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Break the Lego House and Start Over (Or: Writing With Kids at Home)

[1]I’m not sure that anyone should try to give advice about raising children. Much less about raising children while trying to write. Much less about raising children while trying to write and hold a job outside of writing. Much less about raising children while trying to write and hold a job outside of writing – while in quarantine.

But here you find yourself. And here I find myself. I have four kids. I had my first three kids during a five-year window. Then after a suspicious seven-year gap, I had a fourth. I published my first book when my third child was nine months old. I’ve gone on to publish twenty-some books, mostly novels.

Please read my tone correctly. I’m not saying this in some kind of chipper, look-at-me, cheerleader-y bullshit way.

My tone is grim. I’m writing this on Mother’s Day, in fact. My hair is unbrushed. I’m still in my bathrobe; it’s approaching lunchtime. The yard is weedy, the house disastrous. My thirteen-year-old daughter just walked in and said, “So when are we having a party?”

What? What party? Am I throwing a party in quarantine for my own Mother’s Day? “You’re thirty-four years old,” I told her. “You can throw a party yourself.”

She was confused because she’s clearly not thirty-four. I was confused. (Maybe this is a parenting tip? Sometimes, just don’t make sense. Throw them off. Occasionally, they just look at you and then walk away.)

How long have we been in quarantine? Shouldn’t she be thirty-four years old by now?

Before we proceed, I want to tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to break down your writing process into parts. And then we’re going to break down your parenting into parts. And we’re then going to rebuild a process from there.

First, your process.

The main things I want to distinguish between for writerly parents are 1. Your writing time and 2. Your muse time.

Having kids is going to apply massive pressure on both. But people forget that there are distinct phases to writing. One you can do with kids around. The other is very very hard to do with kids around – at least for me.

So The Most Important Tip of All is to think about your process and break it down into parts. It’s possible that you used to do a lot of musing during your writing time. You’d sit down to write and begin by musing about it. Gazing out a window. Pacing around. Then moving back to the keyboard.

This might just be a luxury you no longer have.

Muse time can happen when you’re not at the desk. You can muse while living your chaotic life. You’re changing diapers, chopping food into non-choke-able sizes, washing, folding, rocking a kid to sleep, getting some rocks set up to be painted, sitting through some rehearsal/practice, shopping… and you can let your mind drift.

This mind drifting can be random and lack direction and just feel like daydreaming – or you can purposefully be aware of it and use it to think about your work.

[For a breakdown of how this muse-time process can be really active, I walk you through it here.  [https://soundcloud.com/user-430267500/efficient-creativity-the-six-week-audio-series [2] ]

I suggest a few things to go with this.

  1. Jot notes about things that come up while in this dreamy musing state. It’s key to respect these moments and much easier to return to writing time with some actual words.
  2. Read your work – even if for just a minute or two – in the morning or afternoon… Just let your eyes glance over your sentences, characters, words … That way, the work is floating in your brain not too far from the surface.
  3. Have a time set for writing, if at all possible. Even if it’s only a kid’s nap time, it’ll be much more efficient if you come to that variable amount of time with notes, having already mused than sitting down and starting the process at the earliest stage …
  4. If you have a partner who can work with you, you should really carve out your writing time, put in on the calendar and keep the appointment.

As for breaking down your parenting process, figure out what you can actually do with your kids around. I remember hearing someone who’d let their kids watch TV so they could do things like cooking and cleaning in peace. I suggest cooking and cleaning during chaos and save your peace for writing. Whatever you can invite the kids into – depending on their destructive tendencies and ages – do it.

Also, I suggest that if you’re super tidy, think about being less tidy. I had a student with eight kids. She said, “By the time, I make all of their beds …” I stopped her there. “Don’t make their beds. They can make them or, seriously, give it up. Do you want to look back on your life having written poems or being able to brag: the beds were always made!” Give up as much of this bullshit as possible.

One of my greatest gifts as a writer isn’t some vague notion about talent; it’s that I can write in a very messy space, amid chaos. This is not an exaggeration. To have kids and a job and also a career as a writer, I had to be able to let a lot of things go and drop in.

You can practice this. It’s actually something I assign my grad students who feel the need, for example, to do the dishes before they can write. It becomes their homework to write with the dishes in the sink and the house a little messy around them. If you can get over some of that, it’ll be a huge help.

However, if that tidying is part of your muse time – then it’s not a distraction; it’s an integral part of your process. So use it.

If you think about your work as a parent during which your mind can drift, use that time to muse on your own work.

Then take the time when you know your kids will be engrossed, watching that kid show, and you set aside that time to do your writing and you’ve already taken notes during your muse time, you can hopefully sit down and drop in more easily.

I’m painfully aware that you might also have many aspects of your job right now that will demand this concentrated time.

My time is so crunched that I guard my shower-time as muse time. I protect it from thoughts of the kids’ demands and my job. It’s an actual creative space for me.

My time falling asleep too. It’s interrupted by thoughts of work. I put those thoughts on a to-do list on my phone – to shut them up – and then I try to just be dreamy about my characters. There’s great data on the work our brains do while we sleep. (In quarantine, many have reported having really vivid dreams – some for the first time in their lives.) Write the vivid ones down.

Here’s the thing that I’ve found writing and parenting have in common. Each child teaches you how to raise it. Each writing project teaches you how to write it.

This is why writing advice and parenting advice don’t really ever work. And when paired together, the problems are compounded. So, take all of this for what it’s worth.

And, said in my grim tone, from one parent to another, from one writer to another – if you’re just simply overwhelmed, that sounds about right. I hope you can find a way for the page to help hold you up. Sometimes it does. But if now isn’t one of those times, that’s okay too.

Writing with kids at home? What works for you? How have you adapted? Tips and stories welcome in comments. 

About Julianna Baggott [3]

Julianna Baggott [4] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [5] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [2] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [4].