Writing with kids – easy as ABC?

While it’s widely accepted that kids and writing don’t mix, Andrea Mara and other juggling authors discover their offspring can offer inspiration.

Writing with kids – easy as ABC?

While it’s widely accepted that kids and writing don’t mix, Andrea Mara and other juggling authors discover their offspring can offer inspiration.

When Cyril Connolly famously said the pram in the hall was the enemy of good art, a link between parenting and creativity was born - one that has been discussed many times over since.

John Banville sparked controversy a few years ago when he said in a newspaper interview that it’s impossible to be a good father and a writer — it prompted irritated responses from the numerous authors who are doing exactly that. But whatever way you look at it, it’s unlikely you can write a Booker Prize-winning novel with a toddler pulling out of your leg, and you can’t go to a writer’s retreat with three kids in tow (I know, I’ve checked).

Indeed as I watch child-free authors go to launches and literary festivals, I wonder sometimes what that might be like — to travel at will, without the need for babysitters. And what about the writing itself — how do you do it with kids around? It’s a question that comes up regularly, and in my case, the short answer is, “I don’t.” I write while they’re at school and while they’re in bed. It means too-short mornings and too-late nights but as a new writer, I’ve never known any different, so it feels normal to me.

From left: Cathy Kelly, Andrea Mara, Emily Hourican, and Pat Fitzpatrick, who all successfully juggle family life with their writing careers
From left: Cathy Kelly, Andrea Mara, Emily Hourican, and Pat Fitzpatrick, who all successfully juggle family life with their writing careers

It struck me though, that when it comes to writing, not only are my kids not always a hindrance, they are in fact sometimes a help. I regularly brainstorm ideas with them, and their simple take on plot twists can be refreshing, eye-opening, and inspiring. They’ve also surprised me with their creepiness at times — when I was writing my first book, I asked what would scare them in the middle of the night, and some of their answers made it into the story.

My second book is about a woman who takes a photo of a stranger and posts it online without permission — I asked my kids to help me come up with a title. “What about One Click?” said my 10-year-old, “because cameras click when you take a photo, but click is also something you do on the internet.” So the book is called One Click; a much better title than “Virus” (the one I had in mind), which would have seen the press release go straight to spam folders.

Kids help with writing in less direct ways too — having children has made me more fearful in general — imagining what-if and worst-case scenarios more often than ever before. The kind of bogeyman stories I worried about as a child myself have come full circle — now the bogeyman seems all too real.

So I manage him by writing him into a book; if he’s keeping me awake at night, in whatever form he takes, I turn him into a fictional character, and then I can fall asleep.

Changed perspectives

Kids can change how you write and how you see the world, says bestselling author Cathy Kelly, even if at times it’s hard juggling work and family. “Nothing, nothing can compare with my sons, twins of nearly 15. Every opened door when I was working, every moment when I had to leave for the school run or figure out what to make for dinner again; nothing compares with the joy of family and being a mother.” But you have to work extra hard, she says, and out of the triad of children, work, and a social life, you can only have two.

“I love the two I have. I don’t do the late-night writing blasts I did pre-children because I’m too shattered at seven in the morning to start all over again, but who cares. I work smarter. Children make you wiser in so many ways, turn up your empathy switch, and give you many different prisms through which to view the world. I’m writing my 20th novel and the majority of them were written as a mother, and oh, they are wiser and more full of heart because so am I.”

So what about Cyril Connolly’s quote? “Yeah, Cyril had a point and yet he didn’t have a point because he wasn’t a mother,” says Kelly.

“We have our beloved children and we wouldn’t trade that for anything, and then, when the children are all grown up, we hit the creativity zenith again. Or so they say. I might just be found sobbing over the pen used to mark school uniforms and throwing the laptop into the bin with grief.”

For some authors, children not only inspire better writing but provide material too, as Pat Fitzpatrick, author of No Sex No Sleep has discovered. “The book is really me putting a shape on the first few years of being a parent,” says the father of two. “They’re definitely an inspiration. Kids open you up to the world — they bring you in to new groups for instance — I’ve a community of people I know from the school gate that I would never have talked to before, and all of a sudden they’re my best friends. If you want to write about the world in any way, you need to know about it, and children really do open you up emotionally — they open up the world to you. You start doing different things than you would have done if you were just lazing around with a hangover.”

Working from home with children on site has its challenges, but I’ve discovered that it has it upsides too — over Easter, I taught my kids to make coffee, so they kept me fully caffeinated while I finished my edits and they went to “Camp TV” in our living room. (They said it was the best Easter ever.) And I worked harder and faster than usual, because having limited time and looming parental duties is great for productivity.

Firm focus

Emily Hourican, mother of three and author of The Blamed, agrees. “For me, having kids gave me the focus I totally lacked before them. Instead of drifting along, thinking ‘I have all the time in the world, I’ll do it tomorrow,’ I suddenly realised ‘I need to do this now!’

I also realised that I don’t need five clear hours in front of me to get some decent work done. If I have 30 minutess, I can do a lot. So that was all very galvanising.”

Cashing in

Pat Fitzpatrick has found this too. “Children put shape on your day. They very clearly identify this is the time you’ve got to get stuff done. That’s not the worst thing in the world when you’re trying to get something finished. Whatever other things you can move, you can’t just leave your child at school.” And children provide motivation in other ways too says Hourican. “Needing to earn money to support them has been galvanising. If I didn’t need to earn a living, I suspect I would be far more hesitant about my writing, and more fearful. I would need my work to be perfect, in a way that nothing can ever really be, and I would therefore produce little or nothing.”

The reality is, any job is hard to do with a pram in the hall — whether you’re commuting and dropping at crèche, or fielding phone-calls while feeding toddlers. Writing does not have a monopoly on this. However unlike many other jobs, writing is one that tends to be done at home, and with kids nearby. And by nearby, I mean leaning over my shoulder, reading these words as I type.

Hi kids, you’re brilliant. No really. Now any chance of another cup of coffee?

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