When I was pregnant with Caveboy, I had a little room in my mother-in-law’s expansive attic for myself, to use as a studio. There was a window overlooking a rather bleak field with a strip of ugly pollarded trees lining the marshy bank of a river. It also had a radiator, which was of the utmost importance, as I spent many hours there after the early winter nightfall, at a blue painted desk which had belonged to one of my brother-in-law as a kid, staring at my laptop trying to work, or toying with paints.
Behind me was a pinboard with various meaningful messages, hadiths, saying of Sufis, a copy of my album cover, and other tat stuck to it. At the bottom was an A4 sheet turned sideways that charted all the things I intended to do that year (2008), which had things like Short Stories, Novel, Music, Website, Artwork running along the top, and details in the columns below – work on this or that paragraph; find recording equipment, studio to make new album; learn how to silk screen.
Somewhere in the bottom right-hand corner were the words, in thick marker pen, HAVE BABY.
It sounds ridiculously detached, but at that time having a child meant putting all things personal and creative on an indefinite back-burner, so my due date was also my deadline for everything artistic I wanted to ‘get done’ – achievements, triumphs to notch up on an invisible cosmic post. Things to make me feel dense, that I filled some space in the world.
As the novel ground ever slower and slower on my creativity mill, I began to despair at the vague, lurking thought that I was going to cease to be ‘me’: an individual, an original, even some sort of starlet in my very tiny galaxy. Those great oeuvres of songwriting and literature that danced just above my page, waiting to be called down into materiality, would instead drift off to a better home, a more committed pen.
Not long before I was due to give birth I spoke to a friend on Caveman’s masters course, who was a working artist and a single mother of a 10 year old son. When I voiced my worries she replied, “Don’t worry. As soon as you see that baby you won’t be interested in your novel, or anything else.” It wouldn’t be forever, she reassured me, but the simple and mind-blowing fact of having a baby was sure to leave all other ambitions floundering in the dust miles behind.
I was still only half-convinced, so I spoke to my mother, and asked her how I would be able to put such an enormous, compulsive desire as writing on hold for what could be years, decades, even. Her answer was this: “When you have kids, your life becomes your work of art.”
I’ve thought about this response many times since then, and I’ve discovered that it means so many things. Not only the traditional housewifely role of making your house beautiful, arranging flowers – and growing them yourself, sewing snappy, chic outfits with limited resources, cooking splendid meals for bedazzled guests.
Making your life a work of art means greeting the world as a muse, looking for the telling detail, the great perception. It means observing your environment as though you had the world’s most expensive camera in your hands, being the captive audience of a collision of shoppers on a spring-lit street, falling deeply in love with a forest canopy and its infinite rearrangements of shifting light.
Where do all of the sparkling phrases, sublime paintings and boundlessly narrative photographs come from, anyway? There is a spring under the turf that sends up its fruit, water filtered through miles of chalk and limestone from eons-old rainstorms; you don’t just chip at the surface and find something to quench your thirst any old where. Refill the underground lakes. Let everything in reality percolate in.
And return it to the world, too – offer your whole being as the masterpiece you don’t have the time or the skills to execute perfectly right now.
The life embodied in you, what makes us distinct from a cucumber or a wall fitting, that becomes your work of art, too; work done without ever lifting a paintbrush or sketching out a plotline. Effortless work, being transformed in every moment into one endlessly regenerating story, a picture that never sits still.
To witness that life entering the world, not dipping in a cautious toe but leaping blindly into a vast unknown place without ever retracting its intention to do so, is to have your artistic apprenticeship forged in your own body and scarred into your belly’s skin. It should never be seen as a pitstop on the artist’s personal racecourse; let it be instead its fuel.