The following is a guest post by Janet Fitch, author of Paint it Black and White Oleander (an Oprah’s Book Club book). Her upcoming book is titled Marina Makarova, and is set in the years of the Russian Revolution. On Janet’s own blog she shares her writing based on single word prompts. Here are her thoughts on writing while under the influence of children:
1. The number one essential tool for the new writer/parent–The Baby Swing. If you didn’t get one, GET ONE. Put the baby in there, and guaranteed, 45 minutes of peace to get some work done. Buy the one that takes the whacking big D batteries, those suckers last forever and you’re going to be using this a lot.
2. Give up on cleaning. Triage your precious spare time. First, write. Then, take care of the animate–kid, spouse, dog. Tend to the inanimate only when you have to. Give up gardening.
3. If you have help for a few hours, or if the kid’s at pre-school–LEAVE THE HOUSE and go work. It will remove the temptation to do the laundry or wash the dishes.
4. Find a mother’s helper babysitter, a junior high kid who can use a few bucks and will keep your toddler amused while you’re home. Be prepared for your child to love that kid more than you.
5. Don’t be a prima donna. Forget unbroken stretches of time. If you have a few minutes to write, grab them. When I first started writing I couldn’t work if someone was in the house. Then I couldn’t work if someone was in the room. Once I had a kid, I could work at Grand Central Station. Just give me 15 minutes.
6. Art projects are a godsend. “Draw me a spaceship, honey.” There’s five minutes, ten if you’re lucky… Get them to include details, like rivets and eyelashes. Don’t forget to expand the assignment. “Draw me the inside of the spaceship.” “Draw me the controls of the spaceship.” “Draw me the planet the spaceship comes from.”
7. Why do they always want to draw on the couch with the Chanel lipstick? Can never be the Maybelline. But when you need five more minutes, what the heck. “Looks good, honey.”
8. Bedtime should be inviolable. Make sure there’s an early enough bedtime that you can see your spouse for an hour, and then go to work for an hour or two. Even if you have to go to bed after your spouse. Suck it up. You both wanted to be parents.
9. Forget gourmet cooking. You’ll learn to make something pretty good out of semi-prepared stuff from Trader Joe.
10. Deflect guilt. Embrace the concept of the good-enough mother. Keith Richards left his kids with Anita. You’re mother of the year by comparison.
11. Do not enroll your child in more activities than you can reasonably cover without feeling resentful of losing your life driving to soccer games. Art classes are once a week. Soccer practice is three times a week. Do the math. (And do not feel you have to pay attention to your kid while you’re sitting there–a well-known book critic and I met at YMCA kid’s swim class when I saw her annotating an advanced reading copy. You’re just the driver.)
12. Books on tape are a great way to get some reading done while you’re nursing.
13. Take notes. Someday you will forget all this, and need to write a scene with an hysterical nursing mother.
14. Dads working at home will get more respect than moms working at home. Accept this sad fact. My daughter’s friend had a work-at-home songwriter father. She would look at the closed door of his studio and whisper, “Shhh, Dad’s working” like he was doing open heart surgery. My own closed door was opened fifty times a day with requests like “Mooooommmmmmm, will you pin this?” or “Mooooooooooommmmmm, why does Daddy have a penis?”
If you can at all possibly get out of the house to work, do so. Even if it’s just into the backyard. In the treehouse. With the ladder up.
15. Don’t overlook the great national resource–Other Mothers. Other Mothers like Disneyland, Other Mothers will take your kid along with theirs to see those crappy movies about Christmas and stuff. You’ll have to reciprocate eventually–like taking their kid on New Year’s Eve, say, or for their anniversary. But overnights are way less of a pain than shlepping kids around and sitting through Snow Dogs. They’ll keep each other amused. You’ll get some writing done. WELL WORTH IT.
16. Earplugs. Headphones. Parents are notoriously cued into the tone of distress in a child’s voice, the sound of things crashing in the kitchen and so on. If you want to get anything done, headphones are a godsend. Take them off every half hour or so just to check the tenor of things, make sure nobody’s crying.
17. Childproof everything. DUH. The better your childproofing–and the sturdier your sense of indifference to a royal mess–the more you will be able to concentrate on your work.
18. Get your kid a library card very early. It’s important to instill respect for the written word, so they have some idea how cool you are.
19. Make sure to have intellectual conversations with adults on a daily, or near daily level. Facebook isn’t enough. You have to keep your vocabulary above the high school level, and talking to four year olds all day isn’t going to help.
20. Teach them about commercials. That the toys are crap, the food is garbage and that advertising is hypnosis, designed to stimulate demand. We used to chant, “You need it, you want it, you gotta have it” during the kiddie commercials. Ask them, “how big do you think that [fill in the crap toy in the cereal] really is?” They’ll show you ten inches tall. Tell them to look at the hand that’s holding it, to look at the thumbnail. This serves twofold purpose–first, it keeps your time and patience from being constantly swallowed up by demands for an overwhelming range of crap, and second, well– hey, you’re a writer. Last time I looked, most of us were still paying off our student loans.
21. Share rejections with your child. Model how it is to be a determined, creative person–how every week, people say ‘does not meet our needs at this time’ to Mommy, and she shrugs it off. “Screw them,” Mommy says, and keeps on going.
22. You have a right to create art. Think of it as a child. It will die without your attention. It’s a child that no one else can care for. It will only eat if you feed it. Someone else can make Kraft Mac and Cheese just as easily as you. But no one can write your book for you.