Bad, Honest Advice on How to Write as a Young Parent

心情不好

This 25 year old mother of two is me. Lazy butt had written precisely zero novels.

Enough people have asked how I managed to write two novels while at home with my kids that I thought I’d better craft an answer a little more thoughtful than “by being a crap mother.” Here it is, some very honest and probably very bad advice on how to launch a writing career while masterminding a large, young household.

  • Stop cleaning the house. This is done by a) quitting once conditions become sanitary without proceeding all the way to spiffy and, b) looking at your children the way our great-grandmother’s (and my parents) looked at their children: as a private workforce, a domestic militia of barely competent workers. Assigning one light chore every day and one heavier cleaning task on the weekend should do it.
  • Start mowing the lawn. Look, you’re not going away on writers’ retreats to the Banff Centre any time soon. That’s not the life you chose. But you do need to spend time  alone with your thoughts en plein air, and pushing a machine that drives conversation away all around the backyard is better than nothing.
  • Stay up. My creativity comes in all-or-nothing surges. During a surge, I tend to get about four hours of sleep during the night, maybe less. This isn’t a desperate attempt to make the most of the hours when my house is quiet (though it has that benefit). There’s simply more energy in my mind when I’m creative and it keeps me sleepless for weeks on end. Don’t resist it just because your family needs to get up in the morning. Squeeze a ten minute nap or two into the daylight hours even if it means taking the bus and sleeping away the commute (trust me, most of my university’s student population does this, even the sleep-drooler population). Staying up to write won’t be your lifestyle forever. Think of it as a grueling but temporary training regimen, like going for long, long runs leading up to a marathon.
  • Keep reading. I was badly stuck during the writing of my current novel. There was a difficult decision to be made, I didn’t have the confidence to make it, but until I did, the book couldn’t move forward. The solution was to stop writing for the rest of the day and read some excellent writing that succeeds in doing the very thing I was afraid to attempt. I opened a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant, read until 1am, and went to bed stoked to take the risk I needed.
  • Don’t spend too long lying around miserable about not being Mavis Gallant. This was an unintended side-effect of reading good writing. It’s inevitable and understandable, just don’t let it go on for too long.
  • Talk to your partner about your book. His input may not make it into the manuscript but airing your story’s sticking points out loud with an attentive adult who wants you cute and happy is a helpful exercise. It also downplays any burgeoning sense of resentment he may have for a) the project that consumes so much of your attention, and b) the way you hog the lawnmower.
  • Share with care. I don’t mean to say you should make your partner to read half-baked early drafts. Don’t do this to your loved ones. They often don’t know what to say and it puts them in an awful position. Instead, use a professional writer-in-residence based in your local library, university, or other arty institutions. These real, working writers are waiting to read fifteen pages or so of your writing and give an impartial, informed assessment of how you’re doing and how it could be better. Their services are free and competition for their positions is fierce so you can usually trust they’ve been well-screened for things like being a jerk. But having said all this, if someone asks you to read their work, do it. You can take a lesson from the writers-in-residence and limit the amount of pages you’ll read, but say yes. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in Karma but I make a cautious exception when it comes to lending my pickup truck and to helping other writers.
  • Distract. If you have kids at home during the day, introduce them to pastimes they can do by themselves in the same room as you while you sit still and say very little—things other than screen-time, which won’t make anyone happy in the long run. What could those pastimes be? It depends on the kid. For some kids, nothing will fill this bill and you’ll just have to let them trash your house while you get some work done, or learn to type with their heads wedged into the triangle formed by the crook of your arm and the edge of your desk (been there). If they are willing to give you a break, get them some Lego, craft supplies, Play-Doh, a load of siblings, a bunch of ironing to do—anything.
  • Be honest with yourself about other interests competing for discretionary time. If you can’t give up crafting, cake decorating, direct marketing essential oils, etc. in order to make time to write consistently, it might be best to wait until you are willing to make writing a priority. There’s nothing wrong with other pursuits, we just need to be realistic and at peace with how we choose to spend our time.
  • Don’t call your writing a hobby if you’re doing it as a serious artistic project. Don’t let anyone call it a hobby.
  • Go easy on people. People are who you are writing for. Don’t tell me it’s all for yourself, forever and ever. That might be how things turn out but that’s not the goal you have in your heart. Spending time with your kids, your partner, your extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers is part of writing. Nothing is more inspiring than life going on around you. This is an advantage mothers surrounded by people have over other writers. When I was working as a columnist for a newspaper in Fort McMurray staffed mostly by young, single newcomers to the city, a pattern emerged when these people would try to write columns of their own. They’d write a few articles on food they ate or television they watched and then their columns would usually fizzle. What they lacked wasn’t talent or voice or experience, it was other people. They were isolated, lonely, and in many ways creatively bereft. You and I, we are none of those things.

And that is the awful truth of how I do it.

 

 

Morbid in the Mountains

April and Chris Demes’s guitar birdhouse in Hill Spring, Alberta as posted on canadiangardening.com

My May began with a literary festival in a world class city and ended with a book club in the village of Hill Spring, population not quite 200.

This book club was hosted by my friend and fellow writer April Demes.  Years ago, when we first met, April was an arty, precocious teenager and I was a newly married 21-year-old who knew EVERYTHING.  Now that we’re older, we have more in common: gardening, bird watching, CBC Radio, pretty blond children, and writing.

Despite their idyllic Rocky Mountain surroundings – a white house on the side of a green hill where a repurposed guitar is nailed to a tree as a birdhouse – April’s family hasn’t been luxuriating in a quiet simple life.  (Quiet simple life is a myth.  If we think we know someone living this way, it’s a sure sign we don’t know them very well at all.)  While still in his 30s, her husband was afflicted with cancer, right inside his skull. They nearly lost each other.  That my novel strikes any kind of chord with April is a great honour.

The Hill Spring book club was one of my favourites.  It was peopled with bright, interesting women of varied ages and backgrounds – some of whom may be distantly related to my well-connected husband.  They came prepared with questions and we had a great discussion about love and death and the writing process.  But it wasn’t because everyone unreservedly loved the book.

One of the ladies who enjoyed the book described her grownup daughter’s reaction to it.  They’d been reading aloud and the daughter stopped when the narrative got too “morbid.”  There is a fair bit of death and death paraphernalia in the novel.  It begins in the title and never really lets up.  It can be tough for some readers to see through it to the tenderness that is the real point of the book.  Sometimes, they dismiss it as “morbid.”

Strictly speaking the word “morbid” means sick, unhealthy.  I flinch when I hear this word used to describe my book.  Writing in frank, practical terms about loss is not something I consider unhealthy.  Not everything that’s uncomfortable – exercise, pelvic exams, insulin shots – is unhealthy.  Willfully ignoring the difficult and complicated process of dispatching our loved ones until we’re devastated by a crisis is what seems unhealthy to me.  As I wrote the book, “morbid” was not my aim – quite the contrary.

While I’m no longer surprised to hear “morbid” spoken at book clubs, I was surprised to hear which part of the book made the lady’s daughter squirm.  It was the chapter where the main female character is cutting up a grocery store chicken, making dinner.

I hate cooking more than most people.  I wrote about cutting chicken honestly, flaunting but not exaggerating my perceptions of it.  “Take that, cooking.  You’re gross.”  But even someone who abhors cooking as much as I do probably doesn’t find her own kitchen a morbid place.

Please enjoy this photo of a butchered chicken

Maybe death is the same.  Life on Earth means eating and it means dying.  Both are messy, inevitable, and natural.  It doesn’t matter how healthy or vibrant or “morbid” any of us is, we all have to eat and we all have to die.  It remains true even if we don’t want to know anything of the finer points of how either is done.

I don’t make money on book clubs but I did sell two books in Hill Spring.  One was to a lady who came to the meeting without finishing the book.  It was morbid, she said, but after hearing the rest of us talk about it she’d decided to give the book another chance and invest in her very own copy (personally defaced by me) instead of borrowing April’s.  She was willing to question her sense of what’s morbid and consider changing her mind.

It may have been the most gratifying book club comment ever.

Love and the Library

My husband got me chocolates just like I ordered for Valentines Day today. And, by playing muse to my novel’s “Brigs,” he also indirectly got me this: a recommendation from the Edmonton Public Library’s “Great Stuff” curator, Diego Ibarra. See?

Really needed that today.  Thanks, fellas.

Marriage Tips of the Angels of Death?

My Mr. and Me

My Mr. and Me

I wrote a novel about marriage.  It’s a novel, not a manual.  It’s meant to start conversations about love and relationships, not necessarily to resolve them.  Recently, I had one such conversation.  It was a discussion about whether the marriage I wrote is truly a happy one.  Would my main characters actually love each other if they had to live in the real world?

My position, of course, is that they would.  Most of my reviewers agree — but not all of them.

I’m not a marriage counselor.  When I’m writing, my job is not to lecture but to describe what I see in life and in my imagination.  That’s where the marriage I wrote came from – not from relationship theories but from inspiration found in things I’ve seen, heard, felt, and (as one reviewer pointed out) smelled.  And, since this is the Internet, I’ll write some of what I see in happy marriages in a list.  Maybe everyone’s list would be different.  But this list is mine – and ya won’t find anything on it about toothpaste caps or crapping with the bathroom door open.

Quick Disclaimer: I’m speaking of marriages where both partners are fairly healthy emotionally and socially.  I don’t mean situations of abuse or flagrant craziness where self-preservation demands a different list entirely.

What a Good Marriage Looks Like To Me:

1)      It’s Not Dating.  And thank goodness.  During his dating days, I had a miserable conversation with one of my brothers.  He didn’t want to live alone but at the same time he was worried marriage meant being trapped in a never-ending date – having to keep up a stream of witty conversation, fussing over the etiquette of opening car doors or not, orchestrating lavish events – all those company manners stretching on and on until someone in the couple mercifully dies and the other can relax.  Married people can go on dates but we are not dating.  Even if we aren’t holding hands at the movies every night, romantic moments can arise out of daily life – moments much more natural and genuinely loving than stunts copied out of hackneyed, soap-opera-inspired cultural scripts.

2)      It Maintains Physical Contact.  Look, it’s hard to stay mad at someone when she’s sitting in your lap.  The power of physical affection shouldn’t be underestimated.  Between people who love each other, it can take the edge off just about anything.  It can change fighting into flirting.  And it’s easy to use.  Slather it on.

3)      It’s Generous With the Benefit of the Doubt.  Everyone makes mistakes.  In a good marriage, mistakes are handled by thinking, “There is no way he meant that to sound so awful.  We must be missing something.”  When attributing motives to a spouse, it’s best to use a deductive approach – one that begins with the premise that the loved-one truly loves us.  From there, we assume the most basic motive is love.  We may be clumsy and unsuccessful in showing love but we try to see it underlying behaviours anyway.  We use humor and affection and warm, open communication to let partners know when there’s a glitch. We also use tenderness.  Frankness is not always a virtue.  Sometimes, it’s just laziness, malice, and thoughtlessness dressed up in a goofy costume made of 1970s self-help mystique.  Ironically, frankness can sometimes foster more misunderstanding especially when an issue calls for slow, delicate defusing to keep it from detonating and devastating the relationship.

4)      It Doesn’t Keep Score.  A good marriage has no tally sheet.  It doesn’t worry about “love banks” or throw down rules about how love must be proven or earned.  Marriage isn’t a corporation.  Instead of keeping balance sheets weighing good deeds against bad behaviours it just forgives and forgives and forgives.  It’s like a soccer game for 5-year-olds.  Try your best, have fun, concentrate on teamwork, forget the score, and it’s okay if everyone wins.

5)      It’s Not Preoccupied With Boundaries.  Individuality is the human condition, okay?  We’re all different and separate from one another.  Nothing anyone tries to do to us can change that.  For a romantic sap like me, the greatest challenge of our lives – including our married lives – isn’t to find ourselves but to find someone else and make them as much a part of ourselves as possible.  Marriage is one of those transcendent paradoxes about losing ourselves in order to find ourselves.

6)      It’s Open to Miracles.  This item on the list is important enough for me to break the Internet convention of limiting lists to five points.  Like I’ve said before, I don’t really know what makes marriage work.  It just does.  I have a good one.  Without much effort, I’ve been happily married to the same man for eighteen years.  But it’s not because we’re any better or smarter than anyone else.  There’s got to be a lot of luck – or something like it – involved.  A good marriage is not unlike a miracle.  And a miracle, by definition, demands faith that something unlikely can actually happen.  So believe in marriage.  Hope in marriage.  On many levels, marriage in the twenty-first century doesn’t make much sense.  But here we are.