At 23, my So Cal club girl days forced into the rearview mirror by the unexpected arrival of my first little bundle of joy, I thought it’d be a swell idea to take on an MFA program. Further, spawned by the recent Columbine shootings & my impending motherhood, I simultaneously began my speaking career. Though I multitask with the best of them, to say I was busy is like suggesting Kim Jong-un is kinda feelin’ himself.
Snug in the straightjacket of my principles, frantically washing cloth diapers and manically scanning labels for sulfates, I wrote. I wrote standing up, baby on hip, stirring polenta and wrestling kale. I wrote in grocery store parking lots. I wrote at stoplights. I wrote breast-feeding. I wrote and I read until I couldn’t blink without being bludgeoned by sleep.
Meanwhile, my cohorts, all (intelligently) childless, waxed self-indulgently about inspiration and fonts. I wanted to slap them, but alas I was too exhausted to raise my hand. During one critique, a classmate asked what had inspired my piece. I’ve forgotten my reply, but his clarification has never left me, “No, I mean what were you on?”
Me: About two hours of sleep.
Him: You write sober?
And there my friend is the great divide between the aspiring Kerouac and me: my kids are drugs enough.
Let’s be clear, I don’t mean this in the: ‘Aren’t they fab and I’m high on love’ way (though they are and I am); I mean this in the manner of: ‘Please for the love of Buddha’s mama eat your high-fructose corn syrup bribery nuggets and let me write for five god damn minutes.’
Inspiration? Darn tasty stuff when it’s in season, but a career it does not make. Writing is a job, or, it is…and, it isn’t. It’s a lifestyle.
Querying is a job. Researching is a job. Plotting arcs and charting character traits is a job. Don’t confuse ‘job’ with ‘drag’; I genuinely enjoy much of this stuff. If writing is our chosen career then we have to set goals, follow through, keep track—maybe even throw together a spreadsheet. We have to stay abreast of the trends, learn how to market ourselves while The Industry is still figuring out how to make sense of this new fangled Internet dealeo.
Then there’s the other nineteen hours of a writer’s day.
It’s watching how people move, the inflection in their voice, that terrific speech pattern that betrays an emotional tick. It’s abandoning surface values. It’s constant, relentless dissection. It’s a life strewn with notes-to-self. It’s disappearing from friends and family for as long as we can get away with it, and a little bit longer—then dealing with the inevitable consequences of being criminally less available than the average sane person—with no intention of changing. Ever. It’s thinking about problems (that aren’t real) for people (who aren’t real), when we’re falling asleep, in the shower, in the car, at our kid’s game. It’s a near constant state of being neglectfully distracted while concurrently hyper alert, in a non-reality of our own making.
And, for an irrational length of time, we have nothing to show for our efforts but a mounting pile of evidence that we’re delusional.
Travails aside, there are those of us who have no choice but to write, and are mentally ill enough to harbor the notion that it’s do-able while tackling the obstacle course called parenting.
So back to that speaking career I glossed: I did it. I accomplished what many would argue was leagues further into impossibility than publishing. For fourteen years I was a well-known speaker. I was featured in two television series. I sometimes made more money in hours than many make in a month—and I did it while raising my sons. I didn’t have a nanny; in fact, for a time I was a single mom. I did it with sheer will, ambition and a relentless drive to succeed. I fully intend to do the same with writing. So, while for the time being I’m eyeballs deep in the query process, I’m passing on five gems I’ve learned in the years I’ve been trying to crack the code on this mom situation while pursuing my dreams:
Something has to give: Writing is the most demanding lover I know. There is no way in Sparta I’d give to a significant other what writing exacts. There are only so many hours in a day—writing wants them all…and so do your kids. Since I’m not an advocate for child neglect, I suggest hacking out a personal joy: time with friends, Dr. Phil—I gave up red wine (it makes me sleepy; sleep is for the weak). Your kids will survive if you microwave a few dinners a week (maybe seven); not only will they survive, you’ll be teaching them about priorities, commitment, work ethic and the power of a dream. Chose wisely; I tried compromising gym time, only to discover if I don’t exercise I’m exactly eight trillion times more likely to kill someone. Murder is not good; I now write at the gym. Seriously.
Make peace with it: Guilt over making a compromise is an act of disrespect. Your wasting time with every second you spend flogging yourself—time you could be using to stir that homemade mac & cheese you’re not making in order to write. Stop being a martyr and let it go already—it’s annoying. If someone else is guilt tripping you then get to work training them (shock collars optional). Do not, I repeat: do NOT give in to their antics or cries for attention (unless it’s a minor lifting a crack pipe to their lips). Train them to be self-reliant. Train them to respect your writing time. They will learn. It will be rocky, but then it will be over and you’ll have carved out a well-deserved haven of time. At the time of this writing I’m enjoying a lovely breakfast cooked by my well-trained husband—who takes pride in having obtained a college degree while never having read a complete book.
Be unreasonable: If you have to get up at three in the morning to write then do it (I speak from experience). Miss events, prune your friends, don’t answer non-essential emails, chose a low maintenance haircut. In all areas of your life, plant a drought resistant landscape. At the end of the day we’re looking for priorities: oxygen, nutrients, shelter, family, writing (in no particular order).
Have a process: I’m a prolific writer and yet there are some days there’s no water in the well. Sometimes great stuff comes from leaping over a hurdle…and sometimes crap is just crap. For the days when I’m about as likely to solve the mathematical mysteries of the universe as I am to write one sort of pretty sentence, I have a list of handy to-dos: I edit, I research, I read, I build my twitter presence. I have an extra cup of coffee. There’re books about this stuff; you know how to use the Google, look them up on a day you can’t find the will to create.
Take a break: Sometimes you just have to set the pen down, walk away from the keyboard and do something else. I recently returned from a trip to Orlando to support my son play on his All American baseball team (yes, I’m bragging). On said trip my parents tagged along. My best friend came to visit. There was Universal Studios to be conquered. I could have made time to write, but I needed a break. I could feel it in my bones. I had all the elements for an excuse and I used them. I never stopped plotting in my head, I still took notes on my phone, I’m excited about the novel taking shape in my brain—but for those five days I focused on the very real people in my life.
There’s a brilliant Buddhist saying about it being easier to be a monk than a householder. Monks prune down their entire existence to focus on sole the pursuit of enlightenment; householders buy groceries, deal with the in-laws, host dinner parties—there’s stress and conflict lurking around every corner—and such it is with writing. Do I long for expansive stretches of uninterrupted writing time? Of course. Would I trade watching my little guy win the championship game on a walk-off and the joy of knowing I gave birth to that demanding magnificent little shit? Not for all the six-figure book deals in the universe. At the end of the day I have three things going for me:
- I’m crazy enough to believe I can have both.
- I’m smart enough to know nobody owes it to me.
- I’m hard-working enough to set the alarm for stupid-o’clock in the morning and get to work.
Or, maybe I’m just delusional and stubborn—I’ll keep you posted.
Any tips or tricks to keep the hooligans occupied while we hammer out a sentence or two? Or perhaps you just need a spot to fume over their incessant need for a snack, a band aid, a ride, a_____ (feel free to fill in the blank). All comments welcome and appreciated. Onward mamas!