The Pram in the Hall October 24, 2017
There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall. – Cyril Connolly
My son Gabe and his wonderful partner Anna got married this summer. It was a joyous wedding, a moving ceremony they wrote themselves performed by a good-humoured officiant. Afterwards came a reception hosted by Anna’s brother. Good choice, to marry the sister of a professional comedian. Then to dance away the night.
A few months later, here I am, a writer with a married son, feeling that I’ve spent the past thirty years thumbing my nose at Cyril Connolly, that largely-forgotten fount of famous aphorisms. Chief among them is his famous quote about the pram in the hall being the enemy of good art, which he emitted in 1938 (before having children) and which still gets women arguing fiercely, or sets us drooping in dismay.
Mostly the ones quoting Connolly young women in the throes of bringing up their kids and writing about it. Online, I find fewer arguments from men, and very little written by older women who have come out the other side, perhaps with some perspective.
So here is mine.
When we’re young and having children, we are encountering duty, perhaps for the first time. After a notably painful day, we’re suddenly asked to subordinate our wishes to the needs of another—the usually very loud, squally and smelly needs of another—and this can strike us no-longer-quite-so-young-and-carefree writers with horror.
We want to write, right this moment! We need time to dream, to travel, to not earn a living, to drink ouzo on a Greek Island with the ghost of Leonard Cohen, scribbling down insights on cocktail napkins which an always-present but undemanding acolyte will curate into our next book…
When in fact very few people in this world get to do what they want when they want to.
So suck it up.
We all grow up to duties. Almost everyone has to earn a living, and many people around the world have an enormously hard time doing so. Being an artist with children on top of a job or jobettes is very difficult, but most people are trying desperately to carve out some private time between the job and the kids and not always getting it. Especially as bombs fall, famine rages, the climate changes etc.
If you’re a writer, you have to be tough. You have to schedule—and to know you might have to interrupt your schedule if a kid is sick or the cupboard is bare. You won’t think you’re getting as much done as you would otherwise, and certainly as you want to. Of course, I’ve had teeth-gritting moments of desperately wanting some time to myself, to write, and not getting it.
But I have found a couple of things.
The first is that the great joy of being a mother has enriched my life immensely. I have full respect for those who choose not to have children and enormous sympathy for those who want to have them and can’t. But having my son was the best decision I have ever made and a great piece of luck. He has brought joy, love and surprise into my life. Also pain when others have been nasty to him, and moments of rage when he has encountered the overall unfairness of life, and fear when he sets out adventuring. Every emotion comes with parenting. You get—you’re allowed, you’re forced—to experience them all.
And by the way: my jobs as a journalist, for-hire screenwriter, editor and teacher that have taken me away from my creative work have enriched my life almost as deeply.
In the course of my paid work, I have got to know fabulous people I wouldn’t otherwise meet (and truly awful people) and crossed paths with others, famous or obscure, whom I’ve never stopped thinking about. I’ve gone places that enchanted me and enchant me still in memory, and had experiences that I wouldn’t trade for gold. Not all of them have been good experiences. Some, in fact, have been dire, while others have become funny in retrospect even when they were dire or even frightening at the time.
If I’m hit by a bus tomorrow, I will feel I’ve made the best of my life, and having a son was a huge part of that.
Yet—rephrasing the Connolly question—have I written as much as I might have written, or written it as well, if I hadn’t had children or needed to work?
Maybe not, but I’m not so sure about that. When I’ve had months entirely free to write, courtesy of my husband’s support or a gratefully-received grant or because one of my freelance gigs has fallen through at the last moment, I’ve loved sitting down every morning to write and loved writing throughout the day. It’s always a treat.
But I’m not convinced that at the end of the month I’ve accomplished much more than I accomplish during a normal month, when I’ve had to snatch time to write, sometimes getting up at 5:30 in the morning to have a few hours free, sometimes putting off a paid gig for a couple of hours to write madly on a novel before writing madly on the paid work to meet my deadline.
I don’t keep page counts, but my sense is that I do about the same amount of creative work in a slack year as in a busy year. The quality, of course, is for others to evaluate. Yet I have a sense about that, too, and one that’s not always articulated.
Having a kid, meeting those wonderful (or awful) people at work, travelling for jobs, washing up on movie sets or at bizarre parties I can’t wait/can’t bear to leave, I’m coming across material for my writing. Sometimes it’s details, sometimes it’s characters, sometimes it’s insights that experiences bring me. All these things have matured me as a person and therefore as a writer. Duties have matured me. I don’t have to fish and flail for something to say.
Maybe the pram in the hallway isn’t an enemy of good art but a route towards it.
Just putting it out there.