Parenting Tips for Writers
A former writing student, April Davila (www.aprildavila.com), is having her second child, and asked me if I could submit a piece about writing and parenthood for her blog. Could I submit a piece? Oy, could I submit a piece! I thought you’d like to see what I came up with. (And do check April out–she blogged about doing a month without Monsanto products that was hair-raising, she’s a fantastic writer.)
My old writing teacher, Kate Braverman, used to say that writing and being a mother WAS the sound of one hand clapping. I think that pretty much covers it. But I assume you had the kid anyway. Well, paradox is good for you. So now what are you supposed to do?
1. The Baby Swing. This was my salvation in the first year as a parenting writer. Get the one with the whacking D batteries–not the hand crank, that’s for amateurs. Put the baby in there, and guaranteed, 45 minutes to get some work done. Do not feel guilty. The kid needs the sleep.
2. Give up on cleaning. Triage your precious spare time. First, write. Next, take care of anything animate–kid, spouse, dog. Only then, turn your attention to the inanimate, and only when you absolutely have to. Give up gardening.
3. If you have help for a few hours, leave the house. It will remove the temptation to do the laundry or wash the dishes.
4. Find a mother’s helper babysitter. This is a junior high kid who can use a few bucks and will keep your toddler amused while you’re home. Be prepared for your child to love that kid more than you.
5. Don’t be a prima donna. If you have a few minutes to write, grab them. When I first started writing I couldn’t work if someone was anywhere in the house. Then I couldn’t work if someone was in the room. Once I had a kid, I could work at Grand Central Station. Just give me 15 minutes, that’s all I ask.
6. Encourage young artists. Art projects are a godsend. “Draw me a spaceship, honey.” There’s five minutes, ten if you’re lucky… Get them to include details, like rivets and eyelashes. Don’t forget to expand the assignment. “Draw me the inside of the spaceship.” “Draw me the controls of the spaceship.” “Draw me the planet the spaceship comes from.”
7. Five more minutes. You will be amazed what you will allow your kid to do to get just five more minutes of working done. Why do they always want to draw on the couch with the Chanel lipstick? Why can’t it ever be the Maybelline? When you need five more minutes, you too will be saying, “Looks good, honey.” (see no. 5)
9. Bedtime should be inviolable. Make sure there’s an early enough bedtime that you can see your spouse for an hour, and then go to work for an hour or two. Even if you have to go to bed after your spouse. Suck it up. You both wanted to be parents.
10. Forget gourmet cooking. You’ll learn to make something pretty good out of semi-prepared stuff from Trader Joe.
11. Deflect guilt. Embrace the concept of the Good-Enough Mother. Keith Richards left his kids with Anita–by comparison, you’re mother of the year.
12. Keep sports to a minimum. Do not enroll your child in more demanding activities than you can reasonably cover without feeling resentful of losing your working life. Art classes are once a week. Soccer practice is three times a week. Do the math. (And do not feel you have to pay attention to your kid while you’re sitting there–a well-known book critic and I met at YMCA kids’ swim class when I saw her annotating an advanced reading copy. You’re just the driver.)
13. Books on tape. A great way to get some reading done while you’re nursing or driving kids around.
14. Take notes. Someday you will forget all this, and need to write a scene using an hysterical nursing mother.
15. Dads get more respect. Accept this sad fact. My daughter’s friend had a work-at-home songwriter father. She would look at the closed door of his studio and whisper, “Shhh, Dad’s working” like he was doing open heart surgery. On the other hand, my own closed door was opened fifty times a day with requests like “Mooooommmmmmm, will you pin this?” or “Mooooooooooommmmmm, why does Daddy have a penis?”
And friends will call you, not your male colleagues, who are working–to do errands, have a chat. To tell them you’re writing seems only to indicate that you’re free to have lunch/pick Johnny up at the babysitters/listen to their breakup with their boyfriend. The important thing is to REFUSE. If you don’t value your time, mama, no one else will. It’s only going to get worse.
Ergo, if you can possibly get out of the house to work, do so. Even if it’s just into the backyard. In the treehouse. With the ladder up.
16. Other Mothers. Don’t overlook this great natural resource. Other Mothers like Disneyland, Other Mothers will take your kid along with theirs to see those crappy movies about Christmas and stuff. Other Mothers aren’t working on a novel. Of course, you’ll have to reciprocate eventually–like taking their kid on New Year’s Eve, say, or for their anniversary. But overnights are way less of a pain than shlepping kids around and sitting through Snow Dogs. Kids keep each other amused. You’ll get some writing done.
17. Earplugs and headphones. Parents are notoriously cued into the tone of distress in a child’s voice, the sound of things crashing in the kitchen and so on. Headphones are a godsend. Take them off every half hour or so just to check the tenor of things, make sure nobody’s crying. (They’re also great for drowning out the sound of the spouse’s TV show and/or incessant nattering about his or her day at work etc.)
18. Childproof everything. DUH. The better your childproofing–and the sturdier your sense of indifference to a royal mess–the more you will be able to concentrate.
19. Get your kid a library card. Do it as soon as she can understand what a story is. It’s important to instill respect for the written word, so she grows up having some idea how cool you are.
20. Got Discourse? Make sure to have intellectual conversations with adults on a daily, or near daily level. Facebook isn’t enough. You have to keep your vocabulary above the high school level, and talking to four year olds all day isn’t going to help.
21. Teach about commercials. Teach your children that advertised toys are crap, shilled food is garbage and that advertising is capitalist hypnosis, designed to artificially stimulate demand. I used to chant, “You need it, you want it, you gotta have it” with my daughter during the kiddie commercials. Ask your child, “how big do you think that [fill in the crap toy in the cereal] really is?” He’ll show you ten inches tall. Tell him to look at the hand that’s holding it, to look at the thumbnail.
This serves a twofold purpose–one, it keeps your time and patience from being swallowed up by whining demands to purchase an overwhelming array of crap, and second, well– hey, you’re a writer. Last time I looked, most of us were still paying off our student loans.
22. Share rejections with your child. Model how it is to be a determined, creative person–how every week, people say ‘Does Not Meet Our Needs at this Time’ to Mommy, and she shrugs it off. “Screw them,” Mommy says, and keeps on going.
23. You have a right to create art. Think of your writing as a child, one which will die without your attention. It’s a child that no one else can care for. It will only eat if you feed it. Someone else can make Kraft Mac and Cheese for your kid just as easily as you can. But no one can write your book for you.