Writing Between Diapers

By Mayra Calvani

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.
—C. G. Jung

After a bad night of hardly any sleep, you’re sitting at the computer staring at the blank screen. You wonder if you’ll be able to do it—inish that article, short story or novel that you started months ago. The urge to write is overwhelming, yet you freeze. Not only are you exhausted, but the baby, whom you put to sleep less than half an hour ago, is whimpering in the crib. Your four-year old has just barged into the office and is tugging at your elbow begging for a snack, even though he had lunch an hour ago. This is hopeless, I may as well quit, you say to yourself while trying to suppress a scream. To your horror, you suddenly find yourself sympathizing with those animals that eat their young . . .

Don’t despair. Calm down. I’ve been there and know perfectly well what you’re going through.

The truth is, you can write, but you need to have four things:

The Right State of Mind

Before you plan a schedule, putting your mind in the right frame is the most important think you’ll do. Remember your kids will not stay small forever. Time passes quickly (I assure you it does!) and soon they’ll be old enough to go to school. Until that magical day arrives, though, you’ll have to “steal” time to work on your project. Wanting to finish a whole novel in one month at this point in your life is unrealistic. Don’t focus so much on the “end product” but on doing a little bit of that “end product” at a time. Little paragraphs are what articles, stories, and novels are made of. The important thing is steady progress, and as long as you take steps to follow the road, you’re on the right track. These tiny bird steps, however small, will give you a sense of accomplishment and keep you guilt-free to enjoy your life and family.

Good Physical Condition

You might think, “Good physical condition? I thought this was an article about writing.” Well, you bet it is. Let’s face it, moms who care for small children are always tired. And tired people don’t particularly like to sit at the computer and write; they want to collapse on a bed. Moms urgently need to raise their energy levels! A good diet and a little exercise can do wonders to raise energy levels. Eat high-protein foods and lots of fruits and veggies. Stay away from white flour and sugar, as well as junk food. Go for three meals a day with one light healthy snack in the afternoon and one before you go to bed. Stay away from those high energy bars, though. They are so high in carbs your sugar levels will sky rocket and then plummet, making you feel even more tired and hungry than before. Low fat cottage cheese and a couple of almonds with a bit of fruit are a great choice for a snack. Drink plenty of water! Scientists have found that dehydration is one of the main factors in making a person feel tired.

Finding time to exercise may be difficult, that’s why it’s a good idea to do it with your child. If you have a stationary bicycle or other exercise machine, do 15 minutes while the toddler watches the Teletubbies. You don’t have to exercise a full hour. Even ten minutes will do the trick. Take your baby for a walk in the stroller at least three times a week, preferably in the mornings when it’s fresh and quiet. It will calm your nerves, rejuvenate, and even inspire you. Your baby will love it, too. Not only will he/she enjoy the “sights and sounds,” but it will probably make him/her tired and eager to take a longer nap later in the day—just what you’re after!

A Well-Planned Schedule

Okay, so you have the right state of mind and are eating well and exercising. What next? A well-planned schedule that fits your lifestyle and plays around your strengths and liabilities is a must. But keep an open mind and don’t be unrealistic. If your baby naps in the afternoon, don’t set your writing time in the mornings, or vice versa. How much time each writing session will last depends on your lifestyle and children’s habits. You may choose to write half an hour each day or one hour every other day. It’s up to you. The important thing here is to keep it approachable and to stick with it.

There’s one thing I strongly advise: If you can manage it, don’t take more than two nights off from your project. Not only will it stall your momentum, but it will give your brain too much time to come up with self-doubts and excuses for procrastination.

You may be asking yourself: But how do I get rid of my children ?

If your children are old enough to go to nursery school, your problems are solved. Just set your writing schedule during those hours. For those of you whose children are still at home, there are other possibilities:

Write early in the morning before your children awake, during their daytime naps, and after they go to sleep at night. (See why you have to keep yourself in good physical condition?) I have a friend who wrote two books this way.

If you can afford a babysitter—maybe your neighbor’s teenaged daughter—to look after your child while you write on the next room (that way you can keep a close eye on them) then go for it!

Write while your toddler watches his favorite video movie. He wants to watch it again? Go ahead! This is not the right time to consider the effects of too much TV on children.

Go to the local library and write while you and your child listen to story time! Almost all libraries, and even bookstores, schedule story times for children. Take advantage of these.

If you have a writer friend who is also a mom, enlist her as your “writing partner,” take the kids to Mc Donald’s and write while your kids play in those weird game tunnels. “Hey, wait a minute!” you think. “You said to stay away from junk food.” Nice try, but even McDonald’s now offers a good selection of salads and fruit cocktails. Besides, I never said one hamburger once in a while would kill you. You might even reward yourself with a hamburger . . . after you’ve fulfilled your writing quota for that day.

Invite your writing-partner mom or moms for a “writing morning” at your home and write while your children play together. You may take turns with your homes. Also, as a group, you can consider hiring a sitter for these occasions. Writing with a support-group of people who are in the same situation as you is usually very rewarding and productive. Plus it’s a lot cheaper when each of you contribute to pay for the sitter. You may even want to start a club and meet once a week.

Determination

None of the above will prove helpful if you lack the determination to stick to a schedule. Think about it. Do you want to reach the age of seventy without having accomplished your goal—that masterpiece of a novel that will land you multiple contracts, fame, and fortune? You’ll never know unless you take the first step. Family, and especially your children, should always come first, but don’t use your children as an excuse not to write. The truth is, life is so hectic there never will be a “perfect” time to write. I assure you, if not children, later you’ll come up with something else as your procrastinator. It may be difficult to follow the schedule at first, and you may need to modify it, but eventually you’ll be glad you did. Otherwise you’ll live with self-guilt, self-loathing, disappointment, and frustration.

Do it. Start today. Now.

Don’t forget: Frustrated writers are frustrated moms. Frustrated moms are unhappy moms. Artistically fulfilled moms are happy moms who can give themselves to their loved ones without reservations.

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Mayra Calvani has a website. You can find out about Mayra Calvani’s children’s books here

No Time to Write?

By Sherryl Clark

It’s a familiar complaint. Everything else seems to get in the way—family commitments, work, sports, the need to sleep—and nowhere is there time to sit down and write.

People often say to me, “How do you find the time? You’re so prolific.”

Well, no, ‘m not. A lot of the time I feel guilty because I don’t spend as much time on writing as I could. Notice that I said could, not should.

Should is like the stuff we got told as kids—you should eat your veggies because there are starving children in Africa. If we think of writing as a should task, where is the incentive to do it? You’re trying to work out of a sense of created guilt.

I say could because I know that I waste time. And even more importantly, I know that I procrastinate. Why? Because of fear, I think. Fear that I will have nothing to write and I will sit there for hours producing zilch. Or more often, fear that anything I will produce will be terrible. Despite all I know about rewriting, and how the first draft is nearly always either bad or just not what you wanted (because you wanted to create that miraculous story in your head, and what happened to it between your brain and the page, darn it?), I still have to convince myself anew every time that all I have to do is sit down and write.

Usually I get there by telling myself that I only have to do one page. What’s one page? Even if it’s an awful page, just write one. And eventually I do. And most of the time I write a lot more than one. But I still have to talk myself into that first one.

How do I waste time? The way everyone does. I read, do housework, e-mails (they’re a time killer), catch up on paperwork, do class preparation (because I teach), talk on the phone . . . you just add in your favorites. And it’s always time in which I could be writing.

How do we solve this problem? I doubt we can do it by beating ourselves over the head with a heavy dictionary, or any other implement. That’s the road to more guilt and shoulds, and it’s best to avoid those.

Cover of Kristi Holl's Writer's First AidI like an analogy I read in Kristi Holl’s book, Writer’s First Aid. A professor shows a large jar to his class and fills it with rocks. He then goes through a process of asking them if the jar is full. Each time, he demonstrates that it’s not. To the rocks, he adds pebbles; to the pebbles, he adds sand. Is the jar full now? No. He then adds water. Many of us assume this analogy is about how much we can cram into our day. Kristi says no—think of the rocks as your writing. They have to go in first, otherwise you will never fit them in with the other stuff.

How many of us put writing first? Really and truly? We fill our days with all that other stuff and then try to cram writing into the odd half an hour once a week.

There are some people for whom life is just too chaotic and busy. You might have five kids, plus an ailing mother, plus you have to work part-time to help feed the family. I see these people put aside their writing, month after month, and yearn for the chance to write.

Then I read stories about writers who have all of that and more to cope with, and they still find half an hour a day to write, even if it means getting up earlier or staying up later. In half an hour you can write one page. In a week, that’s six pages (you may take Sunday off!). In a year, that’s 300 pages. A novel.

Am I preaching? I guess so. I know that I finally became totally serious about my commitment to writing after I had been to the US for a two-week writing workshop. Every day I wrote in class, I workshopped my own and others’ writing, I talked writing non-stop. And at night, in my little room (alone—bliss!), I wrote. In two weeks I wrote 7,500 words. I wrote every night because I figured that’s what I was there for and I wanted to make the most of it.

But when I arrived home, I realized that I could do it anywhere. I hadn’t been writing in my room for five or six hours—I’d been working most nights for an average of an hour. I think what changed was that I understood it was the rhythm of writing which had worked for me. Regular stints, instead of trying to write for a whole day every once in a while, because, especially with novels, you’ve got to spend a lot of time rethinking your way back into the story. It was the “showing up at my desk every day” that worked.

I was always thinking about my writing project; even if it was in the back of my brain somewhere so I wasn’t conscious of it, something was simmering, simply because I knew that sometime that day I would be doing more writing. And when I sat down to write, I was ready. Out came the words.

I’d like to say I have continued this marvelous work routine ever since, but I’d be lying. However, I did continue it for four months until I finished (and rewrote) that novel. I still retain that feeling of “living the writing” and am convinced that short, regular periods of writing will get me there a lot faster and more effectively than saving up for rainy writing days.

This was doubly confirmed for me recently when I attended the Chautauqua children’s writers’ workshop and listened to Linda Sue Park speak about her writing. She made a commitment to write two pages per day, no matter what. She had to make herself stick to this every day for three months before it became an ingrained habit that she couldn’t stop, but it worked for her, and it will work for you.

So—where and when are you going to write each day? You only have to find half an hour. Are you convinced half an hour won’t be enough? Block out three one-hour sessions per week. In your diary. Call it “Writer’s Meeting.” Call it anything you like, but make sure you’re there, backside on the chair, ready to write.

You don’t think you have three hours? Try these remedies. Turn off the TV. Don’t even look at your e-mails until you’ve done your hour. Take the phone off the hook. Get the family to help with the chores, and don’t accept any excuses or arguments. Put a sign on the door to say “Keep Out!” And mean it.

Mean it for yourself. Do you want to write? Really and truly?

Then do it.

Sherryl Clark teaches professional writing at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. She writes children’s and YA books, short fiction, and poetry. Her website is at www.sherrylclark.com.

No Rules, Just Write

By Jeanne M. Fielding

1,000 words a day or more? You’ve got to be kidding!

As if writing a story wasn’t daunting enough, published writers have killed many a tree imparting the “writing is a discipline” mantra. You must commit to writing five gazillion words a day—no matter how long it takes you.

My reply when I read these diatribes is, “Pshaw! As if!”

Perhaps this is why I struggled for so long to consider myself a writer. I hold a full-time job, co-own a home with my husband, and am the mother of one three-year-old boy. I think my plate is quite full, thank you. And yet, two years ago, I found a way to carve out fifteen minutes for myself to write every day.

You read me correctly—fifteen minutes.

For a wife and mother who also works outside the home, fifteen minutes seems like a lifetime! What working mother hasn’t wished for two seconds to rub together without a child crashing in, a husband calling out or the boss breathing over your shoulder? When a friend suggested that I give it a whirl, I scoffed at the idea. At the time, I didn’t even bathe alone, so how was I about to find fifteen minutes to sit down and write?

I thought about it. And thought about it some more. Until, sick to death of being badgered by my friend, I took a break at work, opened up Word, and wrote whatever came into my head. For about fifteen minutes.

The next day, I did it again, only this time, I picked up where I had left off.

After a week, I actually had the beginnings of a story. After a month, I had the start of my novel. In six months, I had a finished manuscript in my hands.

87,000 words.

The world didn’t end.

My baby is still fed and clothed and loved.

My husband hasn’t left me.

I still didn’t consider myself a writer.

Why? Because I averaged only about fifteen minutes a day. Some days I wrote for an hour, some days I didn’t write at all. When I did write and I was getting somewhere with my story, I was addicted. Other days, I couldn’t put two words together to save my life—usually because I was exhausted after having been up every few hours all night long with my son.

It wasn’t until another friend of mine took up writing that I found myself telling her that it doesn’t matter how much or how often you write. Heck, it doesn’t even matter if you have a project to work on. Find a few minutes each day and write a letter to a friend, jot down some thoughts about the weather, vent your feelings about the guy who cut you off on the thruway. It doesn’t matter what it is.

Just write.

How to Write Your Novel and Still Have Time for Sex

By Rob Loughran

Not time for only sex; but for all those things we are obligated to do on a regular basis: job, family, exercise, finances, changing the catbox. I just used “sex” in the title to get your attention.

The first step in writing your novel is to realize no one but you can write it. A writing teacher friend of mine begins each of her seminars by placing a pencil on 300 sheets of paper and saying, “Novels never write themselves.”

The second step is realizing that a novel isn’t written all at once. Let’s dust off some math skills. Say your book will be 80,000 words. At 250 words per page, that’s 320 pages or a page per day for 10.66 months. Allowing five weeks for research and outlining, writing up some character background, etc., that’s a novel in a year. If you started writing today, one year from today you could be printing out your novel while scouring your market guide for publishers.

That’s simplified, of course: you must rewrite.

But you’ll also have days when you write 500, 750, or 1,000 words. Jack London wrote 40 books by adhering to this simple principle: A daily writing stint of 1,500 words, every day, before breakfast. Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling mystery series, mainstream novels, and books on religion and philosophy recommends getting a give-away-calendar from the auto parts store and hanging it in a prominent place. Then start writing your prescribed-daily-quota (PDQ) and don’t go back to rewrite until your first draft is complete. Every day you reach your quota, you X out that day on the calendar. That Xed out calendar will provide a visual, daily reminder to yourself of your novel’s progress. And a blank week or two will goad you out of procrastination.

Adhere to your daily stint and you’ll have a novel PDQ.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

There’s the story about the backyard inventor who worked for years on this machine that featured electrical and gas engines; wires, screws, bolts, and buckets of every size. One day his neighbor popped his head over the fence and said: “That’s a magnificent creation. What’s it do?”

The inventor smiled and said, “I don’t really know.”

Obviously, this anecdote dictates the need for an outline, but, conversely, Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Who’s right? Should writers depend on creativity and spontaneity or plan as meticulously as an engineer? The answer (as to most of life’s dilemmas) is somewhere in the middle ground. If not a strict outline you should at least have a plan that includes genre, length, historical era, basic character sketches, and a short plot summary. All of which you can follow strictly or abandon when those all-too-rare moments of inspiration dictate that the story must take this direction.

But again, the most meticulous of outlines or the most profound artistic inspiration are squat if you don’t plop your butt in that chair and write.

How to Plop Your Butt in That Chair and Write

Okay, let’s take out pencils and a piece of paper.

Seriously, this is the hands-on part. I want you to make a list of the activities that you perform on a daily basis. Try to come up with 20 items. Include job, commuting, chores, school, leisure activities, etc.

Now give each activity a 1 if it’s CRUCIAL, a 2 if it’s IMPORTANT, or a 3 if it’s something that can be put on a BACK BURNER. (Example: 1=writing stint, 2=clean office, 3=watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Don’t just read this– try it.)

Okay, you’ve got 20 or so items ranked in value. Go back through your list and circle all the items you awarded a 2. Now, take these items and make them either a 1 (CRUCIAL) or 3 (BACK BURNER.) From my example above, I would take “clean office” and either do it now, or put it off until tomorrow, not on whimsy, but with good reason! If my office were so filthy I couldn’t write or perform another CRUCIAL item (i.e., make the car payment to avoid a late charge) it becomes a 1. If my office were merely in its normal state of dusty disrepair, but I could pound out a writing stint I’d make it a BACK BURNER item and attend my daughter’s soccer game.

Now, here’s the true impact of this exercise: Did you do it? If not, what does it say about your determination to finish that novel? Please go back and do it. And remember, the circumstances of life are constantly changing. Use this tool as often as you need.

Simple timesavers can add to your productivity. Wake up twenty minutes earlier or go to bed twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes! Not even half-an-hour! Use that extra time to write or do chores or bookkeeping which will free up time to write. That translates into more than two hours a week, more than one hundred hours in a year.

The television is a thief. Don’t blow it up; but do turn it off for an evening and see what you accomplish. Try watching just the second half of football and basketball games. Stop watching reruns. They’re reruns.

While commuting, use a tape recorder to plan chapters or polish dialogue. Listen to books on tape to learn from other writers.

Utilize “aggravation time.” Instead of fuming while waiting to pay for groceries, mentally compose a story about the person in front of you with thirteen items in the ten-items-or-less line. What color trailer does she live in? How many cats does she own? Which brand of canned cheese is her favorite?

If you’re blocked or stuck write a letter or a limerick. Just get to writing anything and it’ll get you back on that yellow brick road.

Mum’s the Word

Don’t show anybody your novel until it is finished, rewritten, and polished! The only result of “What do you think of my opening chapter?” will be doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity. Maybe it’s too wordy or sketchy. People will point this out to you. But you would have discovered and fixed that on a subsequent rewrite, right? Or worse, the person you’ve appointed Ebert will say she really liked it; it was nice.

Trust your judgment.

But there is a huge difference in hearing advice from a fellow writer and from Auntie Sarah. If there is someone whose opinion you value and honesty you can count on, then please avail yourself of his or her input. My wife (who is a voracious reader, but breaks into a sweat when writing anything longer than a Christmas card) and I have worked out a system. She sits sipping tea or wine while I read in a flat monotonous voice (you want your words, not your inflection, to have the impact) from my stuff. At any point where I lose her—for whatever reason—she starts snoring and I mark that spot in the manuscript. I trust her and don’t take offense. And she’s usually right.

Okay, she’s always right.

Remember what Gene Perret said, “Nothing is written until it’s rewritten.” Don’t pass an uncooked book around indiscriminately. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Cover of Bill Henderson's Rotten Reviews ReduxOne essential book to keep by your keyboard is Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. Here’s a sampling: an 1844 review of Huckleberry Finn: “A gross trifling with every fine feeling—Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety.”

An 1814 review of Gulliver’s Travels: “Evidence of a diseased mind and lacerated heart.” From a rejection letter of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “I think it is only a matter of time before you reach out into more substantial efforts that will be capable of making some real money as books.”

There will always be hope for your novel; get it written.

Novelist R.K. Narayan stated, simply: “You become a writer by writing.”

Pep Talk

I hate pep talks.

I was always mystified and confused when coaches demanded 110%, so this isn’t a RAH RAH, YOU CAN DO IT! snappy pep talk.

Just the opposite.

How would you feel, one year from now, if your novel were still a misty someday-dream with not a single word written? Project ahead five years. You still haven’t finished (have you even started?). How does that make you feel?

Ten years?

Now, think how you’ll feel, if when you finish this article, you put a calendar on the wall, and by this time next week see five or six X’s?

Then a month’s worth?

A year’s worth?

Writing instructor Lew Hunter wrote:

We all have talent. How we use it and don’t use it is what the game is all about in writing and in life itself. We must not get beaten down by those who choose to simply take up space on this planet, by those whose lives risk counting for nothing.

Rob Loughran’s mystery novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. He blogs at The Foul Mouthed Bard.

Dry Dock: When Real Life Takes Writers Ashore

By Sarojni Mehta-Lissak

To set things straight, I am not a writer who suffers from writer’s block. Yes, the occasional lull passes through me and I feel stymied, but writer’s block is not my issue — real life is. Since becoming a writer, I have seen patterns emerge that interfere with my writing life; those life events that fall into our paths regardless of our professions, circumstances we must tend to which take us away from writing.  Yet, I have come to see these periods not as fallow, empty or unproductive, but as quiet times, absorbing times, periods when we come out of the water — as a ship in dry dock — while we take care of life’s responsibilities.

All of us experience low points in life and make the necessary adjustments to cope with these challenges. Writers are no different. When crises hit, we too, must take time away from our work to find solutions or tend to issues that hopefully are short-lived, but can be chronic and ongoing. We’re lucky if it’s simply a plumbing problem, but often it is taking care of an aging parent or tending to a sick child.  What’s important to realize is that these times away from our writing are not really “lost” times, they are simply periods that are dormant, because they must be, as we turn our attentions off the page and to the problems at hand. Though we are not actively writing, we are collecting images, documenting events, and absorbing our life circumstances to use in future writing.

Being in dry dock allows us to take in life, deal with the concrete nuts and bolts of it, and then get back into the water — the writing life — with a renewed depth and a broader range of material from which to draw upon. I have come to resist these quiet times less, as I realize that almost on a daily basis something happens which takes me away from my writing, whether it’s a family concern, a load of laundry or even a phone call from a friend.

As all writers know, our need to produce constantly and regularly is almost obsessive — perhaps even uncontrollable — yet we must allow ourselves to be freed from this strong need in order to attend to the practical aspects of daily living. We must believe in ourselves and in our capabilities. We must know that we can indeed, retrieve our words and thoughts at a future time to write about them when life is not pulling at us so vehemently. If we wrestle with this dilemma, then we are wrestling with ourselves, for life will continue to happen, regardless of our being writers.

I recently had an illness and found myself in bed for three days — nowhere near my computer.  I actually didn’t miss being in my office because my focus was on getting better; writing was simply at the bottom of my list. Yes, I was conjuring stories and articles in my feverish delirium, but I didn’t have a compulsion to get up and write. I tried to have trust in myself that these inspirations would reappear at a later time if I were meant to write about them. I think this is why writers are at times so tormented; perhaps we feel that if we don’t write, right now, it will all evaporate and be lost forever. Though pens and notebooks are great companions, we must trust in our ability to retrieve our words.

We are the captains of our own ships and we can choose to remain at the helm when in water, or when in dry dock. Life will continue to infiltrate our writing time and we can continue to resist it, unless we look at these breaks as times of gathering. Even though our fingers are not at the keyboard, if we are open to the experiences falling into our paths then we can use what we have learned for better writing in the days ahead. This is when we can incorporate the range of emotions and circumstances we have collected . . . until we sail once again to the open seas, as writers filled with bounty.

Sarojni Mehta-Lissak is a poet, fiction and freelance writer.  Her work has appeared in Wild Violet, The Birthkit Newsletter, Midwifery Today, FamilyTravelFun.com and Moondance.org. She has a website