How to Really Write While Mothering: Five Tips for Aspiring Writers in a Season When Writing Comes Second
"It's too early to be up."
"It's quiet time, and Mama is working."
I've said both of these phrases more times than I'd like to count to one of the three tiny boys that reside in my house. I send the older boys back to their dump trucks, lay the toddler down with his favorite blanket, and sneak back to the computer to type a few more words, edit a blog post, or sketch out a painting.
I'm tracking the time as I do this, and right when the workflow hits I pack it all away to kiss little heads, lay out snacks, teach kindergarten, and start on dinner. I'm a writer, but in this season, the heart work of mothering happens first.
Even with writing relegated to small corners, I've managed to maintain a blog and a writing habit, launch and co-host a podcast, and carry out a number of other creative projects during the six years I've been a mother. I've struggled through seasons when the work was hard and my soul was empty, and I've had months when I've pumped out ideas and projects like I was born for that. Most of the time it's somewhere in between: a mixture of desire and disciplines that keep my fingers on the keys and ideas in lists on my iPhone.
1. Work toward a writing goal. I don't use the monthly spread in my planner for very much, but there are numbers in the bottom left corner of most of the squares. Every day, I scribble in the number of words that I wrote. It keeps me accountable and reminds me to celebrate the small achievements. Even if I don't hit my daily goal of 750 words I know that those 235 words or 165 words will add on to what I've already done. Just this year I've written over 124,000 words bits and pieces at a time.
2. Plan multiple times to work. Mornings are my best writing time. They are not my best or favorite time of the day, but I find I'm less interrupted and my thoughts are freshest then. I also like sleep and routinely see midnight before I drift off, so waking early doesn't always happen. I have learned that grace for myself means finding multiple times for the work. First morning, then quiet time in the afternoon, and very rarely in the evening when the house is quiet again. I'm writing and editing a decent portion of this article after eleven p.m. over several evenings while my husband is at work.
3. Study books on craft. My husband swears that if there are words I have to read them. Anywhere. (It drives him nuts most of the time.) The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith is tucked away in my purse and I pull it out at gas stations to read a few paragraphs instead of scrolling through my phone while my husband steps out to fill up the van. It's a beautiful book that may keep its place even after I've finished it. Digesting bits and pieces of books on craft and creativity unearths ideas and keeps me in a creating mindset. I leave them by my desk and my bed, in the bathroom and in the car and I try to train myself to read a few lines instead of looking at Facebook. (Don't roll your eyes--when have you ever gotten a good idea from Facebook?) My favorites include anything by Austin Kleon, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, and A Million Little Ways by Emily Freeman. I have more on my bookshelf and even more in my Amazon wishlist but those few will keep me going for a long time.
4. Read short-form writing. I read a variety of blogs to absorb short-form writing; short stories would probably also help with this. Consumption should fill me up to be emptied out, not drain me before I even get started so I'm picky about tone. I love motherhood blogs and adore the honesty of some of my favorite mamas, but I find that negativity drains me of my ability to create or mother well. I also try to measure content and form with blogs as there are blogs by poor writers that have valuable information and blogs by good writers that tell me nothing.
5. Capture your ideas. Even though I'd love to be one of those elusive women that never have their phones out, I'm not. Ideas seem to come best from real life, when I'm not at my desk writing or working. Ideas are also the most fickle things in my brain and they seem to leave quicker than they came unless I capture them in my notes. My notes are full of ideas for blog posts and essays and sketches, plus half-erased groceries lists and a list of what to pack for the beach. Writing down these ideas is my first step to creation. I can jot down a note while I'm cooking dinner and overseeing a play dough explosion at the table and when I sit to write the next morning I have a starting point. I spend less time dozing off over my coffee, and more actually clacking the keys, because I have a list of ideas.
One lesson I have to keep relearning is that the limits make the art; they don't stifle it. I have to be gritty, forcing myself to the work instead of Twitter because the time is gone quickly. I write down the ideas because they might not come back and because I need to change that diaper. And I kiss those faces that take up most of my time in gratitude that the silent work of caring for them teaches me to do the silent work of creating even when no one sees or responds or seems to care.
I used to resent that I had such little time for work. Occasionally I still do when "answer email" has been on my to-do list for two weeks and I've only emailed two close friends. But outside of email, I've found that life is the fodder of creation. There would be nothing to make if I weren't living first. The time making pancakes, chasing bicycles, and drowning out the dinosaur songs with Voxer messages is the real fuel for the words.
Writing well means living well first.