Just kidding. I know I’m a writer. It’s taken a while to accept it as a fact inside and out (yes, I’m aware that’s nuts; and yes, I have seen a therapist), but I’ve got it now. I may not be where I want to be, but I’m on my way.
Still: Writing as a parent was never an easy task, never the smoothest path to choose, even before a global pandemic had us all at home, all together, all the time.
Over the past weekend I ended up with nearly three days, and definitely three nights, all to myself. I hesitate to even whisper this aloud for fear my other writer-parent friends (mostly moms) will pluck my eyes out in jealousy. (I get to say this because I am a member of the sisterhood.) The three days to myself were unintentional: we’d originally intended, as a family, to spend a long weekend at the lake. But we were (happily) sidetracked by friends returning to town, played too long outside, and hadn’t made a move by Saturday morning.
“Why don’t you go alone?” My husband said. “You’ve been talking about needing writing time.”
Reader, I neither hemmed nor hawed at his offer. I packed my bag, my laptop, my dog, my coffee creamer, and skedaddled. I stole a box of Annie’s Mac-n-Cheese from the pantry, because a girl’s gotta eat.
At the lake, I hunkered down with the novel manuscript on which I have been at work since November of 2017. Here’s an example of a real writer-parent timeline, for all you folks in the cheap seats. (I’m not being unkind. It’s just that, when you’re a writer, and you haven’t had a book come out in many years, and well-intentioned friends and family ask you how it’s going, and you tell them, you get Very Perplexed Expressions in response.)
November 2017: I leap into NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a couple of days late. I’ve never done this before. I am desperate. The historical novel I’d slogged through since graduate school isn’t working. I go with a new idea, one hatched on a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, with my husband (he worked, I walked). At the time, I’m teaching as an adjunct professor and writing a weekly newspaper column. My children are 4 and 8 years old, respectively.
I write at the most random times, sometimes only for 15 minutes a day. Then it’s time for final exams (all college profs know what this means) and the holidays, including school break (all parents know what this means). The writing halts.
August 2018: Yes, we’ve skipped this far. There was another semester of teaching and writing a weekly column. Also all the momming, through the summer, no childcare. Over the summer we decide that I will temporarily step back from teaching, in order to (finally) work on another novel. It has been nearly six years since my debut novel, Keowee Valley, was published. It’s a tough decision–I love doing life with my college kids–but it’s the right one.
Also in August, my younger daughter starts Kindergarten. All the angels sing on high.
September to November 2018: I write like a woman on fire from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. most weekdays. I am Hamilton, writing like I’m running out of time. Which I am, because …
November 2018 to January 2019: It’s the holidays again! You try working on a long, heavily-researched prose project while children are around. Stock your liquor cabinet first.
January to May 2019: I write and write. It’s coming fast, and it’s fun. For the first time in years, it’s fun again. The newspaper stops using freelance columnists, and cancel my column. I’m heartbroken. I complete the first (very rough) draft of my second historical novel.
June to August 2019: It’s summer in the city, “someone in a rush sniffin’ someone lookin’ pretty.” Sorry, Hamilton on the brain. But it’s summer, and I’m with my children–which I love in summer–but again: no childcare.
August 2019 to November 2019: Write write write keep writing! I am writing! 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. is my time, and it’s glorious. I’m happier than I’ve been in years, and this is saying something, because I’m a happy person.
November 2019 to January 2020: Holiday. Celebrate. “If we took a holiday, took some time to celebrate….” (Now it’s Madonna.) But you get the picture. Holidays, wonderful, time-consuming, all-encompassing, no childcare.
January 2020 to March 2020: Write and write and then–
Errrrrttttt Sqquuueeeaaaakkkk SLAM. March 2020: World-wide pandemic. Screeching halt to life as we know it. (That was my best slamming-on-breaks impression.)
So, I had three full semesters (I’m a recovering adjunct professor with kids in school; I still think in semesters) to write, and in that time I wrote the entire first draft (rough, rough) of an entire damn novel. I’m still proud of it.
I supervised my kids’ school until January 2021, when they returned (part-time).
Which is a frightfully long-winded way to say: When my husband said, “go to the lake alone,” I went to the lake alone.
At the lake
At the lake I pretended I was a writer. Am a writer. I am a writer, and at the lake I acted like one. Which can sometimes look like doing a lot of nothing to folks who are not writers.
- I went back over key parts of the novel.
- Made revisions.
- Read books.
- Texted with an author friend entering the glorious light at the end of a long tunnel she’s slogged through, determined as hell, for years. Huzzah!
- Read three back issues of Poets & Writers Magazine–issues I’d not been able to truly sit down with for months because of pandemic life/motherhood/my children–catching up on industry and creative news, considering submitting work to journals listed, and pretending that when I highlighted and underlined writers’ residencies I might actually be able to attend one. I was inspired by fellow writers’ journeys, by the ways they’ve brought them along like a rabbit’s foot in a pocket.
- Paced the house, thought-walked, considered. Writing anything good takes stare out the window time. This is Truth.
- Was alone with my thoughts, enough time to let them fly, like mica flung out over a deep, cold, and magic-green creek in a lush wood.
I acted like a writer.
Now I’m home. One child is doing virtual school, one at school-school. My desk (in the living room), along with my laptop, are buried beneath family detritus. My coffee grows cold. I’m avoiding eye contact with my to-do list.
It occurs to me that, until life reaches anywhere close to a new normal, my writing life will continue to look sporadic, porous, even schizophrenic, strange. I may not be able to hear myself think (again, necessary for writing anything worth, well, anything) unless I am physically removed from my family. Those times may be few and far between. And like most writer-parents, especially the writer-moms I know, it’s a brutal and beautiful dichotomy.
But I’ll take it.
From Sarah Layden’s essay, “Reading in the Bardo,” in the Nov-Dec 2020 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine