How not to kill your darlings

In the lead-up to my child’s birth, I’d set myself the task to finish yet another draft of my manuscript and send it out to a publisher. I had already written five, six or more drafts over seven years about the Lizzie Borden case. Now that I was pregnant the current drafting felt different, urgent: I had convinced myself that if I didn’t finish it then and there I never would. Writer friends who were parents warned me that once the baby came, I’d have no time for anything else. The brain would no longer have the capacity to move beyond itself. I may not even know who I was.

I felt like I’d been handed a creative and self-identity death sentence. I must finish before the child comes. But life ignores timelines. The pregnancy progressed. I struggled with character development and scenes, struggled to find narrative movement, struggled to recall words, struggled to sit still. I despised my former self for being a lazy writer, for not being prolific, for not being good enough at the craft. I reasoned that if I had been better, I’d be finished by now. I wrote and struggled and the pregnancy progressed.

The child arrived at the beginning of winter. The manuscript went unfinished. As I tried to figure out how to live with a newborn and to stop feelings of new-parent isolation from becoming too overwhelming, two things happened at once: the compulsion to write, to get back to the primacy of self, story, and words became stronger than ever, and yet I couldn’t relate to the manuscript that had consumed me for years. Words stopped forming. I no longer knew how to write.

In the past I would physically move myself through the novel, take long walks to figure out the narrative problems I was having. This process of writing has (almost) always worked for me. One morning when my child was sleeping, I made another attempt at drafting the manuscript but couldn’t sink into it. I looked out the lounge window, watched winter sun hit the pavement and thought about the way that type of heat creeps under skin. In that moment it occurred to me that physicality could help me again. I woke my child, strapped her to my body, grabbed my notebook and went outside. I would walk until something came. All I could manage that day was to write observations yet words formed freely and I was happy.

The thing with small children is that people want to inhale them, orbit their small bodies and discover what they’re made of. They will come for you. The more I walked, the more I encountered people, mostly elderly women. They all wanted to see the child. ‘They smell good, don’t they?’ Yes, I’d say.

‘My girl was a terrible sleeper,’ said one.

‘Do you breastfeed? We were told not to,’ said another.

‘I wanted to be a career woman but that’s not how things were done in my day.’

‘Is this your first? You’re old to be starting.’ I was only thirty-three at the time.

People and their opinions. People and their stories.  Most days, instead of writing while I was out I was having random conversations. Having a small child usually meant that I could no longer simply walk past strangers even if I wanted to. Instead I was being asked to walk through their back door and watch them relive a past. The more I listened, the more I wrote at night in my notebook, tried to capture everything people told me. They became characters and those characters developed needs and wants.

I met the woman who reignited See What I Have Done along a mud-squelch track in the middle of the parklands. Magpies sung the morning, small insects flew into my mouth and nose, tickled some. My child thrashed tiny legs into my stomach, uncomfortable. The woman wore a red coat. The only colour in a grey landscape, she stood out. She snaked toward me, scratched her wrinkled cheek before stretching her arm for tiny legs, gave a little tug.

‘What a little strong thing.’ Her voice a coo, that high pitched sound of being in love with something new. ‘I bet you give your mum a hard time,’ she laughed, gave tiny legs another tug.

‘Certainly does,’ I said. ‘It’s hard sometimes.’

The woman nodded and we spoke for five minutes about the weather, about the mundane daily rituals involved in parenting, the boredom. The absolute wonder. She told me she painted. I told her I was a writer. ‘It’s hard at the moment.’

‘Don’t worry about a child getting in your way.’ She looked at me and in that cooing tone, said, ‘I still remember the night I wanted to kill my son. He’s forty now. Certain feelings pass, you know. It won’t be hard forever.’ She stroked the tiny legs again and walked on, leaving me in the parklands with the magpies and insects and my baby.

The ordinariness of her experience. What she had sparked in me. I rushed home with that child kicking against my stomach, wrote furious in my notebook, kept on writing until the words ‘Lizzie Borden will kiss her father’s brutalised head’ appeared on the page. My character doing such an ordinary act with her dead father hadn’t occurred to me before then. It felt right.

I had finally made my way back to the manuscript. This chance encounter with the woman reminded me that detours in your creative life, such as having children, will happen. Even those feelings of isolation, of no longer knowing yourself can pass overtime. The point is to recognise that although the act of living as two selves (parent and writer) both severely enriches and detracts from your creativity, using this experience and accepting the gift of the ordinary will make fictional lives sing loudest on the page. Your project may slow down but it’s never going to go away. And you will finish it.



Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel, See What I Have Done, emerged after stumbling across the case of Lizzie Borden by chance in a second-hand bookshop.

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