Procreative: How to be a playwright AND a new parent

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the next of our blogs by our playwrights from the Dark Horse FestivalSonali Bhattacharyya gives advice for playwrights balancing writing with parenting.

So, you’re a woman, you’re a playwright, and you’re expecting or have recently had a baby. What the hell were you thinking? Why not throw some circus skills into the freelancing, nappy changing, sleep skipping mix? Only joking. This could be the most creatively fertile period of your writing life (see what I did there?). Or at least a chance for you to redefine yourself as a writer and develop your voice.

5 things I did…

Who needs the Pomodoro technique when you have a sleeping infant who might wake up at any moment?

1 – Guard your writing time

Other parents will use their baby’s nap time to sit in cafes and socialise, go for a jog with them round the park, catch a film at a parent and baby screening, or clean their flat (it has been known). You will power-walk home or to the nearest café with wi fi at the first sign of infant drowsiness, to grab 30, 50, maybe even 90 minutes of blissful uninterrupted writing time. No emails. No internet shopping. No freakin’ Facebook. Just write. There were times I’d sit at my computer with our baby sleeping on my chest in a sling, all the more soundly for the proximity to me, which bought me precious extra writing time. (Yeah, okay, and these were warm bonding moments between us too.) Continue a play you’ve been working on from where you left off, without reading back what you’ve completed so far if you can bear it. You will discover you are 100% more productive than you ever believed. Who needs the Pomodoro technique when you have a sleeping infant who might wake up at any moment?

2 – Write what you want

Maybe you already do this. I view my writing career in two parts: The part pre-parenthood where I had often censored myself and been willing to compromise in the pursuit of politeness and collaboration, and the part post-parenthood where I started writing only what I wanted to see.

Our daughter had to spend 14 weeks in hospital after she was born (do not fear, this is not an inevitable consequence of being a playwright who decides to procreate, it was just my experience), and I was enraged by the glib depiction of NICU life and the expedient use of premature birth in various plot lines on TV and in film. I started writing a play about parents on a neo-natal unit, because I realised it was only on stage that I could convey the intimacy and claustrophobia of this environment.

To my knowledge, there has never been a UK play about NICU life. My agent at the time thought there was good reason for this, and we parted ways, but I was so compelled to tell this story I had to keep going. If you’ve just squeezed a human being out of your uterus it gives you good reason to feel you don’t have to continue being polite all the time. I mean, don’t be a dick, or anything. But if you believe in your work, stand by it.

3 – Lean on friends

No one tells you how becoming a new parent saps your confidence, especially if you’ve always partly defined yourself through work. My confidence as a writer plummeted at about the same rate. Handing over the first few scenes of the first play I’d started to write since our daughter got home from hospital was absolutely nerve wracking. I was convinced I had lost any talent and ability I ever had, and was contemplating alternative career options. But I have an amazing friend, who is also conveniently an amazing playwright, and she offered to meet regularly to share thoughts on what we were writing at the time. We would spend time in cafés, swapping scenes and sharing thoughts while I fed our daughter or she napped in my arms. This was the period when I started to think maybe I was still a writer after all.

If you’re leaning on a friend, they have to be one you trust: someone who will be honest about your work rather than just telling you what they think you want to hear. But then, those are the best kind, aren’t they?

4 – Explore childcare options that work for you

As our daughter got older I realised I could leave her with other trusted adults to allow me to work, but that we could not afford to pay the fees that usually accompanied said trusted adults. I was lucky enough to have made friends with some incredibly cool mums who were also struggling to juggle writing (in their case, PhD theses) with the demands of caring for a young child. So we started swapping childcare for work time.

One afternoon a week I would take my daughter and their kids to the park, or home for a play date (luckily we have no pesky qualms about tidiness in our household, so having three two-year-olds running around was not an issue) to allow them to work, and in return they would look after our daughter another day to allow me to write. This became more crucial as our daughter started to drop her nap. (Luckily she kept napping, sporadically, until she was three, and those 15 hours of free nursery care kicked in. I in no way encouraged this with marathon walks around our neighbourhood, singing songs from Sesame Street to her while she drowsed in her buggy, and any reports of this are exaggerated.)

5 – Send out your work

At first it felt as futile as writing letters of complaint to the Daily Mail. I would send out my play to every open submission and new writing competition going, all the time wondering if I’d become one of those people who signs up for the ‘You Can be a Professional Writer’ courses advertised on the back of Readers’ Digest. But the best way to reconnect with the industry is to share your writing with people working in it.

The play I’d written in those snatched nap time moments was selected for a new writing festival, and I was given the chance to continue developing it with a professional dramaturg. Much later, I discovered this play was so widely read it had contributed to me being commissioned and invited onto several schemes and projects.

…and 2 things I Wish I’d Done:

We need to acknowledge the theatre industry doesn’t pay enough for playwrights to afford nannies and nurseries

1 – Started a group with other parent writers

I wish I’d made an effort to meet other parents who also wrote. The structure and support of a writers’ group where babies and kids would be welcomed would have been a godsend, if I’d had the foresight to try to establish one. This is probably something to think of now, before you’ve actually had the baby, or when they’re very young.

2 – Take your baby to work

I also wish I’d been bolder and more confident about just taking our daughter along to meetings, rather than avoiding them, or finding complex and convoluted childcare options for the odd random weekday afternoon. The only way to break out of the social and professional purdah that can accompany being a freelance creative with a small person to look after is to normalise your situation (because it is perfectly normal, right?).

We need to acknowledge the theatre industry doesn’t pay enough for playwrights to afford nannies and nurseries, and that means we might sometimes just have to bring our kids along with us. (Of course, this goes for other people working in theatre too.)

Nb. All this advice may well work for new fathers too, and I’m sorry if it feels like I’m being exclusive. My experience is that we’ve yet to become an equal enough society to allow fathers to share childcare equally when kids are very young, and this, along with the fact that new parents increasingly live far away from grandparents and other family, means that the brunt of childcare responsibilities often still fall on women for the first year or so.

Sonali Bhattacharyya is currently working on a new commission, ‘King Troll’, as writer in residence for The Coterie, a new theatre company established by director Caitlin McLeod and producer Martha Wilson with the support of Sky Arts. More info here: http://www.thecoterieplatform.com/.  Her new play for Palindrome Productions’ ‘Sahar Speaks’ project will be on at Theatre 503 on 15th and 16th October. You can book tickets here: https://theatre503.com/whats-on/shahar-speaks/

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