Okay, let’s just dive in. I’m assuming you’re here because you are (a) a parent and (b) trying hard to carve out space for writing in your life. Maybe you have other caring commitments too. You may very well have a job that eats up more than its fair share of your week, and you might have a spouse who expects to at least see your face from time to time. Plus, you need to eat and sleep (although that last one, if your kids are like mine… maybe not so much).
It can feel overwhelming. It is overwhelming. I know it is: I’m living it with you. But if you’re here, I’m guessing it’s because without having space to write, even just a little, your life feels… flat. Not empty — of course — but missing something. Like there’s a spark that you just can’t seem to light. And yet, with eight million conflicting demands and only twenty-four hours in each day, how do you justify prioritising something as de-prioritisable as making fiction?
I have good news, and I have bad news. The good news is that you almost certainly can find a corner of your life that you can ringfence for creative work. The bad news is that I can’t tell you how to find it. I can tell you how I do it, and I can make some suggestions, but the actual mechanics of your life are different from the mechanics of mine so I can’t tell you what's going to work with the specifics of your situation and what won't. But I can show you what's possible, at least. I hope it helps.
So, here’s how I do it. First up: I need to acknowledge the particular privileges I’m bringing to the table, because they make a massive difference. You may not have these privileges. You may have different privileges; you may not. This is what I’m leveraging towards making space for my writing:
I don’t mention any of the above to put you off if none of them apply to you. I only mention them because I'm aware that there’s advice floating around the internet that makes it seem as though we’re all on a level playing field and that access to writing time is as easily achievable to every writer. It is not, and I think it’s important to acknowledge what’s helping me make that space in my life before I start suggesting ways for you to make that space in yours.
Equally, I have constraints on my writing time that might or might not apply to you.
Again, I’m telling you this because I want to be clear about the parameters of the advice I’m going to give. The suggestions I make don’t assume you have access to any of the same privileges as me, or are bound by the same constraints as me, so you’ll have to bend them to fit your life as best you can. Choose the ones that feel like they might be useful. Ignore the ones that don’t. And even then, you’ll almost certainly have to adapt them to fit in a way that’s right for you.
Here we go...
1. Make writing a priority
WAIT DON’T CLOSE THE TAB. I know. I know. This is condescending, privileged, and presumptive. It’s not as though you’re not already trying to do that, but… you have kids. You have bills to pay. You have work. There’s a sodding global pandemic happening, which doesn’t exactly help. Maybe you are the only carer in your children’s lives. Maybe you’ve got an elderly parent to look after as well. Maybe your spouse is in need of full-time support. Maybe you’re working two or more jobs. Maybe you have a child with additional needs. There are so many, many reasons why writing seems like the least important call on your time right now, and here I am, blithely suggesting that the only problem is that you didn’t prioritise it highly enough.
I promise that’s not what I’m saying.
When I say “make writing a priority,” I don’t mean that you should deprioritise anything else in your life. That’s likely to be impossible, or at least insurmountably difficult. I simply mean that you take whatever opportunity you can, and make that opportunity about writing. Jodi Picoult wrote her first novel in dribs and drabs on the school run, while waiting in the car to pick up her kids. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a hired typewriter during his lunch breaks. Stolen moments that could have been used for anything (honestly, nobody would think twice if a tired parent used those moments in the car park to close their eyes for a bit) but these two writers chose to claim them for writing.
Again, it’s not about deprioritising anything. It’s simply about identifying those little cracks in the day — ten, fifteen minutes; half an hour if you’re lucky — and choosing to let them be about writing instead of, say, folding laundry or tidying up your inbox or scrolling through Twitter (guilty), or any of the things that tell you they are more important in that moment. Okay, so it’s slightly about deprioritising those things for that small space of time. But, and I don’t know about you, I can fold laundry when my youngest is awake. She’s fairly forthright, but she’ll let me do that. She won’t let me write when she’s awake, though. So I can make writing a priority for part of her nap time, even though a laundry avalanche may be nigh, because this is a small moment that I can claim for writing. And I need it.
2. Ask for time (if you can)
This is a big “if" — and it doesn’t apply to everyone — but if you can, you are absolutely allowed to ask for writing time. This is also what I mean by prioritising: we often feel as though our writing efforts are too trivial and too insignificant for us to justify asking for room to include it, especially if it involves nudging something else aside in someone else’s life. But you are allowed to need this. You are allowed to want space to write. You don’t have to be publishing bestsellers for it to be a valid use of your time. Creating is a fundamental part of what makes us human. Life — society — doesn’t put a high enough value on it, but it’s priceless nonetheless. If there’s someone in your life who values you, and who might be able to take the kids for an hour while you write, it is absolutely okay to ask for this.
One caveat: don't ask someone who's going to make you feel in any way bad about yourself for asking. If there's a decent chance that whoever it is will imply that your writing time is pointless, or poke fun at you for doing it (however gently it might be delivered or intended), do not open yourself up to that. When you're already struggling to find room for writing in your life, you do not need someone giving validation to all those voices in your head telling you that it's not worth the trouble after all.
3. Writing is self-care too
Yes, it's important to grab any opportunity for downtime with both hands. Yes, absolutely, you get the kids into bed and all you want to do is vegetate on the sofa in front of Bake Off. Friends want to see you and you want to see them and, who's going to understand if you cry off to write short stories instead?
You don't have to dedicate every spare moment of every day to writing. You probably shouldn't do this, either, because you may very well end up resenting your writing and it'll get harder and harder to persuade yourself back to it if that happens. But if you're feeling like you should be catching up with folks because you haven't seen them for ages, but this is the only space you have for writing in an entire fortnight and you're desperate to get stuck back in now that you've worked out what was going wrong in Chapter 5… Yeah, just don't tell them what you're really doing if you think they're going to take offence. Say you can't make it this time, make yourself a cup of coffee, and go nuts in worlds of your creation. Writing is self-care too.
Equally, if you use your lunch hour every day to go out for a power walk — because you know you need to build exercise into your routine and it’s literally the only time of the day when you’re not driving, sitting at a desk, or taking care of little people — but you’d really like to use one of those hours for writing, do that. It’s not a waste of your time. Your energies are not necessarily better spent elsewhere. If that’s all that’s stopping you from reclaiming this time — the idea that there are other self-care activities that are more deserving of your attention than writing and that writing instead is somehow frivolous — then remind yourself that self-care is about care of the whole self, and that nurturing your creative muscles is essential to your wellbeing too.
4. Write in small bursts. Tiny, if you need to
I’ve alluded to this above (and elsewhere too), but it bears an entry of its own. You do not need to be writing for hours every day to produce great work. A novel that's produced 100 words at a time over the course of four years is still a novel. A publisher is never going to know that the bones of your short story were scribbled onto the back of the shopping list in an ASDA carpark while you were killing time before you needed to pick up the kids. There’s a decent chance that you’ll need to do some editing on that poem you typed into the Notes app on your phone at 3am while you were trying to get the baby back to sleep, but you wrote it.
What I’m trying to say is that you don’t need long stretches of writing time. You don’t need a regular, carved-in-stone writing discipline. You don’t need to be producing 3,000 words per session. (Anyone who tells you that you do, I’d suggest, is [a] speaking from a place of uninterrogated privilege, and [b] telling you how they write, with the assumption that because it worked for them, it’s the best — or only — way to do it.)
A figure that I like to throw out to students is 350 words per day. 350 words per day, five days per week (you can have every weekend off), will net you a 91,000 word novel in a year. That figure might also be unattainable in fifteen minute bursts here and there — that’s fine too — but the point is that novels do not need to be constructed three chapters at a time. Every single word is progress towards whatever story you need to tell. Maybe it’s going to take you more than a year of writing to get where you want to go. That’s okay. You’ll get there just the same.
5. Find the process that works for you
Oh yeah, that’s just about as helpful as “make writing a priority,” isn’t it? But bear with me a moment, because I do have a point, and the point is this: you will be able to make far more of your limited writing time if you work with your creative process rather than against it. But you have to know what that process is first, so give yourself time to find it if you’re just starting out.
For example, some writers work best if they can construct the entire plot before they start the creative writing part of the job. I’m one of them. As my writing time has become more limited, so has my plotting become ever more intricate, to the point where, for the novel I’m currently writing, the first month of work was me mapping it out scene by scene and chapter by chapter. By the time I actually started to write it, I didn’t lose time trying to work through plot issues or writing to find out what happened next. I already had a blueprint in hand for what the completed novel would look like and I’m following it, largely, to the letter.
It has taken me years to get to this point, though. What’s more — and I cannot stress this enough — this may not be the right process for you.
Do you write to find the story? Many writers do. That can make it tricky to get into the zone, and where you don’t have long to work, that’s going to matter. So work out what helps hack your brain into Writing Mode. I know many writers who find that a one-word prompt gets the creative juices flowing, and, when they're flowing, it's easy enough for them to nudge their writing in the intended direction of travel. Or maybe you just have to write whatever speaks to you at that moment and you can't predict in advance what that will be. Cool, do that. You're going to waste valuable writing time trying to push back against the way your creative process wants to work, so go with the day's inspiration and work out the details later.
Do you need to get out of the house to get the neurons firing? Pop the baby in a buggy and go for a walk. (Hey, it got my son to sleep every time, and my son would not nap as a baby.) Do you need to sit in a particular part of the house? Or do you need to not sit in a particular part of the house? (I for one can only persuade my brain that Writing Is Not Work if I don't attempt to sit at a desk to do it.) This is a process of trial and error, but it's time well spent. Don't regret any of it. You're getting better and better every day at becoming a writing ninja, swooping in to stealth-write when the moment allows, just by paying attention to what works for you.
Again, I've written about this before, but there is strength — and accountability — in numbers. And the world is just teeming with groups of writers, both online and off. I haven’t gone looking, but I’m prepared to bet that Facebook alone has dozens of writing groups specifically aimed at parents. Not all are created equal, and one thing I do tend to find about these spaces is that, unless they’re really well adminned, they can sometimes descend into pettiness and bickering very quickly, but, that said, I’ve been a member of several excellent Facebook writing groups for many years. You can find critique partners. You can ask questions. You can just have a moan if you need to. And you’ll find that it’s much easier to “justify” your writing when you’re not the only person you know who’s doing it.
I would find it basically impossible to compete in any meaningful sense in NaNoWriMo, but that’s only partially because of my kids (I’ve always found this sort of writing activity difficult) — you may find that it’s exactly what you need to get you started and keep you motivated. Or maybe signing up to a class is just the thing for you to carve out that space: I for one find it much easier to make myself do something, tired or not, when I’ve paid money to do it. The #writingcommunity hashtag on Twitter accesses a range of experiences, right across the board, and there are many writers on that site who are using it to keep themselves accountable to their writing goals.
There are writers all over social media, the wider internet, and the world at large who have found the balance between parenting and writing that works for them. Often, it looks only slightly like the balance that works for me. Maybe your balance will look more similar. Maybe it will be completely different. But if you go looking for them, you’ll find them. And you’ll see that it can be done.
So, that’s it. A few broad-stroke ideas and I’m batting the ball back to you to start sculpting them into something that looks manageable. I do, genuinely, wholeheartedly believe that you can find your writing space in a way that works for you. And I hope you'll come back and tell me how you did it.
Blog updates on the first of every month.