Coping strategies for a guilt free, child-happy, writing-is-happening time…
The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid. (Article by Lauren Sandler, The Atlantic, 2013).Well that’s me out then. I have four. And we still have three full weeks of the summer holidays to run. Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying my children’s company. But let’s be honest, it is relentless.
‘Six weeks holiday, six whole weeks!’
‘No it’s not, it’s seven!’
‘I thought it was eight.’
So went the conversation in our house when school broke. Part of me always shares in their euphoria, but another part goes into mild panic. How to be the devoted and attentive mum whilst not letting this time that I also need for my writing disappear? It’s not all bad, I have finished an edit and begun preparations for next term. But I know I won’t get these weeks back and I can be as guilty of wasting time as the rest of them.
My nine-year-old wants me to know of her every thought, which though endearing can be slightly wearing. She defines exuberance. This, of course, blesses me no end but is not without its challenges. My eighteen-year-old wants to talk through the complete range of her potential A level results and the pros and cons of adjustment and clearing, almost daily. My son wants to take things apart and reassemble them, and all four children have an opinion on everything. Tolstoy is said to have written in his diary ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything’. I get where he’s coming from but I have been driven to find some slightly more inspirational comment.
There is sound advice to be had, however.
E.B. White, writer of Charlotte’s Web and co-writer of The Elements of Style has been here, too. I can relate to what he calls ‘the carnival that is going on all around me’. He tells us, ‘the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to.’ Does this sound familiar? He continues, ‘If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.’ I think he’s right. There’s a lot to be said for grabbing the unexpected five minutes that come our way, wherever we happen to be.
I have taken White’s advice and am developing the ability to work with noise around me. My tactic is to write the essence of the thought that’s hovering in my brain, jotting down the key words and then fine-tuning it during a moment of quiet. I surface before the family when I can, often by 6 a.m., and this gives me my two or three most productive hours of the day. It’s when my thinking is at its sharpest and I spot most of the faults in my work from the day before.
When my youngest is full-on I can still use my lap-top and research themes, read articles and think about my classes. I can also read with chaos all around me, but it’s the creative work that’s often put on hold. I could work in the hut in the garden, but I prefer to save this for when there is a particular deadline. I like to read in there and let the kids join me if they want to (and they do).
There is much to be said for encouraging some early independence. ‘Read your book’, ‘Walk the dog’, ‘Make X a birthday card’, ‘You’ve got one hour to fill on your own, then I’m going to take you out.’ These are all phrases I trot out on a daily basis. It’s still a slog at times though, so please send me yours too.
At the end of the day, I want my kids to remember vibrant, happy summer holidays with a mum who was around for them. And if my writing features in anyone’s memory, then that will be a bonus.
Making time. What is your best time of day, early morning or late at night? Attempt to surface while the rest of the household sleep, or stay up into the night. Once you’ve had a successful writing time at this hour you’ll do it again. Like me, Toni Morrison has found early mornings to be most useful. In The Paris Review she says, “Writing before dawn began as a necessity–I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama–and that was always around five in the morning.” (The Art of Fiction, no, 134).
Read. If you can’t find the space to write you can always do this. Stephen King says “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”
Be realistic. Give yourself a modest, child-accommodating daily word count that you can easily reach. Then congratulate yourself and go and have fun!