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No Time for Writer's Block, or Bench Pressing 30 Kilos

By Sophie Lee - 13th June 2011

A funny thing seems to be happening as my children grow older. Instead of becoming more productive, as I’d expected, I’ve established a pattern of getting less done than ever. I sometimes feel as though I myself have fallen down a well and am in need of a potion to restore order to the surrounding chaos.

In 2006 I was handed an amazing opportunity. When I say ‘handed’ I mean, I’d fought for it to happen, but it felt like a gift nevertheless. I landed my first ever book deal, that is to say, an offer to expand a short story into a full-length novel. That would involve transforming a little idea about an actress who was having the day from hell (3000 words), to an actress having the year from hell  (85,000 words). I had just breastfed my second child and was on my way to a film set when my agent called and broke the good news.

After meeting with the publisher, inking out a deal and making copious notes I then worked toward my deadline with intense earnestness. Surely an opportunity like this would never come my way again? I was able to use my relatively modest publisher’s advance to pay for weekly babysitting in order to buy the precious writing hours I needed to hit my word count target. I had to get the job done. Writer’s block? Perish the thought. What writer-slash-parent has time for that particular malaise? My remedy for being creatively stuck is to sit at the keyboard and bash my way out. But by the time I’d given flesh to a story outline and pumped out a further 8000 words I discovered I was pregnant with my third child. Timing. I can picture myself even now spoon-feeding my second child, still a baby and nowhere near walking, while simultaneously resting my head on the kitchen table in a desperate attempt to fend off nausea before I’d written a single word.

As my belly grew, I adhered to my writing regime rigidly. I wouldn’t allow myself to leave my desk until I had reached my 2000 words I’d set as a session target.  If I had a brain wave during a non-allotted work period, in a time when I was, say, being sick in the loo, I’d fish out my notebook and jot the idea down to keep for later. If the brainwave precipitated an intense desire to get stuck into some proper writing when I simply could not, I was swamped by the dual emotions of frustration and acceptance, a duality which also seems to sum up parenting.

When it came to working on the vital final draft and fleshing out my romantic storyline (funny now to think of myself being bone tired and nauseous, yet trying to conjure romantic frisson for my two protagonists), I had to resort to locking myself in the damp basement where there were no distractions. No access to internet, no windows to speak of, just white walls with peeling paint and a vague smell of mould. In the very final days when my baby was near his due date, I used to scurry (okay, waddle) down to the basement with a packed lunch to give myself the feeling of going to proper place of work.  It was tricky sneaking out to use the bathroom while still managing to remain hidden from my children who were enjoying their summer holidays upstairs with their dad. I could sometimes hear them laughing and chatting in the backyard as I toiled in the basement. But under these unusual conditions the work got done. The final pages of my novel went to the printer on February 12 and baby Jack was delivered on February 13, 2007.

That was just the beginning of the juggling act. The vital ‘promotion’ of said work kicked off in April, when Jack was all of three months old. That particular period is a blur; managing to fit in three-hourly feeds at television and radio stations while trying to give semi-coherent interviews after getting next to no sleep was something of a challenge.  Some days were harder than others. I remember sitting on the sofa once surrounded by kids’ toys and other detritus, with not one but three flushed and feverish children beside me. My eldest had a temperature north of 40 degrees and the baby, alarmingly, seemed headed in a similar direction. I called my publisher with a heavy heart and broke the news that she would need to cancel my appearance at an interstate writers’ festival. Having worked in the entertainment industry for almost twenty years, I felt desperately uneasy. Imagine calling in sick to set? It would just never happen.  But as I concluded my phone call with my very understanding publisher my daughter awoke from a fever dream and said, “Mummy. I need you.” It was an answer to my unspoken question.

Anyway, where was I going with all this? Decreased productivity. I had fondly thought that when the kids were tiny that would be the hard bit, and that as they all got older and started going off to school, things would get easier and more work would get done. As it is I have turned down the work in television and film that has come my way and I’ve been flat chat fitting writing and promoting my two children’s books around family obligations. In fact the last book, Edie Amelia and The Runcible River Fever which was released in May, took about eighteen months to complete since I spend a lot of my life in classrooms, behind the wheel, supervising homework and peeling mandarins. Even fitness, which used to be my secret weapon for feeling energized and positive, has fallen by the wayside. I’m not a little ashamed to admit that during 2011 I’ve been barely able to commit to going for the odd walk, let alone bench pressing 30 kilos or pounding out a thousand walking lunges.

But I do know that if I look back on 2011 from a parenting perspective then yes, I do feel good about the amount of time I’ve devoted to the family. I’m nowhere near the world’s best mum and feel both ashamed and embarrassed when my kids say I am. But this year belongs to them and that’s okay with me.

Anyway, there’s always next term to figure out a way to begin a new book. Now, how can I make writing between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. work without then falling asleep on Jack’s breakfast of honey crumpets?

Editor's note: the picture above is not Sophie Lee's basement; we suspect it looks better than this.

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