WHAT WE'VE BEEN UP TO

We’re now ten (well, thirty) workshops into the Mothership programme, and I continue to be amazed by the writing coming out of these sessions. Here’s a selection for you to enjoy – unedited, straight from the page of the notebook – along with some background on the work or exercise that inspired the piece. THANK YOU to Rowena, Sarafina, Beth, Rebecca, Sara, Eleanor, and Emily for letting me share your brilliant work here. And remember, readers, these pieces were all written with a baby close to hand: balanced on knees, or hoisted on shoulders, or sleeping in a sling, or playing around ankles, or … any other contortion now so familiar to our Mothership Writers.

In our fourth workshop we free-wrote inspired by a selection of song titles, as suggested by the group (this exercise is now a consistent element of our sessions – we call it Free-writing Jukebox. Hallelujah (club mix), anyone?). Rowena chose A Simple Song. …

A Simple Song

A bird sounds her call
Another hears
Another answers

A bird sounds her call
No-one hears
No-one answers

A bird sounds her call
You hear
You answer

The call answered
You heard me
We answered
We heard

A bird sounds her call
I hear from the den
The still of night
Our den of silence

Wrapped together
As you sleep
Breathing rises you up and down
Soft snuffle of dreams
Curled together

I hear
I answer
May your dreams
Always be answered
May you always be safe
Encircled in me

Our simple song.

 Rowena Deletant

Often we look at pieces of prose or poetry in our sessions and then use them as starting points for work of our own. In our fourth workshop we also read Helen Dunmore’s Patrick, I (from The Picador Book of Birth Poems, edited by Kate Clanchy, 2015), a poem that shows us a new mother standing in her kitchen cooking breakfast on just another “obstinate, exhausted” morning. I asked the group to think about what their mornings were like now. Dunmore writes “mornings are as plain as the pages/Of books in sedentary schooldays” and so we … filled them! Sarafina wrote a poem to her boy Serafael …

Sweet Serafael

In the twilight zone between awake and asleep we exist, Me and You … You and I. 
A space in the bed once saved for your Father 
has now become the space saved for you, 
sweet Serafael. 

Awake, I nourish you with everything I have. 
I am yours entirely. 
Asleep, I protect you and keep you warm. 
Mornings are filled with the purest love, 
sweet Serafael. 

Thank you for bringing the mornings to me, 
for opening my eyes to the wisdom of the sunrise. 
Each day brand new. 
Your endless possibilities wipe away the troubles of the previous day,
sweet Serafael.

Sarafina Finch

In our sixth workshop we read Esther Morgan’s poem Winter (from Writing Motherhood, Seren Books, 2012). I asked the group to take the first line, “Sometimes when you’re not with me” and free-write on from that point. Beth wrote of going out without her baby …

Sometimes when you are not with me

Sometimes when you are not with me, I can feel happy. I can meander through crowds, or wait in queues, and no one looks at me. Well meaning old ladies don’t try to start up conversations with me on buses that awkwardly fizzle out and end up with me smiling at you because I have nowhere else to look. I appear anonymous, uninteresting and ordinary. No one thinks or cares about my bedtime routine or what I feed myself or the fact that sometimes I go to the bathroom and cry.  When you are not with me people do not know I am a mother. They cannot tell just by looking at me that I have silvery trails of stretch marks slithering over my wrinkly belly or that my breasts are swollen with milk. The tired bags under my eyes could be attributed to a night out on the town, or staying up late talking to a lover in Singapore - they could mean something boring and run of the mill. I have both my hands for myself and I can rest them on my lap, or fiddle with my hair as my mind wanders back to a memory and settles in its warm familiarity. If I close my eyes I can hear nothing but the steady flow of water ambling through a small field. It’s warm and I can feel the suns rays on my face and the sweet smell of ripened fruit that has fallen from the tree nearby. When you are not with me, and I am not surrounded by coloured wood and plastic, I can travel back to my memories and sink in to their comforting embrace. It is, however, so easy to look behind and long for the time without you back. Things are so different now. However, when I am with you, I am reminded of how halved I felt, like a cut apple, before you arrived. My world is so much more enjoyable now I look through my eyes as a mother. I pour my overflowing cup of love into your belly, filling you to the brim with all things good and beautiful.You are so good and beautiful. I am grateful, unendingly, to the universe for dropping you in to my life. I will always hold your hand and be your friend, my girl.

Beth Talbot 

In our eighth workshop we discussed the use of unusual narrators in fiction. We read Craig Raine’s poem A Martian Sends a Postcard Home and talked about Tibor Fischer’s ceramic bowl in The Collector Collector. The group then wrote their own pieces from the perspective of a non-human narrator. Rebecca chose a mobile phone …

Mobile Love

I love our relationship, you know. It’s really special, this connection Rob and I have. We’re inseparable – of course! We go everywhere together. I know all his friends, we chat all the time. It’s nice, you know. There are no secrets between us. I know how, when his mind drifts and he isn’t really concentrating, he opens a browser and googles his own name. I know, since Stu was diagnosed with prostrate cancer, he’s been looking up symptoms, whenever he feels anxious. It’s a habit really.

He never tells me, but I know he loves me. He can’t help touching me, all the time, stroking my face. Even at night when we lay together, even in his sleep, his hand twitches, reaches out to check I’m there. I’m his light in dark places, and oh goodness, Rob is just awful at finding new places! But, you know, he’s not like most men, he’s got no qualms about letting me lead the way, give him directions. And, well, I love being useful to him. I just wanna make his life better, you know? Well, our life better.

He totally gets my need for downtime too though – I mean, obviously most of the time I am ‘on’, I’m fully charged and ready to go. But sometimes, when we’ve spent days and nights together, endlessly looking at each other, hanging out with friends, taking photos, reading the news, sometimes, I just, well, I just shut down, you know. It’s all wonderful but sometimes, it’s just too much, too much to process I guess.

At that point, Rob is so quick to hook me up to my charger and let me luxuriate in the flow of electricity coursing through me, reviving me. It’s a real moment of self-care for me and I love that he honours my need for it.

Rebecca Megson

In our tenth workshop we read Jamila Wood’s poem Blk Girl Art (from The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop, Haymarket Books, 2015). It’s a brilliant manifesto to creativity, and the roles that Woods wants for the words in her life. I asked the group to think about their own relationship with words, and what they desire and need from their writing. Sara wrote of the struggle …

Words

When I write,
My words curdle
In my stomach, sometimes, and
Flow out of my mouth
Like vomit and bile.
They stick to the page in strange shapes that I hadn’t imagined.
They stink, especially when
Left
To fester,
Turning green and black with rage.

Other times,
My words come out of my eyes.
Visions to be seen, but not spoken of.

I would rather that
My words
Came from my fingers.
Crafted and moulded into submission.

Sara Turner

In our tenth workshop we also drew inspiration from Toni Morrison – not just her incredible legacy of books, but her attitude to motherhood. We talked about how she was a single working mother, getting up at 4am to write; we then talked about how understanding what we want from our writing helps us decide on how much space to give it in our lives. I then read the group an extended quote from Morrison (from Toni Morrison and Motherhood: a Politics of the Heart, by Andrea O’Reilly, State University of New York Press, 2004) which begins with the lines “There was something so valuable that happened when one became a mother. For me it was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me” and goes on “If you listen to (your children), somehow you are able to free yourself from baggage and vanity and all sorts of things, and deliver a better self, one that you like.” I asked the group to write a piece springing from ideas of reinvention and transformation. Eleanor wrote of stitches …

The First Stitch

The first stitch dissolving cat gut in my perineum, bringing neatly cut flesh back to itself.

The second stitch air into broken nipple, skin smoothed with lanolin. I imagine farming ancestors’ cabbage leaves.

The third stitch tears collected in leaking cloth as a needle unseen pierces your spine.

The seventy sixth stitch screams swallowed in the kitchen while you rage above.

The four hundredth stitch, uterus to uterus, skin to skin, hands around my throat as I go to sleep to save choking on my own vomit.

Today, a thousand stitches and yet only a small corner. Apology notes and love notes and screaming wailing sobbing notes and small excavations of my flesh slipped behind fabric and covered with polka dots or Laura Ashley florals or Christmas hats.

A thousand and one stitches, saliva on grazed knees, baby wipes on beetroot stains.

Eleanor Shaw

As you can see, our Mothership sessions are productive, industrious, varied affairs. Yes we’re chilled, yes the babies do their thing too, but many words are written. I think it’s incredible that every fortnight fifty-eight (yes, we’re now fifty-eight! All with babies under one) mothers turn out, babes in tow, and sit down and write. There’s no pressure to write between the workshops, but I always set extra exercises in case people do find the time. Emily shared something she’d written spontaneously, while at home …

It feels like yesterday

It feels like yesterday that I was still pregnant, my body hostage, my belly swollen, my mind torn between excitement and petrified. Now I have this small human being in my arms, and people keeping asking how she’s doing, telling me I’m doing well. I nod and smile and repeat something I’ve just heard in order to seem responsive and like I know what I’m doing. I’m never alone, sometimes so much so I can’t breath, but when I am I feel empty and find myself craving the warm body of my baby. I occasionally feel like I’m having an out of body experience, watching myself from a bubble, I discover that I’m crying and I don’t remember why or when it started. I almost feel the hormones raging through me like I can feel the rushing of the milk to my breasts. I am at the mercy of my own body and of this everlasting moment. I blink and suddenly I have a wide eyed child sitting on the floor looking at me and trying to pull herself up on my legs. Was that really six months? My memories are there if I reach for them, but they don’t feel like my own. She seems happy, you could say she’s thriving, and that’s the goal. I’m aware of myself breathing, I have thoughts which are my own, if a little jumbled sometimes due to sleep deprivation. I occasionally find peace in a moment, the warmth of the sun on my face, a kiss from my husband, a sip of wine with a home cooked meal, I’m doing ok. To be continued.

Emily Way-Evans

And as Emily says, to be continued …

OUR FIRST WORDS

In the first entry in this journal, posted before the Mothership workshops began, I said that the intention was to share some work here from time to time – ‘jottings from our sessions, the ink still wet.’ I remember hesitating before I wrote those words, wondering if I was committing to something I wasn’t sure we could deliver on; while I always believed that the Mothership sessions had the ability to inspire, to serve as nourishing and creative spaces, could meaningful work be produced actually there in the room? Could people concentrate enough, against the baby soundtrack, to tap into a feeling and set it down on paper in a timed exercise – writing from the hip, with a child on the other? The answer is a resounding YES.

Today I’m both happy and proud to be sharing three pieces from our Mothership workshops. One was produced while the mum was up on her feet, her baby fully-awake in a front-facing sling, her notebook stretched out before her – writing into air. By hook or by crook! What was it that Cyril Connolly said, ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’? Whatevs, Cyril.

The work here is inspired by Julia Darling’s beautiful poem Advice For My Daughters, which was originally published in Indelible, Miraculous (ARC, 2015) and also appears in the fantastic anthology Writing Motherhood, edited by Carolyn Jess-Cooke (Seren, 2017). Last week we read Advice For My Daughters, then, in a short timed exercise, the group wrote their own pieces of advice. Here we have advice for a daughter, advice for a son, and, lastly, advice from a son to his mother. All three of these pieces were read aloud in the sessions – to tears, to applause. Big thanks to Mothership Writers Eleanor, Helena, and Maria for the permission. And thank you, wonderful and wise Julia Darling, for the inspiration.

I have no advice for you. 
I can help you with pensions, and with your hair. 
I will save and save and save 
My money, and my time, and every last ounce of my body,
for you. 
But.
This world is a swirling vortex 
and I cannot tell you whether to root yourself deep, bracing against the wind,
Or to take the deepest breath, and
Throw yourself over the edge. 
I will tell you that I am weak and your father is split down the middle but our love is
unending. 
May it fill you up, every crevice and every star. 
I cannot make you happy, or strong. 
But. 
I have given you life. 
My advice? 
    Live.

Eleanor Shaw

Be kind, and know you are loved.
Of all the things I could teach you, know this:
Be kind, and know you are loved.
People will challenge and change and delight you
So be kind, and know you are loved.
Places to go can be fun, dull or scary
So be kind, and know you are loved.
We will not always know what to do, or to say
So be kind, and know you are loved. 

Helena Hoyle

Be calm, Mum
Everything is fine
You can relax

I am here - and I am happy

All I need is for you to love me
And you do that well

I am fat and simple
And it is good
The world is still a place of presents and immediates
Of here and nows
This is real life
Will you join me?

Be happy and be here, Mum
That is all I want
That and nothing more

Maria Hodson

WE HAVE LIFT-OFF!

The response to Mothership Writers has been astonishing. Within twenty-four hours of launch, the first forty places had been snapped up; despite stopping all promotion we now have a waiting list that’s one hundred-strong. It feels like our writing workshops – the sense of community that’s built around creative endeavour – have tapped into something that new mothers want and need.

In mid-April, the programme of workshops began at St Werburghs Community Centre and Windmill Hill City Farm, here in Bristol. I’d prepared material for the first session but as I walked across the city to St Werburghs, my backpack stuffed with handouts and box-fresh blankets and cushions, I had no real idea how it would go. Teaching creative writing with a room full of babies? Was it crazy?    

We had eighteen mothers and seventeen babies in that first session. There were babies in slings, in arms, on boobs, in buggies, crawling, and meanwhile the Mothership Writers… wrote. They wrote and wrote. The workshop ran to time. We covered all the exercises. We talked meaningfully about building confidence in creativity, the joy of free-writing, the unexpected places our writing could take us. At one point I looked around the room, sunlight streaming in, heads bent in concentration and couldn’t believe how QUIET it was: how was that possible, with so many little ones along for the ride?

Now six sessions have taken place, and it’s clear that the first wasn’t a fluke: creative writing workshops and babies DO mix. Yes, it’s loud sometimes. But not half as loud as you’d think. And anyway, loud is fine. The pervading air is that of calm; we’re a creative space – industrious but informal, a place of encouragement not judgement, no stress. Maybe the babies pick up on the good vibes because every so often when hush falls, and all you can hear is the odd gurgle, the scratch of pens, it feels near enough transcendental.

Over the year-long programme we’ll be focusing on the principles of creative writing, exploring the experience of new motherhood, and working towards pieces to be collected into the first Mothership anthology. Already our crew are up for sharing their work, writing freely and powerfully - many haven’t written creatively since school, others practice journalling or write for therapeutic purposes, we have a poet, a novelist – altogether, I’ve been amazed. I ended one session in tears, moved by a writer’s honesty and eloquence. In another, I taught with a five-week old snuggled in my neck. We’re blessed with an awesome trio of volunteers, writer-mothers Rosie, Meg and Jen, who generously offer their time each fortnight. Our youngest attendee so far is four weeks old. Two mothers have given birth since coming to the first session. We are a group who will grow together, in every sense.

Because of the brilliant response to Mothership in Bristol, we’re running a one-off Inspiration Day exclusively for women on the waiting list, taking place in May. There’ll be taster workshops and inspirational talks from fabulous novelists Lucy Clarke, Rosie Walsh, and Emma Stonex; the idea is that mums who are keen to write can connect with one another, sparking their imagination. Meanwhile a third group has now been added to the programme of workshops, and there are still a few places available for mothers from under-represented communities: spread the word!

Thank you to all who cheered, gave advice, and supported this project, both in its infancy and once launched. Thank you to the amazing Mothership volunteers, Rosie Walsh, Meg Williams and Jen Faulkner. Thank you to our brilliant project partners: Bluebell Care (perinatal mental health support), Bristol 24/7, Windmill Hill City Farm, St Werburghs Community Centre, Storysmith, and Max Minerva’s. Continued epic thanks to Arts Council England and the National Lottery for the project funding. Last thanks belong to the Mothership Writers themselves: fifty-one new mothers (and counting) who so passionately said YES to trying something new, at a time when sleep is scant and demands are plenty; THANK YOU for taking a punt, signing up, and being part of this inspiring, creative, actually pretty magical, journey.

 

THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA

Welcome to Mothership Writers! When the workshops get underway in April we’ll be sharing pieces of writing here in this journal — they’ll be jottings from our sessions, the ink still wet. Spring feels a particularly appropriate time to embark upon a programme of writing workshops: a time of new beginnings, and fresh shoots.

It was a spring day in 2017 when I first thought of running writing workshops in Bristol. I was at Windmill Hill City Farm, one of our two Mothership venues, with my little son. We were in the beautiful, rambling community gardens. It was mid-week, mid-morning, and the place was an oasis. There were sounds of the city - a train was rattling on the tracks, cars passing on the other side of the fence - but we were surrounded by nature. We sat on a rough-hewn wooden bench beneath the spread of a tree, and fed crumbs to a curious sparrow. We wandered the paths, past well-tended vegetable patches and lanky Foxgloves. I felt at once connected to the outside world, and separate from it. What a spot to sit and write, I thought. What a perfect venue for a writing workshop. I’d recently returned from a week teaching creative writing with Arvon, and was still aglow from the pleasure of it. I liked the idea of doing the same in Bristol — a city I’ll always connect with creative adventures and leaps of faith. Over the next year and a half the thought played at the back of my mind. We continued to visit the farm, to push diggers back and forth in the dust, coo over the plump rabbits, and pull faces at the indignant geese. I eyed the workshop rooms – a safer bet than the gardens on inclement days – and the posters for arts and craft, yoga, baby massage. It was a vibrant, inspiring community. And, as far as I could see, nobody was teaching writing here.

But when did the idea of teaching writing become teaching writing to new mothers?    

My son Calvin was born in 2014. My waters broke on the 4.30pm train from London on 5th February, after a day spent with my agent and editor; the first draft of my novel was due in a week, and my son was due three and a half weeks after that. As a natural planner I felt that I was on top of things, that I was on schedule. But that journey, spent mostly in the toilet – an intermittent phone signal thwarting my attempts to call my husband and the hospital – told me otherwise. It was, looking back, a fitting preparation for motherhood: its startling demands took me unawares. It wasn’t that I thought being a mother would be easy, I just didn’t know it would be so hard. That I’d have a new definition of tiredness. Of worry. And yes, of course, of love. I’ve never felt such a sudden and acute sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’ – and I’ve never felt happier being a writer. Writing has the power to take us out of ourselves, or to delve deeper inside: to give us wings or a head-torch.   

When I was seven weeks pregnant I threatened to miscarry, and all I could do was to sit down and write about it. I came across this piece recently, saved into an obscure file on my laptop. I’d called it Barely There, and it’s dated July 2013. Calvin was the size of a blueberry, and, we’d just been told told, his heart was beating too slowly, too faintly. ‘You’ll likely miscarry’, they said. There was nothing to do but wait, and to return for another scan in a week’s time. My husband and I trailed home from the hospital together arm in arm. We hardly talked, because it felt like there was nothing to say. Nothing to be done. But when I got home, I sat straight down to write. Would I have thought of turning to pen and paper (okay, keyboard and screen) if I weren’t already writing? I doubt it. Although I kept a Writing Diary (it started as a place to chronicle my efforts in writing my first novel, and I’ve maintained it ever since) I hadn’t written a personal diary since girlhood — plenty of life experiences had gone by without me feeling an urge to document them. That day, sitting on the sagging blue sofa we’d inherited from pervious tenants, my back to the window and the bright skies that I failed to see as optimistic, I wrote three paragraphs – 548 words, it turns out – and then I closed my laptop. Afterwards, I didn’t feel better as such, but… I felt as if I’d done what I could. I had no greater control over my destiny, but I now knew how I felt about my powerlessness, and that was better than nothing. That was, in fact, something. Looking at it now, I can see that the piece I’d written wasn’t simply an outpouring – though there is merit, and benefit, in that – but a deliberately constructed piece of writing. I’d found the story in what was happening to me, and set that down. An act of muscle memory, probably, but also the comfort, the magic, of craft. More than a year later, when Calvin was a baby, strong of both heart and will, I revisited this first piece, and included it in the novel I was working on. It’s perhaps the only time I’ve so consciously written personal fact into a piece of fiction. I did so because I felt its resonance. It was truthful, and therefore precious.

New motherhood is a landscape that demands to be documented. It is an extraordinary and wondrous and unrelenting place in which to suddenly find oneself. The climate isn’t always hospitable, and survival is everything. No traveller’s journey is ever the same, and every story should be told. I’m excited about exploring the magical properties of creativity with the Mothership Writers. Who knows where it’ll take us? Certainly there will be the pleasure of community. Good coffee. Great cake. Gardens full of spring flowers. The wellbeing benefits of putting pen to paper. And yowling, sleeping, feeding babies, oblivious – for now – of the adventures they’ve sparked.