How Parenting Makes me a Better Writer (Part Three)

About a month ago, my novel hit 35,000 words, and a mental roadblock. I had a minor climax approaching quickly, and I was terrified. The novel had gone rambly and boring, and I had no clue how I would possibly bring all those random threads together into a convincing and interesting little scene. Besides, I knew nothing about homemade weapons. It was time to bring in the experts.

Meet Monty, age 12; Eli, age 9; and Everett, age 5.

The Weapons Team

We spent about two hours around the kitchen table, drawing diagrams, maps, and illustrations, discussing available materials. They may not remember to put the trash in the can or know the difference between a clean dish towel and a filthy rag, but if you need an injection of wildly creative genius on weapons building… find a pre-teen boy.

The upshot of that session was that the next time I sat down to write, the scene flowed beautifully. I did it. And it was awesome. I know when something is awesome because it triggers my tear-meter. You know the tear-meter, right? When something touches you so that tears spring to your eyes without falling, that’s a level 1 on the tear meter. When you’re bawling uncontrollably with your hands over your eyes and you can’t stop, that’s a 10. I was going for about a three or a four in this scene and BINGO. The tear meter is also sometimes how I know an idea for the novel is going to work–because it triggers a level 1 or 2 response just thinking about it. That’s how I knew one of my characters had to stay in–she triggered a five.*

I also knew the mini-climax scene had worked when, later, I read it back to the kids and they were cheering and gasping and “Hey, that was my idea! You put it in there! And it was awesome!”ing.

So that’s why, when I hit 82,000 words yesterday and realized I was in the same spot again, I took Monty with me down to the lake. By “the same spot,” I mean that I’m nearing another climax–the chief climax of the book–and I’ve gone long and rambly. I’ve added characters and tangents and events that are really cool and fun… but aren’t doing much to get me toward the climax. It’s a form of procrastination.

So I grabbed the dog, and the 12-year-old, and a pair of sandals that I would later regret having worn, and went for a brisk walk. We circled our 2-acre lake about three times, and Monty and I, we sorted it out.

Let me backtrack. I didn’t actually know what the heck I was doing. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression and think I was planning this, that I’m so organized as to know just exactly what I need to do all the time. No no.

I just knew I needed to think. We had most of the day off for the 4th, and I was frustrated with the elusiveness of the darn climax and needed some air. Dogs like walks. So do 12-year-olds when it means alone time with Mom. And he agreed to be quiet and leave me alone, so I let him come.

Only, I didn’t need him to be quiet after all.

We got down there, me muttering things to myself, and then talking out loud, and then asking questions. And, once I admitted that I wanted him to talk to me after all, Monty had ideas. Lots of ideas. Really, really good ideas. In fact, I’m really not sure how much of this novel I can take credit for any more.

By the time we got back, I was clear. This morning I wrote a scene. Tomorrow I’ll write the one after that. And in about a week I will have a climax. And it’s going to be helluva good. I can say that because it wasn’t my idea, so it’s not bragging to say it out loud, right?

Can I also just get a heck yeah for a twelve-year-old who uses the words “protag” and “fan fic” correctly, and can point out when one of my characters is a foil for another? Want interesting kids? Involve them in your life. And be interesting. (Whatever that means to you.)

Conducting field research

P.S. BONUS FEATURE of parenting while writing: You have a built-in fan base. My older two are already plotting fan fiction based on my story. Whoa. Tear meter just registered a 3. Excuse me a minute.

P.P.S. This isn’t actually part three in a series. I know it says “Part Three” up there. I’m not sure why it says that. I seem to periodically write these pieces that touch on parenting, and numbering them gives me an excuse to link to the others, I guess. Anyway. Part One. Part Two.

*The tear meter is probably a really crappy way of making decisions about a novel. I promise the whole thing isn’t a cry-fest. If I pull it off, there will be laughing and cheering too. And plenty of good-old-fashioned fun.

Writing While Parenting: Part Two

Several years ago, when my oldest was a toddler, we would go to gatherings at a friend’s house once a month. It was all these earth-loving, attachment-parenting, lovely people, and we’d sing and eat home baked bread and vegan casserole and let our kids run naked and wild in the backyard.

The house was this giant Victorian with a big privacy-fenced yard backed right up to the railroad. When a train went by, its ear-splitting whistle sudden and piercing, the rattle of its passing like an earthquake, the children would all run helter-skelter, hands over ears, screaming and crying and diving for their mother’s long flowered skirts and encircling arms. Only the little girl who lived there wouldn’t react, except to put her hands calmly over her ears and watch the train impassively, wait for it to finish its roaring, so she could return to what she was doing.

The hosts had renovated the downstairs of the house room by room, and in the dining room they had sanded away a section of the wall paint in layers, so you could see every coat that had ever been applied, a swirling history of color fashion tracing back to the Victorian era. The stairs were sectioned off with plastic sheeting: Do not enter. The upstairs was a mystery.

The host was this bearded guy, my friend’s husband at that time, who got up at 5 every morning to work on renovations, then went to his work as a carpenter all day. He’d come home at night, clean the kitchen and cook the meal (my friend, after all, had been wrangling a toddler all day, and did not have energy left for this work), play a little guitar with his daughter, and then head outside to build a patio or a play set or a greenhouse. He’d do that until around 2 in the morning and then, presumably, sleep for a few hours before getting up to start all over.

He was a machine. A weed-smoking machine. Self-medicating, obviously.

The mother was this funny, outspoken, bold woman who would, about a year later, give birth to twins and spend most days for the year after that sprawled on the couch with a giant glass of water and both breasts hanging out with an infant clamped to each. At this time, however, she had only the one toddler girl, a little older than my son. There was a newspaper clipping in the hall about the mama and the daughter, from the local paper. I don’t remember what they had done, just that it seemed so amazing to me that she could have a toddler and still do things worthy of news coverage.

On the refrigerator was a slip of paper, with one of those inspirational sayings on it, only what it said was:

“Children NEED interesting parents.” Certainly, hers had them.

For some reason, that quote has stayed with me all these years. Through the gradual drifting apart, and the squabbles, and the death of a friend that more or less ended that community, or at least ended my involvement with it, I guess. Through the years of losing touch with that dear, funny, bold friend whose stories made me laugh more than anything else in those early, hair-pulling, militant breastfeeding, sleepless, crazy, early toddler years.

I can still see that little scrap of paper, stuck to the refrigerator in that bright sunny yellow kitchen.

I don’t know whether it’s true, that children need interesting parents. I like to think so, though. It takes the edge off some of the mommy guilt. The “I’m leaving the house because I have a meeting and I’m going now even though you’re screaming how much you love me and tears are flowing down your face and I’m prying you off my leg and handing you to the babysitter” guilt. The “Go away go away go away I’m writing leave me alone” guilt. After all, I have interesting things to do, and that is important to their development.

Anyway. I don’t know whether it’s true. I don’t. But I do think it’s true that if you want interesting children, it’s probably a good idea to be interesting. Whatever that means to you.

To me, it means following my calling. It means getting up before they do so I can write, so they can see that their mama believes enough in her dreams to pursue them. I think it means letting them  follow their dreams too. Monty likes to make video games, so we buy him video making software. Eli likes to make mythical worlds, so we listen to him talk about them. Everett likes to destroy things by burning them, flooding them, and kicking them in, so we try not to strangle him. I said interesting, not well adjusted.

When I caught up with that other interesting mama again, years later, the little girl who calmly watched the trains was a growing young lady who raised chickens and won school awards. A recent Facebook update from the mama read:

“can i get a hell yeah people? daughter won her class spelling bee & the honesty award & just last month son 1 won the award for responsibility. son 2 can read now. and son 3 has made it over 2 months in kindergarten without beating someone up or saying fuck at school (woot).”

Like I said. Interesting. Not necessarily well-adjusted.

What do you think? Does being a writer (or a painter or a chicken raiser) make you a better parent?

P.S. Part One is here. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with Part Two except that they’re both about parenting. And writing. But you can have a look anyway if you like.

Parenting While Writing

Every couple of weeks or so, I decide it’s okay if I sleep in for a bit. Usually it’s a weekend, and I don’t have any appointments, so I’ll just sleep until 7 or 8, and then I’ll get up and write, right?

This is always a mistake.

Why? Because children. (Yes, that’s a complete sentence, Bloggess-approved, stop correcting my grammar. Why is my house a mess? Because children. Why aren’t my teeth brushed? Because children. Why are my boobs saggy? Yes, because children. It’s a very handy sentence.)

Why is sleeping in a bad idea? Because children.

By 7 o’clock, often much earlier, the first of my little ones is awake. Usually the littlest, who is 5, and completely insatiable in his curiosity and hunger for attention. Curiosity is a beautiful thing, delightful in a child when you don’t live with that child. Then it is torture.

“Mommy?”

“I’m working.”

“Oh. Can you go outside with me?”

“No. I’m working.”

“Awww. Please? I need somebody to come outside with me.”

“Baby. I’m working. Go somewhere else.”

Five minutes later.

“Mommy? Can I have some gum?”

“No. I’m working.”

“Can I play with your phone?”

“Whatever. Just go away.”

“What’s your passcode?”

“Here, let me do that.”

“Where do I go for free games?”

“If I get you to the free games, will you leave me alone?”

“Yes”

“Okay, there. Just pick what you want and hit download, okay?”

“Okay. What does this one say?”

Sigh.

Needless to say, this is not conducive to flow. And I wish I knew a way around it that does not involve either getting up at 5am or abandoning them at the pound. Five am is really early and the pound doesn’t accept human children. I am just in awe of authors like Lev Grossman, who just had a baby and nevertheless is plugging on with his book in small batches (check his blog, please, but don’t get too uppity and start posting comments, because then mine might get lost in the jungle. Right now there are only 10 comments on his latest entry. If you haven’t read his books, read those too. Best-selling author and all).

I suppose you could argue that an hour a day qualifies as small batch writing, but I think of an uninterrupted hour as long long batch writing. Because children.

When I get up at 6 or, better, 5, I can usually get this uninterrupted hour of flow. Beautiful. Otherwise, it’s miniscule batch writing for me.

So here I am yesterday morning. Everett has finally settled on a phone game, glorious silence, I’m a terrible parent but at least I get to write. Five minutes later the 9-year-old is up.

“Mommy?”

Sigh.

“Hi baby.” Hugs.

“I’m working, okay? So… just… you know. Let me work?”

“Okay.”

“Mommy?”

Sigh. “What?”

“What do you have to get to get a blog?”

“What do you mean?”

“If … how do you get, if you had to have something… like, you know how… it’s um, it’s um, it’s like Elihead on WordPress.com, well what would it be if you made a different one. ”

“If you made another blog?”

“Yes.”

“It would be something.wordpress.com.”

“Ooohhh. Can we work on my blog today? And we haven’t written in my book in a long time. Can we do that today?”

Ya know. Maybe I’m not such a terrible parent after all.

Check Eli’s Mythical World here. And his novel in bookstores someday. Why check out his blog? Because children.

 How do you write while parenting?