Pursuing the dream of writing a novel while chasing kids

One writer, a mother of two, wonders if her creative endeavors can fit around raising young children, as she trades working outside the home for a cramped home office.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor
This undated file photo shows an image of books on display at Trident Booksellers and Cafe, a bookstore in Boston.

As I sit here writing today, one of my two children is napping and the other is outside with her Papa building a snowman in the midst of an unexpected early season snowfall. I’ve got my Pandora station going and a late afternoon decaf coffee to warm my chilly hands. An ideal moment to sit down take a few moments to write. I pray I have enough time to put down a coherent thought or two before this moment to myself evaporates again into the bustle of my family life.

For many years now, I’ve carried a story around with me, slowly adding to it incrementally in a secret folder on my computer. In the last five years, I’ve had two children and my life has changed drastically from the relatively carefree, globetrotting existence I used to have. Long ago, when I wanted to be a writer in the very abstract sense, I danced around the idea like it was on fire. I got my MFA, I took jobs I thought would support my writing on the side, but I was too terrified of the inevitable rejection I’d face.

I wrote prolifically in secret but never tried to publish anything. I remember confessing to a successful writer friend that my instinct was that I’d do my best work later, when I was older, wiser and probably after I’d had kids. “Are you kidding me?” she said, “You have to do it now. You’ll never get anything done after you have children.” Arguably, her best work has been accomplished since she had her daughters. Can her advice really be correct?

I tuck that wisdom into that pocket where I hide the seed of this story and I wonder if some of my favorite authors (both fiction and non) had given up their work because of the demands of family life or financial risk, or any other pressure that comes to bear on a creative life.

What if they had let themselves be stymied by it? How lacking in richness my literary and creative life would be.

I would have missed staying up all night finishing “Beloved” or “Little Women.” What would my life be without Norman Rush’s spectacular book, “Mating” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Gabriel Garcia Marquez? I lost many winter afternoons ensconced in Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible.” What would I have read as my husband and I undertook our Pacific ocean crossing if I hadn’t had the doorstop-sized “Collected Works of Jane Austen” to read for a second time? An exhaustive list of my favorite authors would be impossibly long.

Like certain songs that bring us back to an exact moment with nostalgic precision, I can always place myself in time by the books I read that made a deep impact on me. Even the books that might not be considered to possess literary greatness still have their place in bringing us laughter or shared experience. My traveling partner and I laughed our way through “Bridget Jones’s Diary” together on our trek through Italy when I was 23. My husband and I took turns reading to each other from “The DaVinci Code” while we were courting. He reliably fell asleep (saying he was lulled by the sound of my calm reading voice) during the same spot and we read chapter eight about 15 times before we actually got through to the ending.

Much like other parents knee-deep in child rearing, I am considering this vital question: Does the world need my work? November is National Novel Writing Month. According to the website for the organization that supports this annual push to creativity, my novel is important.

Last year more than 300,000 participants signed their own initiative to commit to their writing work and they point to publications such as Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” among their arguments for the necessity of story and the success of their process. By registering on the web site, you enter a virtual community of authors and sign yourself up to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s about six pages a day, give or take. There’s a lot of support from established authors, forums to join and even local community and library gatherings. I still hesitate to click the cheerful “Sign up!” button.

I’ve put myself in the compromised position of being a full-time mother with two part-time jobs. The marketing research and copywriting that I do from home I try to squeeze in at night when I probably should be sleeping, and during the time that my son has his morning nap and my daughter is at her preschool session. At 10:30a.m. every day my creative door abruptly shuts when I trek up the driveway to get my daughter from the bus. So far for my (maybe, future) novel, I have a couple main players, a vague storyline, and hazy ideas about the eventual outcome of my characters’ imaginary lives. Could I maintain a plot throughline with this kind of certain interruption? Or would a tight deadline keep me more productive?

When I get any kind of creative ideas in a given day, I find myself jotting them down on my iPhone notes application and revisiting them whenever I can – perpetually re-opening the same files to make myself a novel outline or a marketing pitch in miniature. Writer Anne Lamott famously writes her notes on stacks of collected 3x5 cards that she later uses to outline her books. Perhaps mine is the very modern, paperless equivalent and maybe someday it will add up to something substantial.

Children are good at make-believe. Their minds are fluid and open. My daughter conducts classroom exercises as the teacher for her collection of wooden toy foods. She asks the steak, “How do you spell DOG? D-O-G! That’s right! Good job.” She praises the meat, scolds the toast. “Behave please! Miss Pear, what is two plus two?” Where I see a basket of hand-me-down play vegetables, my kid sees a sea of eager kindergarten faces. I aspire to her level of aptitude with the imaginary world. In this way, I think having children can enrich a creative life, maybe even help inspire a novel or two.

The challenges of working from home, creative endeavor or not, are many and well-known. Multiple interruptions, little privacy, and confusing boundaries among them. We who work at home while also trying to competently parent, trade these compromises for a non-existent commute. Sure you can work in your pajamas (I will neither confirm nor deny if I am currently writing this article in mine) but sometimes it’s impossible to get anything done.

Just today, we were having our furnace repaired. At the moment we are living in a rented house with a spectacular view of the water. The kind gentleman working in our basement came upstairs and observing my workstation (which faces our less inspiring backyard) said, “I’m not one to whack a beehive and run,” he said, “but why in the world does your desk face that window and not the water?” I had to think about it for a second but he answered himself before I did, “I bet you have to use more imagination that way, don’t you?” Yes, Wayne, my office is cold, dark and on the way to the downstairs bathroom. You’re right. It does actually serve the purpose of keeping me focused on my work in an odd way – with no distractions like stunning sunsets to lure me away from the limited amount of screen time I have to be productive.

Perhaps this is the key, in fact, to all of the questions I’m asking. How and when am I most productive? Looking back on my life before children, I remember what feels like vast banks of open time that stretched before me like an endless beach disappearing into the distance. What the heck did I do with all that time? I certainly did not use it as I perhaps should have: to write. Could it be that the compression of time in which to be creative might be the most important factor in my success?

It’s almost time to make dinner. My hands are cold, so I’m challenging myself to think and type quickly – the heat doesn’t really reach my office very efficiently in this old Maine farmhouse. My daughter has come inside now and has interrupted me no fewer than seven times asking for everything from a piece of her Halloween candy, an episode of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” and a colored pencil while the TV show blabs in the background. Now the baby monitor is lighting up with the sounds of my son waking from his afternoon snooze. Time to be done, time to move on, to make dinner, the bedtime routine. But I’m keeping those thoughts there in my pocket – marketing ideas for my next client pitch, a new idea about my novel’s heroine. The world needs my work, after all. Or at least, I do.

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