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Betsy: Success stories

I noticed in the last couple of days I seem to be spewing advice about how to write/finish large works while being a mother. Where do I get off…? Aren’t I struggling just as everyone else is?

I am, but for very different reasons, ones that have more to do with not having time to feed my creative spirit than logistics. Currently, I’m divorced and have every other weekend free. My kids are older. I could conceivably find plenty of time to write. Different problem there, which perhaps I’ll share some other time.

As it turns out, looking back I realize I had success writing creatively when I had young children. I just confirmed that I apparently wrote a whole screenplay when I was still married and my kids were just under 2, 8, and 10. I wrote my first screenplay when I had a 6-year-old and 4-year-old with a chronic illness requiring frequent hospitalizations. How the heck did I do that? I’ve thought back on it, and I wanted to share how I did it in case it is useful to anyone.

I can remember pretty well writing my first screenplay. First, I wasn’t working. That helps a lot and certainly not everyone has that freedom. My mind was clear to focus on my work and I didn’t feel like I was squeezing in my own writing between my “real” work. (When I write for a living, I have a very hard time writing creatively.)

Second, I knew what I was doing. While I don’t tend to work with an outline, I find that when I have a pretty good idea of the beginning, middle, and especially the end of a piece at least vaguely in mind, it is easier to aim for the ending, like galloping toward a finish line. Except it’s more like hiking up a mountain, because I really enjoy the view along the way.

Third, as we’ve discussed in other posts, I had a scheduled writing time. My 6-year-old was in school for most of the day, and my 4-year-old was in preschool for three hours a day, five days a week. With the drive to and from preschool factored in, I could count on 2.5 hours every day for my work. I probably used one day per week for straightening the house or food shopping.

Finally, the minute I sat down at the computer, I worked, making the most possible of the time available. Knowing the time was there–and how much time I had–was very helpful.

The funny thing about the second screenplay is I don’t even remember writing it, but according to e-mails with review comments that I saved, I managed to get the thing done while my youngest was between 1 and 2. Because I did not use any childcare at the time, I can only assume I wrote it during his naps while the others were at school. (My ex was not very helpful, so I’m sure he didn’t watch him while I worked on weekends.) Alex must have been a decent napper (funny how you forget what #3 did). And I imagine that the minute I put him down I went right to the computer to work.

As we’ve talked about in other posts, there were tradeoffs. For sure, the tidiness of my house suffered. The first screenplay is probably around the time that I stopped keeping Lego Systems kits together, which meant that all of those expensive kits became useless. Honestly, I regret that, but I can’t say I regret having a finished screenplay that was at least read seriously at several studios, even if no one ultimately bought it. I guess this is what you need to think about when you let things go. multimedia-message10.jpgRight now, I’m surrounded by mess, the result of years of letting things go in favor of writing. (Oh, and I gained a lot of weight, too, as I let exercise go and healthy meal preparation.) It’s hard to recover from, and cleaning is not what I want to be doing during my spare time. I think my neater friends shudder when they see my mess. What’s ironic is I really, really like things organized and I hate clutter. But I guess I’ve trained myself as much as possible not to see it anymore, or to convince myself that I’ll take care of one small pile of it tomorrow…

As a technical writer, one small tip I recommend to anyone writing large, structured documents–fiction or non–is to keep each chapter or chunk in its own document. While you might title each document by chapter number, you might alternately want to title each document by subject or current contents, at least in the early going. I find that doing so helps me think about which chapter I want to tackle, and also I don’t have to open documents to find out what’s in them (which can waste time and distract you from what you really mean to do).

As a working mom, I find it infinitely more difficult to do my own writing. How some of you manage to juggle it all is beyond me. I’m in awe and admiration of you.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. You’re right, Betsy–it’s all about priorities, using the time you DO have to your best advantage. I can’t believe you got a screenplay written with a one-year-old underfoot–impressive.

    I haven’t quite figured out how to let go of certain things (yet). Chaos seems to sap my creativity, although maybe that’s just an excuse. I also find that switching hats between being Mom and being Creative Person sometimes requires a little goofing off time (“a little” being the operative qualifier–I don’t seem to get down to work quickly enough). How were you able to shift gears so efficiently?

    I do think that working for a paycheck makes all the difference in time and mindshare. I look back on the days when I was a fulltime, stay-at-home mother and I WISH I’d had then the sense of urgency that I have now. But regret doesn’t get the job done….

    January 28, 2008
  2. I think I was able to shift gears efficiently because I was working consistently on my project, and I also was determined to get it done. It was in the front of my mind, so sitting down the next day was like a continuation of the previous session. I think if I were trying to do it a bit here and there–sneaking a half-hour now and again–for me this wouldn’t work. (Though I’m sure it does for some.)

    The same was true about my novel, which I had a lot more time for. At the time I was working a two-day-a-week job, one that was creative but that didn’t require that I write. When Alex was still little, I had him in daycare three days a week instead of two, so the third day was the weekday writing day. I also worked on the novel every other weekend (when the kids were with their dad), pretty much from morning until about 5:00 or 6:00, though working straight through when I didn’t have plans sometimes happened as well. On those days, I often felt torn because there were a million projects I could have been doing to catch up on things, being a single mom with three kids and all…

    I can’t say I’m the sort of person who has a lot of unfinished writing projects lying around. If the idea is really good and the project is going well, staying on track and finishing is not an issue for me, probably because of my professional background, as well as my “A-Team” mentality (“I love it when a plan comes together”). I do have a lot of not-very-good unfinished works (and there they shall–and should–stay!).

    Problem now is finding mental space for writing when I am writing and editing all day long. Not a lot of creative spark at the moment.

    January 28, 2008
  3. So, I’m a tech writer by day. And I use that same trick… and how do I do the day job AND my writing? Well, I use tricks that are already in your routine. It’s called, when you have a free moment USE IT. Do not re-read, do not fart around on the Internet, do not chat, e-mail or blog. USE the time to write. At least for 15 minutes. Then do the other stuff.

    I wrote my first novel in 15 minute chunks. While my son napped, between meetings and project commitments. And it took me 9 months and I finished it. Now–I’m determined to do this again for the next book. I’ve just had a lot of personal things to get over first.

    We should start a 10 minute club… what did you do with your last free 10 minutes (write my book review for the week!).

    January 29, 2008
  4. Betsy and Bethany–wondering if you can explain in more detail how your mind works when you are faced with creative opportunity (whether it’s a sudden windfall or something you knew was coming). How do you avoid that “I’ll just do a little surfing and catch up on my blogs or e-mail”–an attempt to manage the transition, that can often eat up WAY more time than you intended? (Maybe some of us suffer from more devious reasons for procrastination than just shifting gears.)

    I know that being creative on a regular, daily basis–even if it IS only for 15 minutes–keeps the pump primed, and puts you in a much better position for taking advantage of your creative windows. That’s the first thing. Being motivated and committed is also important. Even so, I’ll still often pick the path of least resistance. Right now, for example, I could be working on my book–but I’d rather be here!

    Any more thoughts on what makes you “just do it”?

    January 31, 2008
  5. That’s a good question, Miranda. For one thing, I cannot do what Bethany does (wish I could!). No way. Fifteen minutes would be the time I spend goofing off/warming up. And walking off from writing after just 15 minutes would feel like being interrupted in the middle of sex. I think the successful writers can do what Bethany can–take advantage of whatever moments are there.

    What I acknowledge about myself and my process is I need a really large canvas. I waste a lot of time. If I don’t think I have enough time–and this goes back as far as 1st grade, recorded on my report cards–I can’t even get started. So the time I block off is substantial–no less than two hours. Just knowing I have the time allows me to relax and focus.

    Also, I know I have to start early in the day. If I start in the morning, I can go all day, but if I were to plan to start at, say 3 in the afternoon? Not as likely to work.

    The other thing is, I never do my own writing on the same computer as where I do my goofing off. I am the queen of goofing off on the computer, as you can perhaps guage by the speed and length of this response when I am supposed to be spending from 8 to 9 this a.m. doing cleaning stuff. I do my creative writing on my laptop in a completely different space in the house, or sometimes I will go out of the house, like to the library or Cafe Ziba. It helped that I have no wireless in the house and my “writing room” doesn’t have a network plug, but now I can steal my neighbor’s unsecured wireless down there so that’s made me waste a little more time, not too bad though.

    I have to say–and perhaps Bethany will agree–just having the experience at writing large documents has been helpful to me for staying on track with my creative work. Is it some innate ability that came first that made me good at doc, or did I develop a mindset after working in doc? I don’t know. I think it helps that I am very organized on the inside, so a good amount of the work is done in my head before I sit down. So some of that may or may not transfer as generalized advice. For me, it’s very satisfying when everything wraps up (not sure if you got the A-Team reference, but George Peppard used to slap his hands together as everything was blowing up at the end of the episode and say, “I love it when a plan comes together”–I can relate!), and I have a general schedule/process in my head that feels comforting to execute. This definitely motivates me to reach the next phase. I guess it might help you to figure out what motivates you and adapt your process so that you get more of that satisfied feeling — think deer at a saltlick.

    (Actually, as I reread this, I should say — think sex.)

    January 31, 2008

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