Readers may not be aware of how heavily writers rely upon reference books, such as encyclopedias, thesauruses, Wikipedia, Dickeypedia, and of course a rhyming dictionary, which often reveals hidden truths about language through a kind of mystical game of word association which posits that synonyms come in triads, or what Carl Jung used to call “threeness envy.” Nobody knew what he meant by that. He has a really weird accent.
In case some of you were curious about my process. This takes you from accepting the gig straight up to the day before.
Image: Gregor Reisch [Public domain]
Almost any time I’m writing, I’m writing with kids around.
A lot of what I publish, including this post, is hasty and unpolished, so I feel a little weird about giving writing advice. Nevertheless, I do produce about 3,500 to 5,500 words most weeks, whether I feel like it or not, and most of that is done while I’m the only adult in a house with one or more little kids; so I guess I have something to say about writing through distractions.
Full disclosure: I do most of my writing while I’m alone with a toddler, but some amount of writing when I have older kids in the house who can help with the younger kids. Moms of only young kids: It does get easier!
Here are some details of how writing gets done around here. These are in no particular order, because it’s vacation week, my kids are fighting over the Spirograph and repeatedly shrieking the “la la la la laaaa” part of “Crocodile Rock,” and it’s vacation week, and they are shrieking. I have bolded some parts to make it look organized.
Don’t expect to sit down and write something start-to-finish. Most often, I get an idea while I’m driving or at Mass or shopping, and I’ll write down a few notes on a receipt, or email it to myself. I usually know when I’m next going to have a block of time to write, so I keep my thoughts about it simmering, and the rest of the essay is often halfway written before I even sit down. I haven’t always been able to do this. It used to be that, if I didn’t immediately pin down an idea, it was gone. Keeping an idea for later is a skill you can cultivate with practice.
Always be writing, even if you’re not writing. Being a writer means you always have some aspect of the project going on, even if that’s just looking around for inspiration, mulling over what you’ve already written, talking an idea over with someone, or wondering why some phrase from Moby Dick keeps popping up in your head every time “Chiquitita” comes on the radio. (There is no joke here. It just seems like something that would happen.)
Yes, set aside specific writing time. Most often, I write for two hours (or more) in the morning, and that’s when I get the biggest chunk of writing done. The easiest way to make this happen is to let the toddler watch TV, and that is often what we do. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world. The longest I can stand to let the kids watch TV is about as long as I can stand to write without taking a break, so that works out. I try not to let one kid watch TV alone. I can live with two kids watching TV together without me, though.
Get something done. If I spend an honest hour or more trying to write and I’m just not making any headway, I will often slap my laptop shut and throw myself wholeheartedly into something else productive, like cooking dinner ahead of time or getting caught up on some housework I was planning to do later. Discouragement snowballs quickly, and if you can’t write but also can’t get anything else done, you’ll finish up the day feeling useless, and tomorrow will be even harder. So make a good try, and if you can’t write, get something done. Sure, it would be more healthy to sternly remind the yawning void that you have intrinsic value even if you don’t produce anything, but sometimes it’s easier just to work with the void.
Write in ridiculous times and places because life is ridiculous. I write while they are in the bath (I sit on a cooler. It’s much more comfortable that typing on the toilet).
In warm months, I write outside while they play, but this one is tough, as they want a lot of engagement, and it’s hard to find enough shade to see the screen properly.
I write on the couch while they climb back and forth across the back of my neck, and I write while I nurse.
I write when I wake up very early and can’t get back to sleep (most of my book was written and edited between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m.).
I write squirreled away in my bedroom while big kids are home to watch little kids or while my husband is home to wrangle kids and make them fold laundry.
I write in the dentist’s waiting room and in the car while I’m waiting to pick people up from the library or Girl Scouts or Shakespeare Club. Sometimes I write while I’m cooking supper, so I can give them two reasons to feel guilty for interrupting me (which they don’t).
Expect and embrace interruptions (well, up to a point). If you’re writing at home with kids around, there will be interruptions. I have worked on getting the kids to take it seriously when I’m typing — to understand that Mama is working a real job just like Daddy works a real job; and that, when Mama is typing, that means Mama is talking, and I’m not available until my hands are still.
But still, if I am home, I am their mother, and I don’t want to be 100% off limits unless I have an especially stressful deadline. So if it’s extremely important that I not be interrupted, I will be very clear that I need to be left alone for x amount of time. If I’m just plodding through something, though, I’ll leave my door open or write in the kitchen, so they can find me if they have a really, really important banana joke or something.
I also have deliberately cultivated the ability to put a bookmark in my thoughts so I can take care of an interruption and then get back to writing. I have also cultivated the ability to grimly push ahead with writing while ignoring howls, kicks, messes, and bids for attention.
It’s actually useful to have to come back to an essay more than once. Think of those interruptions as a chance to freshen up your perspective, so when you come back to an essay, you can read it more objectively. Quiet, void! This is totally a thing!
Wanting to write does not make you a bad mother. Other mothers in other generations haven’t felt the deep, urgent, guilty need to be available to their kids at every moment. The work I do is real work, and it’s normal and reasonable to feel frustrated at interruptions. At the same time, I don’t want my kids to feel guilty or afraid of talking to me if they need something. So I constantly reassess how much time I am spending with them, what I do with my time, what my tone is when I do respond to them, and so on.
But it’s not horrible for them to know that they’re not the center of the universe, and it’s not horrible for them to see their mother doing something other than childcare, cooking, and cleaning.
Just as with nutrition, I don’t stress out about getting the balance right hour to hour or even day to day. Throughout the course of the week, though, I do try to make corrections if I feel guilty night after night about not spending enough time with the kids.
Accept that writing takes time, and that time will be subtracted from your day. It sounds silly, but many mothers believe they can sort of sneak writing in around the edges while taking care of everything else at the same level as when they’re not writing. This is crazy. If you’re spending time writing, you’re not spending time on something else, so that something else won’t get done. You have to decide what’s more important to get done, writing or the other thing, and that’s all there is to it.
Someone asked J. K. Rowling how she managed to write a series of bestselling books while raising a baby alone, and she said, “I didn’t do housework for four years! I’m not Superwoman, and living in squalor, that was the answer.” Sometimes I look at how squalid my house is, and I think, “Damn, I better do some better writing, to justify this.” Either that, or write up a few cheap listicles and then go scrub the shower.
Power through the troughs. There are times when I sit down to my computer like a cat with six different mice to chase, and I just can’t decide which one looks the tastiest. And there are times when the alphabet looks soggy and unfamiliar, and I have a hard time fighting my way all the way through a sentence until I reach the predicate. You’d think I’d write better when I’m refreshed, rested, and feeling upbeat and optimistic, and that it would be harder to write in times of extreme exhaustion, but in fact it doesn’t have anything to do with anything.
Every single writer I have ever talked to goes through this crap sometimes. It’s horrible. It will make you think you’re on your way to EOBD (Early Onset Brain Death), and whatever success you’ve had in the past was just some combination of luck and trickery, and now you’re done, just done, and everyone has been laughing at you for years.
Keep writing anyway, bucko. Eventually that fickle muse will find her way back to your shoulder, so you better be already in the habit of working when she does.
There is one consolation to writing when you feel zero inspiration, and that is to remind yourself that you’re not struggling, you’re in training. Every time you finish an essay without the aid of delight, you’ve completed another round of training for when delight in writing returns (and it will return). Every time you force yourself to express something you don’t care much about because life is meaningless and whatnot, you’ll find your mind that much more agile and responsive when the ideas again come waltzing up one after another, begging for a dance. Tra la la!
Husband. Back when I was writing for my rinky dink little Blogspot blog with twenty-seven readers, my husband saw that it was important for my mental health, and didn’t make me feel bad for spending time writing almost every day, even when there wasn’t even the hint of getting paid for it. Without him making time and space for me to write, and without him reassuring me that it was important to him because it was important to me, I would probably have scrapped it years ago. So now you know whose fault it is that I keep cranking it out! If you don’t have a husband like this, see if you can find a friend who will reassure you that you’re good, and believe them, dammit.
It may just be that you can’t all the writing you want to do right now. There are just too many other things going on. Kids too needy, obligations too pressing, sleep too not-having-enough. I firmly believe that writers will always find a way to write, somehow. It’s a sickness. It’s a compulsion. It’s a thing that will fight its way back up to the surface when the time is right. Writers gonna write, so if you’re a writer, you will find yourself writing. Right?