Blogger in Residence, Matthew C Lamb discusses the joys and frustrations of writing when you have children.
Before I begin, an insight into my life.
I was sitting down to write this blog post when there was a knock at the door of my study.* Irritation seized me. I stopped typing, stopped moving, stopped breathing—but it was too late. The impish head of my five-year old peeked through the crack he had made, accompanied by a despondent, sheepish expression and the words can you come play with me?
(* My “study” being the tiny spare room that somehow manages to fit a writing desk next to the spare bed and kids toys. Study just sounds a lot classier.)
So we pulled out the Lego, built a fantastic world for some imaginary dinosaurs to battle in and lost an hour to good old fashioned paleontological fun. By then other obligations began nibbling at me, and my brief window for writing had passed.
This article is my advice on how to meld writing with child rearing.
I began writing my first novel shortly after the birth of my son. This isn’t uncommon. The arrival of a child is an intense awakening, not just for the new life, but for its parents, too. There are so many positive adjectives to describe it that even SHIFT+F7 can’t do it justice.
But it is also the most unfathomable time sink. They don’t tell you this beforehand (thankfully), but never again will the new parent have time that is purely, exclusively their own.*
(* Yes, even on the toilet. Going to work can be something of a breather, though.)
So how is it possible to fit writing in?
The internet is chock full of advice on this topic. Most of it boils down to this: make time. I won’t rehash this old ground, but I do have four additional pieces of advice that I haven’t seen covered, and that hopefully will mean readers who are prospective parents won’t be put off the idea of having a child entirely. (Really, kids are great.*)
(* When not whining, sooking, complaining, grumping, knocking over vases or dropping your iPad.)
In his seminal work On Writing, Stephen King advised writers to “close the door”. Literally. Even if it is only for ten minutes between hanging the clothes out and hosing down the kids, shut the door and make that time exclusively for writing. Don’t let even the lure of Lego entice you from your sanctuary.
Of course, the door swings both ways. I find it the most frustrating sensation to have words forming in my mind while there is a toddler on my lap whining for no explicable reason. Attempting to continue the thought while also parenting in a socially acceptable manner is like trying to complete a soggy jigsaw, or taking just a single untorn tissue from a freshly opened box. Completely infuriating.
To address this, I try as best I can to close the door on writing when I am around my children. I’m not even thinking of ideas. If something comes to me I might jot it down, but I am willing to accept that I might just forget it. It’ll come back.* As payment, my time with my children is more engaging and stress-free. I find I growl a lot less.
(* Just like the car keys I found in the heating vent, or the three-week old apple core in the crease of the couch.)
Let them show you their world
A child’s world is magical. It is filled with so much cool stuff: superheroes, talking ducks, Frozen. To my surprise, I have learned many writing lessons from children’s entertainment.
Take the brilliant Toy Story series. Each of these movies (and a fourth is on the way) is pitch perfect storytelling. The subtlety and attention to detail is almost unsurpassed, and the ten thousand times I have sat in front of these movies has only heightened my appreciation. I recommend watching the director’s commentary for Toy Story 3: the first ten minutes is the most inspiring lesson in characterisation and the rewriting process.
Let them teach you words real good
Do you have any idea how many words I thought I knew the meaning of, only to find I couldn’t actually explain them when my kid asked “what does that mean”? Very humbling for a writer. And I am learning so much as I watch my children play with language, finding an infinite number of variations on the word poo. (It rhymes with everything!)
My eldest son recently started primary school. He is now formally learning to read. Could there be a better time to reacquaint myself with the fundamentals of language? For example, did you know that twelve words account for nearly a quarter of everything we say?* It is a valuable reminder to be mindful of repetition in my own writing. I can’t wait for the next lesson (another reason to wish the school holidays were over already).
(*According the ACT Department of Education, the words are: the, be/is, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, I, it, for. As a parent I’d have thought “no” would have been a lot higher on the list. Doesn’t even crack the top 50, apparently.)
Let them inspire you
Writing is tough. Even without kids it can be a slow and isolating pursuit, with rewards few and far between. You need something to keep you going and kids can be that motivation.
Hear me out. Many people start writing around the birth of a child for a reason. It is an event that highlights that time is passing, and finite, and worth spending in the pursuit of something meaningful. As Amin Ahmed, author of the Caretaker, worded it in this article: “having a son made me conscious of my own mortality: one chapter of my life was done, and another one was beginning. Having a child made me conscious of how I was living my life. Could I actually raise a child to be true to himself, if I was not doing what I actually wanted to do?”
Better to be inspired by them than growl at them, I guess.
If insightful comedic writing about parenthood interests you, I recommend watching the BBC production Outnumbered. If you are a parent, it will make you laugh, cringe and feel weary with how familiar it all is. If you are not, you’ll wonder why anybody has children in the first place.
[Image by Ken Yamaguchi, via Flickr.]
Matthew C Lamb writes crime and other genre fiction, the adventurous stuff he’d like to read. He also blogs about writing and storytelling at www.matthewclamb.com, and has trouble saying no to a good blockbuster movie (when his parenting responsibilities permit). His other desk is in a public service building somewhere, working in law enforcement and national security. Enough fuel for a lifetime’s stories…