Let me tell you about what my week looks like.
Saturday: my brother and family arrive from Texas, and stay with us. I love having them here, and we’re having a great time. Saturday night, cook dinner for five.
Sunday: Mom joins us and we all go sailing for the day. Cook dinner for six.
Monday: take Mom to doctor’s appointment. She’s having problems, and needs more tests. Cook dinner for six.
Tuesday: both sons arrive with significant others to stay with us for a week. Have to remake beds. Mom needs to be driven to hospital for x-rays and blood tests. Will cook dinner for ten.
Wednesday: brother scheduled to leave. Will be down to only four house guests. Mom needs to go to hospital for M.R.I. Mom needs prescriptions refilled. Dinner for nine.
Thursday: Birthday party for younger son, with grandparents invited. Son wants tacos with hand-made tortillas. Cook dinner for nine.
Friday: drive Mom to Portland (hour and a half each way) for her ophthalmology appointment. Take her shopping for summer clothes. Home in time for dinner with sons.
Monday: sons scheduled to leave. Guest beds need to be stripped, sheets washed. Now it’s my turn to go to doctor for medical tests. (Having upset stomach for past month — wonder why?!!)
Tuesday: Frantically pack for three-week trip to Turkey.
Wednesday: Catch flight for Istanbul.
Am I getting any writing done? What do you think? Even though I have the uncomplaining help and support of a wonderful spouse, life is full of so many distractions that sometimes writing is impossible. It takes time to get into the creative zone you need to write a new scene. It takes time to hear those voices, visualize the action, hone the words. I can’t do it in ten-minute snatches. And as I get older, I’m finding it even harder to write through distractions.
When I was a twenty-something medical resident, working 80-hour weeks, somehow I managed to fit in some writing when I had a spare moment. On nights when I’d be on-call, or when I’d get an hour’s breathing space for lunch, I could produce at least a few paragraphs. But I was writing short stories and articles then, not novels, and I can get focused much more quickly when the piece is compact and the story is less complicated, with fewer plot and character issues to juggle.
After my sons were born, I dropped back to working part-time, but with both a toddler and a baby in the house, I had a whole new set of distractions. I juggled two feeding schedules, tried to synchronize nap times, felt my IQ melting away as I shuffled around in a sleep-deprived state, the “ABC song” continuously playing in my head. And yet, amazingly, I managed to write. I completed my very first novel (albeit not a very good one) when my sons were only two and four years old.
I still don’t know how I did it. I’m sure there were times when someone’s diaper didn’t get changed in a timely fashion, or someone had to yell “Mommy” a few too many times before I heard him. I feel guilty about not being totally, mentally there for them when my mind was far, far away. I wonder if they incurred some lasting emotional trauma, being the children of a writer. Then I look at these sons of mine, and I see two wonderful, independent and self-sufficient young men who grew up washing their own clothes, changing their own sheets, and cooking their own breakfasts.
I think there’s something to be said for laissez-faire parenting.
I hear from many aspiring writers who haven’t managed to actually write anything yet because their lives are too busy. “When I retire, I’ll write that book,” they say. Or when the children are out of the house.” And to a certain extent, I can sympathize with them. It’s impossible to write when your kids are tugging and whining at your feet. Or when your elderly mom needs your constant attention. Or when your job leaves you so exhausted at the end of the day, you can barely rustle up the energy to eat dinner.
I used to believe that if a writer really wants to write, he will — no excuses allowed. But my position has mellowed over the years, because the pace of life in America has sped up so much over the past few decades. Kids now have to be driven to countless after-school activities. Employers and customers demand instant turnarounds. The ailing economy means many people have to work far too many hours.
So for those writers who are feeling guilty that they aren’t writing because life has overwhelmed them, I absolve you of that guilt. Sometimes it truly is impossible to write. Maybe you have to wait five years until the kid heads off to kindergarten, or figure out a way to unburden your packed schedule, or ask your spouse to shoulder some of the load. Maybe you need to start saying no more often, to tasks you don’t really feel committed to.
If you’re not actively writing, take comfort in the fact that, on some level, you’re still working. Even while your kids are screaming or you’re stuck in traffic, somewhere in your brain, some writing gear is probably turning. Maybe that red-faced, tear-streaked toddler will be perfect as a character in your next scene. Maybe the traffic gives you time to mull over a plot point.
And when you finally do get back to your desk, you’ll be all the more ready to write.