A Writer’s Flexibility

Persistence: the first quality a writer must have to make it in this business.

What ranks a close second? It’s being able to give up control and go with life’s flow.

That quality is flexibility.

Persistent Flexibility

I’ve been writing seriously for 35 years, and there are many things I’ve loved about writing. I’ve been thankful for being able to work at home, for making a living at something I love to do, spending my days immersed in words, having a job requiring lots of reading, not having to drive in traffic to my office down the hall, wearing fuzzy slippers to work, not dealing with office bullies, and the list goes on.

But the ability to sustain a writing career over the long haul isn’t easy. It will require extreme flexibility.

Only Pretzels Need Apply

Why is flexibility so crucial? Because life has a way of twisting itself into a pretzel. Your well-planned life (and those of loved ones) takes many unexpected twists and turns. It happens to everyone sooner or later. And if you’ll bend a bit, the writing life allows you to be flexible as well, so you can keep your career and your sanity both.

Over the years, I’ve needed to be flexible in many areas:

  • children, from infancy to adulthood, plus grandchildren now
  • moving, from farm to various towns and across the country
  • finances, from flush to broke (several cycles of this!)
  • health changes, including multiple surgeries, a chronic pain condition, and aging issues

Children: I wrote longhand in doctors’ waiting rooms, bleachers during basketball practice, and while nursing babies. I wrote early morning before toddlers woke up,  while preschoolers watched “Sesame Street,” during school hours, late night waiting for teens on dates, while traveling to see grown children, while grandkids nap, and when I couldn’t sleep during my daughter’s four overseas deployments. Challenges changed every year with the children, but the flexibility of writing let me keep on making a living as an author.

Moving: We lived on a peaceful, isolated Iowa farm when I started writing. Moving to town was a shock, both in the noise level and dealing with neighbors and neighbors’ kids. Later, moving across country to be near kids and grandkids meant living in an apartment for a couple years, and learning to write in the middle of the night because I had two teenage girls living above me who had reverted to infancy and had their days and nights turned around. But my office was open all hours, so during those years I could continue being a working writer.

Finances: For various reasons (more kids, surgeries, single parenting years) there were times when the money coming in was less than the money needing to go out. Flexibility with the writing life counted there too. Some years I took on more writing than I “comfortably” wanted to do, including articles for online publications and work-for-hire series writing. I also said “yes” to more school visits per year than I ever hope to do again. Was it fun working those 60-hour weeks? No, but it turned the cash flow from red to black. A traditional employer doesn’t let you decide when you’re going to work overtime and when you’re not. Writing does.

Health Changes: Starting in my twenties, when the kids were small, I had more than a dozen total surgeries on my neck, face and jaw, ending with nerve damage and a chronic pain condition that saps a lot of energy. For many years, I could not have held down a traditional job. Even today, I occasionally need the flexibility of working when I feel well, whether it’s in the middle of the night or on Saturday or holidays. Writing has allowed me to keep my job when sick. Yes, I might write for three hours in the middle of the night, but later in the day when I fold up, I can take a long nap. It’s a rare employer who allows a two-hour nap mid-day.

Turning Pain into Gain

My two books for writers, Writer’s First Aid: Getting Organized, Getting Inspired, and Sticking to It and More Writer’s First Aid: Getting the Writing Done, could also be subtitled “how to stay flexible in order to keep writing.” My writing students weren’t abandoning their dreams because they couldn’t learn to plot or punctuate dialogue. They were quitting because of day jobs, divorces, caring for babies/kids/aging parents, and other life issues. In my books I shared how writing allows you to be flexible in all these life situations.

And don’t forget: surviving life’s pretzel times always give you something to write about!

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Mixing Writing & Adult Children

Keeping with our Mother’s Day theme of combining writing with raising children (Hats Off to Mom WritersCombine Babies and Bylines,Combining Writing and School-Age Kids, Writing During the Teen Years), let’s talk about writing when you have college kids and grown children (plus grandchildren). Again, your writing skills need flexibility!

(with granddaughter, Abby, at a book sale)

Déjà Vu

Just when your days (or evenings and weekends) are blissfully free to write, your college-age children are home for the summer. They turn your precise schedule upside down. They also provide such a temptation to sit and chat and go shopping, etc. Or maybe your adult child moves back home, perhaps with small children. Here are some ways to deal with those situations:

*Don’t abandon your schedule! These people aren’t company or house guests. For the time being, they are simply living with you. Your life doesn’t need to revolve around them. Keep to your schedule.

*Deal with possible interruptions ahead of time. Say something like this to them: “I start work early, but help yourselves to the eggs and juice in the fridge.” Don’t wait on them hand and foot. Resist the urge to clean up their messes in the kitchen and living room until your writing time is finished.

*If your writing room is needed for sleeping space, turn a corner of your bedroom into a temporary study. Have a place where you can close the door and write. During this parenting time, you might write a story for a children’s magazine called “Moving to Grandma’s House.” Or perhaps you’ll share your insight with other grandparents in an article called “Mothering Your Grandchildren.”

*Resist the urge to take over the parenting if you’re not providing childcare. I find it much harder to say “Nana has to work” than I did “Mommy needs to work.” If my kids (with the grandkids) ever lived with me even temporarily, it would be hard for me to keep remembering that I’m not the grandkids’ mother, nor their entertainment committee. My daughters wouldn’t expect it–it’s just something Nanas seem to do!

As with all the other phases of parenting, you can continue to write as children leave home, come back for visits, move back in, and/or bring grandchildren. I started writing when my children were 5, 2 and 10 days old. I now write and mix in the four grandchildren who live close by: 12, 9, 4 and 1. My family will always come first, but there’s room for writing too! You just need to learn the tricks of the trade for each stage.

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Writing During the Teen Years

Keeping with our Mother’s Day theme of combining writing with raising children (Hats Off to Mom WritersCombine Babies and Bylines, Combining Writing and School-Age Kids), let’s talk about writing during the teen years–and the skills it will entail.

The main challenge at this time is keeping (and constantly regaining) your sanity! Even normally active teens can leave a parent hyper, worried, deaf, and frustrated: not a state conducive to your best writing. Teens in ongoing trouble can just about finish you off. I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way during a few years of having one teen in a serious situation. I think that book was instrumental in saving my career.

Surviving and Thriving with Teens

Over the years, I discovered some helpful tips for writing with teens in the house…

*Use ear plugs and white noise machines.  Find soft foam ear plugs, like miniature marshmallows. Ear plugs block out stereos, giggling girls, phones ringing, and TV. You can buy white noise machines in the baby departments of most stores.

*Adjust your schedule–because the kids won’t/can’t adjust theirs. On weekends I waited up to ensure each child got home safely from part-time jobs and dates. I used to doze by the TV and then was too tired to write in the morning, which I resented. So, despite the difficulty making the switch, I started writing from ten to midnight on weekends. Then I would sleep late the next morning without guilt.

*Teenagers’ roughest times (drugs/drinking, pregnancies, school problems) can come close to derailing an author’s ability to write creatively. These problems last for months–or years–and can be a source of major writer’s block. If this is your situation, throughout the day try some free-flowing ten-minute writing exercises to unblock, writing about whatever you’re feeling. Just keep writing–anything. Keep the words flowing during these high-stress times so your ability to write is intact when the crisis finally passes.

Some of those ten-minute segments may later provide you with story/article ideas for teens or parents. Perhaps, with teens underfoot, you’ll write a nonfiction book for parents like my favorite self-help title: Get Out of My Life But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? Is there any doubt that this author merged raising kids with his writing?

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Combining Writing and School-Age Kids

Yesterday we talked about how to Combine Babies and Bylines. There are challenges galore when writing with newborns and babies in the house. At that stage, we usually daydream of that magical day when the kids will be in school and we’ll have all those uninterrupted hours to write.

Yes, it is easier to write when kids are older, but not necessarily easy. You still need ways to be there for your family while making time for quality writing.

One place I found a ton of helpful advice when I was starting out was the book above: How to be a Successful Housewife/Writer. It always helps to learn from someone who practices what they preach.

Wearing So Many Hats

Life is hectic at this time, with chauffeuring kids to baseball and ballet. You may also work full- or part-time. More demands are made on your evenings and weekends. At this stage, the key is to be flexible and disciplined.

*Write wherever/whenever you can. I finished an entire novel by writing in the orthodontist’s waiting room, bleachers during basketball practice, and the doctor’s office while my daughter got her weekly allergy shots.

*If you work outside the home, write on the bus if you commute. Use a voice activated tape recorder if you have to drive. Write during your lunch hour. One time I worked as a receptionist in a dental office to make ends meet. I took my laptop to work with me and wrote during my lunch hour–and got a surprising amount written. And there’s always pen and paper.

*Go to the library to write some evenings or weekends. Grab a few hours of peace and quiet there. (I still do that–to make myself stay off email and work!) If you can concentrate in a book store or coffee shop, take your writing there for a couple hours.

*If your days are free while your kids are in school, limit TV, Internet surfing, volunteering, and lunches out. You must CHOOSE writing and choose it first whenever possible, before other activities. When helping at your kids’ schools, volunteer for ONE activity at the beginning of the school year (e.g. help with the Christmas party) instead of becoming room mother or some job that takes many hours per month. (Remember: more than one school-age child multiplies the requests for volunteering.)

*When working at home, use an answering machine and voice mail. Kids learn to remember their own homework and lunches if you’re no longer available to run forgotten items to school.

Turn Experiences into Manuscripts

Much of my early publishing success came directly from parenting school-age kids. I wrote articles like “Telephone Safety” for Jack & Jill. I also wrote novels like The Haunting of Cabin 13 (children’s choice award winner) after camping with my school-age kids in Backbone State Park in Iowa.

Parenting school-age children doesn’t have to mean choosing between your family and your writing. Try combining them instead. This age group provides you with rich material. Make flexibility your watch word, and you’ll be able to juggle both.

My children helped me be a better writer–and writing daily helped me be a better (happier) mom!

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Combine Babies and Bylines

 

I started writing when I had an infant, a two-year-old, and a preschooler. I wrote throughout their school years, their teen years, their college/adult years, and now full circle when I am babysitting grandkids.

The (survival) skills you need to both write and parent change with each stage of your children’s lives. (Sometimes your biggest need is time or energy. Other times your biggest need is keeping your sanity!)

So between now and Mother’s Day, I want to blog about practical ways to combine writing and parenting throughout these stages. Just as beneficial, I hope I can show you some ways that your kids can be your best source of material. (Let’s start at the very beginning…)

Writing with Infants & Small Children

When raising babies and small children, FINDING TIME to write is the toughest ask. Try these ideas:

*Jot down story and article ideas when you’re forced to sit- waiting rooms, nursing the baby, etc.

*Prewrite.  Think through your plot lines, article openings, and titles while doing non-think activities like cooking supper and vacuuming. You don’t have time to waste at the keyboard. You may only have ten minutes.

*Outline. When you sit down to write, you’ll know exactly where you are; you won’t waste time getting started.

*Keep writing supplies organized, in one spot, out of little ones’ reach. (For years I wrote in a small closet painted orange with a door on it for this reason.)

*Hire a sitter or barter with a friend to trade babysitting. I never did this, but I know others have. Use these uninterrupted blocks of time for serious writing. Save those other miscellaneous writing chores for those tiny segments of free time.

Turn Childhood Experiences into Writing

One such experience of mine with small children became an article for Farm Woman (later called Country Woman) entitled “Treasure This Day,” which was reprinted in Catholic Digest. It was a simple article about the joys and frustrations of gardening with a baby, a toddler and preschooler in tow.

Another book, For Every Joy That Passes, has a mother in it who runs a daycare in her home; many of my baby and toddler experiences went in there.

My published stories, articles and books based almost directly on my kids would take pages to list. Just be aware that your children–especially when you write for the juvenile market–are one of your best research sources.

(If you have a tip for busy moms of very young children, do share it below or on Facebook. Don’t assume that it’s too simple, or everyone already does it.)

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