September 14, 2019
NOTES ON A WRITING LIFE | 3
Having been grounded by a fall from a horse in Dorset (not the horse’s fault – entirely my own) and landed flat on my back, I’ve had time to think about my early writing life, and the publication of my first book “A Day To Remember To Forget,” as my latest, “Without Her” makes its own way in the US.
When I look back on those early days as a writer, I see a trajectory like that of a roller coaster (a thing I detest, in fact, and did even as a child – who wants to be swooped up and down till they feel sick?) Early success, even relative success, tends to go to your head, you think to yourself – ah, I’m off to the races now – and assume you’re going to have one book published after another in smooth succession. Wrong.
It may have been something to do with the notion that appeared in the seventies that women could do anything and everything. We can, of course, but not all at the same time. When I began to be published, there were the role models all around: the Margarets Drabble, Forster and Atwood for a start; they all had families, didn’t they, they all wrote successful books, they did it what’s more with an apparently effortless grace. I think now that it’s nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else when you have small children to attend to, especially writing a half-way decent novel. Perhaps these icons of women’s writing think this too. But in the early seventies I lived in a sort of commune – a very small one, basically two couples and two children – so I could hand my baby to someone else and at least go for a walk, or into town. We were committed to self-sufficiency, which meant getting up early to dig the earth and root out the persistent thistles that thrived in our rich black midlands-of-England soil. We ordered the Whole Earth Catalog from California and set ourselves to be home-growers of everything that would take root. The digging at dawn now seems to me a form of masochism, but anyone who was around in the 1970’s will recognize the theme.
I lived a kind of double life at that time – digging, child-minding, making beer, wine, pate, bread and anything else I could think of from scratch, then dressing up in my boots, hat and maxi-coat from Biba and setting off to London by train. There, I visited my editor at Macmillan, the wonderful Caro Hobhouse of many books and parties fame, drinking too much wine along with her illustrious dinner guests at her flat in Camden. I pranced around London feeling like the bee’s knees, as we say in England, and went home with a hangover to take care of my children, vegetable garden and half-finished house.
In those days, I could only justify shutting myself in the room we called the library to work if I knew everyone could hear me typing. (I’d read somewhere, though, that on Israeli kibbutzim members who were writers were given time to write, once they had done their chores; I claimed the same right). So I typed, hard, rarely stopping to think, until it was time to fetch my daughter from her play school and retrieve my son from whoever was looking after him. Eventually, I realized that if I was to continue as a writer I would have to pay someone to come in the mornings and do all the things I would otherwise be doing – give the baby his bath, wash a pile of dishes, clean the house and make lunch. She – Mrs. Bedford, a woman older than me, who appeared like a beacon of sanity in our disordered hippyish lives – was my salvation. I owe her, more than anybody, for my writing career at that time.
So yes, women can do everything, but we don’t have to. I wasn’t even going out to work, I had other adults around, I was relatively privileged in this respect. But writing does take time, and when I read somebody’s remark about prayer, that you need several hours of silence and meditation in order to pray for a couple of minutes, then the same has to be said for writing. My early books suffered from that fevered rush, that obligation to be heard typing. I didn’t think much about what I wanted to say, I was so relieved to have said at least something. After two more novels, Macmillan dropped me, even though Caro had generously offered me her house in Majorca so that I would have more time to write. Guilt, small children and an acre of thistles kept me from accepting her offer, and I was out on my own again, with my agent Richard Simon trying to find me another home.
The reward of getting older is that you have time. You don’t know how much, in terms of length. Life may end next week, or in twenty years. You may have lost that fast, furious, desperate urge to write. But you can at least spend time thinking, or what passes for thinking as you stroll, swim, look at the sky or lie in the bath-tub, and take gently the time you have. Or as you lie around with an ice-pack to your back, waiting for recovery, that comes slowly these days after a yet another fall to earth.