Emylia Hall on Motherhood, Creativity and the Mothership Writers Course
Novelist Emylia Hall tells us about her own experiences of writing motherhood and how she set up the Mothership Writers course to help new mums carve out a space for creative writing too.
This week marks two years since I ran the very first Mothership Writers workshops at St Werburghs Community Centre and Windmill Hill City Farm in Bristol; these sessions were the first in a yearlong creative writing programme for mums with babies under one, a pilot initiative funded by Arts Council England and the National Lottery. I can vividly remember the moment when I stood in front of the room – 18 mums, notebooks at the ready, and 17 babies, doing what babies do – and thought ‘is this going to work? I think it’s going to work … but is it?’ Would I be able to get a word in over the babble of the babies? Would sleep-deprived new mums really want to turn up and turn their minds to learning about writing craft, when they had so much else on their plates? That first session told me everything I needed to know: yes, it was going to work; in fact, it was going to be pretty magical. Throughout the that first year I witnessed the value of providing an inspiring space for new mums – a place of creativity, community and wellbeing – of support, no judgement, camaraderie. While our workshops were always super-chilled, they were industrious too. One of our writers described the Mothership experience as 'inspirational, life giving, joyful' – and those words are everything to me.
How did it all start though? There are some brilliant creative spaces for mums now – the Mum Poem Press being a luminous example! – but when I was planning Mothership back in 2018, I couldn’t find anything like it out there. I had an instinctive feeling, though, that writing and new mums would be a stellar combination, all because of my own experience. You see, the Mothership story really starts in 2014, when I was pregnant and at work on my third novel, The Sea Between Us. I'd just spent a day in London with my agent and editor when, on the train home to Bristol, my waters broke without warning. My son Calvin was born the next morning, four and a half weeks early. I'm not sure that anything can ever really prepare someone for new motherhood – personally, I'd never before experienced such a startling sense of 'before' and 'after'. We ended up stayed in the hospital for nine nights and I remember at one point showering – tears streaming, one breast already red and hard with mastitis (though I didn't know the name for it then but oh boy would I …) and thinking I will write about this. I felt like I was experiencing something extraordinary, and, as a writer, the desire to process and document it was a natural reflex – and one I drew a lot of strength from; in that hospital bathroom, exhausted, aching, way out of my depth, thinking of putting pen to paper was an incredibly comforting thought. Two weeks later, with Calvin asleep on my chest and my laptop balanced on my knees, I started to write about his birth. It felt like a precious act of communion: my old self, connecting with a raw, new self – and all the time my tiny muse, balled up like a hedgehog, his breathing a metronome for my writing rhythm.
Thanks to the co-parenting arrangement with my husband, when Calvin was three months old, I was back at my desk for half a day every day. The novel I was writing featured a new mum – coincidentally, as I hadn’t been pregnant when I’d started it – and I put so much of my experience into that book. In the early months Calvin would only sleep if he was on the move, so I walked miles with the buggy across Bristol. I was so grateful that my thoughts always had a productive and enriching place to turn to: the world of my novel. Writing to me has always felt like a secret garden, but never more so than back then. While I couldn’t stop getting blocked ducts, or make Calvin cease crying at that 5pm witching hour, or know whether our co-sleeping was totally ill-advised or a perfect arrangement for all of us, I could decide things for the characters in my novel, and I could get a grip on the story I wanted to tell. Here was freedom and here was control – both of which are otherwise in such short supply in new motherhood. I cherished the space that writing gave me.
Mothership Writers was born from this gratitude. I thought back to my impulse that day in the hospital, and how cathartic it’d felt to set it all down on paper, how freeing it was, always having a notebook and pen at hand. I wanted to share this experience with new mothers who perhaps weren't accustomed to writing for their own pleasure and benefit; who'd maybe never done it since childhood. When there are so many demands on you – physical and emotional – your self-identity can feel like it's slipping, that you're forgetting who you used to be or who you want to be; it's a time of many gifts, but it’s also so very challenging. Writing gives us the space to let our own voice be heard, and there’s incredible strength to be found in that.
Mothership Writers is about introducing new mums to the magic of creative writing, encouraging the exploration of experience through prose and poetry, while learning the fundamentals of writing craft. While my background as a novelist has informed how I’ve designed the course – for instance we look at structure, dialogue, character, sense of place – you don’t have to have any novel writing ambitions to take part. What you’ll come away with is a greater appreciation of how stories work, and how writers draw their readers in, whether through fact or fiction or a blend of the two. And half of each session is focused on processing and documenting the motherhood experience. I’ve put together the course in line with my own approach to creative writing, so for instance when it comes to introducing the groups to examples of prose and poetry, I only share pieces that I truly find inspiring; there’s a lot of love in it, and I hope this always comes across.
As is so common in new motherhood, many of our writers are at times struggling with their emotional wellbeing and mental health: one described Mothership as having brought her 'peace, joy and self-confidence at a really difficult and exhausting time', another 'at a time when I felt completely at sea, the sessions provided an anchor-point, and an opportunity to breathe and take time for myself creatively'. I’m always so impressed by the energy, enthusiasm and willing that our crew bring to the sessions – I think that shows the power of the creative impulse, and what happens when you respond to it. And the value in being given space to hear your voice, and connect with the voices of others.
Since Mothership began, I’ve now run over 130 workshops and we’re into our fourth season of sell-out online courses. I was forced to rethink Mothership because of the pandemic, and I really like what it’s now become. Through Zoom we’ve found a new kind of community, and I love that mums from anywhere can take part, that it’s no longer Bristol-centric. While the face-to-face workshops were for mums with babies aged under one, mums with a tot all the way up to aged three can take part in the online courses. And in a bid to make it as accessible as possible, I always offer two paid free places in each workshop group, for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to sign up. Earlier this year I ran Born in Lockdown, a collaborative writing project for new mums, which saw more than 277 people take part; the free eBook has been downloaded more than 5,000 times and has raised more than £6,000 for Sands; it’s a remarkable record of an unreal time in history – and testament to the strength, love and resilience of mums who gave birth amidst it all. Meanwhile, work from the pilot programme of Mothership, an edited collection of writing called Dispatches from New Motherhood from 50 new mums, is shared every week on our Journal, building a one-of-a-kind online library of what it means to be a new mum right here, right now.
Patriarchal society has long expected us to regard motherhood as something ordinary when – as readers of this blog will know – it is anything but; as the poet Carrie Fountain said, ‘if men could have babies, there would be no other subject of poetry. It is the most remarkable thing that happens on planet Earth, and they can’t do it.’ Yes, Carrie! Cyril Connolly – he of the famous/infamous ‘pram in the hall’ quote; the idea that the arrival of children inhibits a creative life – can also do one. Because what we know is this: motherhood is an incredible catalyst for creativity; and I’m proud that Mothership is part of a growing community that celebrates and promotes this fact. Here’s to notebooks in changing bags!
To read Born in Lockdown, go here
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