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Writing… with Children

Post five in the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”

I should have started writing twenty years ago. All that time I spent sitting around watching MTV and playing MOO games on the Gopher in the days before the World Wide Web could have been put to much better use. If you’re too young to remember that, then you haven’t really lived.

These days, we all have such a media and emotion overload that it’s hard to set aside time to do anything, let alone crank out a 100K novel. Add a couple of kids to the mix, and it’s next to impossible.

Here’s how it works. You sit down at the kitchen table, power up the laptop, and open the file.

“Mo-om. I’m hungry.”

“You’re not eating anything. Get out of the kitchen. I just fed you.”

She hits you with that pitiful face, big brown eyes. “But I’m hungry.”

You resist.

She jumps around the room minion style. “Hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry.”

Sighing, you shove back the chair, pick her up, and deposit her in her overindulgent bedroom. “Find something to play with. You have a million toys.”

You sit down at the kitchen table and look over the last paragraph you’ve written.

“Mo-om. I’m thirsty…”

And so it goes.

Your choices are pretty much to:

a) Let chaos reign, ignore the munchkins and write anyway. (You’ll pay for this later).

b) Play with your munchkins and take the writing time away from sleep.

c) Wait until your munchkins are old enough to not need your constant attention (I’ve heard this happens somewhere around their 30th birthday)

d) Forego your dream and find a new one that revolves around your children

In the early days of writing, I opted for choice B.

Bausch describes the scenario all new parents fall into:

Once when our first child was a baby, my mother came to visit. And after the baby went to sleep, I began tiptoeing around trying to make no noise. My mother said, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “The baby’s asleep.” She said, “Have some friends over, put some music on, rattle some dishes, make noise. You’re training that kid to be a bad sleeper.” 

We’ve all done this. Some of you are probably doing it right now. But one of the great mistakes parents are making these days is to run around doing everything for our kids and forcing them to operate in our closed, “perfect” boxes.

When I was in college, there were a few semesters when I worked sixty hours a week and took eighteen hours of classes. It was an insane schedule, but one thing I learned is that I could literally study anywhere. I used to make flashcards and tuck them into my waitress tablet. While people were stalling and trying to figure out what they wanted to eat, I was learning that two pyruvates are made from glycolysis.  Sitting at the break table, scarfing down a grossly unhealthy snack, I rewrote my notes and read my textbook. I read my flashcards on a small cassette player and played it in the car. It was easy back then to be resourceful with my time.

The thing is, making writing time for yourself is a choice–children or no children, job or no job, busy life or simple one.

Bausch’s advice is that we should train ourselves to be able to work anywhere. He says this:

If you set up a certain expectation about when and how you’ll be able to do the work, you train yourself to be silent. Shostokovich wrote his famous 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, during the siege of Leningrad. Bombs were falling all around him and he understood perfectly well that there was a very good chance he would die within the next few hours or days. Teach yourself to write in busy places under the barrage of noises the world makes. Work in rooms where kids are playing, with music on, even with the television on. Work in the faith that if something is really good, it will not escape back into oblivion if you get distracted from it. It will turn up again. There is no known excuse for not working when you are supposed to be working.

It’s so easy to fall into the excuse trap. “I didn’t get anything done today. The kids were wild.” No, you didn’t get anything done today because you chose not to. You chose to let the kids being wild be the reason you didn’t get anything done.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with setting aside a time when you make limits for your children and refuse to accommodate their every whim. Sure, it might take a few days of you standing your ground and them having a little bit of a temper tantrum, but when they realize that you’re going to set aside an hour every day, and they’re going to have to wait until that hour is over before you’ll give them that drink or get that toy down from the shelf–guess what? They’ll wait. And honestly, you’ll both be better for it.

That’s not to say you should shut the kids up in their bedrooms and write for four hours. I don’t think it’s necessary to even send the kids out of the room. Learn to write with them in the background. Learn to pause and smile every so often at their inventive play, knowing you’re teaching them that it’s okay for them to take time out of their day and pursue their own creativity. They will be ever grateful for this gift when they are older.

Bausch finishes this point with the following:

Remember that it is an absurdity to put writing before the life you have to lead. I’m not talking about leisure. I’m talking about the responsibility you have to the people you love and who love you back. No arduousness in the craft or arts should ever occupy one second of the time you’re supposed to be spending that way. It has never been a question of the one or the other and writers who say it is are lying to themselves or providing an excuse for bad behavior. They think of writing as a pretext for it. It has never been anything of the sort.

There has to be a balance. If I block off an hour of writing time, I try to make sure I block off time for reading books with my daughter, singing songs with them, or watching my son’s imaginary basketball league.

All you have to do is be purposeful about it. Set yourself a schedule, set your boundaries, and get to writing.