Six months after giving birth to my second child, blogging now feels just as exhilarating and subversive as sneaking out of the house after 6pm with a small handbag that contains no nappies. Ah, the extravagant (guilty) pleasures of early motherhood…
But while blogging feels at the moment like a luxury, I actually resumed ‘proper’ work soon after Ollie was born. That maternity leave I was telling everyone I was going to take (three months of theoretically-blissful uninterrupted mother-baby time) proved to be a delusion. During my pregnancy, the author Maria Katsonis asked me to co-edit with her an anthology of female memoir, Rebellious Daughters. I happily agreed. Little did I realise that the deadlines of my two co-creations – Ollie and this anthology that is – would coincide.
Maria and I divided up our editorial tasks. One of my main ones was the structural editing, and the publishing schedule was almost symbiotic with Ollie’s arrival in the world. Our contributors’ commissioned pieces began streaming in during my last days of pregnancy. I remember reclining in bed three days after birth, with a hospital tag attached to my wrist and a tiny child to my breast, doing some book-related emails. I was taking Endone then, so if anyone thinks my editorial suggestions doesn’t make sense, blame the drugs.
Over the following months I worked with contributors on developing their memoirs, revising my own story for the collection and also writing several short pieces I was commissioned to write for other publications. I could have said ‘no’ at least to the latter, but I didn’t. Cowardice? Not wanting to miss out? Denial of my changed circumstances? I tick all these.
At this time I have also experienced a writing epiphany. I have realised that a writer doesn’t necessarily need a desk (or a bed, if you are Truman Capote) to write. I am happy to report, we writers are a flexible lot and can work in the following conditions: sitting on the floor near a baby’s play mat; hiding in the bedroom from a toddler who plays downstairs with a nanny while the baby dozes nearby in the bassinet, occasionally waking up for a feed; after midnight, fortified with lots of coffee; in cafes with the baby sleeping on me in the carrier. One afternoon I remember editing a contribution by the author Rochelle Siemienowicz while I was breastfeeding hunched over the laptop. When I reached the paragraph where she describes her own days of breastfeeding her son, I began to cry. I am almost certain those were neither tears of sorrow at my situation nor at hers (she wasn’t complaining about that in her essay), nor were they tears of joy. I think this was a pure hormonal response to something that only my hormones knew about. I did finish the editing of that essay though, before the baby finished his feed, and I hope my judgement wasn’t clouded even if my eyes were.
And in between all the liquids – the milk, the tears, the occasional blood drawn when my toddler got distressed by the new competition at home – I was learning an editorial lesson. While I’ve been mentoring writers for years now, rarely did I get the opportunity to work with what you’d call an ‘established author’. And our contributor list consists mostly of such writers (just have a look at the cover below).
Now I have learned several things. Firstly, that even the most accomplished authors sometimes need help, particularly when they write about such super-sensitive stuff as familial tensions. Secondly, these authors are the hardest of workers; some of our contributors tried a few different approaches over several months until they found the right angle and voice to tell their stories. Then, as I also ended up doing a fair bit of copyediting, I learned to tread lightly. Established authors tend to be averse to the slightest interference with their voice (and so they should!). I found that when you work with them, it is sometimes more effective just to point out which sentences don’t work and why rather than re-write them. While some of my revisions resonated with the writers, they equally often came up with creative solutions way better than mine.
The final lesson that came from working on this book was the most unexpected – for me at least (and you are welcome to say ‘but of course!). After I finished a draft of my own memoir for Rebellious Daughters, I gave it to a friend, a professional editor, for feedback. I knew it needed work, but I was taken by surprise when my friend repeated to me the exact words that I’ve been saying to some of the writers I worked with: that I should focus more on the heart of the story which is my conflict with my parents. This revelation – that the problems I saw so clearly in others people’s drafts eluded me entirely in my own work – only reminded me again how much all writers need good editors.
Now that the book is almost done, that idea of maternity leave beckons again. Of course such leave won’t be a complete leave as I already resumed mentoring and teaching, and the year is filling up with literary events too. And yet, I thought, at least I’ll enjoy three months or so without writing to a deadline. Let this be my version of maternity leave. Then I began writing two new short stories…