(even if you aren’t sure you’ll ever get published)
Top tips for finding time and inspiration
I’ve read a few blogs on this subject, but they always seem to be from someone who has already published their book. That makes sense – their being published is what gives them the authority to speak – but they always refer to writing under pressure of deadlines or signing a contract with baby sick on it. They say things like ‘I got my publishing deal when I was pregnant and then wrote book two as I rocked the baby bouncer with one foot’… Ok pretty impressive… But you had the publishing deal! I’d be motivated too if I thought anyone else believed in me actually making this dream a reality.
The fact is, there’s an awful lot of us juggling kids and work and writing without any promise of success – now that’s a real challenge! (and I have no idea why people say ‘juggling’ that makes it sound like there’s some sort of order to it all. There isn’t. It’s chaos!).
I admit it’s a challenge that defeats me some days; one that brings with it guilt and questions about my priorities and leaves me wondering whether I’ll look back in ten years and be sad I wasted all those hours deluding myself that I could do this.
Some days I return from work (where I write all day), feed my 2 year old, bath him, greet my husband, read the little man a story, put him to bed, cook for us (my husband does share the chores but that doesn’t help me make my point so ignore that for now!), attempt adult conversation… and then start writing. And I haven’t mentioned the tantrums, the second toddler dinner I made as the first went to the dog by mistake, the washing, cleaning, bills and correspondence or the fact we’re all meant to be on social media constantly to promote our platforms in the hope that one day we can flog all our followers a copy (sorry followers!) – by then any teens I had following me will be too old to enjoy it so I’m confident I’m wasting my time but hey! Ooh badly structured tangent sentence alert – should probably rewrite. Nope. Too exhausted!
So yeah, it’s not easy and it’s not ideal. I mean we’d all love a week long writing retreat, or days holed up in sunlit attic writing room, but if I waited for that there’d never be a single word produced. And yet, somehow, I have 85,000 words of my first novel, 5,000 of my second, several children’s stories, a few prizewinning short stories and a pile of new ideas brewing, all since my little boy was born. It’s not because I’ve been especially organised or good, it’s more because writing is a bit of a compulsion and even when I think I probably should give up, I can’t. But I have developed a few strategies over the past couple of years and thought it may help to share them…
6 windows of time I exploit wherever possible:
- nap times – these are gold. Of course there are other jobs that need doing in this time like, housework or perhaps you have other children, but if you can manage a minimum of 20 minutes free it’s ideal writing time.
- 30 mins in the evening – either as my husband puts him to bed (which is so lovely as I can hear them giggling or discussing the bedtime story as I type) or just after I’ve done it (which is often the case as he travels a lot for work so I’m frequently a single parent – in case some of you are trying to do this alone, it is still possible).
- Plan a tv programme’s worth of writing -whatever the concentration span of your child, you’ll probably manage a minimum of 20 minutes and that’s a window of time you can work in, but you need to plan. Know what you want to achieve and as soon as they are settled – scram! (or get the laptop out and hope they don’t notice and want to ‘help’). No time for making tea or just folding the washing first. Sit down and write!
- Find a weekly activity for dad or grandparents to do with kid(s) – this pretty hit and miss in our house due to my travelling partner, but signing them up to Sunday swimming sessions definitely gained me a few clear hours about every other Sunday, so it was worth it!
- Get up early – I struggle with this one. I already have to get up at 6.30 to get my boy up and fed and ready for nursery and me all set for work, so anything much earlier is a lot like torture, but just occasionally the sacrifice is worth it.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and clear your head – this one works for me every time. I often can’t sleep for things buzzing around in my head, I just get up and write it all down (which can generate useful story or character material later) and then possibly take 20 minutes of writing time on the book as well. By the time I’m done I’m sleepy and my head is clear.
In the meantime, whilst you are actually doing the parenting stuff…
5 tips for inspiration
- use the notes section of your phone (or the voice recorder if your hands aren’t free, or a notebook if you prefer low tech) whenever inspiration strikes mid-nappy-change.
- Read your child stories and watch their favourite tv shows with them to get inspired with characters and settings and plot lines. No matter which audience you’re writing for there’s a wealth of ideas out there, plus it’s good positive parent time.
- Talk to them about your story- sometimes kids have the best ideas.
- Take them to inspiring places. It benefits you both, even if it means an hour of Prep before you go, a battle to get them into the car and a meltdown in the gift shop! If you can’t find a story in the Pitt Rivers museum or the local woods, for that matter, I’ll eat my… cliche.
- Be present – try to put the writing aside and actually play with them sometimes! Sometimes a rest is refreshing for the mind, and being childlike feeds your creative well.
Having passed the four month baby stage I have to accept that I am no longer a new mum (even though I think it’s possible I’ll feel like that right up until the day he moves out!). It’s got me thinking about the completely upside down nature of time. I’ve been mulling it over in between the endless feeds, naps and baths and realizing just how much it’s all changed since baby K arrived. It’s only now that I am through those insane first few months that I can see what bizarre expansions and contractions of time have occurred.
For starters, people ask me how it’s been – an odd sort of question that comes up surprisingly often, I think they’re looking for a speedy summary of the past 4.5 months and I find I give a different answer every time I’m asked. But what it boils down to is this… it’s been the longest fours months of my life, and the shortest; so much has happened and nothing at all has happened.
It’s been so long that I can barely remember who I was before baby K arrived, and strangely I don’t really need to.
It’s been so fast that he’s already weaning and those days of painful breastfeeding and endless nights awake seem years ago.
It’s been full to the brim with mutual learning and growing and changing and shifting and smiles and tears and walks and occasional sleeps and newness and familiarity.
Yet nothing really significant has occurred. Only what every other mother and baby experience, I suppose. Except that words like ‘only’ or ‘just’ have no place here anymore. (I now realise ‘I’m just a mum’ is officially the most ridiculous phrase in the English language.)
When I tried to explain this mind bending duality of time to a friend and fellow mum she nodded sagely: ‘the days a long but the years are short,’ uttered the guru. It is so true. Not that I’m anywhere near even one year yet – wow that seems a long way off!
I watched some old family DVDs with my mother-in-law recently. They were of her and my husband when he was around 1 year old, growing up in Tanzania. I could see, as I listened to her telling me about the places and people depicted, that these scenes were fresh and vibrant in her memory – it was all so recent despite it being almost 40 years ago. It struck me that at that moment in her life there was no second child, no wife for her firstborn, and certainly no grandchild; in fact no expectation of all the life that was yet to come. And here I stand, in her shoes and the thought of watching iPhone videos with baby K’s wife 20 or 30 years in the future is just too hard to imagine.
Of course we strain to see the future throughout our lives, and motherhood only magnifies that as things change week to week. We constantly obsess over the next stage – weaning, walking, talking, school – worrying about who they’ll be and what they’ll do, and yet we desperately work to hold onto moments, like butterflies. The dichotomy of time again.
The other side effect is that, at this very focused time in my life, I have become aware of the status that time gives you. The mother of a 6 month old said recently ‘just wait ‘til he starts…’. And I found myself bowing to her superior experience. Six weeks ahead of me on this hectic journey is six weeks of seniority in every sense! It made me smile to myself – in no other job would a few weeks make such a difference!
For me, the time warp effect really began to kick in during the birth. It wasn’t until afterwards, when my husband and I were cozy in our little room with this new tiny person and day blending into night and back to day again that we began to talk about what had happened and how we both remembered the dramatic 30-odd hours of baby K’s arrival. My memory was all in snapshots – me leaning over a window sill and swearing loudly, me being moved in a wheelchair to a birthing room, me on all fours throwing up from the pain while several people watched me pant (no idea who most of them were and not a moment I’d care to repeat), more swearing, the running of the water for the water birth then a dramatic exit for an epidural and the realization and water birth wouldn’t be happening, more swearing, dozing as the anaesthetic relief finally hit, druids singing next door (was that real or an effect of the gas and air? Nope, it was real – that could only happen to me!), then more drama as the emergency c-section was suddenly mandatory, probably some more swearing, shaking as they administered more anaesthesia and then pressure on my belly and suddenly a cone-headed slightly squashed little guy appearing from the other side of the hanging blue sheet hiding all the gore. All those hours were reduced to a few moments.
For my husband, on the other hand, the hours had stretched out, yawning into the night – he was able to fill me in on all kinds of new and interesting details (apparently I had been swearing a lot more and a lot louder than I had originally thought!).
And then baby K came home and a minute of crying felt like a lifetime, whilst a two hour nap could pass in a flash. Sleep was a thing of the past. Now night hours yawned like chasms in between snatches of sleep, stretching out before me. But instead of this being the dreadful torture I had anticipated, these hours were actually filled with a new sort of magic – low light and the soft smell of baby, feathery hair tickling your cheek and the two of you feeling like the only people in the world. Perhaps I’m looking back on them with nostalgia even at this early stage – no doubt there were many where I was falling asleep as he fed, or begging him to stop crying, exhausted from rocking or singing the same song a hundred times. How funny that my rose tinted glasses are firmly in place already, particularly when anyone who knows me will recall my total lack of those magic specs as I prepared for the horrors of motherhood!
Another odd adjustment is that mums become experts at time projections: if he doesn’t sleep now I’ll need to move that feed and shift that appointment and get him to take a nap earlier this afternoon so that I can fit in the feed this evening and get him bathed by 6 etc etc. Every action has a knock on effect and impacts the little dude’s subsequent mood/capability to eat/night sleep etc – seriously, I can project the impact of one missed sleep somewhere into the middle of next week! It’s particularly true in the initial months when baby is feeding at least every 3 hours, suddenly your day is broken into 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm, 1am and 4am. There is no longer night and day, only three hour slots, and within each slot you will feed, play, change a nappy, possibly get him down for a nap and maybe have 5 minutes for yourself or get some sleep!
This journey is a long one. It’s the ride of your life. It destroys your life (or at least the one you had before the baby). But it is your life, and it’s incredible and humbling and empowering and exhausting!
And now here I am, baby asleep and a whole hour to myself. What am I doing? OK yes I’m being productive and writing my blog, but secretly I’m kinda hoping he’ll wake up and give me that big gummy smile. I’ve missed him!
In the non-literal sense, I’ve been building a home from the ground up these past two months and it’s got me thinking… which parts are actually important?
It all started with finding the property – and that’s definitely part of it, feeling safe and protected from the elements, being in a location that suits who you are. It’s certainly practical, but it’s hardly the critical ingredient. I think I’ve proven I can live just about anywhere over the years – I’ve done studio flats, student housing, my dark little Kenyan bungalow, and our great big place in TZ, a 26 bed dorm in Sydney, a tent which I moved throughout Southern Africa and all sorts in between! The walls and the location don’t make it home.
Step 2 was buying some basics and unpacking my suitcase, borrowing some things, and beginning to personalise the place, but the fact is it was empty until Damien arrived.
As soon as he landed and joined in the process the whole thing came alive and we shopped and we cooked and we discussed, and there is no question that good helping of love makes home considerably more, well… homely! But I’ll return to that later. For us, the next step was more practical – the arrival of our shipping container.
As we unpacked we unleashed great splashes of our old life together into our new one. The pieces sat a little incongruously together initially, but are slowly starting to meld. The unloading of ‘stuff’ marked an interesting transition for me. Some of it I had missed, or really meant something to me – often the old things or the keepsakes – but a lot of it felt overwhelming. This was partly because our tiny house here in the UK represents around a tenth of the space we had in our old house in Mwanza (!) so there were practical elements to consider, but also I was shocked by how metaphorically cluttered everything suddenly felt. Did we need all this stuff? How did we collect so much? I realised I’d been enjoying sense of freedom at having only ‘the basics’ until all this arrived and, whilst I was very happy to be reunited with personal items and see our beautiful Zanzibar furniture again, it felt rather like eating a MacDonald’s – all good fun but somehow artery clogging, slowing you down.
Since then we’ve sorted through the boxes and found homes for what we wanted to see every day, put several (ok around 40!) boxes into storage and found a balance for our new home. But I have vowed to shed anything I don’t use every six months or so.
Next step… the dogs! I’m the first to vouch for the fact that pets are part of a home (though I’m more of a cat or goldfish sort of a girl) and my husband was so excited about their arrival that no one could deny it’s part our home-building process (in fact, the night before I was kept in hospital for observation, potentially about to give birth, and you should have seen how torn he was – see my baby born or go to collect the dogs at Heathrow?!?! Really?!). It was no mean feat to get them here but now they are very much ‘at home’: Treading muddy prints through the house, taking up what little floor space we have with their beds and bowls and spreading short blonde hairs into every nook and cranny!
What’s ironic is that I’m sure I can feel how much they are missing Africa and it’s making me miss it even more instead of making me feel more settled. It must be a shocking transition for them arriving in the UK for the first time in their lives without any comprehension of what just happened when they were loaded into boxes and put on three different flights! And now it’s different smells, no open doors so they can wander as they please, no lizards or hyrax to play with, or askaris, different food, different weather, different rules. I can’t help but empathise a little.
Anyway, so we have the roof over our heads, we have each other, our stuff and our pets, but is it home? Not quite, somehow. It’s pretty great, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, we have so much and we have just left a home where people have so little. But it doesn’t feel real yet. It’s like the set for a play. We are, of course, awaiting the arrival of our baby any day now, but even that doesn’t quite feel real yet (despite the size of my stomach and the ache in my back and hips!). So what will actually make this a home for us, and for our son? It’s so strange to be creating a home for a whole new person, one whose personality is not shaped. I wonder what he’ll make of it all; which parts he’ll come to love, which items he’ll treasure (from the teddy he’ll choose as his favourite in his childhood, to the family heirlooms he’ll hang onto in his adulthood). What other ingredients must we add to make a foundation for him to grow?
I think perhaps it’s partly about shared memories – our house is a bit of a blank canvas right now. It definitely helped when my dad put our wedding photos up on the wall, but now we need to start making new memories here. And I think it’s a little about traditions – how your family does things, from Sunday roast to Christmas Day, cements your little unit and reflects your values. And the repetition of a family tradition makes it comfortable, and memorable too. We’ll have to decide how we do things, how we blend the traditions of our two families and of our multiple cultures to make it all work. I haven’t cooked a roast here yet, come to think of it, perhaps that’s a place to start. And as for Christmases, we are already starting to have our own unique little pattern of Italian, Scottish, English and African influences. No doubt I can add an Easter egg hunt and birthday treats and dog walks and movie nights and bonfire night parties and all those little adventures that we loved in our childhoods.
All that will take some time I guess. As will the other crucial element – people. Of course, I have my fantastic husband and best friend. In fact, I’ve just been blubbing over the movie The Notebook – not a good one to watch when you’re already emotional and full of hormones! I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before. It actually made me very conscious of the simple truth that home is really just wherever your partner is when it comes down to it and the children have left and the dusk sets in. But right now I’m at an earlier stage in proceedings and we will soon have a baby, so I think there has to be more to it than ‘us’ even if that is at the core of it all.
There’s no question that one of the elements that adds such richness to life is people. Friends and family. I guess it’s the thing that, as ex-pats, made us constantly refer to ‘home’ as the place where we were not (I think I have mentioned before how in England I was always going ‘home’ to Tanzania, in Mwanza my holidays were spent at ‘home’ in England). Home is where our favourite people are, and sadly for us they are scattered everywhere. We miss a lot of people in our lives, and we know that we will see them, but you do need friends who are part of your everyday life and who share in regular slices of your days. So now it’s time to meet some people here and make some new friends. I’m just having a hard time finding ways to this whilst I’m 39 weeks pregnant, can only waddle and feel like a bit of a weird potential-friend stalker! Again, I guess it takes time. I’m also finding it tough that our new friends will never have known me before we were a couple, or even before we were parents. How strange that will be (surely they will only ever know part of me?), and yet it has to happen if we are to settle here properly.
In the past I’ve been more of a ‘home is where my hat is’ sort of a girl, and never needed much to make it so. But here is a whole new stage in life. If home is where the heart is – I’m not sure mine is necessarily here. It maybe under an acacia somewhere on an open plain teaming with wildlife as the sun rises. But my loved ones are here and so my heart is here, and who can fail to feel happy when winter sun catches bare barked trees in silhouette or when someone greets you in your own language in a culture you understand and are accepted in? England has a lot of good parts and we will build a home for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the critical ingredient is time. And love, lots and lots of love.
I’d love to hear your additions to this list of what’s important, perhaps you’ll inspire us or help us find more things to get us settled. As always, thanks for reading.