There is no such thing as cleaner’s block

I spent seven years trying to write my second novel, Wunderland. My first novel, Eggshells, is a quiet book and would likely be considered a failure in sales terms, but it trundled along nicely, beyond my expectations anyway.

I had written Eggshells in secret, which felt joyful and exciting and new – I had to google “How many words are in a novel?” to know when to stop writing. I started the second book in the same burst of energy that helped me finish the first book. But I had soon got sidetracked by all the things that go with publishing a book. I’d never had anything published before, but suddenly, I was being asked to write something or speak somewhere and I found myself getting easily distracted from my second-novel goal.

I had set up my life with a few hours dedicated to writing after finishing my early-morning cleaning job. This worked, to a point, at the beginning. But when my children were born, with their varying levels of need at different times, the three aspects of my life didn’t gel.

Those few precious hours between day job and creche pick-up were often spent doing writing admin – sending emails, sorting invoices, working on shorter writing projects or preparing for talks. I had previously taken none of this into account when I was telling interviewers about the wonderful balance that I had achieved. I also hadn’t factored in the realities of exhaustion.

My alarm goes off at 4.40am and I’m up several times a night with two toddlers who are, as one of their minders put it, “extremely sleep-resistant”. Some days, it’s all I can do to go to work, cook a dinner (or more realistically, transfer something from the freezer to the oven) and play with the kids.

Sleep deprivation left me at times incapable of completing a sentence in a conversation, never mind trying to find my way back into an unwieldy sprawl of a novel. I wrote part of Wunderland calling Roy, my male character, Ronan. Nouns fail me when I’m exhausted; I can describe an object but can’t find its word, so a book becomes a flat thing made of lots of pages.

When Eggshells came out in the US, I did phone interviews at night with various US radio stations. Instead of playing an intercontinental radio version of Articulate, I decided to substitute in a word, any word, for the one that was missing, which made for some bizarre conversations with very confused interviewers.

There were some distractions over the seven years. Every time I thought I had found some footing and got a handle on my novel, life seemed to intervene. I’d imagined maternity leave would include hours-long baby naps during which I could write, but it meant two feather-light sleepers programmed to wake after 30 minutes, or at the slightest tap of the keyboard. There were medical issues of varying levels of seriousness requiring hospital stays and many hospital appointments. For a couple of years, I saw the staff in the Rotunda and Temple Street hospitals more than my own friends. I also puked through two pregnancies, broke a hand, burst my appendix, had a bout of Covid – mundane enough things, but which subsumed all extras, and writing a novel without a publishing deal (and a deadline) felt like an optional extra.

That mythical flow, those magical moments when the piece of work just seems to write itself, comes from sustained effort, and the sustained part was the problem these years. If you’ve closed the file on your laptop and haven’t gone near it in months, then trying to get back into it is a source of dread. After any distraction, I would get waylaid for weeks and months. I kept falling into periods of self-doubt, second-guessing and deleting every word, trying to silence the “Why bother?” internal questioning. The Write-1000-words-a-day strategy, which I used for writing my first book and had spent years advising aspiring writers to do, had stopped working.

I don’t mean this as a boast of busy-ness. I have a hugely supportive partner who is equally involved in housework and childcare. There are many writers with stressful full-time jobs and more dependents, commitments or obligations than me, who are highly productive. It wasn’t just the external distractions preventing me from working; lack of confidence is demotivating. Procrastination isn’t just laziness, it can be fear that the words you write aren’t good enough or publishable. Without a second book deal I could opt out from writing in a way that I couldn’t opt out of my day job: there is no such thing as cleaner’s block, you show up because you’re paid to, no matter if you’re feeling it or not.

One evening before the pandemic, I was on a panel of writers at an audience event. The night before, I had walked the floor with a teething baby instead of sleeping, got up early for my cleaning job, rushed home to work on a short-term writing deadline, picked up the kids from creche and tore into town in a frazzle. I’d forgotten to put on make-up so I ran into Boots for mascara and into Marks & Spencer toilets to put it on.

I started the event on the back foot and only got further and further backwards. I struggled to keep up with the thread of the discussion. I couldn’t make a coherent argument when my turn came to speak and I faltered, cutting off in mid-sentence, unable to focus with tiredness and stress, and aware that I couldn’t mention my kids for fear of seeming unprofessional. I felt so torn between the different strands of my life, trying so hard but not making a right go at anything.

Because of the years of stop-start writing, Wunderland now had layers and layers that didn’t all cohere, inconsistencies and inaccuracies that multiplied as the word count increased. I got dozens of rejections from publishers, which, at least, had gotten easier with experience. Aoife K Walsh at New Island bravely took on my fictional sprawl and arranged a substantial edit. References had changed or become irrelevant. A mention of an English soccer player had to be updated from Wayne Rooney to Harry Kane, when Rooney retired. Also, I was in my mid-thirties when I’d set Gert, my female character, at age 42, which had seemed very far off. I’m 42 now and had to tone down some of the descriptions of decrepit middle age, appalled by my scornful younger self.

At the start, I was overwhelmed by the impossible labyrinth Wunderland had become, but my brilliant editor, Emma Dunne, posed the right questions and set me going in the right direction and transformed the book I had come to hate.

When I won a couple of prizes that paid for childcare, it made me reassess what I was at. If the money I was given paid me in hours and minutes of time to write, then I would really have to write. The prize money also enabled me to take half a year’s leave from my day-job to finish editing Wunderland and work on other writing projects and see my kids for blissful weekday morning snuggles.

I’m back at cleaning work now, enjoying the physicality of the job and the break from the writing desk, determined not to start another book until I know where I’m going with it. And not until my children realise that sleep is something worth doing.

Wunderland is published by New Island Books

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