Let’s get this straight. Women do not bloom, blossom or glow when they are pregnant. At least, not in my world. A few years back I was a community midwife. I had a caseload of about 130 women. At the end of the year I went through my clients’ names, and worked out who had shone with the incandescent maternal beauty you see in soft focus TV adverts or cheesy films. Amongst those women only one never complained, and enjoyed their pregnancy with enthusiasm and joy. She never complained of backache, heartburn, sciatica, varicose veins, nausea, sore breasts or being booted in the ribs by her baby. One girl. Out of 130. Maybe she didn’t tell me, but a happiness emanated from her that was most unusual.
I remember, in that same year, when a woman in her fifth pregnancy came to see me. I had looked after her before, and we got on well. She started on her list. Written on a piece of paper. She was miserable, uncomfortable and tired. It was one of those irresistible moments. She looked at me sadly until I told her that I thought I knew what was wrong. She perked up. ‘I think you’re pregnant.’ She smiled and laughed, and by the end of her appointment was able to leave reassured that her experience was common to woman.
I think writers are like my caseload. There may be the rare but merry bunny who finds writing easy, but most writers will experience pangs of discomfort on a fairly regular basis. The Braxton Hicks or practice contractions of creativity… or as my caseload called them ‘Branston Pickle Contractions’.
My creative problems have consisted largely of false starts… I have bought notebooks and new computers with good intentions. Matching pens. Posh pens. Coloured pens. Desks. I’ve decorated studies. Bought binding systems. But until this year I have never completed a story. So far it is still only an early draft, but the first chapter is going to be published in an anthology of first chapters written by second-year students at West Dean College. I remember being at school and deciding to write a long story. It was long, plotless, had poor characterisation, but it did fill a notebook. I was twelve. It was an exercise in stamina rather than craft. At thirty-two I wrote about 5000 words, but when I finished the University assignment I stopped writing the story. My novel, This Place of Happiness, carries elements of that other opening. A girl in a strange country with the desire to go home, with undercurrents of violence. It was called Pomegranate. This Place of Happiness has subsumed that other novel. I don’t need to write it anymore because the thing that I was trying to say is in the new story. At forty-nine I have finished my precious first draft. It has had different names. Women of Algiers, Mokhi’s Girl, Mokhi’s Girls, and Bou Saada.
When we’re pregnant we dream about ‘the baby’. Sometimes we dream about the baby as teenagers. I have a friend who wants a third baby. She is already talking about ‘the baby’ because that as yet unconceived little one is very real to her. In starting my novel I daydreamed the story. I know what I want it to be. I want it to be beautiful… elegant… stunning in its simplicity… well, something like that. I want it to have the delicacy of a painting by Turner, and the sophistication of… Hmm. It hasn’t. It won’t have. It isn’t any of those things.
There are two paintings known as Women of Algiers. Let me show them to you:
First is a painting by Eugene Delacroix. It has a beauty and subtlety.
The second image is the most expensive painting ever sold. Picasso’s Women of Algiers, influenced by Delacroix.
I want to write like Delacroix, but with the visual power of Picasso. What I have ended up with is a book that my mother likes. In spite of herself. But I grew it to that first stage, painfully, and tentatively. March to December, like my son.