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Sep
7
2012

The Writer as a New Mom : A Survival Guide -- by Hulda Bjarnadóttir

You know how it is, you're plodding along, writing three pages one day, five the next, ten on a great day. You complete a story here and a novel there. Then all of a sudden a baby comes along. Whoa. Before you’ve even figured out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing with this wonderful little human being who has taken over your entire life, you have another one. Next thing you know you’re buried under an avalanche of diapers, glow-in-the-dark pacifiers, Playmobil figures and Moomintroll DVDs; you haven´t slept through the night since 2007 -- and one day you realize you haven’t written for, oh, four years…?

To take a completely random non-personal example, of course...

It´s not easy to find time to write when you have young children. Your free time is no longer your free time: it’s family time, household time, heck, in those early years it’s too-tired-to-think time.

And now, you know, because I’ve figured it all out, I’m going to tell you how to write anyway.

Time – what time?

You may feel you have no extra time to write. And I totally get the feeling. But there is no way around it, if you’re going to write, you will need to carve out some time.  A good first step is to catalogue the time you do have. Get a time table, divide it into half an hour chunks (if you are ambitious, go for 15 minutes…). Get a black marker and cross out all the time slots you absolutely cannot devote to writing. This may be the time you are at work, taking a class, being in charge of a wide awake toddler, getting the kids ready for school and attempting to sleep...

Then take a look hard look at the remaining slots.  There will probably be more time there than you anticipated, because, let’s face it, even the busiest of us are masters at wasting time. Pick slots when you will be writing, no matter what.  This can be during naptime, during a time when your spouse will be looking after the kids, in the evenings after the kids are asleep – find some slots of time which will be dedicated to writing.

Then cross out at least half of them.

I mean it. You will aim too high when you start carving out time for yourself. When you have committed to writing half an hour a week (I told you we were aiming low), THEN  you can increase the time to an hour. And when you’ve been successful at using that hour, make it two.  It’s important to start so slow that you can’t possibly  fail, leaving the only available path leading up.

Some ideas for carving out time and making family and fiction writing mesh:

  • Naptime. Oh, wonderful naptime! And if the baby is still sleeping when you wake up, you have time to write! I know there are a million things to do while the baby is asleep – but you might be surprised to see how many of them are actually doable while the baby is awake. Baby carriers are wonderful. You can load the dishwasher with your baby on your back, or get on the floor with her and have fun with that huge pile of unmatched socks. Writing, however, is something you probably cannot do with a baby in your arms. Although I did hear a story about a prolific romance writer of long ago, who did her writing at the kitchen table with the youngest of her many children tied to ta table leg… Not recommending this though. Although… no, not recommended…(she says regretfully...)
  • Your evenings. It is often easiest to find time in the evenings, after the kids are asleep. Unfortunately, evenings also tend to be our least creative time, you know, the too-tired-to-think time. Despite your best intentions you may end up spending your evening half-comatose in front of the TV or on the sofa with the laptop doing something absolutely non-productive. If this is your problem, the best thing you can do is go early to bed, and:
  • Get up an hour before the kids do.  I know, it does sound like one of the worst ideas ever. Especially if you are already getting maximum five hours of sleep, and breastfeeding your baby every two hours… again, to take a completely random non-personal example. But sacrifices must be made for your art, yes?  If you can get into the habit of using this part of the day for your writing, even just once or twice a week it will do wonders for your output.  Just make sure you tiptoe very quietly around the house on your way to your writing corner...
  • Prioritize. I know – tell an overwhelmed new mother all she needs to do is prioritize, and, depending on hours of sleep obtained the previous night, she will either laugh at you or punch you in the face. But seriously, prioritize, and once a week at least, make writing your first priority after your children’s needs. Get take-away and skip making dinner. Let the laundry wait a day.
  • Get babysitting. If you can get safe affordable babysitting, wonderful.  Do it! Time problem solved!
  • Weekends. Weekends tend to be family time, but unless you’re a single parent you can probably carve out an hour or two, can’t you? Make a deal with your family that you get two hours of writing time each Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon.
  • Habituate yourself to writing in the midst of chaos. Work on getting used to the constant interruptions. They will be a fact of life for the next twenty years or so.
  • Engage your family.  Believe it or not, odds are that your family loves you and wants you to be happy. Let them know how important writing is to you, and they (okay, excluding the ten month old who doesn’t care about your literary ambitions at all, just pass the raisins, now!) will probably help you accomplish your goal of carving out time to write.
  • Involve your family.  Discuss your story with your family. It is a great topic to discuss at the kitchen table. Okay, your ten month old isn’t going to care about your character arc, as long as you just keep those raisins coming. But your husband might, and your five year old will get a kick out of helping you brainstorm a character or even drawing a scene. Discussing your story over breakfast can help you keep focus on your work. Let your family in on your characters and your plot - in age appropriate terms, of course. The kids may enjoy hearing about Mom’s invisible friends…
  • Find your working space. We don’t all the luxury of an office, or even a desk. It is terribly distracting to sit down to write with all the chores of the day staring you in the face. Is it possible for you to find a dedicated place to work, where you don’t have to look at dirty dishes or unfolded laundry? Even a card table out in the garage might work.  If nothing else, find a wall and face it…
  • Find a support network. You need the company of writers. You can use an online community such as CC. Or find a critique buddy who’s working on a novel in a similar genre. Or join a writer’s group at your local library. Find someone you can talk to about writing, someone who will ask about your manuscript and how it is going, someone you can hound in return.
  • Reevaluate your field of interest. If you are having trouble keeping focus on that manuscript you were working on Before Baby, perhaps you have grown away from your story. Life changes after you have kids, and so do you. You may be a different person now, and your story and your characters may no longer fit you. If you think this is your problem, put your old story aside for a while and start writing a new one.
  • Reward yourself. If you have older kids, you may be using a reward chart. They work on grown-ups too! Make a reward chart and have your kids monitor it. They may take quite seriously the task of keeping you writing. Get a Will Work for Stickers sign for your desk. :-) 
  • Disconnect the Internet. If the Internet distracts you during your writing time, disconnect. This may be the single most important thing you can do. I know it is for me…

 

Working on your story when you’re not writing.

Some of us have developed elaborate rituals before settling down to work. We need to straighten up our desk. We must water the plants in the window next to our desk. We need to clean our laptop screen and run the anti-virus software and play one game of Mahjong. We need to search our cabinet for that bag of Tibetan rosemary tea and brew it with double-boiled water and sprinkle it with fresh mint, sharpen the pencils we never use, and then, only then, can we get down to the serious business of opening the word processor and hunting down our document  (yes, again completely random non-personal examples....).

Those rituals are called procrastination, and you can’t afford them anymore. Now that time is a rare and precious commodity you need to hit the ground running every time you sit down to write. You have carved out a few hours dedicated to writing. What you can’t do is waste this precious time on organizing your pencil mug or brewing the perfect up of coffee or checking if your favorite web comic has been updated.

You need to be prepared. You need to be involved in your story.

You need to know which keys your fingers will be hitting the moment your butt hits that chair.


How?

There are some tricks you can use.

Stop when the going is good. You may have heard of Hemingway’s trick of always stopping when the writing is going great and you know what’s going to happen next. This works! It can be frustrating as hell to stop when things are finally flowing, but this trick does work. You will come back to that half-finished sentence that next day, and you can start typing as soon as you open the document. If you don’t even get to that wonderful place where ideas are flowing like a cheerful mountain stream, try erasing some of a favorite paragraph before quitting for the day. It will help too, you will start typing to rewrite that paragraph, and once your fingers are hitting those keys, they are more likely to continue doing so.

Record your thoughts. Keep your story in mind throughout your day. Make notes, however minuscule, because we all know what happens to brilliant thoughts if we don’t. Use a recorder as well as a notebook or a computer, it may be easier to click a button and speak into a recorder when you’re in the middle of a busy day and having trouble getting even one hand free. Most cell phones have a recorder function.

Make sure you get a change of scenery. Go for walks with your baby, see new things, talk to people.  Ideas will pass by, catch them, make notes, record your thoughts, apply what you see and hear to your story.

Keep your story in mind. Try not to let it sink beneath the surface of everyday life. Changing a diaper? How would your character approach this task? Has your character ever had to wash baby puke off her favorite shoes? Look at your kid: when she is grown up, which character in your story do you think she’ll identify with?

Use lost time. Carpooling? Waiting to pick up the kids? Those are precious minutes. Never forget your notebook or recorder, or a printout of a scene. Get used to making the most of even five minutes.

Now, print out a reward chart and go buy yourself some cute stickers. You know you want to. As for me – I smell a stinky diaper. Although after only three hours of sleep last night, I may be hallucinating …

Are you a busy parent? What are some of the tricks you use to keep writing through the chaos?

Rune Michaels is the award-winning author of Genesis Alpha and other novels for young adults. Visit her website at http://www.runemichaels.com


 

Posted by Hulda Bjarnadóttir 7 Sep 2012 at 07:28
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Responses to this blog

Mochastain 7 Sep 2012 at 16:58  
I just have to say, I'm not a mother but with about four little siblings I have to help care for, this is definitley advice I'm going to keep in mind. So thank you!
Ajiapdx 11 Sep 2012 at 11:45  
As a single mother of a 3-year-old, I appreciate your much-needed commentary on the art of balancing writing and motherhood. I have learned so many new time management skills, even while still married, just by being a mother. Now, making the most of 5 minutes is even more vital. Technology has helped me to make note of thoughts quickly, without interrupting quality time with my kiddo, and even when I simply haven't had time to get back to my writing for a week or two, I have found that letting it sit on the shelf was actually beneficial. Thanks so much for your post!
Rjharris12 16 Sep 2012 at 09:54  
I'm a newbie and I already know that I'm gonna have a lot of fun on yhis website!
Demonqueen 16 Oct 2012 at 05:35  
Oh, thank God, someone who understands, and has some useful advice. I like the - don't-get-too-ambitious-with-your-time-to-begin-with message - half an hour has got to be doable at some point in my day! I am just trying to reintegrate myself to my novel that I haven't touched in two years but planning to finish during Nano, and this really helps not to let it overwhelm me.
Nice one !
Usm 18 Oct 2012 at 05:31  
Hey, we're not all in sexist America, you know. This applies just as much to new Dads. In Sweden we get a year's worth of parental leave to share between us (eked out at 5/7 pay this can last much longer than a year!)
29 Nov 2012 at 23:18  

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