Visiting the past through reading your own work

Today’s Daily Mail has a piece by me taken from a book called Things I Wish I’d Known: Women Tell the Truth about Motherhood, which is edited by Victoria Young and published by Icon Books. (Aside, it’s a really great compilation of essays and would make a great present for the thinking pregnant woman).

The piece has a slightly more alarmist headline than I’d have chosen myself as I think the actual words are less dramatic and more relatable. It’s about the way that many women (myself included) get caught up in a cycle of exam-succeed-next challenge encouraged at school that doesn’t translate well to parenting.

I wrote the original essay a few years back when the book was just a twinkle in the eye of Victoria. She needed some essays to start off in order to take to agents and then publishers, before getting the whole raft of excellent contributors in the eventual book.

It’s strange, therefore, for me to re-read words that I wrote so long ago and not for immediate (or definite) publication. The newborn baby that was so ill that I talk about in the piece, is now a football loving 10-year-old with the beginnings of teenage grunting and about to go off to secondary school. He still doesn’t eat much though.

On the whole, I avoid reading anything I’ve written. It’s one of the reasons I hate public readings so much as it’s like watching film of yourself. I’m trying to give the reading some expression but the only emotion I’m feeling is utter mortification. I wrote that. Really? Oh god that sentence is awful, I should have edited it out etc, etc.

When the Mail picked up the essay from the book I was forced to re-read in forensic detail. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by my work as there’s a pleasing turn of phrase or unexpectedly perceptive comment. More usually I’m haunted by the painful nostalgia that it can evoke, especially when it’s something as nakedly autobiographical as this essay.

My fiction, as I’m always stressing to anyone who asks, isn’t autobiographical (‘no, the book about the grumpy woman about to divorce her messy husband is in no way based on me and my husband’). However, it is inspired by thoughts that are crowding my brain at any particular point. Often I explore issues that I’m noticing or experience through fiction – that doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical but it might reflect a world I’m in. My first book Isobel was about being single, not enjoying your job and finding love and yourself (in Isobel’s case by investigating a mysterious website devoted to her). The aforementioned The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs was written at a time when I had three children under five and was drowning, both metaphorically and literally, in all the paraphernalia and emotions that brought.

The book I’m currently writing (and near finishing) is about moving to the country but not being able to escape the past. It’s also about dog ownership – I’m hoping that by exploring it through my writing, I can stave off my desperate desire to get myself a canine.

So on those rare occasions I re-read my own work, I cringe not just at my stylistic failures, but also at the emotions and feelings it stirs up. No wonder it’s something I do as rarely as defrosting the freezer.

2 thoughts on “Visiting the past through reading your own work

  1. Reading your article today in the Daily Mail was the first time I have ever read of anyone going through something similar to me. My son didn’t need to stay in hospital, thank goodness, but I thought he had been breastfeeding and so did the midwives – he hadn’t and lost a lot of weight and had high sodium levels. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Hello Paperclips – I’m so sorry not to have replied to your message earlier, will email directly too. Thanks so much for sharing your story, as I now gather it’s incredibly common, I’ve even heard it happen to a paediatrician. I do think there’s a tendency to rush out of hospital today which isn’t always for the best.

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