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.

Our sun room is full of bookcases. Given our affinity for them, our baby surely is genetically predisposed toward liking them. And the way she currently expresses affection for anything is to try and eat it.

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.  

Safety first

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.

The internet offers all kinds of creative solutions. Bicycle inner tubes. Curtains. Plexiglas. We're thinking Plexiglas. What's the point of even having so many books if we can't show them off? 

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.

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.

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. 

Priorities

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. 

You? 

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.

Image of New Yorked (Ash McKenna Book 1)
Manufacturer: Polis Books
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Image of North States Superyard Colorplay 8 Panel Playard
Manufacturer: North States
Part Number: 8768
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Rob Hart

Column by Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor, as well as the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. He's the author of New Yorked, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose and South Village. Short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, All Due Respect, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Birth.Movies.Death, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at www.robwhart.com

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Comments

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and August 28, 2015 - 8:00am

When my daughter was young, I used to strap her in one of those papoose things and turn on the white noise app, then put my laptop on the bookshelf so I could rock her and keep her asleep for a couple hours while I wrote. It looked funny but I wrote a book that way.

MelissaFOlson's picture
MelissaFOlson from Madison, WI is reading something for research, something for fun, something on audio. August 28, 2015 - 8:28am

You know, back before I could afford a regular babysitter, I used to get the "how do you DO it?" question all the time. I would just smile and say, "I don't clean my house. Ever. If you come to my house and it is clean you have either just missed my parents or are at the wrong house." Then the person would always laugh like I was kidding. I was not kidding.

 

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer August 28, 2015 - 8:38am

I have an eight year-old boy. I work fifty hours a week at a day job and then try to write at night. His step-mom is a full-time editor who also freelances at night on top of working on her own writing. Right now, I have him fifty percent of the time, but I had him full-time for a couple of years, from the time he was four to six or so. During that time, I was essentially a single parent. (Although I had a good support system).

A couple of things saved me.

First, I learned to jump in and out of the story without losing momentum. I'm not sure that it is something everyone could learn to do. We all work differently, but I could stop for a few minutes, take care of whatever he needed, and then jump back in to without feeling lost.

Second, I learned that I could write while he did all the crazy things that little boys do. I used to think I needed a good writing environment, silence, inspiration, a cup of coffee...whatever. I found out that all I really need is time and something to write on.

Third, I made my writing life part of his life. He goes with me to writers groups, book signings, conventions, and whatever else I have come up. Certainly, there are certain things that we can't take him to because of content, but anything that is feasible, he goes with us. He sat on a NaNoWriMo panel with me as I spoke about finding time for NaNo as a parent. He goes to write-ins and plays quietly or draws or scribbles "words" in notebooks. I got a Master's degree over the last three years, and he learned that sometimes I just had work to do. He even hangs out with other writers I know at social events. It has been going on for so long that he thinks that is just normal kid life. If anything, he is underwhelmed by it. As far as he's concerned, everyone has written a book or has had a story in a magazine.

It's a bit easier, now. He is old enough that there are times when he would rather lay on the floor and look through Yugioh cards than have me play with him anyway. Now that his mom has him fifty percent of the time, I have more time for writing every other week.

Still, like you said, there are a lot of times when I put it aside and just hangout with him for the night. I don't want to miss out on that stuff, either. It's tough. When they are really young, they don't understand that you can be working even if you are sitting in the living room at home. Then they ask you to play and it is almost impossible to tell them no. I'm probably a less productive writer as a parent, but I wouldn't give it up for anything.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books August 28, 2015 - 9:56am

Support from my spouse, 100%. Though right now, he's deployed and she's moved to kindergarten which gives me less time. So right now basically my life is working and parenting and not much else. I'm lucky to have help from my brother so I can get a break every now and then, but being in this position has made it clear that my spouse was doing A LOT to get me my writing time.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson August 31, 2015 - 5:28am

Damn, Jack, you are highly adaptable. 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow August 31, 2015 - 4:54pm

With a full time cubicle job, my LitReactor side gig and 2 kids---ages 3 1/2 and 6 months---it took me 4 different sittings to even finish this article. But I have found that NOT having time makes me use my time that much more efficiently. I write most of my articles on lunch breaks or while dinner cooks (and burns) or in the half hour I sometimes have between when I get home and when I have to get the kids from daycare. I also write ideas for articles I'm working on in the notes section on my phone when I'm at stoplights--I get all my best ideas when I'm driving. I haven't written a book yet, but I can't blame that on the kids---I could never "get around to it" before they were born. Having a deadline and knowing Josh is WAITING for me to submit my damn article, LIKE YESTERDAY, is the only way I get shit done. Also, I employ a small army of young women to help me with childcare and housecleaning. And, I discovered Instacart and am obsessed with things being delivered to my house. I may be going broke on delivery fees, but anytime I can avoid dragging 2 kids to the grocery store, it's worth cold, hard cash to me. 

 

Also, I find myself obsessed with kids books. Some of them are so bad and so weird! I kinda want to write my own,too. Maybe a grammar board book. Heh heh. I know what kids like...oh yeah.

 

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer September 1, 2015 - 11:15am

My adaptability has always been my defining trait. Sempre Gumby.

rachel1121's picture
rachel1121 from Colorado is reading anything I can get my hands on. September 3, 2015 - 9:52pm

I can relate to everything you said.  My son is 2 and a half and I'm a teacher.  My writing time happens once the tiny human tornado crashes for the night.  Then I carve out a couple of hours on the weekends.  I actually put it on the calendar so I don't book something else the same day.  Naptime has been glorious, but I forsee naps ending soon.  (And he's such a good little napper.  It'll be a sad day.)  Spouse support is huge too.  I take my laptop to the coffee shop--not to be an exhibistionish since I try to hide in the corner, but because if I don't, I won't get anything done.  Husband hangs with kid.  I hang with coffee.  It all works out.  It's not really much time right now, but the little guy won't be a little guy forever, and I'm sure I'll get some of that free time back once he's a teenager and way too cool to hang out his mom.

 

Side note--kid's bookstores and story time.  So. Much. Fun.  Toddlers are hilarious.