There is one question that ruffles my fur like none other when it comes to my writing career. “How do you do it?”
I usually laugh it off because it makes me uncomfortable and, general avoider of confrontation that I am, I just mutter something about not watching much TV and brush it off like it’s no big deal.
The truth is this: I don’t “do it” most of the time. Most of the time I’m running from crisis to crisis, trying to time Costco runs and schedule IEP meetings and psychiatry appointments, or just trying to catch my breath. I don’t have extra hours in the day. I “do it” in fits and starts. I wrestle my writing career to the mat like it’s some kind oiled-down owlbear on steroids, and then get it to submit just long enough to get some words on paper. Is it ink, or is it blood? Who knows? There are words, anyway. I have the proof.
There is no doubt that parenting makes writing even more challenging. But I will say this: I would never have pushed myself to publish if not for my son Liam. When he was born, and after I righted myself after a very horrible bout of postpartum depression, I knew with absolute clarity that it was time to finish the works I’d started and get my proverbial derriere in gear.
What I did not know at the time, of course, but slowly came to understand, was that my son was neurodiverse and that our entire trajectory was different. I have written at length on the subject, and it’s colored the last almost fourteen years of my life with a very specific tint. So much about parenthood is learned, not taught, and the biggest takeaway in those early years of diagnosis was that our child was not what we’d imagined. And that changed everything.
Getting a diagnosis like autism, or any unexpected chronic or acute illness warps the very fabric of a family. “Normal” just doesn’t exist for us. There aren’t “regular” after-school activities; there aren’t trips to the mountains with friends; there aren’t extended family vacations, or concerts, or so many other milestones that have come and gone. These things will come in time, but not while our son’s peers are doing them. I didn’t even really get a weekend this weekend due to the constant fire drills at the house, and that’s very often the case.
And what’s hardest, I think, for all of us at home, is that there is rarely predictability. Meltdowns can happen at any time, and range from twenty minutes of shouting and screaming and destruction to over 200 hours in the ER and worse. Sometimes, like around the holidays, we’re a little more prepared. But no amount of preparation can really buffet the overwhelming crush of mental illness when it strikes at its worst and you’re fearing for your life and the life of those around you.
So, writing. I write books. I’ve published them. They are sometimes rather long and large. They are sometimes funny, sometimes serious, and almost always strange. How does that happen? I certainly don’t have a house elf or a ghostwriter. I do write those words myself. But I also live with a child who demands a truly oppressive amount of energy, work a very full-time job, and support my extended family in multiple ways. Though we’re not going to talk about laundry…
As always, getting books written is a process. But here are some things that help me significantly to get the work done.
Read Early & Often & Flexibly
I rely on audiobooks during my commute and during hiking sessions for the bulk of my reading. I’m a very fast reader in more traditional methods, and when a book is really making my heart sing I’ll often buy it digitally to read along. But, in reality, my commute is the only relatively guaranteed alone time I’m going to have in my day.
There is a very simple correlation for me when it comes to reading and writing. If I’m not reading, I’m not writing. When I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’ve been avoiding books, or the book I’m reading just isn’t working for me. Immersing myself in the imagination of other writers’ makes my own brain light up.
Reading is, presumably, why most of us are here. If your reading is watching movies or reading graphic novels, that’s no less legit. Fill. Your. Cup.
Control What You Can Control
Ultimately, it’s very little. But those little flourishes can make all the difference. Take a journal with you and use your favorite pen. Plan at least five minutes a day (yes, I said five) to write. We can all spare five minutes. You can type into your phone, dictate to your computer, draw a picture. Your routine will never be predictable, but there are parts of it that you can direct. You can always be prepared to write.
You are also in control of what you read. If your life is too sad at the moment, or too frustrating, or just too exhausting, choose to read the kinds of things that fill you up. If any book feels too stressful, chuck it for now. Come back to it when things are more peaceful. We can only handle so much.
Last year was so difficult. And I found that I was being made even more depressed by the books I was reading. This is not to say to avoid soul-shaking stuff. That is important. But we’re all limited in terms of empathy and, hell, dopamine. I made the conscious decision to read a bunch of fluffy, crunchy, peanut-buttery YA fantasy and it was so right. It ended up inspiring an entire novel!
I try to carry around a notebook whenever I’m out. Long IEP meetings, wait times in hospitals, endless hold music… Yeah. A notebook, a mini tea stash, and a fountain pen. That’s about all I need.
Let Go of Jealousy
This is a big one, and if I’m being honest, it’s a bit hard to write about. We can’t help but compare our careers to other writers out there. If you stick with it long enough, you get the chance to see people take off into the stratosphere, get movie deals, and dine with celebrities. And the resentment starts to creep in on the sides of that jealousy, like a secondary infection coming to get you when you least expect it. Resentment brings about bitterness, and bitterness… well, I don’t need to spell it out for you. I already sound enough like Yoda.
Screw those how-tos and the guaranteed guides to writing success. Your path is yours alone. So, you can’t make it to conventions because your kid can’t be trusted alone, or is too sick to do without you. Find ways to connect online. I can’t stress this enough: the online world will save your life and your career if you learn to wield it wisely.
But jealousy will do the opposite. Jealousy narrows your view, hardens your heart, and puts pressure on you that you just don’t need. Start celebrating those around you and it will truly blunt the sting of envy.
Be Kind to Yourself
Y’all. I’m really bad at this. I chalk it up to being rather obscenely ambitious at times, but no one is harder than me than I am. I’ve learned, by way of breakdowns and my own personal issues, that it’s not sustainable. I want a career, which predicates on living long enough and sane enough to establish some kind of written record.
I let go when the writing isn’t happening. I try to talk to myself like I would to someone else I might know going through a similar situation: Drink tea. Take a bath. Go for a hike. Crank up your favorite music. Eat some fresh berries. Sometimes, the funk clears and I can start again. Sometimes it’s doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean the day is ruined; nor does it mean my career is over. It’s just a day. That’s it. A day, a season, a time. I went almost three years in the last decade without writing. I wish I’d been kinder to myself for that.
My daily writing goal is 500 words. It used to be 3,000. Then it was 1,500. Now, it’s 500. And even most days I don’t do that. But, as we speak, I have one book headed to production, two almost finished, and one in the planning stages. That’s the product of the past three plus years. I can live with that.
All that said, also jettison guilt. It’s hard, I know. Many of us are programmed to believe that any time spent to ourselves is indulgent, undeserved. But where is the line? Yes, you can live life in fear that the worst is going to happen constantly. That isn’t living, though. That’s reacting.
Fight Like Hell for What’s Yours
And find someone who will flank your career for you. Be protective. Be a dragon on a hoard. Carve out what time you have, and when you have it, don’t fall into the trap of overcommitting yourself to other people, or falling into brain candy traps (too often… sometimes it’s totally permissible, of course).
Writing. Is. Work. And, it’s true, with the complexities of parenthood and sick or mentally ill children, it’s going to be extra work. There’s no bow on it, no “oh, the struggle made me a better writer.” That’s not how it works. The struggle makes you your kind of writer. It defines your journey. But, for the most of us, it’ll only happen if we fight for it. And I know, we’re tired. We’re fighting everywhere: with doctors, with teachers, with medications, with our own children… But if we forget to fight for ourselves, we have struggled in vain.
Some days it feels so easy to give up. But the honest truth, for me at least, is that writing allows me to make sense of this very strange world, to write my emotions which (generally speaking) happen in the background while I’m staggering around.
Ask for Help
Remember what I said about online communities? People can’t always magically make your child better or whisk them away for a weekend or give you the $125,000 you desperately need for therapeutic boarding school because our mental health system is so completely broken that they don’t even take insurance.
But you’re not alone.
And people out there do have extra energy and encouragement. Don’t close yourself in because you’re suffering. Reach out. Find online groups or in-person groups.
If you’re reading this and you’re not someone who’s struggling to balance family trauma with writing, reach out. Cards, care packages, book reviews, kind words… I can’t tell you how much these things mean.
Also, take your meds if you need your meds. They can be so, so helpful.
Broaden Your Identity
This is important. You are a writer, but your sole worth is not writing. Your production doesn’t equal your value. Your parenting doesn’t determine your worth, either. You are so much more than a writer. Or a parent. Or a caretaker. You are just the beginning.