I hope you had a lovely Easter. I was nursing the full bank holiday but got to see the children do their egg hunt before heading off on my rounds on Sunday morning. There are hundreds of baby bunnies down by the river when I pedal out on my early morning bike rides. It’s a bit of a job avoiding them! Now, onto other matters…
I have written previously about juggling my writing life. For accessibility and diversity reasons, I feel it’s important to be honest about these things. At the time I promised to be braver and write more on this topic. So here I am, being brave… This post gets a bit deep and a little political, so do feel free to move on if you prefer my lighter musings 🙂
I have never had a private space of my own in which to write. The novelist Virginia Woolf famously argued that for a woman to write, she must have £500 a year (a lot of money in those days) and a room of her own. Woolf was part of an upper class group of artists and writers called the Bloomsbury Set who were active in the first part of the 20th century. She decried how working class women were essentially reduced to servitude by poverty and motherhood, with no time to themselves, let alone chance to write. What she was saying was radical at the time.
While there aren’t the same levels of abject poverty in the UK now, the issues for working class women and girls who have stories in their hearts remain much the same. Working class stories by working class writers do make their way into the published literary mainstream, but they tend to be miserable, urban, and most often, written by men. The deprived son come good is a great story, but what about his single mum? Are we only to hear her story through his? It is as if working class life is, by definition, gritty, and masculine.
For a long time, I didn’t even realise I was working class. I knew I certainly wasn’t middle class – that was abundantly clear from their confidence, the way their parents weren’t exhausted to the bone after work, and how their mums spoke to them like they were pet dogs. But my life bore no relation to what I saw on soap operas like Eastenders and Coronation Street either. My family weren’t constantly feuding with other families, binge-drinking to oblivion on a Friday night, and engaged in endless extra-marital affairs. From these soap opera portrayals, I assumed all working class people lived in cities and towns. I can’t remember hearing the term rural working class once in the whole of my childhood, but that is what we were, and are. My family came from a proud tradition of working class people who were politically engaged, well-read, and community minded.
My parents and grandparents benefited from the economic uplift of the working classes in the 50s and 60s, but it came at great social and geographical cost. One cost is the current crisis in social care for the elderly. And for many of my generation, another is the effective rendering of us as placeless and rootless. Was it not ever thus? The Potato Famine? The Enclosures? The Clearances? Intentional projects by those with money and power to push working class people from the lands of their ancestors. But my parents and grandparents weren’t pushed, they left of their own freewill. Didn’t they make the choice? They left. And so there is the guilt. Didn’t we disinherit ourselves from the land of our forebears? Didn’t we?
I know that is not the whole story and the absolute poverty found in parts of the UK in the 50s and 60s was horrific. Of course you would flee from that. But to be working class is not to be poor – working class history which values education, engages politically, and seeks to raise all boats, is a history I have had to teach myself, and proactively reclaim as my own heritage. Still, I have no private space to write, but write a novel I did.
I wrote most of The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle on trains, in notebooks, balancing precariously on piles of luggage. I didn’t know I was writing a novel so the idea of carving out any dedicated time to do it, much less a private space in which to do it, never occurred to me. It was as though, as soon as I stepped away from my caring responsibilities, someone switched a tap on, and all this stuff just came pouring out on the page… page after page after page of it. I hadn’t thought of whether it was any good, but it felt good to write it.
I won’t go into the details, but there then came a dark moment in my life when I felt my ‘working-classness’ more than I had in a long time. Doors closed and I felt I was being told to know my place. I was metaphorically sent back to the mines. How dare I dream of a creative life? I still didn’t see writing as part of that dream. More out of frustration than anything else, I typed up the story in my notebooks and entered it into a competition.
And I won.
And then I wrote another story in the kitchen of a holiday let while my littlest napped of an afternoon, still scribbling away in notebooks. I edited it on the decade-old MAC in my foldaway desk in our “middle room”. The “middle room”: a workhorse room for homework, den-building, model-making, car-track constructing, playdough moulding, colouring in, where my partner works during lockdown, and mealtimes when we have more people around the table than just us. And the only warm room in our house. The children clattered up and down the corridor outside, wondering loudly when on earth Mum would be out of the middle room so they could do X, Y and Z in there.
Then my littlest got her free childcare hours and suddenly there was a bit more time, not much, because I worked a day job too, but a bit more. I wrote a first draft of another story, this time between notebooks and a cheap laptop (glorified word processor) my partner bought me. The laptop gave me freedom to get out of the house and so I started to experiment with writing locations. I tried writing in cafes but couldn’t get over my squeamishness about it. I had worked too many waitressing jobs in the past to sit there hogging a table, making each coffee stretch out for hours. I discovered a private library in the city and we paid for a subscription. But the upper-middle class volunteers seemed determined to broadcast a running commentary in plummy accents on their activities for the benefit of the whole library. I couldn’t write there either. I considered a co-working space but the cost was prohibitive. At last I settled on splitting my time between a corner of my little boy’s attic bedroom and my foldaway desk when the kids were at school, and the hospital library when everyone was at home. I still don’t have a room of my own or £500. And writing still isn’t part of a dream of a dedicated creative life for me. The truth is, I don’t think such a dream exists for working class women. Not unless you want to starve. I write because the tap comes on as soon as I’m free of my responsibilities. I guess that is my ‘room’, for want of a real one.
Of course, Covid put a spanner in the works of even the writing arrangements I had made. During Covid, my ‘writing time’ was lost to childcare, and when I wasn’t doing that I worked my day job, in a healthcare system in crisis. On social media, men pronounced how lockdown had given them the time and space to finally write that novel. Women replied with raised eyebrows, interested to know who was looking after their children. And meanwhile, working class people of all genders carried on going to work, and kept the hospitals open. I have heard men on social media decry the “over-representation of women” amongst children’s book authors. The truth is that children’s books are shorter. I simply don’t have the time, space or financial backing to write 100,000 words. I do have time to write 40,000 words, sentence by sentence every time the computer system at work goes on the blink (my latest first draft).