Writing And Parenting: A Survival Guide
There's something about becoming a parent that fundamentally rewires your brain. From my experience, at least. For a long time I was always on the fence about having a kid. It seemed like a thing I would eventually do, but it wasn't something I was rushing toward. And then my daughter arrived. Some days when I'm at work I get depressed because I'm not home with her. So I have to flip through goofy pictures of her on my phone and it only makes me feel a little better.
My daughter is so cool. But she is also hugely irrational. For example, she's not good at napping. When she's tired she'll scream and flail her arms but she won't go to sleep. And I'm like, "Dude, you are the cause of your own suffering. The solution to this is very simple." But she doesn't listen. She keeps screaming and flailing while I wander around the house with her perched on my shoulder, hoping she'll tire herself out.
Being a parent is tough. That is not new information. But being a parent and a writer is a step tougher. Because to be a successful writer you need hours and hours and hours of post-dayjob time, in which you can squirrel away in a dark room (or a coffee shop, if you like to be an exhibitionist about it). And it's hard to find alone time when there is a human who needs your help because she just pooped herself.
I'm not even to the hardest part yet. My daughter is seven months old. She can roll and wiggle real good, but she can't crawl. And as All This Life author Joshua Mohr told me in our chat earlier this summer, once that happens "it's just fucking over. It's like living with Leatherface, peril every single direction."
Which has me thinking about baby-proofing.
Recently a friend-couple brought their one-year-old son over, and I realized just how full of dangerous and pointy objects our house is. Our daughter is already in possession of the dexterity required to roll clean across a room. Very soon, she'll be moving more efficiently.
I've got a blanket and some toys laid out next to my computer in my office, and it used to be simple enough to put my daughter down on the blanket and let her play while I got some work done. What about when the blanket is no longer enough to contain her?
There's the North States Superyard Colorplay 8 Panel Playard. Or as we've taken the calling it in our house, Baby Prison. I think we're going to get a lot of use out of that.
My wife and I are starting to think about our books, too. Our sun room is full of bookcases. Given our affinity for them, our baby is surely genetically predisposed toward liking them. And the way she currently expresses affection for anything is to try and eat it. Bookshelves are also good for climbing when you are a small person who doesn't understand why that is a bad idea.
I asked The Big Keep author Melissa F. Olson—who has two daughters, ages two and six—how she handled the book dilemma. Her answer: Acceptance.
I have long since accepted the fact that no matter how much money we make, we just don’t get to have nice things. My trick with bookshelves is to string a piece of duct tape from one side of the shelf to the other (our bookshelves are cheap) so a book can’t be removed. I did this with my first kid, who liked to tear. I tried it with my second kid, too, but she was determined enough to get that tape off. Turns out she just wanted to scatter books around the floor and walk on them like a bridge, and at this point I just let it happen, because a) it’s the second kid, and b) all the autographed books are on a really high shelf.
Protecting the books (and sure okay the baby too) is important. Also important: Protecting my writing time.
Finding the time
I was legitimately worried about how being a parent was going to impact my writing time. I've got one full-time job (MysteriousPress.com), a part-time job that often feels like a full-time job (LitReactor), and the writing. As we neared the due date, I was dangling my foot into the chasm of a big leap: My first book was due out in six months, and the completed manuscript of my second was due to my publisher in just a few weeks.
Writing during the first few weeks after the baby was born (and months, even) was actually pretty easy. She couldn't move under her own power! She napped a lot! I would wait until my daughter and my wife went to bed and then edit until I was sure my exhausted brain had melted into a puddle and then I went to bed too. Sometimes she would fall asleep and I would open my laptop and type furiously until she woke up. I'm proud to say I hit my deadline on the second book.
Fake Fruit Factory author Patrick Wensink, whose son is three (and who I've turned to a couple of times now for parent/writer advice), said being a writer and a parent actually forced him to be more efficient.
Essentially, I compartmentalize all my writing time. I fit it into my day when I can. The practice of writing everyday before my son helped a lot, because my brain is trained to sit down and work and not wait for some magic elf to inspire me. My son stayed home with me all day, everyday for the first two-and-a-half years and I would just write during naps and then do about three hours at night when he and my wife were in bed.
The biggest tool I had in my arsenal was certainly my wife. She's incredible. Not just because she's super pretty and smart. She's also eternally patient and understanding. She knows that in order to pursue this, there's going to be times that I have to disappear to grapple with my art (goof around on Facebook and claim that it's research).
Spouses are indispensable, as verified by Delilah S. Dawson, author of Hit, who has a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.
I wrote my first book when my second child was nine months old, and it took a lot of support from my husband. He would get up early with them so I could sleep in and then stay up late writing well after bedtime, or he would take them to a playground and the grocery store for four hour stints so I could sneak in some writing.
At one point I was afraid I might have to take a little hiatus from writing, but as it turns out, you can find the time if you want to. It's meant a bit of sacrifice. I've stopped watching baseball. I got two video games at Christmas I haven't opened yet. I didn't finish watching Daredevil until months after everyone else did. Life went on.
The biggest change to all of this, really, has been on my outlook.
A new perspective
Having a daughter made me want to write different kinds of books. Specifically, being from a crime background, and having a little girl, I'm thoughtful of things like violence and how female characters are portrayed. And it's pushed me into new genres. Something I never thought I would do was write a YA fantasy series that's sort of a take on Lord of the Rings but set in modern-day Brooklyn, and here I am.
I want my daughter to have books I wrote that she can read while she's growing up. More than that, I want to write her a character she can look up to. Shortly after she was born she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Two open heart surgeries later, and things are looking great. But I figured out a way to write a character who will have the same diagnosis, spun as a strength (much like how Percy Jackson has ADHD, because Rick Riordan's son has ADHD).
I'm still going to write mean, violent books. I'm currently working on the third Ash McKenna book right now, too. Next month I'm doing a Noir at the Bar reading, where we're going to write stories for other people to read, and I wrote a story called "Party Princess" that is probably the most disturbing thing I've ever written.
But all the crime and noir in the world doesn't make me feel nearly as good as the thought of writing something I can read to my daughter. Again, being a parent rewires your brain. Thus said Delilah:
It's definitely had an effect on my YA books. I want my violence to be earned and to mean something instead of just being out there and raunchy and gratuitous. That's why Hit and Strike show Patsy going through PTSD and worrying that violence is making her a monster. I also want my YA characters to have realistic relationships that provide a good model and delve into feelings, mistakes, and the very real emotions attached to the physical part of their interactions... Writing with my kids in mind also pushed me to be more thorough in the diversity of my books. My kids, and all kids, deserve books that reflect the world they're living in and to see viewpoints different from their own.
Patrick is going a step further than me, even. He just sold two children's books to HarperCollins, Gorillas Go Night Night and Gorillas Go Bananas, due out in 2017 and 2018.
I had never considered writing for children until my son came along. Oddly, there are many famous children's authors who had no children: Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendek and more. I am not one of them.
But I fell in love with good picture books when my son was born and found myself fixing the bad ones in my imagination. Eventually, my wife convinced me to give it a try and I really found it rewarding. It's like writing poetry in a way... there is a form and limits and a simplicity necessary that literary fiction doesn't demand. Especially writing a rhyming book like my first one will be. There are hundreds of bad rhyming books out there and I really aimed to create a good one that was fun to read out loud and be heard. We'll see if that's true or not!
All told, there's one thing that is sometimes impossibly hard: Wanting to write.
I'm one of those people who goes on vacation and is happy to check his e-mail. I will check my e-mail if I wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I even respond to e-mails, on vacation and in the middle of the night, and people think I'm crazy. But it's how I'm wired. I've always figured that nobody ever accomplished anything by not working their ass off.
But now I've got a kid, I find myself less interested in answering e-mails.
Joshua raised a good point, which kind of cuts to the heart of how I've been feeling lately.
I can squirrel away brief swaths of time to write but what I wouldn't have known before I had a kid myself is the gravitational pull to want to spend every second with my daughter. Sure, I could go sequester myself and play with imaginary friends on the page, but there are so many things I want to share with Ava. She's never heard Jimi Hendrix play guitar, or felt the ocean, or tasted pineapple sorbet. How am I supposed to want to do anything except share the world with her?
Especially now that my first book is out, I spend a lot of time working to make it successful. And whenever I'm not working on it, I'm worried about what I should be doing. But sometimes, instead of leaving my daughter on her playmat with a pile of toys and hoping she's distracted enough to leave me in peace—it's really nice to sit on the mat with her and play.
And really, that's the best part of all of this.
I know we've got a lot of parent-writers out there. How do you protect your time? Your books? Your sanity? Share your war stories in the comments.
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