*I wrote this article last year… I’m not a single parent anymore but the care of my two children does fall largely to me since I’ve re-partnered. So I thought I would share this as I get asked “how did you do it?” and also “how do you do it?” (since I am expecting baby number 3 at the end of the year!)
As a sole parent, it can be very hard to justify writing. Partnered writers who have children can share the housework and parenting responsibilities, but a sole parent has to juggle the demands of children with the enormity of running a household alone; this can leave very little time to sit down and just write.
I took up creative writing after my ex-partner left. I needed something that would nurture my soul and occupy my mind. I wrote a lot as a teenager but gave up when I decided it was too hard to finish a story (I had about three novels on the go at once and abandoned them all). I loved academic writing when I got to university; following a prescribed structure is much safer than wandering the wilderness of fiction. Yet there I was, newly single and jumping into the murky waters of writing to challenge myself.
Jodi Cleghorn posted something on Facebook that ushered me to Write Anything, and I started joining in on Fiction Friday. I posted my story up every week without fail. Then I did NaNoWriMo to see if I could actually finish a story longer than 3000 words. I was a winner at my very first NaNo, even though I am a sole parent. I put this down to time management. It is possible to write and parent children alone; here are some of the tips I’ve learned.
The first is: don’t be precious about your writing time. If you tell yourself “I can only write between the hours of nine am and eleven am” you will probably fail. If you get a chance, sit at the computer and write. You don’t always have the luxury of the pre-writing ritual, as nice as they are to get you in the mood (indeed, I sometimes resorted to them during NaNo). Unless you know you have a guaranteed block of uninterrupted time, don’t faff around. Just sit and write. Learn to write in five minute blocks if need be. Maximise your efficiency by writing in your head.
Write in your head! I remember reading this bit of advice last year, thanks Jodi! If you have chores to do that are mundane, like washing dishes, then occupy your mind by writing in your head. It’s a good time to mull over problem spots, perfect your first few sentences, figure out what is going to happen next. Then when you can sit down again you can just start writing, no staring at a blank piece of paper wondering what to do. I like to have at least the first few sentences sorted out in my head (perhaps repeated over and over so I don’t forget them) with a general idea of where the story is going, and then let the story unfold from there when I sit down.
Alternate your activities. I am incredibly productive if I write myself a to-do list for the day (either the night before or in the morning). Be realistic though, allow yourself rest time. When you start working on your list, try to alternate your activities so you are resting one part of your body while exercising the other. For instance, if you get home from a busy morning playdate or school drop off, you probably don’t want to get stuck into vacuuming, but you might welcome the chance to sit down for a bit. So sit and write, or edit, for a block of time that feels good. If you get stuck or start to feel a bit over it, get up and tackle something physical that rests your brain. Alternate back and forth as much as possible to keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed.
Give yourself permission to not write some days. I see advice from professional writers that says, rather sternly, that you must write every day. The reality of my situation is that I just can’t. It’s not that I don’t prioritise my writing, it’s just that as a parent, my number one priority is my children. Always. Sometimes life gets in the way, too, and you have to move, or clean the house top to bottom for an inspection. On days where there is far too much on your plate, give yourself permission to take a breather when you can. Read in your spare moments, if you want. Choose to not write if your sanity needs one less thing to worry about. There is a caveat: make sure you don’t let too long pass between writing sessions. Don’t start using your busyness as an excuse not to write. The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to start again.
Read. Make time to read, don’t forget about it. It is immensely satisfying to sit and read, and you will find yourself soaking in styles and ideas and worlds and words that may inspire you. If you are writing short stories, look for interesting anthologies, or ezines, to show you what is out there being published. Read the blogs of fellow writers. Read novels. If you can find time to write, you can find time to read.
I’m not going to tell you to prioritise writing over housework. You can, if you want. I find that I’m able to write better if I don’t have a dirty kitchen at the back of my mind in the evenings. I get my children to bed, finish the last few chores and then I write. That way I can take as long as I want, without feeling antsy about the mess I still have to deal with. If you’re by yourself, the dishes really will wait for you. No one else going to do them, so don’t feel like you’re less of a writer if you get them done first. It just means you can give your writing the attention it deserves when you sit down to it.
Over the last few months I’ve been busier than I was even last year (when I was a sole homeschooling parent!). I’ve still managed to submit a bunch of short stories to anthologies and competitions. It’s great to develop a network of writing friends on twitter and facebook and to subscribe to independent publishers’ blogs so you get information about comps and open submission periods. This gives you goals to work towards (I find having a deadline incredibly motivating!) If you really want to write, just do it. Don’t apologise for what you write, how often you write: just write!