I’ve always liked to read about writers’ lives and see how they arrange things so when my son was born nearly 17 years ago, I was thrilled when a friend gave me The Bluejay’s Dance, Louise Erdich’s memoir of writing after having her first baby. Only it made me depressed. I tried to read the book while nursing my son in our tiny one bedroom apartment. I read in fits and starts, falling sleep in the middle of a paragraph, startling awake and forgetting where I was. Louise waxed on about her tiny little writer’s shed in her backyard, her baby cared for by someone else or tucked quietly next to her and it all made me feel very gloomy.
It took me two years to get into the writing swing of things again. I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be, of course. I had no writer’s shed (I wrote at a table set up next to the washing machine, listening to the hum of cloth diapers on the spin cycle). I had no childcare (I wrote during nap time, that is if my son was willing to nap). But I started to figure out how to fit writing into my life again.
Parents know that caring for kids doesn’t make for a lot of free time; there are always things—laundry, cooking, shuttling to this or that activity—that will eat up every minute of the day. But because the domesticity of parenthood is made up of these kinds of mundane tasks there is a lot of time for thinking and it turns out that those times are ripe for non-writing writing work. If you’re stuck sorting socks, why not plan out a story or an essay?
That’s the truth about parenting and all of the mundane jobs around it—it can be rewarding or frustrating or challenging or fun but mostly it’s pretty boring and boredom begets creativity.
Much of the work of writing doesn’t happen at the keyboard (or with a pen and paper for the luddites among you). Writing takes a lot of thinking, a lot of daydreaming away from the workspace. This is a good thing for those of us writers, (which is most of us writers) who work around the demands of kids, partners and jobs. We can “work” while we’re stuck in traffic or half-listening to a colleague’s presentation or, as Agatha Christie says, while we’re doing the dishes.
When my kids were little, I did my not-writing writing work during slow, slow, slow walks around the neighborhood. My kids wanted to stop at every single crack in the sidewalk to check for ants and day dreaming is the only thing that kept me from losing my mind from the boredom. We would come home, I’d serve lunch and then I’d get them down for naps. Naptime was when I would hit my keyboard.
Now I do my not-writing writing work while driving. Sometimes I take the longest route to give myself some extra time and it’s best if I keep the radio off unless there are kids with me. In that case, I turn the radio speakers on to play only in the backseat and let them sing along to P!nk or “Wrecking Ball” so that they’ll leave me (mostly) to my thoughts. I planned this blog post during my commute to work last week since my commute home is usually eaten up with thoughts about my day.
This kind of not-at-the-desk work does take intention and there’s no substitution for putting your butt in the chair and writing it all down. But having space to worry at your narrative can help you pick through problems and create a trajectory so that when you do get to your desk, your work is much easier.
I decided to write this post because I know that Brain, Child has always been a writer’s magazine so I know there are writers reading here and I’m curious: When do you do your best thinking? And what’s helped you be most productive in those times?
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