When You're a Parent-Writer, Your Mind is Overthrown
How writers parent, how parents write
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing, as my toddler pulls all the caps off my pens one by one, announcing “This one’s not dried out” for each one. I’ve been thinking about writing as she sits in my lap while I’m at the computer with a new story open, trying to type as she types what she pleases. I’ve been thinking about writing as I open the document at nap time or at the end of the day, and feel the beginnings of a long, tired sigh, coming from somewhere deep, deep, inside.
The problem with being a parent who is trying to write is that there are moments in the day — technically. There are the early mornings, if you’re that kind of chipper, sleep-sacrificing kind. Or the late nights, if you run on caffeine and moonlight. Or the elusive naptimes, if you have the Zen presence of mind to ignore the chaos of lunch plates on the table, the toys at your feet. But your mind is not there. Your mind is overthrown by love, by devotion, by worry. Your mind is with her; your mind is flicking ahead, to the next thing you must do; it is darting to the necessary things you have let slide so you can be present with her, and not be a numb-faced zombie staring at a screen during her waking hours. Your mind is not your own. I felt the first inklings of it the very first time I held her in my arms. I felt my brain waking up, still dazed but also sharper than it had ever been in its life. My mind telling me, you have to pay fiercer attention to this little being than you have ever paid anything, ever. My mind telling me, this is what you care about now.
That feeling — sometimes more manageable than others — has bloomed, and only grown, as she grew, and became a walking, talking, curious little human, into everything, wanting to try everything, acutely aware of when my attention is away from her. And the simple truth of creativity is that you need your mind. You need the lazy empty quiet moments, the lapping of lakewater in your heart. You need time to goof off, or to quietly listen to the soft padding feet of an idea that is still far away. You need time to read random books that inspire you, to pore over your old notes from college, to run your finger over the books in your shelf and remember what other authors did to solve problems. You need all of that and more if you’re going to be a good writer.
But creativity is also a muscle, and is strengthened with use, made more nimble with challenge and strife. I feel sometimes that we writer-parents are like Peter Pan, being asked to swordfight with one hand tied behind our backs. We don’t have the long, lovely luxuries of unmolested time; our brains are not even our own. They belong, partially, to someone else. But look, here; we still have one hand, and the blade in that hand is sharp. We must slash and fight with greater strength, learn to use the time more wisely, read a book and trust that our kids will be okay. Let them see us writing. Let them turn the pages of their books themselves. And let us return to our minds and find them altered, not wholly ours, but stronger, more agile, more cunning and desperate and wise. Let us dictate story ideas to our phones when we’re riding in the car to swim class. Let us rise half an hour before that early-rising toddler and write a paragraph. Let us say, “Hmm, what was that, honey? I was thinking about my novel.”
Your writing exercise:
Think about a childhood fairy tale character that haunted you, for positive or negative reasons. Work the character into your work-in-progress. Think about what Rapunzel or Peter Pan have to tell us today about parenting or imprisonment or love.
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