In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.
This week we feature an intensely powerful and personal piece from Maureen Flynn. Thank you for sharing this with us, Maureen, I feel privileged to host it here.
According to Carers Australia there are 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia with more than 770,000 carers primary carers. There are 300,000 carers under the age of 24. On average carers spend approximately 40 hours per week providing care. I used to be afraid and embarrassed to tell people that I have been a carer all of my life. My family didn’t discuss how our situation was different to other families to anyone but immediate friends, family and providers of necessary support. I managed OK. I had ample time to write around university and my Mum was primary carer for my brother, who has autism, so I felt pretty normal most of the time. Sometimes things got tough because Mum would get sick and I’d end up living with family friends, sometimes for months at a time, or I’d be looking after my brother at home, but for the most part I coped. From the beginning my solace was my words: from the years spent in hospital with my brother making picture books for his doctor to diaries and later poetry, I always found the time to write. Writing was a compulsion and an addiction I couldn’t shake.
Then, when I was 22, the day before my final university exam, my Mum was hit head-on by a car. She was taken to hospital and released with severe bruising, but seemed fine. A mere week later I had to call an ambulance while a neighbour helped my Mum slide to the ground on our cement driveway. She couldn’t feel anything on one side. I held her hand in emergency and prayed for the doctors to hurry up and do something, anything, to make her better. In the months that followed, my life was turned upside down. Suddenly my Mum, the stalwart lynchpin of the family, needed spinal surgery. At the same time, her chronic illness flared up thanks to the stress caused by the accident. At 22 I found myself primary carer for my Mum and brother. I didn’t write much that year. I spent a lot of time crying as time and time again I watched my Mum suffer in agonizing pain. The rest of the time I was trying to finish my Honours thesis without dropping out of university.
These were black days indeed, so black that only my closest friends know the full extent of how bad things got. Aside from friendships of steel, one thing got me through the grief and the fear and the frustration. That thing was small cracks of time stolen to write my YA fantasy novel and some short stories (including a short story I have found too painful to return to, though it was cathartic at the time, titled ‘My mother was made of glass’) and my discovery of the Australian speculative fiction scene. I started attending writers festivals, the Aurealis Awards and book launches. Writing ceased to be mere compulsion and became something far more vital: a lifeline even as the hours spent on writing and writing activities caused me crippling guilt as they took my attention away from Mum.
Fast forward to 2015: my Mum is still chronically ill and physically disabled. She has been in hospital for the last eight months straight with a short stint out over Christmas. I spend quite a lot of my time in hospital. I edited My Heart’s Choir Sings on the floor of emergency when my Mum had shingles as we waited for the pain killers. I sorted them into order as minutes passed into hours. I spend a lot of time writing in notebooks on public transport. Sometimes, no, a lot of the time, I wish I had the space and time to write more than what I can currently. I work a full time job around the caring role. Sometimes I can’t write because I feel guilty spending the time on writing or I don’t have the right headspace because it’s been a hard day and all I can think about is how much I want to do normal things with my Mum like go to the movies or go shopping and how much I used to take that stuff for granted. There’s not always space for writing and imagination alongside such thoughts. Sometimes at writers events I can scarcely concentrate for how much my mind is worrying about what’s going on at home and always, always, only just kept at bay is a guilt that smothers coupled with horrible negative self talk.
Why bother writing? You aren’t good enough. You don’t belong with these people. You’re an imposter who thinks she can be great. Even if you are good enough writing won’t make you money anyway and you need money. You should be at home. Why are you having fun? Why are you allowed to try to make your dreams reality when so many others have had their dreams taken away?
Last week my brother’s service provider spoke to me about managing my brother’s supports. I couldn’t’ stop apologising because in the past few months we have been prioritising my mother over my brother’s supports and I haven’t been putting much effort into working with his provider to meet his goals. She said to me, ‘stop. Stop apologizing. You don’t ever apologise to me. I don’t know how you do it. It’s a wonder you aren’t lying flat on your back next to your mother by now.” And as she said it, it clicked. I have survived because of good friends and family and paid support of course, but as many young carers can tell you, it often isn’t quite enough. I’ve stayed sane because I have something that only I can control, a selfish past time that’s all about me. That selfish past time is my writing. No one can replicate it or take it from me unless I let them. No one can do the writing job for me. And even if I never get published and stay the amateur forever, that’s a very important realisation indeed…
It was incredibly hard for me to write this post, but I felt that I needed to write it: for myself and for my family, but also for all of the other young carers out there feeling like they don’t have the right to dream or to take time out for themselves. If you are a young carer and a writer, I have an important message for you: it’s OK to feel guilty, it’s OK to feel inadequate, it’s OK to feel like you are writing in the cracks of your day and barred from a ‘room of one’s own.’ And as I thought about this post more, I realised something else… it’s not just carers who experience these emotions, but other writers too: mothers caring for their children, people writing and living on the poverty line, writers juggling tough full time jobs and writing, writers struggling to find their place in a rapidly changing publishing world. You are not alone or unique or special to worry and feel guilty and afraid and frustrated because you are a writer trying to write as well as a young carer, but you do have pressures most people your age never have to face. You can’t change that.
Take it from me; what you can change is how much you allow yourself to do things just for you. How much you are able to utilise the writing passion and make it your time out. No one can ever take that passion away from you or from me. Here’s my mantra and my challenge: young carers have important stories to tell. So give yourself permission. Dare to dream big. Be passionate. Write when you can. Be brave. Get wild. No one cares like you do. No one writes like you either. It’s time the rest of the world heard your story.
Maureen works for a small national peak working across disability, aged care, mental health and carer support federal reform. In her spare time, she writes young adult speculative fiction novels and short stories, verse poetry and she has just ventured into writing a crime novel. Currently, she is looking for a home for her YA fantasy manuscript and is working on a crime novel and a verse novel about ‘the historical Merlin.’ Maureen reviews speculative fiction novels at her wordpress blog, InkAshlings. Never one for saying no to a challenge, she also reviews genre books, films and TV shows and has interviewed authors for her blog. Her self published verse novella, My Heart’s Choir Sings is available from Amazon and Smashwords. You can follow Maureen at her website, on Goodreads or T