Sunday, July 28, 2013

Motherhood and Writing - Meeting the Challenge

It begins with a sound in one of the rooms above me; a loud thud followed by slow, heavy footsteps.   Then the cadence of what seems like a bowling ball being thrown down the stairs.

“Oh, no,” I whisper as I frantically try to type out a few more words on my computer.  “They are coming.”
I had gotten up early, eager to write, but had been pulled into the world of Facebook and Twitter for far too many precious minutes.  I had wasted time, and now, just when I was beginning to make progress on my manuscript, they were here.

“Mom, what’s for breakfast?”
 My youngest is always the first one up.  As he rubs his sleepy twelve year old eyes under his glasses, I hold up a finger to stop him.

“Just a minute, honey.  I’m almost done.” 
My fingers move faster and faster, trying to get to the end of the scene before my inspiration fails me and I forget the perfectly planned moment I wanted to write.

My youngest child mutters something that sounds like, “Oh, man,” and trudges to the kitchen.
I have been granted a reprieve.  It lasts exactly two minutes.

“We don’t have anything to eat,” he calls from the pantry.  “Mom.  Mom? Mom??!!”
I sigh.  I have one last chance.  “Do you remember ‘The Hunger Games’?  Foraging is an important survival skill.  How long would Katniss have survived if she couldn’t have hunted for squirrels and rodents?”

My unimpressed son stomps back to my desk, his cheeks still pink from sleep and a definite scowl on his face.  “I’m not eating squirrels and rodents.”
I give him my best and most encouraging smile.  “But I bet you can make toast.”

He walks away saying something under his breath that sounds a lot like, “This sucks,” but I choose to ignore it.  I’ve bought a few more minutes.
“Mom, where is the toaster?”

I want to slam my face into my keyboard, but I resist the urge.  This is what summer vacation looks like at my house.
Motherhood is a balancing act, a carefully orchestrated dance that involves juggling your own needs with the needs of your children.  We all need some time for ourselves (Calgon, take me away!), but when you are a both writer and a mother, the need a few quiet moments each day isn’t an occasional selfish luxury; it is critically important.

I’ve learned a few things along the way.  I have three very busy boys, aged nineteen, fourteen and twelve.  They are always hungry.  They create excessive amounts of dirty, smelly clothing.  They leave a trail of debris wherever they go, but this is a fairly easy and pleasant time in my mothering journey.  Things weren’t always this easy.  I was nursing or pregnant or caring for a sleepless infant for years and years.  I once had toddlers pulling on my legs and spilling apple juice on desk.  I have done a lot of writing with “Blues Clues” or “Barney” blaring in the background.   It is so much simpler now, but some careful planning is still very important to keep everyone happy, healthy, fed, and productive.

1.        Find your time to write.

I am very lucky.  I am a stay at home mom.  Once the children go to school in the morning, I have a solid block of beautiful, glorious, uninterrupted writing time.  But during summer vacation and winter break, it isn’t that easy.  I find that if I wake up early, and write a few hours before anyone else wakes up, everyone in the family is much happier (and able to eat breakfast).  Some people are morning larks like me, others are night owls.  Find the writing time that is best for you, and make it work.

2.       Use your writing time for writing.

Social media is a necessary tool for writers.  My super, awesome, and completely wonderful agent (Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency), created a private Facebook page for her writers.  Every day she shares her knowledge and experience with us by posting very useful information about writing and the publishing industry.  This is important stuff.  Looking at photos of my friends’ children and pets is not quite as important.  Be careful not to get sucked into the black hole of Facebook and Twitter-land.  During the precious hours (or minutes) you have set aside for writing, focus on writing.  That sounds easy, but it isn’t.  The laundry is overflowing.  Dishes need to be washed, and you can’t quite remember the last time you dusted.  But those things can all be done when your children wake up – often, the writing cannot.  Make it a sacred time, a time just for writing and nothing else.

3.        Plan ahead.

My children come home every day at 3pm from school.  I always tell my husband that I work the 3-11 shift.  From the moment they get home, my official Mommy gig starts and it doesn’t end until I fall exhausted into bed.  Life is easier for everyone if I just line up my ducks ahead of time.  Every day I start dinner (or at least planning dinner) at 2pm.  This sounds ridiculously early, but at this stage in our lives it is a necessity.  Each evening involves such a barrage of activities, from soccer to tennis to rock band, that eating as soon as the children get home from school has become our only option.  Because my husband travels for work, I am a solo parent most days, and often have to be two places at once.  Planning food and rides and snacks ahead of time (and hopefully not leaving any children behind when I carpool), is vital.  I also plan out errands and grocery shopping days so that I have more solid blocks of writing time.  A little organization goes a long way.
4.        Bring your work with you.

Parents spend a lot of time waiting.  I wait for soccer practice to be over.  I wait for meetings to end after school.  I wait in various places for my children to be done with whatever it is they are doing.  I spend a great deal of time sitting in my car and staring at my watch.  I’ve learned to bring my laptop, or at least a notebook, with me everywhere.  You just never know when you’ll have a few uninterrupted minutes (piano lessons last thirty minutes – yippee!).  Take advantage of them, even if you are just staring into space and dreaming up a new story.

5.        Stop feeling guilty.

I am of Italian and Catholic descent.  I am very good at guilt.  I dream of creating gourmet meals for my family every day and living in a perfectly clean house.  I also dream of writing really good books that will touch, inspire, and (possibly) make people laugh.  My children and my family always come first, but my dreams are important, too.  I’ve heard my friends say they are a better mother when they are working, and I am definitely a better mother when I am writing.  And I’ve realized the old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” is true (although the grammar makes me cringe).  It’s better for everyone in your family if you are doing what makes you happy.

6.        Let them be a part of it.

My children are a valuable resource for me.  They are my most honest critics.  I can tell as soon as I read something to them whether they love it or hate it.  They might try to be polite, but I can see it in their eyes, and they are always right.  When it doesn’t work for them, I know it won’t work for others, but when my story captures their attention and sparks their imagination, I know I’m onto something good.  Once, I was stuck on a plot line.  My youngest (the forager) asked if he could help.  I had my doubts, but I explained my dilemma.  He thought about it for a few minutes, and then came up with the perfect solution.  I think he was around nine years old at the time.  Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is all you need, and if your children can feel like they are part of the process, it is a wonderful thing for everyone.

7.        Don’t let others take your writing time away.

As I said, I am lucky enough to be a stay at home mom.  This means I often get pushed into volunteering for every committee known to man.  Choose your activities wisely.  Don’t become so busy that you stop making time for your writing.  Learn to say, “No,” and practice doing it often.  Every once in a while, in a caffeine induced surge of optimism, I think I can chair several committees, manage a soccer team, and host a sleepover for twenty neighborhood children.  I always regret those decisions.  If you pull yourself too thin, you are going to snap – just like an old rubber band - and it hurts when that happens.  Know your limits (both emotional and physical), and don’t forget limitations on your time, either.  It is a finite and precious resource.

I love being a mother, and I think I’m pretty good at it.  I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.  I love being a writer, too, and thankfully I have a wonderful husband who supports my dreams and believes in me.  Sometimes things go well, and sometimes they do not, but as your children get older, they really do get easier.  I am in awe of the women who have full time jobs, itty bitty babies, and still manage to churn out great books.  I imagine they must have a much higher level of energy or organization or drive than I do, but it is important not to compare yourself to other mothers or other writers.  We are all just doing the best we can.   

Now to help my twelve year old find the toaster, and teach him how to use it….

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