Writers With Responsibilities: Neither Time nor the Muse is Your Friend

In a new series for 2014, Sarah Banse will provide writers with advice for juggling their work with other responsibilities. If you have dilemmas and want Sarah’s advice, you can email your questions to blog@pshares.org with the subject line “Writers With Responsibilities.” For today, she explains how she balances writing with her own responsibilities: her children. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Black and white photograph of a woman holding two young children, while two other children pose in front of her for the photograph

We all have responsibilities, but there’s perhaps none so challenging to a writer as dependents—the ones that talk back and want you to feed them three or maybe ten times a day. (And no, cats don’t count. I have a cat and any creature you can leave for two or three days with a bowl of food, water and a clean kitty litter box does not count as a legitimate charge.)

Indeed, as a recent essay by Rebecca Mead makes clear, there is much debate amongst female writers about whether there is a “right” number of children to have while balancing a writing career. I agree with many of the participants in this fray who hold that there is not; that the number of children you have is irrelevant. I can tell you there were plenty of moments when I was more overwhelmed with my first than I ever was with my fourth. Granted, my brain was mush and very little phased me by number four, but that is a story for another day.

Still, the question remains: how do you write when your children prevent you from even going to the bathroom by yourself? The philosophical answer is that wanting to write is not enough: the desire to put pen to paper and accumulate word counts must become your intention; you mustn’t think of writing as a luxury, but rather a necessity. The practical answer is not to worry: at some point you will be able to lock the door, and there even comes a day when they stop banging on it with wants and emergencies. (As I write this it is noon and three of my four children are still asleep.)

For those of you with toddlers, I know it doesn’t help to tell you they will one day become teenagers. (And I know many of you with teenagers now wish you had little ones with simple needs and problems that we could control.) But I can tell you one thing: neither time nor the muse is your friend, if you are expecting either one to knock on your door and invite you to write. You must make time, and you must make inspiration, and often this means lowering your expectations. So here is my advice for writers with children:

  • Write fifteen minutes a day, or maybe even just a sentence. (One sentence always leads to more—especially if I have fooled myself into believing one is all I need.)
  • Carry a notebook and write wherever you can—no one needs to watch every swim lesson or soccer shot. (And I’d rather be the mom who wasn’t paying attention because she was writing rather than talking on my cell.)
  • Strap little ones into a car seat, put on a movie, and write during Little League practice. You could almost write a novel in the time it takes to get through a third grade baseball game.
  • Think about writing Flash. There is something very satisfying about writing a complete story in 700 words, and it’s much easier to publish a piece of flash fiction than a short story.
  • Couple patience with pluck and stop beating yourself up. You must begin again every day, regardless of yesterday’s word count.

Sometimes strategies like this don’t help, of course. I can’t tell you how many people have told me lately, “Well, of course you aren’t writing, you have so much on your plate.” It is easy to tell myself they are right, but it’s not true. I could commit to daily practices like the ones I list above, and I confess I haven’t lately. My novel sits haphazardly on the page, sick of excuses and waiting for me to put my butt in the chair.

But that’s the one place where kids can actually help: my children tell me all the time to stop talking about it and just do it. That’s the beauty of kids—they don’t sugar coat it, and they’ll give you a good swift kick in the ass when others won’t. So stop telling yourself that your children are a barrier to your writing, and just do it.