helen hayward

life writing

Month: September, 2016


This essay – a longish one – has been on my mind for years now, fed partly by responses to readers of this blog. It’s about why we value what we do at home. Thank you all, Helen. http://velamag.com/homework/screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-15-39-am




Of course I want feedback on the manuscript that I’ve been writing on and off for fifteen years. Of course I want to hear my new editor’s thoughts about it. Up until, that is, she drops the qualifier ‘but’ into a sentence. At which point I wanted her feedback to stop.


The baby whom my new editor promised would be asleep during our phone call mews. We are not alone. Just as my mind was half on my baby whenever I chatted on the phone all those years ago, so is my new editor’s today. She laughs. ‘I really meant for her to be asleep’, she apologises. ‘Really don’t worry about it’, I say. ‘I remember it well’, I add, aware that the mere passage of time relegate me to the position of the older mother.


‘You know’, my new editor says, ‘all the time I was reading your manuscript I was wondering whether you had resolved the struggle you write about, when your children were young, between wanting to be there for them and wanting to succeed in the world’. ‘No’, I reply. ‘I still feel it. I still live that conflict. Perhaps’, I say, thinking aloud, ‘I always will’. ‘Oh’, she says, whether disappointed or not I can’t tell.


Our conversation to and fro’s. The editor mentions that she will be returning to work full-time in January, with two children under four. ‘The sensible choice that I didn’t make’, I think to myself, wondering if reading my manuscript helped to cement her decision. I mention my fear that readers may find my ideas dated. ‘No’, the editor says. ‘The manuscript reads freshly to me. I often found myself making comparisons with my own experience as a mother’. ‘That’s good’, I say, relieved.


‘Another thing sprang to mind while I was reading your manuscript’, the editor says. ‘I’ve only read it through once. But when I was reading it I found myself wondering whether you and your husband were still together. The way you write made me feel you might not be’. There is a pause. ‘Really?’ I reply. ‘Well actually we are, although I do see how you might think that. It might be because I tend to write about the parts of my life that I find tricky and that I need to understand through writing about them.’ Another pause. ‘Although if I’m honest I can also see that being close to my children has lead to less intimacy in my marriage. I guess some readers will judge me for this – I’m not looking forward to that bit. But I wanted to be true to my experience, in writing about it, and this has been my experience. On the other hand I’m married to someone who has allowed me to write about our marriage, which counts for something. Besides’, I add, ‘the last chapter makes it clear where my heart lies’. ‘Yes’, she replies, and we move on.


The first time my new editor uses the rewrite word I don’t pick up on it. But the second time she drops it in I can hear nothing else. ‘Is she serious? But I’ve done with this manuscript’, I think to myself. ‘Finished!’ Keen as I am to publish the manuscript that has been in and out of a drawer since my children were born, I don’t actually want to rewrite it. ‘Isn’t that your job?’ I feel tempted to ask my new editor. Except that I know I can’t ask this. I know that making my work publishable is as much my job as hers. And that for this to happen my new editor and I will be working on it together in the months ahead.


I brace myself to ask a last question. ‘Do you’, I hesitate, feeling a game of snakes and ladders in my stomach, ‘want me to rewrite the whole manuscript?’ ‘Yes and no,’ the editor replies with a laugh. ‘It’s more tightening that it needs. I think that if we think about it in terms of chapters, with each chapter a solid thing, and using your synopsis as a frame, that this next stage won’t be too overwhelming.’


Gulping yet wanting to stay upbeat I change the subject. ‘Do you think’, I ask, ‘that you will want to market the book as a memoir or self-help?’ ‘For me it’s a memoir’, she replies. ‘It’s about your struggle to come to grips with something that – while you don’t resolve it – the process of figuring it out in words allows you to grow from.’ ‘Sure, that sounds right’, I say, struck by the weirdness of my experience of motherhood being summed up in a sentence.


‘So does that mean the book will end up in the Biography section of the bookshop?’ ‘Well’, the editor replies, ‘when I ran a bookshop we had lots of books that didn’t fit into a particular section. For these books I created a section called ‘Madness’. I reckon yours would fit into that’. This time we both laugh. At which point her baby cries loud enough for us both to know that our phone call is at an end – and that once I receive her notes it will be up to me to respond to her feedback. To rewrite parts of A Slow Childhood that I’d thought, until twenty minutes ago, I’d left far behind.