Let's first address the big, stupid elephant in the room: Being a parent does not diminish a writer's creativity. A writer isn't less inventive because he/she wants to parent a human any more than his/her originality suffers because of a pet, a day job, owning a home, taking care of elderly parents, etc.
We all have responsibilities, and we all still make the time to write. It's kind of amazing, she said with an eye roll, that we can actually do lots of things at the same time. So let's get over this dumb idea that a person cannot occupy two roles -- writer and parent -- at once. They are not incompatible and mutually exclusive. I don't know how many times we're going to have to continue telling folks this, but there you have it. If you aren't yet convinced, read this piece from The Atlantic, then soldier on below.
You've done it. You had a kid! Congratulations on not losing your ambition in addition to your eight hours of sleep each night. In the early days, having a baby is less sweet lullabies and more like this scene from the movie Storks:
Don't push yourself to get in your daily word count the same week as this little love muffin / screeching potato enters your life. In fact, give yourself at least three months of grace during which you don't keep score. Some writers may be writing while they're still in the hospital, while other writers take a year off from their creative work.
Guess what? No one else in the world has ever had your baby before, with her specific wants and needs. So you're the expert when it comes to both your kid and your craft. (And let's also state early on here that you needn't feel guilty for carving out this time. It is a kind, positive example to set for your kid that you care for and won't sacrifice yourself.)
Now, you might have a new role as parent, but that doesn't mean you've lost the desire to create. But, for Pete's sake, how can you make it work?
Let go of perfection
Know that your writing life will look different now out of necessity. There's a kiddo depending on you, and that means you can't loll about as you used to. I encourage you to embrace this change as a hugely positive one: You have the opportunity to redefine what your writing life looks like, understanding that a parent who writes is more efficient, has his/her emotions examined and at the ready, is empathetic and all kinds of lovelies that accompany the role.
It will not be perfect. You may decide to scrap the project you'd been working on before the baby arrived, a coffee shop writing trip lasts all of eight minutes or your babysitter flakes on you when you're feeling most inspired.
Instead of searching for perfection, strive for balance. How can you feel whole and cared for while doing the same for your kid? Can you take a little piece (one minute? 15? 25?) of every day for you and your creativity?
Figure out your must-dos
Boil your to-do list down to the absolute basics. Outside of child-rearing and your own functioning human needs (mainly eating, sleeping and that private bathroom business), what are your non-negotiables? What tasks do others absolutely depend on you for that you can't delegate?
Your list might look something like this:
- Make at least $500/week in supplemental household income
- Visit Grandpa's nursing home at least once a week
- Tend to vegetable garden for family's winter harvest
Notice that this list doesn't include those perceived non-negotiables that bring us sanity, like binge-watching Big Mouth on Netflix. These can feel like can't-do-withouts, but they're taking up valuable writing space.
Romance writer Zoe Ashwood is a mother of two who started writing after having her first son. She gave up on most TV shows when she became a mom. "That freed up hours of my time," she said.
The number of hours of TV I watch each week shocks and embarrasses me. It's basically a part-time job! When your kid is safe somewhere else -- like in your partner's arms or snoozing in her Pack 'n Play -- ask yourself: Is what I'm doing right now more important than writing? Am I getting more out of this activity than I do from creating?
If it isn't on your non-negotiables list, whip out your notepad or laptop, and get to work.
Maximize spare quiet moments
It can be oh-so tempting and feel delicious to use your baby's naps as opportunities to power through your DVR queue. (Because let's be honest: You aren't sleeping while the baby sleeps anyhow.) But when you do have a quiet moment, that's your moment, friend.
Says Ashwood, "I learned to do well in 20-minute sprints, because that's sometimes all I have."
As a pre-parent writer, you had huge swaths of time in which to peel your split ends, straighten up your desk, call the credit card company to dispute a charge and tackle the myriad tiny tasks we employ to stall the hard work of creation. No more! If ever you find a quiet moment to think through an idea, jot down a word you want to try using, make note of a character name that speaks to you -- use that moment for your own good, not to add MOAR BEER to the grocery list. (Although, by all means.)
Use technology to your advantage
First-time parents can be hesitant to briefly step out of the room their baby's in, let alone finally figure out how the baby monitor works. Make haste! Set up the monitor so you can type away on your keyboard from another room without worrying about waking that just-barely-asleep babe.
Sleep schedules are a joke, so gone are the days when weekly Twitter chats sustained your part in the creative community. If your favorite chat releases its questions early, schedule your responses to send during the chat, and follow up with those who respond whenever you get a chance.
Get used to doing even more off-roading writing, which is what I call the tidbits I write on my hands, on the backs of receipts and in the margins of grocery lists. You no longer have the freedom for your process to look like this:
- Have idea
- Stride across to computer, cape fluttering behind you
- Type idea into Word doc you keep minimized
- Spritz self with perfume and congratulate self on achievement
Use Evernote, Mind Node, call out "OK, Google" to add a reminder for yourself while you're deep in that mustard yellow poo no one warned you about -- whatever works for you to track your thoughts. Because you will forget the idea if you don't record it. Says author Tim Ferriss, "I trust the weakest pen more than the strongest memory." Your cell phone's new home is already in your pajama pants pocket because, hi, feeding a newborn for 45 minutes every two hours is boring.
Make note of inspiration when it strikes
Speaking of using technology to take notes, realize that parenting is rich with material, even if you don't yet know how you'll make use of the experience creatively. They say parents' memories of the early days fade so that the human race can continue on, for if parents truly remembered how difficult newborns are, they might never procreate again.
Yes, you love your kid. No one said you didn't. But keeping a lil' human alive is hard! Take honest notes about what parenting is like for you and what babies are like at different stages in case you want to draw from this life experience in some way some day.
This also gets you used to thinking about creative writing and playing around with projects. Remember that even when you aren't writing, you're writing.
Stare at yourself in the mirror, and repeat this mantra: I will one day feel normal again.
I swear it will happen. You'll make a quip and feel like yourself and find that being a parent has become a part of you, and isn't simply a role you're inhabiting. One "easy" way to feel like yourself again is to write from somewhere other than your home. I say "easy" in quotes because as any parent knows, packing the diaper bag and preparing a baby to travel, even to the closest coffee shop, is quite the to-do. It may take you three days to gear up for it. But it's so worth it in the end.
Places you can go to write (don't forget the pacifier):
- The ubiquitous coffee shop -- where your fellow patrons are wearing earbuds
- A busy morning bagel place -- where the hustle and bustle will drown out any possible baby coos for those non-parents throwing you side-eye
- A museum's cafe -- where people don't spend a lot of time, so anyone who deigns to be bothered by your perfect babe will soon move on
- The library -- where you can read The New Yorker, The Economist and Elle for free, holla
- Your own home -- where your partner, a family member, a friend, a trusted neighbor or a babysitter can entertain junior while you work
Broaden what you read
You read a lot leading up to that lil' baby entering your life. You now know everything there is to know about nipple confusion, flat heads, teething, the witching hour and on and on. You basically have a Ph.D. in child-rearing.
But you don't have to read stories about babies (though you can, from great writers like Rachel Cusk) just because you had one. You aren't cheating on your baby when you read a story that has nothing to do with her -- though it can sometimes, irrationally, feel like it.
You're doing great, dearheart. Challenge yourself to read about aliens and marriages and farm life and how salt is formed.
There's more to writing than, well, writing. A huge part is being inspired by fellow writers, learning how they craft stories, filling your mind with others lands and all the beautiful pieces of happiness you procure from reading. Let yourself go there.
Need reading recommendations? Here are titles I've test-driven for you in the following categories:
Looking for other recommendations? My stars, do I live for that: Tweet me what you've read and liked in the past, and I'll point you to a book I'm absolutely giddy about.
Establish a practice (once you can)
Writer Colin Meloy spoke recently at an event in Nashville for his new book The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid. When asked how he and his illustrator wife, the wildly talented Carson Ellis, balance their work as parents of two, he was quick to sing the praises of setting up a writing practice.
"With writing, it's really about 'get in there and write or edit or do something in six hours," he said, calling six hours the sweet spot: a sweet spot you might have access to once your wee one is no longer quite so wee. "Just work. Write. Create. Work. Make a practice."
"Our work habits since having kids have changed drastically," Ellis said. "Get the kids off to school, and head out to my studio and spend the day there. ... We alternate picking them up so one of us gets a little longer of a work day. ... It's like anything else: You don't get good at it unless you do it all the time."
Ellis said she also takes every Tuesday off for a hike "to remind myself that it's not a grind." I love this self-care. I/you/we deserve it.
Have set goals for each writing session
And I use the word "session" loosely, since sometimes you might only have the two minutes the kid's pacifier stays in. But prioritize your writing needs to make the most of the limited time you do have.
Maybe your goal list looks like:
- Pick a name for Character A
- Decide how many words I want to have written each week
- Research more about Rhode Island neighborhoods
And that's just fine. Start small.
Or actually, strike that: No decision in writing is small. Each component of your work is deliberate and inspired and utterly necessary to your narrative. If it isn't, then a healthy round of editing is called for.
When you have the time, that is.