Guest post by Amanda Berriman, author of Home
It’s Wednesday 4th March 2015, Day 59. I’m up at 5am, breathing in lemon and ginger steam from the mug warming my hands and staring at my laptop screen willing my brain to engage. Normal Wednesday writing time is after a day of teaching, sometime in the evening, after the kids are in bed, but I’m taking my school choir to Manchester Arena today for Young Voices. I’m out of the door at seven and not due back until almost midnight and, whatever I do, I must not Break the Chain.
Don’t Break the Chain was a Christmas gift from my husband. An A4 sheet of paper with a grid marking out 365 days. It was his way of telling me to get on and finish the first draft of the novel I talked endlessly about but kept making excuses not to write. The novel in progress had grown from a short story – A Home without Moles – that I’d written in 2013 for the charity anthology Stories for Homes (raising money for Shelter). It had taken me a year and a half to write forty-five thousand words but I kept procrastinating, excuses ready for every time I didn’t put my bum on the seat. I can’t write too early (not awake enough). I can’t write too late (too tired). I’ve only got half an hour (no point starting). The kids are playing upstairs, downstairs, outside (I’m not sure what the excuse was there but the constant feeling that they might need me, interrupt me or start the next world war between them was enough to paralyse me).
But at the same time, this novel was gnawing at me. It’s main character, four-and-a-half-year-old Jesika stomped about demanding attention, her voice clear and alive and needing to be heard. And, like my children, she was very hard to ignore. So I took up the challenge.
I started my chain on the 5th January 2015. (I’m all for starting a new year the way you mean to go on but I was realistic; I waited until after we’d taken the Christmas decorations down and the kids were back at school.) I set simple, achievable rules: write every day; no time limit; no word limit; all words count including the shit ones. I was working on the principle that a single sentence was better than nothing because a sentence could lead to a paragraph, to two paragraphs, to a few thousand words. And if it didn’t, I’d still have one more sentence, I was still moving forward, so I still coloured in another square in the chain.
My alarm goes off just before six; my half-drunk cup of lemon and ginger tea is lukewarm. I started writing without noticing and I’ve added around three hundred words to the draft. I colour in Day 59 and go and get dressed for work.
The days tick by, the chain grows longer. Conscious effort to find time becomes habit. I’ve learned which days I must sit down at the first opportunity (because it’s likely to be the only one) and which days I can relax a bit more and plan a more luxurious time to write that involves peace, quiet and no interruptions. I’ve learned that I can write before six in the morning and after ten at night. I can write in the kitchen for a hurried twelve minutes while I wait for the pasta to cook. I can write in the front room while the kids are watching their favourite annoying children’s programme with the theme tune that I’ll be singing in my sleep for weeks. And, REVELATION, it turns out that it is even possible to bash out a thousand not bad words in the middle of a soft play centre cafe. Who knew? (I was supervising my kids at the same time, honest.)
When I finally type THE END on the first draft of the novel a few days before Day 100, I’m not sure what to do with myself. I need to get stuck into rewrites but I also need a break, but I don’t want a break from writing. It’s become my every day routine. So I write flash fiction and short stories for a few weeks and, when I feel I’ve got enough distance from the first draft, I get stuck into the Big Rewrite.
I finally broke the chain in February 2016, a week after finishing the Big Rewrite and sending it off to my mentor, Debi Alper, for its first editorial critique. For anyone counting, yes, that was Day 399 of writing every day and, yes, I was very annoyed with myself for not making it to Day 400! But what I’ve carried forwards is that when I need to be writing every day it is possible. I can write anytime, anywhere with any distractions.
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018 (New chain, Day 141, forty-five thousand words of a new novel), my husband and I sit in A&E in Edinburgh with our youngest son. We’re visiting my Mum over the holidays and he’s been presenting some strange symptoms: persistent backache and wonky walking. A few hours and an MRI scan later, we’re given the news that he has a growth in his thorax and he’ll be in hospital for the foreseeable while they work out what’s going on. I return to my childhood home that evening to let our elder son and my Mum know what’s going on. We sit up for a bit but nobody feels like bringing in 2019; we’re in bed before midnight. My eldest son doesn’t want to sleep by himself so he gets into bed with me and drops off almost straight away. I can’t sleep. I realise I haven’t done my writing for the day. Does it really matter if I break the chain now? I have much bigger things to think about. I lie next to my son wide awake and utterly overwhelmed by the hopes and fears and what-ifs crowding my head. At ten to midnight, I sit up, get my laptop out and bash out a couple of mediocre sentences. The words aren’t great but my brain inhabits the story, switching off from reality. When I get back into bed, I sleep.
Today is Day 67 of our son’s stay in hospital – twelve days in Edinburgh and fifty-three days in a hospital closer to home. Life has changed immeasurably. Our son has been diagnosed with Neuroblastoma and he has lost mobility and sensation below his waist due to the tumour pressing on his spine. Both are being treated and we are hopeful for a positive outcome. Some days it is easy to be positive (there’s a lot of progress to focus on) and other days it’s a battle (the road ahead is long and full of uncertainty).
Today is also Day 207 of my chain. It turns out that it’s possible (I’d say essential) to find time to write every day even when you’re spending every day in a hospital. This time the chain is not merely about finishing a draft of a new, exciting novel – writing every day helps me to clear my head, channel negative thoughts away from my son, re-charge my positive energy, pass the time and, like reading, it’s a way to step out of ‘now’ when I need to.
My son is collecting Beads of Courage, different coloured beads to represent each step of his treatment and each challenge he faces, telling the story of how far he’s come. I’m collecting days coloured on a chart and words in a document. My son has 289 beads on his thread. I have 206 coloured boxes and fifty-nine thousand words. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time. We’ve got this.