Aye, and I saw Sisyphus in violent torment, seeking to raise a monstrous stone with both his hands. Verily he would brace himself with hands and feet, and thrust the stone toward the crest of a hill, but as often as he was about to heave it over the top, the weight would turn it back, and then down again to the plain would come rolling the ruthless stone. But he would strain again and thrust it back, and the sweat flowed down from his limbs, and dust rose up from his head.
Homer, Odyssey, Book XI
Writing with children in your home can be a lot like Sisyphus doomed to endlessly pushing boulders up a hill, only to have them roll down again. Having ideas sprout in the garden of your imagination where a cheerful 1 year old plows them down with a stroller grinding over your toes can be a frustrating, demoralizing experience. You’re left to replant those seeds, to rebuild the vision that was dashed by a hapless child seeking your attention.
Learning to deal with setbacks, handling chaotic conditions, and maintaining motivation are critical aspects for writing in an environment full of children.
Here’s the shortlist of tactics I use to cope:
- Abandon all expectations of sanity
- Be prepared for the mental assault
- Construct an inner fortress, and work from there
- Employ the right tools, capitalize on every available moment
- Don’t lose sight of what’s important
Abandon all expectations of sanity
More times than I can count my writing process has been disrupted by my children. My reading as well. Each context switch has a tax. It’s painful moving from intensive visualization of a fictional setting (or worse: being mid-sentence in a draft) to responding to my kids asking repeatedly for refills of drinks, or listening to them share some minute detail of a cartoon they just finish watching. Expecting to work uninterrupted is the first thing I had to change.
I read a lot of books on writing. One fragment of advice is fairly consistent: you need peace and quiet to ideate and write effectively.
K.M. Weiland says in Outlining Your Novel:
Make time to dream. Quietude can be difficult to find in the midst of our hectic lives, but even just a few minutes of daydreaming every day can reap significant results.
She acknowledges it can be hard, but still not making me feel any better!
James Scott Bell also makes a similar recommendation in his Plot & Structure:
Get yourself into a relaxed state, in a quiet spot where your imagination can run free. Give yourself thirty minutes of uninterrupted time.
I would love to.
Hell, even Stephen Covey references the serenity of his Hawaii-based writing environment in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
After an early morning run on the beach, we would send two of our children, barefoot and in shorts, to school. I went to an isolated building next to the canefields where I had an office to do my writing. It was very quiet, very beautiful, very serene—no phone, no meetings, no pressing engagements.
And no kids!
I agree with all this, although I acknowledge it’s not possible for parents with children in their home. Chaos strikes at all times (including the middle of the night). Peace and quiet are ultra rare. Relaxation even more scarce. At any moment I may have to drop everything and rush to an emergency room or respond to some pressing surprise where something I care about has just been destroyed.
Depending on the maturity of the family, acclimation to chaos may not have happened to first or second time parents. It’s usually the third child that baptizes you in bedlam. And forever after you’re mind behaves differently.
Be prepared for the mental assault
For me, I’ll have four kids by October 2017. Loud noises, screams, and scanning for dangerous situations are constant. I’ve been listening to babies scream for more than 11 years now. Sleeping soundly through the night is a distant memory (or perhaps it’s just some fantasy created by my imagination). I’m accustomed to being shot with nerf darts while concentrating, stepping on legos or broken transformers while working, even bottle-feeding infants while typing with one hand.
In a scaling family, cleaning, cooking, and shepherding are all two-person efforts, although we’re actively grooming our oldest to help care for the youngers. As a writer, my creativity and writing craft are in constant competition with the processing of my children’s incessant activity and needs.
Even as I write this now, I’ve been interrupted twice, had to block out distant screams from across my home, and reacted to being talked at (as opposed to being talked to). Still, I struggle to focus and to write coherently with my dog barking and crying, my children chaotically battling upstairs. I wonder if someone will be hurt, I constantly reset my flow and struggle to pick up where I left off. (I just left my writing desk for a third interruption, and am coming back trying to remember my point). Having the pandemonium spill into the room from which I right is even more intense. Unfiltered piercing shrieks, senseless arguing over robot-shaped plastic, and frivolous demands for ice cream all break flow faster than Sisyphus’s ruthless boulder falling into a river.
Construct an Inner Fortress, and work from there
There’s a lot of old writing about creating an inner refuge. Call it a fortress, citadel, temple. Whatever. The point is to build firewalls in your mind to reinforce yourself.
Marcus Aurelius wrote of man’s inner citadel in his Meditations:
Therefore the mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and repel every attack.
Keep focused on your goals (for me: finish writing my books, finish reading my books) rather than the burn of the moment, and you can rid yourself of the short-lived passions that separate you from your fortress.
Additionally, Marcus speaks to the power and benefit of retreating into this internal bunker:
For there is no retreat that is quieter or freer from trouble than a man’s own soul…Constantly then give to yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.
The inner fortress is where I forge my words. Its my psychic workshop that’s got high walls, a closed draw bridge, and sometimes rows of archers atop to defend against the besieging hordes of chaos attempting to roll catapults and battering rams against me.
From this continuously reinforced center, I make my creations. That is, until one of my kids finds an unguarded vulnerability, enters, and disrupts my creative flow. Again.
In those situations, dealing with searing frustration is key. Controlling my emotions and language, withholding my first thoughts, and being gentle with my babies despite the breaking of my professional work, are paramount. I admit to be imperfect at this; sometimes after a long intense struggle with my plot or having rewritten enormous amounts of prose, I lack the patience to gracefully handle a disruptive childhood moment. But I’m aware of the goal and strive towards it daily.
Employ the right tools, capitalize on every available moment
Using the right writing tools in a family situation is critical. Speech-to-text, cloud backups, and book darts have been instrumental in maintaining forward progress despite the challenges I raise above. Using these tools effectively at every opportunity is also important.
Overcoming familial friction to make progress is often a one-sentence-at-a-time struggle, whether reading or writing. While I read, I use book darts to rapidly tag my location and simplify my reset. No longer do I have to search for where I left off; I have the exact sentence flagged. Constant interruptions during an intense knowledge-ingestion session result in the loss of some thoughts (usually how what I’ve read applies to my life situation), but the damage can be minimized with diligent use of these darts to track reading state.
The same is true for capturing inspiration when writing. Thoughts and ideas come all the time. Being able to speak them into Evernote where they’re automatically backed up and available on my writing computer has been immensely helpful. I’m often at the grocery store, about to change a diaper, on a run, breaking up a fight, watching their sports games, and all kinds of other things when something interesting pops into my mind. Evernote allows me to quickly dictate a thought, where it’s automatically available when I sit to write later.
Tactical prioritization of work is also useful. There have been times when messy diapers have had to wait so I can write down that important detail that drives my plot forward. The one I’ve been waiting weeks to produce.
I’ve also gotten into the habit of using hearing protection while reading. These type of ear muffs are designed to protect your ears from gunshots, but they help with screaming children too. Equipped properly, my reading is now more focused during bouts of chaos and I get more done.
I also get the most work done while my children sleep. After bed time, or before they rise are magic hours for writing. I’ve established a habit of getting up early and work like mad to produce something while they’re comatose. Generally this affords me 1.5-2 hours of undisturbed writing time. The price is a painful exit from bed and an ignoring of my body’s craving for sleep. It’s totally worth it.
Don’t lose sight of what’s important
I’ve learned to swallow the rocks of frustration by maintaining focus on long term objectives, be they finish writing the current draft of my book (something that takes roughly 6-8 months) or finish reading my current selection (takes 1 or more weeks depending on conditions). Failing to look ahead, and instead being stuck in the small painful present moments is a surefire way to collapse and never reach your destination..
Regardless of the delays, distractions, and resets, keeping the goal in sight helps me crawl, walk, or run towards it. How fast I progress is largely dependent on my kids and family situation of the day. Patience is required.
I also constantly remind myself that I work to live, and don’t live to work. My work is the mechanism for sustaining my family. They are the prize for all my toils. Building my family is the single most important thing I’ll do in my life. Professional achievements have almost always been covered in sand with time; rearing my children and cultivating them as people will yield results that outlive me and influence untold others.
A life’s work
My children are truly my life’s work, so will be my writing. Balancing my attention across my two sets of creations is my obligation and duty as their creator.
Regardless of the burn, my children don’t know what they’re doing or disrupting, only I do. And as the more mature one, the leader, I swallow my rocks and smile at their precious faces.
Inversely, my writing has the potential to consume my entire life from my thoughts to my actions. It’s my duty to enforce the balance and maintain as much peace as possible. I expect this will be an endless endeavor.
Thus is the life of a progenitor-writer.