One of the most frequent questions I’m asked at book signings or when I teach writing classes is this one: “When do you write?”
The aspiring writers who ask this questions are searching for a recipe to follow. They want me to say something like: “If you sit at your desk from six to nine every morning, you will become a writer.” Or maybe: “If you set a goal of writing just 500 words every day, you’ll have a novel in a year! Easy as ABC!”
Even people who aren’t aspiring writers ask me this question. Maybe it’s because they struggle to imagine what writers actually do. They imagine us on safari or having affairs like the characters in novels, or maybe kicking back with a brandy at noon.
“It must be so exciting to be a writer!” people often tell me.
“When do you write?”
Writing, alas, is not that exciting, seen from the outside, and there’s no simple recipe for getting it done—especially if you’re a mother. Because mothers get so little time to actually put words on paper, we often look like we’re doing something else when we’re writing. We’re burning dinner because we’re working out a plot line, or furtively jotting notes during a school concert, or suddenly walking the dog when the dog is tired and acting like a cement block at the end of the leash.
In my early years as a writer, I, too, was looking for the secret to success. I had already become a mother by the time I was seriously trying to publish, and I was juggling a paying job as a public relations consultant besides. I was so exhausted when my kids were little that I just wanted to lie down at the end of the day with a pillow over my face.
My question at book signings therefore had a slightly different flavor. Instead of asking writers when they wrote, I would ask, “How do you find enough time to write?” I couldn’t imagine it, you see, because I already had more tasks than hours in a day.
Most male authors gave very prescriptive answers to this question. They had set hours for writing—even if they had regular jobs and kids. “I get up early and write for two hours before my job,” they might say, or, “When I come home from work, I go straight to my study and write until bed.”
As a mother, I couldn’t crack this secret code. How could I write early in the morning, if I had to find gym clothes or pack lunches before school? How could I write at night, if the baby got up every hour with colic, or if I had to help with one of those dreadful fourth grade dioramas, the kind where you have to fashion little ears of corn out of Play-doh and ladders out of twigs?
Finally, a famous male mystery novelist shed some light on how many male authors were finding the time. I knew that he had small children as well, so when I heard him speak at our local library, I said, “How do you find time to write?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” the famous novelist said. “I have a wife.”
I swear to you that this is true, but I won’t divulge this man’s name. His wife would surely kill him if she heard this, or leave him, if she hasn’t already.
Finally, though, someone gave me a recipe that I could actually use: the now-deceased short story writer and political activist, Grace Paley. When I approached Ms. Paley at the Boston Public Library to ask how she got any writing done when she had small children at home, she grinned and said, “Day care.”
Day care! I mulled this over in my mind. I had day care for the hours I worked as a public relations consultant, of course, but did I dare pay for babysitting if I was just writing? How could I justify such a debutante expense?
I couldn’t. There was no rational reason on earth that I could give to support the idea of spending solid cash on a babysitter. How could I, when my efforts at writing short stories, novels, and essays were being rejected, one after the other?
For a couple of years after that comment by Paley, I kept trying to fit writing around the edges of my life: while the kids watched videos or played in the yard, or after everyone was in bed, before I fell into a coma. I had a ritual, where I’d make a cup of tea and allow myself two squares of chocolate, essentially bribing myself to sit in front of the computer.
Finally I started running away from home, abandoning my family to go on occasional weekend writers’ retreats—typically to Wellspring House in the Berkshires, but sometimes just holing up in a cheap hotel to write for ten hours a day. Not everyone’s idea of fun, but for me it was bliss.
Going away for even a weekend was tough at first, because I felt so guilty. I’d abandoned my family! I was missing that Girl Scout camping trip, that track meet, that night of video and pizzas with my children!
Plus, once I was at the retreat, it was hard not to mother everyone around me. I’d feel compelled to do all of the dishes in the communal kitchen at first. Once I even moved a glass out of the way, so that another writer (a young guy) wouldn’t knock it off the table with his elbow with his wild gestures.
Once I got over the guilt, though, these retreats were amazing. It was absolutely liberating to just get up in the morning and go right back to the sentence or chapter I had been working on the day before, with nobody demanding that I make breakfast or tie shoes.
The downside was that sometimes it was more difficult to write when I got home. I’d face the same fractured work schedule and house chores as before, and I’d despair again because I wasn’t making any progress as a writer. I needed more hours to myself if I was ever going to focus on ideas long enough to put words on paper.
My husband, luckily, was supportive. He urged me to essentially buy those hours. “If this is what you really want to do, then get extra day care,” he said. “We’ll get by somehow.”
God bless him. I lined up extra day care hours. Guilt drove me to become assiduous about dividing my time: day care hours two days a week were for writing my own essays and fiction, and three days a week I would use day care for paid work.
Amazingly, it wasn’t long after that when my previously unpaid writing efforts started to pay. I didn’t sell any fiction, but I sold one essay to Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, and then another. An editor from Parents magazine saw one of my essays and asked if I’d like to write an article for them. From there, I was able to use my clips to convince editors at many other magazines to buy my pitches for articles and essays.
It wasn’t long before those day care hours where I was writing my “own” stuff were actually paying more than my per-hour PR work. I flip-flopped my schedule and started using day care three days a week to write and two days a week for public relations. I finally sold my first book, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, to Crown, and from there, I started taking on contracts as a ghost writer and book doctor.
Best of all, because I had those long, uninterrupted hours to think and write, I was less frustrated, and more able to enjoy the days when I wasn’t writing. Even more surprisingly, I found that I was more creative on my “off” writing days. Thoughts bloomed at odd times, like when I was grocery shopping or yelling, “Good job, honey!” on the playground.
When I visualize why this happened, I see it like this: the whole top of my head opened up and let ideas flow out like water on the days I had day care, as I poured the words out and arranged them. On days I didn’t have day care hours designated for writing, that well in my head was able to fill with new ideas from some secret area in my brain that I’d never been able to tap into before.XXX
Okay. I need to work on that metaphor. But you get the idea. Now, when people ask, “When do you write?” I answer, “There’s never a time that I’m not writing, even if it looks like I’m doing something else.”
And, if the person asking me the question is a young mother, I add, “You’ll write best if you pay for day care. Run away from home sometimes, too. Your children will survive. They might even be proud of you.”