Thick with Child: A Guide to Writing When You Have Kids

8 Jan 2012

This really does have to be brief, because I’m supposed to be doing Nothing But The Book in terms of writing. But a good friend is facing a book deadline of her own, and I offered to be her book nag, and so I found myself sharing with her my tips on how to manage writing a book when you’re also a mother. And I ended up coming up with a list of tips that seemed worth sharing here, so here they are.

First I should explain that the title of this blog post, “Thick with Child,” refers to a marvelous expression from the nineteenth century. It was a term used to refer to a woman being pregnant. But I find, as a modern intellectual woman, that it’s really after birth that you find yourself “thick” (-headed) because you have a child. (Kids eat part of your brain as they grow.) So it’s a little joke.

Which, since I’ve had to explain it, probably isn’t funny.

Right! About those tips:

  1. Literally unplug the internet, including on your phone, during your designated writing time. Seriously. You’d be shocked how long an hour lasts offline. If you have to look stuff up while you’re writing, just put in a placeholder “fact” and look it up later when you’re back online.

  2. Sequester your email so that you only answer it during designated times during the day. I use the time before my son gets up, the break I take for lunch, and the time after dinner. Being so crunched for reply time keeps my replies shorter, which results in the benefit of fewer long responses back. So it’s a win-win approach to email.

  3. Schedule time OFF while you are scheduling time ON. If you don’t schedule break time, you won’t be able to keep going at an intense pace. When I was finishing my dissertation, I used the rule that I would work when my mate was at the hospital (he was a third-year medical student) and not work when he was off. Knowing I’d have time off made it possible to stay “on.” (And that probably explains why I’m one of the few people I know who in the humanities finished my masters plus PhD in five years. Thanks, medical school!)

  4. When you start a big new chunk of writing, like a chapter or an article, take the first designated day away from your office and computer. Spend the day doing relaxing things alone, like shopping, gardening, walking, but be sure to try to think about the chunk of writing you’re facing. Imagine you are out on an intimate date with it. Jot down little notes if that helps, but don’t attempt any serious writing. This is an especially useful technique if you have to go back to a manuscript you’ve had to leave for a while. Being out on a “date” with it, like being on a date with your mate when you have kids, helps you remember what you like about it.

  5. Remember that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time.” Avoid writers’ block by simply setting yourself text length goals each day. So set yourself a goal of writing two new pages of text. Don’t worry about what it you write, just write. You can always fix it later. (If you’re still blocked, try writing in the future tense: “I’m going to write about x, and then I’m going to talk about y, and in there I’m going to be sure to discuss z.”)

  6. When transitioning from one major chunk of writing to another (e.g., finishing one chapter and starting the next), take a real work day OFF in between, and don’t feel guilty about it. Just remember that downtime is a necessary part of the writing process, and in the end it actually increases efficiency and productivity. (My mate, who observed how I write, pointed this out to me one day and forever stopped me from feeling guilty about those days off. In fact, now he downright approves of the days when all I do is go shopping at the swishy mall, because he knows that’s part of how I get so much done in terms of my writing productivity.)

  7. If something isn’t working, try deleting it. You’d be surprised how often cutting out a messy bit and stitching the remainders to each other fixes problems.

  8. If you have to have family days that take you away from your writing and interrupt key stretches (e.g., weekends that interrupt work on a single chapter), “cheat” on your family by taking little 5-minute blocks alone to continue thinking about the chapter. I don’t try to get anything new done during those little blocks; I just remind myself what’s going on in the chapter or article. This allows me to feel like I’m still in touch with the piece, so that I can face it without confusion or trepidation on Monday mornings.

  9. No matter how young your children are, tell them what you’re writing about. This is useful for at least two reasons: (1) if you have to simplify your work enough to explain it to a child, it means you really understand what it is you’re trying to convey; (2) it tends to convince your children you really do have a job that they have to respect.

  10. Use classical conditioning to get your brain into the act as fast as possible. Use the same physical writing space each day (unless you’re blocked, in which case a new physical space may help) and drink the same beverage. Use the same favorite pen for editing. I even use the same album, over and over again, for any given piece. Indeed, I can tell you which album “sponsored” each of my major pieces of writing because each was used as a classical conditioning prompt, right after the kid went to school, to push my brain back into the “time to write” groove.

Just one last thought: When your children get in the way of your work, I think the logical thing to do is to just realize how fortunate that makes you. First, it means you have children who really need you, and if a child really needs you, a child also loves you. Receiving the love of a child is a truly extraordinary experience. Second, it means your situation is decent enough that you can stop work to be with your child, which is not true of everyone in our world. So the “problem” of a child interrupting one’s work is what my mother used to call “a problem of luxury.”

The lowering of my productivity that my son sometimes causes reminds me of the chubby belly I’ll always have because of him. If that is the cost for what I have gotten in him, well, that’s easily the best deal I ever got.

Besides, our children won’t be with us forever, whereas our computers will be. I am reminded of that as my son seems to be suddenly approaching my height. That’s the top of his head in that picture up there. We were out hiking as a family on Saturday morning, along our favorite river to canoe. A child poking at the frozen marsh with a stick is a truly beautiful and fleeting thing.

There’s no point in resenting your work for keeping you from your children and resenting your children for keeping you from your work. Love the one you’re with.