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.