Sarah Stovell: Writing in Lockdown

Lockdown 2020 kicked in when I was 3,000 words into a new novel. The beginning of a new novel is my favourite part of writing, because this is when the blank pages ahead of me are at their finest, and I was excited. Christmas was over, my children were back at school and, once I was done with the school run and the dog-walk, I had four hours a day in which to write the greatest book the world had ever seen.

Fitting my work around caring for my children has always been my speciality. I started a PhD in creative writing when my first child was seven months old. I gave birth to my second child at the beginning of the third and final year of my PhD. People have often asked me how I did it and, in retrospect, I’m not entirely sure. All I do know is that I was determined to make it work, despite insistence from many of the people around me that it wouldn’t be possible.

When my first child was born, the PhD was far enough away for me to lay aside my writing and concentrate only on her. I fed, I changed, I stayed awake, I stayed at home, I fed, I stayed awake, I fed and fed and fed and stayed awake. I also acquired a whole new language. Every day, words and phrases I’d never heard before entered my vocabulary: foremilk, hindmilk, calpol, attachment parenting, baby-wearing, co-sleeping, Gina Ford, controlled crying. At the same time, childless friends would talk to me in a language that no longer made any sense. ‘I’ve just spent three days in bed with a cold,’ they would say, and I would stare at them blankly, not having a clue what this meant.

I decided that motherhood must have limits. I needed to get back to writing before there was nothing left of the person I used to be.

After six months of this, almost entirely without sleep, I had become a stranger to myself. I’d always wanted to have children so I was very happy, but I also had trouble recognising this woman who, instead of writing novels, now spent large chunks of time walking in circles round dusty church halls with other women who once were normal singing, ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush.’ I recalled those questions I used to be asked at job interviews or in online questionnaires. ‘Where do you see yourself in two years’, five years’, ten years’ time?’ Never once did I say, ‘Standing over a worktop, squeezing my breastmilk into a bowl of carrot puree.’ And yet here I was. A low point in my identity. 

I decided that motherhood must have limits. I needed to get back to writing before there was nothing left of the person I used to be. I was about to start my PhD and I knew I couldn’t do it unless someone else looked after the baby for a while. I was fortunate to have funding for the PhD, but it wasn’t enough to pay my half of the mortgage and a lot of childcare. I also didn’t want a lot of childcare. Having always been a bit skint, I wasn’t locked into a particular standard of living and I was fortunate enough to be a woman with a choice. My choice was to look after my baby as much as I possibly could, while also doing enough work to keep me sane.

I sent Bonnie to a childminder for two mornings a week throughout my PhD. Two mornings a week is absolutely not enough time in which to do a full-time PhD but two mornings a week was the time I had, and so I used it. I was fierce in my discipline. I started the minute Bonnie’s childminder picked her up at 8 and I didn’t stop until she came home at midday. I wrote fast. I wrote as if my life depended on it and after a year, there was a novel in my hands. It needed some rewriting, so I rewrote it. In October 2011, the book went out to publishers. There was some rejection. In January 2012, it was accepted for publication and I was six weeks’ pregnant. 

My editor and I were still battling with the manuscript when I gave birth the following August. I sent him text messages from my hospital bed. ‘Historical inaccuracy half-way down page 263. In hospital. Baby boy. Sam. 6lbs 11oz. Might miss deadline.’     

By the skin of my teeth, I didn’t miss the deadline. For Sam’s first six weeks, I used the night feeds as time to get the editing done. I would sit up in bed every two hours, with a baby on one arm and a laptop on the other, correcting typos. It wasn’t a way of life I’d recommend, but it got the job done.

Given this experience, I thought I would manage lockdown and childcare. My children by then were eight and ten years old. They were no longer attached to my breast, they could entertain themselves for periods of time, they could assemble some kind of vaguely nutritious lunch out of whatever they found they cupboards.

I very quickly found, however, that writing with older children hanging around the house was very different to writing with babies who aren’t in the house. For a start, I was out of practice. I was used to having more time, I was used to the space. I also had a job and somehow had to juggle online teaching with the government’s insistence that I educate my children.

After twenty minutes, we all hated each other. We abandoned maths and decided to have a late assembly instead. This involved composing our own school song called School’s out for Corona, and which my son sang every day for the first two weeks, until the joy of lockdown had fully worn off.

I tried. I did try. I just didn’t try for very long. On the morning after the schools closed, while my partner shut himself in the spare bedroom to crack on with his job, I ignored the Word document on my computer and sat with my children at the kitchen table. One of them had some times tables worksheets. The other one had something called ‘The bus-stop method of long division.’  We took some biscuits out of the cupboard to try and make this a bit more fun. I googled, ‘What is the bus-stop method of long division?’ Google answered me in another one of those languages I don’t understand.

After twenty minutes, we all hated each other. We abandoned maths and decided to have a late assembly instead. This involved composing our own school song called School’s out for Corona, and which my son sang every day for the first two weeks, until the joy of lockdown had fully worn off.

The children have always somehow understood that Dad in his office is a man not to be disturbed. They do not have the same understanding when it comes to me and my work. My work is eminently interruptible.

After singing, I sent them to another room to do whatever they wanted while I returned to the novel. I wrote a paragraph, perhaps, and then someone would come in uttering one of the usual refrains beginning, ‘Muuuuum’ and ending with either, ‘I’m hungry,’ ‘I’m bored,’ ‘I hate my sibling,’ or – my favourite – ‘Where’s Dad?’

Dad was in his office.

Dad was in his office from 9-5 throughout lockdown.

Dad claimed to hate his office, but not enough to ever let me go in it instead of him.

The children have always somehow understood that Dad in his office is a man not to be disturbed. They do not have the same understanding when it comes to me and my work. My work is eminently interruptible. The interruptions were close to constant. I finally lost it and said, ‘You have to let me get on with my work for one hour. Just don’t come in here for one hour. That’s all. ’ To their credit, they stopped coming in. Instead, they would push little pieces of paper under the door with things like We’re really hungry written on them. When I didn’t read these immediately, they would stand outside the door and say, ‘We’ve written you a letter.’

After four days of trying and failing to put words on the page, I knew I had to stop this. It was futile, as futile as staying at home and trying to sleep when you have a baby to look after. To even attempt it was going to cause nothing but frayed nerves and desperation.

I put the novel aside. I also put the home schooling aside. We all needed to survive this, preferably without our relationships falling apart. If I tried to write, I knew I would only be resentful of the fact that a single chapter was taking me weeks. It was easier to let it go than carry on. If I tried to educate my children, they would hate me after two weeks. Life would be unbearable. We needed to scrape through this with minimum pressure.

I had to do my online teaching from the kitchen table as well. I explained to my students from the very beginning that we might be interrupted now and then by my son, who is incredibly sociable and a natural performer. They were very tolerant of his face occasionally popping up on screen. He would wave to them and many of them would say hello to him and, once he realised he had no interest in hearing his mother banging on about narrative theory, he went away again.

The novel, meanwhile, lay untouched in my laptop. I slowly forgot what it was even about.

The day the children went back to school in September, I returned to my abandoned lockdown novel. I stopped again when schools closed in January and returned to it in March. From that point onwards, I wrote furiously, determined to have it finished before the summer holidays (which, incidentally, will never seem long again). I told my publisher I wasn’t happy with it. She said no one was happy with the novels they’d written in lockdown. Despite all the extra time, lockdown seemed to be a wasteland for writers.

My biggest concern was that my lockdown novel was my ‘make or break’ novel. It was the second book of my first ever two-book contract with major publisher, and I knew perfectly well that if it wasn’t a success, my brief life as a HarperCollins author would be over. If sales figures were low, no other major publisher would want me, either.

I was genuinely gobsmacked when, three weeks after I delivered Every Happy Family to my editor, I had an email to say they wanted me to write a synopsis for another book, with a view to a new contract. I wrote the synopsis, I was offered a new contract, which of course I signed without reading.

I have used some of the money to rearrange our back garden. We’ve had a shed removed and in its place now is a very small, very beautiful wooden writing hut. It has its own tiny woodburner, an armchair and a bookshelf. Because it’s at the bottom of the garden, if anyone wants me, they have to open the door and walk six metres to find me. No one can be bothered to do this, especially when it’s raining. It is, truly, a socially distanced room of my own and I am happier there than anywhere else on earth.

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