In April 2011 an article appeared about Amanda Coe, the very accomplished screenwriter (Shameless, Filth: The Mary Whitehouse story, The Golden Notebook). For some unknown reason I had kept it (possibly to tell myself that other women are more dedicated to their work than I am and forego sleep in order to write).
While clearing out some manuscripts from my writing shelf, I began to re-read it. It was entitled ‘What she did in the morning’ and it was an interview to publicise her book ‘What they do in the dark’. At the time she was also writing a biopic of Margot Fonteyn, an episode of Dr.Who and adapting Room at the Top for the BBC. Admittedly, writing screenplays means working from treatments and detailed outlines of an existing story, but all the same, to embark on a novel at the same time seems a lot to take on. I have no doubt that Amanda, who read English at Christchurch, Oxford is more capable than most of us. What really got my attention was that she also has a husband and two kids. In the article she said that in order to get her novel written she decided to ‘get up early and do two hours novel-writing before her day job. Wow, I thought. What about the kids’ breakfast, the husband, hanging out the washing, doing the school run, shopping for dinner and who clean the bathroom after four people have used it. I would have been pushed to get up THAT early. My work as art editor and art director meant that I often had to leave for work at 7am, drive for an hour from France into Germany on snowed in roads and return home around 8pm.
I am at a loss to understand why women often boast – to each other – and portray themselves as superwomen who can have it all, but DO IT all . A whole culture has been built around this myth since the so-called women’s liberation. Suddenly we have high powered full-time jobs/careers, shop, feed the kids, have ‘quality time’ with our husbands (i.e. very little indeed), clean the house, keep everyone in clean underwear, not to mention school uniforms, sports kits, jeans and T-shirts AND write novels instead of sleeping. Women such as myself (without nannies, cleaners and house-trained husbands) who read such things begin to feel decidedly bad. To add to all this we also expect of ourselves to have sleek hair, perfect fingernails (does a woman who doesn’t sleep have time to go for nailing?), and when does she shop for food and plan meals so the kids are not reared on rice krispies, pot noodles and sugar-filled muesli bars alone. Amanda was not very boastful about the way she’d managed to write her novel. Many others have claimed to managed to get four kids ready for school, run an investment company or some such, and have lots of sex every night – presumably after cleaning the house, washing cooking etc..
Is this a sort of one-upmanship, in the way women are constantly comparing/trumping each other? We women care a great deal how we are perceived by other women. We know perfectly well that men don’t give a hoot whether your hair is shiny, your nails painted or which shoes you’re wearing. They very sensibly see the whole woman. They don’t buy the idea, as someone once said either about Victoria Beckham, or perhaps she said it herself, that’you must carry a really large handbag, it will make you look thinner’.
So why are we so vulnerable to criticism and the opinion of other women? After all, we no longer compete for the best male in the group.
I for one, having struggled to finish two novels, researched two more, written three stage plays and two radio plays in a little less than five years, feel a real wimp compared to someone like Amanda Coe, but try as I might, I won’t be able to get up a five in the morning to write without asking my husband to have a stretcher and smelling salts at the ready. Sleep is not negociable, but many of us find that out too late, as in the case of Margaret Thatcher who only slept for 4 hours a night at the expense of her disintegrating brain later in her life.
So my advice is, sit in a nice café for your lunch and write your 1000 words there (about 40 minutes) and do another 1000 or so when the kids are in bed. At that rate you should be able to get to the 100,000 word novel in just 50 days. Getting the story down is the easy bit. For me that is where the real work starts – the months/years of editing, putting in the colour and the detail! And checking, checking, checking. And still, lots of sleep.