Being an author is my second job, not my first. And this is something I have to remind myself of daily, lest guilt overwhelm me.
My primary job is as a parent. I’m a stay-at-home dad with three kids. The two eldest are in school now, and the youngest goes to daycare three days a week. One of those days is devoted to housework, because three kids can cause a whole lot of mess, let me tell you. The laundry alone is a Sisyphean task, even when it’s shared with my wife. So I have two days each week to write. And even on those writing days, I spend a lot of hours taking care of the kids, because I have to get them up and ready for the day, and I have to be there when the bell rings. That’s my most important job, and it’s important enough that I want to pour all the energy and care I can into it. Writing comes second.
So, what does that mean for my writing? It means whenever I hear someone say “Write every day,” (as an ill-received Daily Beast article said this summer) I grind my teeth. Partly because it’s a stupid thing to say—everyone writes differently, and you can make it work an infinite number of ways. And partly because it’s something my judgemental brain is already telling me, and I fight a battle against it every day. “You’re missing your chance,” my brain says. “Surely you can find more hours, more energy.” No, brain. No I’m not, and no I can’t. And the books will get done. But in the meantime, two of my kids want snacks and the third just took a swan dive off the couch.
The way I mix writing with full-time parenting does mean I have to navigate some obstacles. This summer, for instance, I went two months without writing. We had just moved to a new city, and the kids were at home, and I wanted them to feel as comfortable and as cared for as possible in our new place, to make a hard transition a little easier. By the time school started up again, my fingers were itching for a keyboard. After that long a hiatus, it took some time to find the flow and the voice of my work-in-progress again. I had to refamiliarize myself with it, shake hands with the characters and bring them back to life in my head.
(Every obstacle is an opportunity too, though, and I found some pretty glaring problems I had been blind to before the summer.)
What I didn’t do was say “Well, I’ve fallen behind, I might as well quit.” For all my brain’s unhelpful mutterings, stopping is never really a consideration. Writing is a part of who I am and how I make sense of the world. So I did the work, got back into the story, and now, several chapters further on, I’m in love with this world that I get to visit two days each week. I sometimes wish I had more time here—hence the long gaps between blog posts, because most often I’d rather be off in fantasyland. But my characters don’t need me as much as my kids do.
So what would I say instead of “Write every day?” I think I’d just say don’t stop. But I’d also say be a human being before being a writer. As important as I think books and stories are, there are things that are more important and it’s okay to put those first. Writing isn’t actually a race. The finish line stays put, and the progress you’ve made—marked out painstakingly by words on a page—doesn’t disappear. Your manuscript won’t suffer trauma from neglect like a real, breathing person will. To finish a book all you need to do is keep going. If you keep going, no matter how slowly, you’ll reach THE END.
So be quiet now, judgemental brain. I have books to write.
In a Q&A, my publisher Orca asked me which part of a book is my favourite to write. I answered honestly (and boringly) that the climax is my favourite. It is, but there was a close second, and I wanted to talk about it. I love the first words.
Now I’m talking about the beginning of the actual first draft, mind, not the outlining I do beforehand. Outlining, to be honest, can be a bit of a pain. When I’m working at that level on the story I often feel like I’m trying to hold too much in my head at once. It gives me headaches.
But then I get to the real beginning of the book, writing the words readers will actually see. Beginnings always feel like a puzzle box to me, and I love puzzles. I need to find the right way in to the story. I already know more or less what’s going to happen in that first chapter, but I don’t know how it will happen yet. Do I need to start in medias res, or does this story require me to establish normalcy before I take readers into the weird stuff? Do I start with dialogue or description? Is this the story where I finally attempt first person narration?
That first chapter generally takes me a few days, and a lot of false starts. I try something and it feels wrong. So I pace for a while, and I try another angle, and it still doesn’t fit—maybe the protagonist’s voice is wrong, or her motivation is underdeveloped. Most times, I write the first two pages four or five times before I find my way in. But once I find the right opening, it clicks into place and the rest of the chapter spills out fast. That feeling, of finding the right way in, is incredibly satisfying.
It also feels terribly inefficient, to write the same section over and over, but it makes my brain hum with delight anyway. When I start, and it goes wrong, it gives me clues for my next attempt. Each time I get closer, and I’m learning the story along the way. And then once I find it, I have to go back to the outline and figure out what damage I’ve done to my story structure, because it never goes quite as planned. If I was tracking my daily word count at this point I would probably sink into a depression. It’s slow, and it’s redundant. But it’s so, so much fun.
Writing as a stay-at-home dad is like being the subject of an experiment to see when and how the human brain can be creative. It's often hard to find set periods of time to write (though it's been getting easier as the kids get older) and the times I do find are generally short. Dominion was written between the hours of 5 and 6 a.m. while I was on parental leave for my second child. Some days I would get an hour to write, some days I would open my laptop and instantly hear a crying baby. I had read that a consistent writing schedule was helpful in Anne Lamott's excellent Bird by Bird, but consistency doesn't happen when you're on kid duty.
So what I've learned about my brain is this: it can adapt to just about any schedule, but it needs some time to settle in. Lately I've had two to four mornings a week for writing, about two hours each morning. For the first while in this new arrangement, I would write furiously for the first 45 minutes, and then I'd hit a wall. My brain was pretty sure this was stopping time, because surely someone was about to start crying, right? Time to shut down and start looking for the diaper cream. It took me a few months to push past that, to start writing longer. Even now I usually have a lull after 45 minutes. I get up, pace for a few minutes, and then I can resume.
The other thing I've learned is that I can't write first drafts in the evening. Our youngest, who is now two, has always been an early riser. I wanted to get up at 5 and do some writing, as I did before, but she liked to get up around 4:30 most mornings, so that was right out. So I tried writing after bedtime instead. But I've always been a morning person, and creatively it shows. When I write something after the kids are in bed, it either stalls out before it begins or it's so full of plotholes that the words hardly stick together. For hard first draft work, or really complicated revisions, I need my wits about me, and by 8pm my wits have already hit the hay. On the other hand, this is the perfect time for some minor revisions--I'm much better at catching writing that doesn't flow, because even the smallest hitch can trip me up when I'm tired.
I remember when I was younger, I could write in a frenzy. I'd finish a short story in a day, sweating over my keyboard. I didn't know about NaNoWriMo back then, but I would have done it. (I did write a draft of an early novel in under a month once. But it was June, so it doesn't count.) Now I'm much more of a chip-away-at-it writer. Small but steady progress, adding up to big things over time. It makes more sense for my life as a parent.