How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

Finding time to write is notoriously difficult. Unless you’re lucky enough to live off advances, you’ll have a day-job to pay the bills and (hopefully) a life outside of that, including loved ones. Writing is a selfish pursuit. It requires hours and hours of time alone and absolute focus.  How do you attain that holy grail when you’re responsible for others? I found it tricky enough to get anything done when all I had to worry about was the world’s most expensive rescue dog (in veterinary bills) and a cat with a habit of depositing live prey in the house in the early hours of the morning. 

Now I have a baby and a toddler. I’m not sure what to add to that statement other than ‘lol’. 

This recent article in the Guardian made me feel particularly shit. I agree with it wholeheartedly. The online commentary surrounding it made me feel worse – mostly along the lines of ‘this is why I’ve decided not to have kids’ or ‘this is why I’m single’. As a feminist I’m already sometimes made to feel like I’ve somehow betrayed the sisterhood through my life choices, I don’t need the fact I’ve made my creative endeavours that much harder pointing out. I know, honestly I do. For a lot of people, there is no choice involved, however. They’re caring for a parent who is ill, they’re going through bereavement, they’re supporting a partner in a mental health crisis. We all care for others. Thank god we do. Some people seem to be able to do this and achieve more than emptying a dishwasher at the end of the day. How? 

Seriously though, how do some people manage to balance their responsibilities for others with their own ambition? Creative ambition at that. Creative ambition attracts scorn in a way that career/entrepreneurial ambition doesn’t. If pursuing your passion brings money and status, the time away from loved ones is acceptable, because they’re ostensibly benefiting from it*. If all it leads to is something that may or may not be appreciated by whoever happens across it, well, that’s much harder to justify. 

That’s before you even get into the caring responsibilities we have beyond our immediate loved ones. Is anyone else plagued with feelings of guilt and inadequacy whenever they confront an issue like homelessness? Anyway. I digress. I could bang on about this for ages and get nowhere. Instead, I decided to ask the inspirational author, teacher and mum-of-three Anna Vaught for her thoughts on the creator/carer conundrum.

*unless you’re a woman, then you’re in for all kinds of grief.

Anna Vaught – follow her on Twitter @BookwormVaught

The bio on your website: “Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, reviewer, editor, copywriter and proofreader. She is also a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor to young people, mental health campaigner, volunteer and mum to a large brood” says a lot about what I’m getting at here! You have so many roles, you’re so many things to so many people. How, for the love of god, do you manage it all?

It doesn’t seem to me that I am managing any more than other people, parents and carers or not. I am managing way less than many. Some thoughts, though. I don’t teach full time (so I can make some gaps) and I  have to leave things undone – like DIY or saying yes to lots of things! My husband is very supportive and that is really important to say. We don’t have any immediate family support, but we are part of a supportive community of friends and neighbours and I can’t emphasise that enough. I get the older ones to help with things around the house and they also help me by picking up the youngest from school when I am running after school classes and they give him a snack and keep an eye for a short while until I am there. It’s a team effort, but it’s imperfect, alright! I wanted to say something else, which is that I have, since childhood, managed some complex mental health problems. I don’t want to say anything inflammatory or triggering, but I think that, somehow, because we – and since I met Ned it is a ‘we’ – have had to cope with this as a unit, we’ve become more resourceful. We’ve had no choice! I wouldn’t wish depression, anxiety and dissociative episodes on anyone, but because of them I have had to learn how to be more imaginative and to look at things in unusual ways. I have a theory that, as well as being a burden, it – having mental health problems – has taught me some things. I am also hugely grateful to my friends, because when I have been very ill, that was how we managed it all; the seminal occasion was when I had a breakdown because at that point one offspring was a school refuser, really not doing well and needing extra care at home (while I was managing a tricky time with ed welfare, as is the reality in these situations), I had a young school-age child and a six month-old baby and my husband was made redundant while I was in early recovery. I wrote about that in my first book to honour those who were there because, most of all, they were there for my kids. That, for the love of God, as you say, is how things have got managed sometimes! 

Never forget: people are amazing; YOU are amazing. And also this will regularly go tits up: you will forget to do things, attend a meeting with your dress in your knickers, slip over in cat barf no-one cleared up, go to parents’ evening at the wrong time and forget to put trainers in the PE bag. Or that could just be me.

What advice would you give to a carer who wants to write?

Start. I don’t have a room of my own or much peace, though I do have gaps in the day because I don’t teach full time. I am frequently interrupted. I work at the kitchen table. I cannot write every day. What I would say is, don’t wait for ideal conditions but always, always work with what you have. It’s a bit like searching for happiness. I will be happy if…but that’s deferring to fate. Start writing now and carve out bits of time. Maybe I should say seize bits of time, as you might have to react rather than anticipate. And don’t panic or worry about what you think other people are doing. Also, the writing is not only that thing where you are banging away at a keyboard. It’s a mull in the bath, reading (bed, school run when you’re hiding between a tree trying to get away from other parents: no wait – that might just be me), it is THINKING TIME. If you have been an avid reader, then, to my mind, you’ve been laying the bedrock already. Reading is your best teacher, I think. 

Don’t be hard on yourself as you go, but make a start. Scribbling, noting, inventing a few lines of dialogue. See how it goes. If you keep going, with planning, thinking and perseverance, at some point there will be a book. It will be shit. But that’s because it’s your shit first draft; your Frankendraft. Now the real work begins – of more planning and a lot of crossing out; of altering, extending and rewriting; of editing. Now you have something to work with. And ignore the odds of getting it published. 

How would you describe the relationship between your role as carer and writer?

I have given up trying to separate them. The first one comes first and the writing is shoehorned in or is being considered while I am doing something else, sometimes. I think caring for others, in whatever capacity, can be exhausting – I was a carer in my teens in another capacity – but my imagination is always, always vivid (remember what I was saying before, too about mental health problems? I have fallen back on my imagination to cope) and I daydream a lot while I am doing boring things. Like buying studs for football boots. I also think we may assume that being a carer means we cannot do intellectual things. I wince when I write this, but so many mums have said to me, ‘Oh I haven’t read a whole book since I had kids’, or ‘I have no idea how you concentrate’ but I think we are partly fed this information. And by we, I mean women. Perhaps I’ve missed something, but just as you don’t see male writers described as ‘novelists over 40’ (for example), you don’t see them asked about children and childcare. I think that we may be led to believe that things aren’t possible when couldn’t it be the case that the opposite were true? That maybe you, right now, could be at your most flexible, dynamic and imaginative, knackered as you are? I am possibly getting myself into hot water, so just want to reiterate that you not be hard on yourself here. 

What do you think your loved ones gain from you being a writer?

I think they – my husband and kids – are very proud of me. We are moving into difficult territory here and I speak of reading books, because…ours is a house of books and we always shared with them, growing up. Read to them loads and so on. This still happens with the youngest, but the older two seemed to stop reading in school and it has got worse at secondary. They see books as something to be got through and it makes me feel miserable because reading is a joy of my life. I feel bad for writing all that because it reflects on schooling. And then I wonder who I’ve personally put off by making them trot through some of the text choices for GCSE Literature! And they’re digital natives, which is both a blessing and, arguably, problem in terms of reading. So I have tried to come at it another way. The older two have been involved in my books and stories, from coming to my first two events, to giving me ideas and suggestions for work. One of my older boys is dyslexic and does not (I was being frank so I shall carry on) receive appropriate support in school, partly because of funding; reading is trickier because of processing and working memory issues that can be part of dyslexia. But I have a historical novel waiting to be read by a publisher at the moment, and big ideas in that are his. One day, I hope someone will read a novel which begins with a description of a house and garden, haunted and melancholy, created by my lad. He’s credited and it’s dedicated to him. So I am getting at reading and books another way with the older ones. Youngest is highly excited by the whole thing. My husband is my beta reader.

One more thing to say. I don’t think you can, however, expect everyone to be proud of you. Everybody is doing something; your something – or one of your somethings – is writing. With a few exceptions, there is little or no interest in my extended family on either side. I felt sad about that, but then I thought, ‘Why should there be?’ I do hope that friendships have deepened, though. Perhaps because in sharing and talking about work and encouraging and reading others’ work, we understand each other better. Also, I’ve said all along to my friends that anything I make feels like a group effort and so I love doing dedications and acknowledgements in writing. 

I was moved by the post on your website about the relationship between writing and mental health. Do you think writing is a form of self-care?

I can only speak for myself here. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I write it down. When I am writing, I am stilled, absorbed and entirely present. There could be a small explosion next to me and I would be carrying on with the book. So, it’s soothing and that focus is a break from a mind that does peculiar things, yet I am using that mind, right there. The thing about dissociation is that it’s frightening and dislocating; it’s like you’re not sure where you are or who you are. It is generally understood to be a mechanism learned in trauma (*generally*). Writing certainly helps to bring me back into myself and if I have had an episode or I have not been doing too well, it definitely makes me feel better. Nonetheless, I have to be careful of the bit that goes with writing; the social media presence, self promotion and so on; if I am not careful I quite quickly compare and despair (while knowing it’s stupid and destructive) or get anxious about things. But those things are not the actual writing; they are the mechanics of business – if you are attempting to sell your work. That sounds hideous. But it’s business too because writing for me is also mercantile, which is not to say it will be for everyone. The writing community is extremely welcoming, which is great, but on the days when you see factions appear and horrid arguments on twitter, I have realised that I now need to retreat and not get involved!

Anna is represented by Kate Johnson, Mackenzie Wolf, New York City. Her first volume of short stories, Famished, will be published next September and can be ordered as part of the new subscription service from Influx Press this November. Her next novel, Saving Lucia, will be available from Blue Moose Books next Spring. Volume 4 of The Shadow Booth will feature a story by Anna and will be published this October. Follow Anna on Twitter @BookwormVaught

Anna’s first short story collection, Famished

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