Yesterday, I read on the couch. I had a story open on my iPad and I settled down to focus the whole of my attention on reading. How delightful, I thought. What a lovely Sunday-type thing to do. And such an unusual luxury for a parent — to read in daylight hours!
Correction: yesterday, I tried to read on the couch. Mere minutes into my reading, a three-year-old had perched herself on my back (ostensibly to give me her brand of ‘massage’) while a six-year-old clambered over my legs for space and attention. I felt like Gulliver fending off Lilliputians, and I had to abandon my peace for a later timeslot.
You may therefore be surprised to discover that, in the last half of January and first week of February this year, I churned out an average of 2,000 words per day — and that all happened in the midst of young children, school and uni years restarting, relatives visiting, and business reports being written.
In contrast, March has been a slow month for words. I have been gathering eggs and planting seeds, making bread and kimchi, planning holidays, and trying to ingrain basic Dutch phrases. Sure, I’ve written and edited a few stories, but I’ve taken it much easier. Mostly, though, it’s been slow because of my little people, and I’m ok with that.
And next month will be different again.
So many people, articles and blogs brim with wonderful tidbits of advice as to how you can write with your children around and, for a long time, I tried to follow three rules that didn’t work for me:
- Get up early, they said, so I did. So did the kids. Writing early may work for those who live in a countryside mansion, but we have five people squeezed into a 1970s three-bedroom house. Everyone hears the house squeak when you rise, and especially when you type. For me, getting up early did not result in me getting to sleep any earlier at night; I ended up burning the candle at both ends.
- Write when the kids have daytime sleeps, they said. Which is all well and good when they have daytime sleeps, or when school is in. Otherwise, you wind up stuffed and frustrated.
- Let the little darlings hang off you, they said. Have you tried typing when you have one body calling out for food, at the same time as you are trying to prevent a 20kg weight stuck on a recurring recording of mum-mum-mum from detaching one of your arms, while also using karate-inspired blocking moves you didn’t know you knew to stop the 15kg weight-in-your-lap from winning at a superfun game otherwise known as Pressing The Delete Button — and all this when you’ve got less than a day to finish polishing your manuscript for submission? It doesn’t work for me.
I have found plenty that does work for me, however, and I’m sharing five of my biggest learnings in the hope that something here resonates with you:
- Have a writing goal. This could be a novel, novella, or a daily word count. The 26-year-old Lydia Davis set herself the task of writing two stories per day [yes, without kids]. You have to really want it, this writing goal, or you won’t be in an ideal position to fight for your time; no one else will push for it for you. By dedicating effort and giving priority to your writing goal, you are communicating its importance and others will respect that.
- Everything will change. Accept it. You made a plan to write last night, didn’t you? Or maybe it was this morning. Then a little person woke you up at midnight and you’re getting your lower lids caught under your shoes for the third night in a row. Kids and parents get sick. Partners need time and care. Friends need coffee. Kids need feeding and chooks need cuddles — and vice versa. Aunt Polly’s 80th is happening on the Machu Picchu trail in the same month of your little brother’s wedding in Finland — and you can’t not go to either of them (as fabulous as family excommunication may sound at the time…). Life is chaotic. Embrace it.
- Take away the excuses and just write. Turn off the TV and write. Stop playing video games and write. Sleep less and write. Sit in a cafe and write, a la J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, and countless other famous writers. Get to a meeting ten minutes early and use that time to write. Ten minutes equals a piece of flash fiction, a basic character map, a well-edited paragraph, or a page of ideas. As long as you’re writing regularly, you’re building your art.
- Ask for help — and help yourself. Ask friends and relatives to babysit, or cook. Create a system for easy dinners — eg. rosters involving partners/older kids; (healthy) takeaways every once in a while; slow-cooked dinners; soup! Make lots of soup and freeze it into family meal-sized portions, remembering that many soups also double as sauces for pasta and rice dishes. Consider booking in a day or two of daycare or after-school care each week. Communicate with your family, in a meaningful way. Telling young kids that ‘Mummy’s writing a novel’ may not work, but Daddy-daughter time may help you to gain hours at crucial times.
[Note to family: remember that a writing Mummy is a happy Mummy, and a happy Mummy bakes more biscuits.]
- Be mindful. Be present and enjoy every moment. Children know when you are not 100% there with them; these are the times when they make their most emphatic demands. Take time to listen and empathise. Kick the soccer ball. Smell the sunshine. Listen to the rain. Watch the grass grow. Take pleasure in the distractions of little things and in the big things that make you feel. Ideas come from unexpected, unplanned places. Inspiration hits when you are living life — and this may be in the form of observing how your three, six and nine-year-old children are interacting with a beetle.
In the end, my children are a source of inspiration, not a hindrance to be tolerated. They keep me grounded, enhance my empathy, augment my creativity, and improve my time management skills. My children are evolving me into a better writer than I would otherwise have been.
But these are just a cross-section of my thoughts. Each of us works differently and seeks different outcomes from writing and life. What do you think? How do you make time for your art?
Wishing you a week of many excellent words, or even just a few,