Cerrie Burnell: How Motherhood Led me to Writing

October 16, 2014 | By | Reply More

Cerrie Burnell is an actress and well loved CBeebies presenter and one of the few visibly disabled presenters on television.  She wrote a wonderful piece for us last year (read it here) and we’re delighted to feature her again!


Cerrie Burnell

Before I had my daughter, writing was a love which wove in and out of my life like a thread of spider-silk; unbreakable, but to most invisible. Relationships, family, friendships, the many different cities in which I made my home, and my devotion to my career as an actor were the brightly shaded parts of my world, whereas writing was everything unseen. A delicate and accidental happening which took place out of sight, like a dream.

Then, on a bracingly cold February evening I discovered the true meaning of magic: I was pregnant. Five months later I returned from a theatre tour of Scotland to find myself pregnant, single and unemployed- and for the first in my life with a mortgage to pay. Naturally, there were enormous difficulties to overcome, but there is no power on earth stronger than the hope that comes with a new baby. She was my world, her and I, together night after wakeful night, without rest or sense or structure.

Clocks ticking away a different time to ours, the minutes marked by how long she fed for, how long between her baths, how long I could leave her on the bed for to wash my hair. Our world became a sea of midnight washing, lullabies sung at five in the morning, breakfast in bed at seven in the evening and amongst the gentle chaos moments of wonder that stopped my heart. As winter neared, the thing which brightened my day beyond my daughter was the unspoken solidarity of other mums.

Snowflakes - Cerrie Birnell

Snowflakes – Cerrie Birnell

Being in a room with other women who were just as shattered and in love as me, gave me strength, motivation and a sense of humour. But the nights were a different matter. Here I was truly alone. Though in a strange way I was never alone, because the responsibility doesn’t end.

Whether I was in the bath or on the phone or trying to understand a tax bill, instinctively I’d listen for the rhythm of her breathing, the murmur of her dreams and the silky movement of her turning over in her cot. Sometimes I’d feel completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the unending dark.

Early one morning, wide-eyed in the glow of the still flickering street light I sat up and began to write. At first, just thoughts, feelings and scrawled half phrases and then slowly a narrative took shape.

As simply as that,as simply as me lifting a pen, everything shifted. I began to cherish the long restless nights, for in the gaps between dreaming and thinking I would write. The spider silk thread now became a web, stitching the stars and the night and my page, weaving a journey toward a life spent with words.


Mermaid – Cerrie Burnell

Books had first come to me through my mother’s voice, as due to my dyslexia I couldn’t read until I was eight. My mum was determined that this wouldn’t hinder my experience of literature and read to me every night for years.

There is something binding and deeply enchanting about having a story read to you by someone you love, the sentences seem to stay with you forever, like a song resonating through your thoughts. But beyond that these books ignited my imagination and gave me a thirst for adventurous dreaming.

In many ways, long before I could write or could even hold a pencil, I became an editor. As I listened to my mum’s voice I would pick out phrases which seemed to echo light, then rehearse them out loud, running them together with parts of other fairy tales until they all fitted perfectly and I committed them to heart. Now in the fog of my new baby exhaustion, these phrases came drifting out of my subconscious, letting me write as if by grace.

It wasn’t the first time I’d written, all my life I’d sponteaneously been scribbling half beginnings of books, embarrassingly bad poetry and quirky unfinished plays. But in truth I never wrote regularly and nothing was ever penned with any urgency.

During my early career as an actor, writing letters to every accomplished professional in my industry had been as much a part of my life as breathing. But then one night in a fit of tears and anguish at my lack of achievement I made a decision; No more letters, it was time to write a play.


Cerrie Burnell

Writing and performing in my own play taught me the secret art of completion. Finally I knew the joy of finishing what I had begun. Soon after that my acting career picked up and writing was put carefully on a shelf just out of sight. Until in the misty haze of that morning, in moonlit confusion, I stumbled across the hidden shelf and rediscovered my craft. Now it was more than just a desire to write that was driving me, it was a pathway away from isolation and into the brightness of creativity.

Sometimes at night anxiety would grip at my heart, making me feel as if I would be alone forever, making me fearful of how I would pay the mortgage when my contract ended, making me unsteady in my decision-making. However, the moment I devoted my heart to the page my fears melted away like mist.

My wonderful daughter is now six and to date I’ve written five children’s books and a second play. Snowflakes was published last September and four more titles are to follow over the next two years. Through the discipline of writing I have become a more content person and therefore a more confident mother, but it’s only through motherhood that I have become a dedicated writer.

None of these stories or ambitions would be possible were it not for her. There is nothing lovelier than sharing the books I’ve written with my child. And later when I’ve left the room and she thinks I’m out of ear shot, listening to her rehearsing phrases, memorising bits of my stories and weaving them together with words of her own, a spider-silk thread beginning to spin. And with a quiet joy I realise that my imagination is nothing in the wake of hers.

Cerrie is an author, actress and presenter best known for her work on CBeebies- a role which had earned her critical acclaim and a devoted fan-base. Cerrie was named in the observers top ten children’s TV presenters, and she featured in the Guardians  2011 list of 100 most inspiration women.

Cerrie’s first picture book Snowflakes was published last year by scholastic and her one women show The Magical Playroom, which she wrote and performed in premiered at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013. Cerrie’s next picture book Mermaid is due out in April and will be followed by the first in her series of children’s chapter books: Harper And The Scarlet Umbrella.

Cerrie’s original play Winged was performed at the Tristan Bates theatre in 2007 which she is currently adapting it into a screen play.

Follow her on twitter @cerrieburnell

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Leave a Reply