed with Juliet.

In six months the book has gone from something private and simmering to something big and real and ablaze. Something that for so long existed in my head and in the private vaults of my memory stick, is now something I have long, unashamed conversations about. It's easier to believe in something once other people show you they do too; it renders it more real, less nonsense. It turns out a novel is a bit like a ghost, or a UFO. You need an awful lot of patience, but most of all you just need to be a believer.

WORDS AND WOMEN

I'm completely delighted that my short story Cornflake Girl has won this year's Words and Women New Writing Prize (announced 9th January 2015). Totally delighted, surprised and grateful. And for so many reasons. 

Novel writing can be a slow and unrewarding process, let's face it. You slog away silently, having nothing to show ‘publicly’ for months, years, or ever, sometimes. My first novel lives a double life; both hidden in a drawer and buried deep in the recesses of a computer drive. When you write novels you struggle to find ways to demonstrate your progress. Until it's finished a novel is deeply private, for me at least. It’s flimsy and sort of embarrassing and when people ask you about it in pubs you mumble into your glass of wine. Or is that just me?

My novel is one of the most important things in my life (woah, but true!) But it’s like a ghost; difficult to explain, impossible to demonstrate and until it’s there in the room, it just sounds like a little story I tell people.

I love short story as a form. I think it has the most potential, is the most exciting form to work in, can do so much with so little. I read a lot of short stories. Ali Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer and Raymond Carver are those that I always go back to, to remind myself of what can be done. I always feel out of my depth with short story. It’s deceptively difficult. It’s exciting. I write short stories slowly, I take them very seriously, I question my handling of them and then I often hide them away. My novel is private and its velocity can be glacial; it may be some time before it’s let out of captivity. But short story is a more immediate form and so every now and again I give one a public airing; enter a competition and cross my fingers. It’s my way of reminding myself that I’m writing, if I’m honest.

Cornflake Girl, the story that won the Words and Women prize, is dear to me. I realise this sounds trite. It’s inspired by a Tori Amos lyric, it’s something I worked on and re-thought many times, something I workshopped with my writing group (whose comments I’m naturally very grateful for!) and hesitated over for a long time. I was very close to entering it into last year’s Words and Women competition but I didn’t for various reasons. But I re-edited, crossed my fingers and gave it another shot this time around.


I didn’t expect to win. Honestly. Words and Women exist for women writers living in the East of England and there are a lot of fantastic writers in this region. A lot. It was daunting. I’m delighted. And, let’s be honest, cash prizes are rare. I would like to do a course and buy myself a laptop that has a battery so I don’t have to sit beside a plug point every time I write. This is a massive bonus. But it’s honestly more about the confidence it generates. I’m not allowed to mumble into my drink the next time someone asks me about my writing. I have something to say about it. I’m very excited to read the anthology when it’s published in March and the stories of my fellow publishees – is that a word? What a boost and a lovely thing to be part of.  

You can follow Words and Women on twitter: @wordsandwomen

SLEAT AND SKYE

I am back from my research trip to Scotland. The purpose of the trip was to place me in the location for a few days. Head space and opportunity to draw from reality. This Scottish section of the book concerns someone from outside arriving into a remote fishing village. They are chasing a memory and running from a past. It is an ending, of sorts, and I decided that the place would feel like that too; a dot at the edge of the land before sea and sky takes over. I chose Mallaig, which, as it happens is the last point on the West coast before the Sound of Sleat and the Isle of Skye. Mallaig is not my village, that won't be named in the story; my village is purely fictional. But Mallaig out of season was the perfect inspiration. Dinner is hard to come by after eight, shops close at lunchtime, the evening starts at three. It is a town nestled by mountains, stroked by beaches and punctuated by a harbour at its heart. It weathers winds and hosts some of the most beautiful coast I have ever seen, even in the pouring rain. We drove through a snowstorm over Glencoe, and while in Mallaig the 'weather bomb' brewed, threatening gales along the west coast of England and Scotland. So, I was driven south prematurely, making the return past Glencoe a day sooner than I would have liked, to stay on Loch Lomond. I'm not sure if the 'weather bomb' ever hit Glencoe, as predicted, but I feel sure I'll return to Mallaig.

I took just under 30,000 words of this section of first draft. I slashed them and started again; borrowed, edited, spliced and have just hit 20,000 of this new, revised draft. An ending is in sight.


HOW I WRITE

I’m into my third week of protected writing time and still adjusting to the new regime. I’ve always been an efficient home worker, as long as I obey certain rules inadvertently developed over the years.
  
I can’t eat, shower or dress before starting writing in the morning. This does, however, make the nursery run tricky. I brushed my teeth this morning, to feign some sort of social decorum. I wore a hat. Being short haired, the straight out of bed look is never an option. The first stirrings of the storm are twisting the leaves from the trees. I decided that this would be a helpful rather than distracting walk; bracing, mentally energising. There was the threat of rain so an oversized rain coat did a good job of hiding the frankly bizarre outfit I wore beneath. Then home, tea, straight into it. Tea is allowed. It’s pretty much a rule in itself.
  
And it must be morning. I spent years using evenings in which to write. It’s all I’ve ever done, really. The result is a slightly dulled mind, a sloping, evening lexicon, the constant niggle of ‘should I just open the wine?’ I wrote a whole novel this way. It functions but is not ideal. For me, morning is key.  Before the distracting thoughts of the day creep in. A writer friend recently suggested that early, early is good. Pre-children waking, pre-dustbin collection, pre-commute. Being entirely disastrous in the morning (even my toddler sings in bed for half an hour before he can be bothered to get up) this may be ambitious. But it’s on my list of experiments.
  
Some kind of natural daylight helps. In a terraced house this isn’t always as abundant as it sounds. I live in the county of wide skies but a city house negates those. I have a postage stamp view of rooftops, parallel parked cars and other people’s windows. But I can see the cathedral spire from one of my views. And I have dreams of moving out of the city soon.
  
No music or radio or anything with any rhythmic background. I’m always baffled by colleagues who let headphones tick in their ears as they work. I cannot do this. I begin to tune into the music, it takes over my whole body, I start to ruminate on the lyrics, I completely forget which I’m supposed to be doing.
  

So, morning, daylight and silence are all I need, supposedly. Should be a cinch, right?

21.10.14