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.