I came across a lovely interview with David Mitchell, the author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ the other day, in The Atlantic. It’s entitled, “How to Write: Neglect Everything Else”. One thing he said echoed my own discovery over the 3 years I’ve been writing fiction, “You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.” As a ‘stay at home mother’ (a title I’m not too happy with as it feels I’m in and out of the house all day), I really get this. At times, it’s a major challenge to find time to write. But ‘find’ is the wrong word. Writers must ‘make’ time to write and this is true of mothers, fathers, and anyone with a day job and authorial aspirations.
Something else Mitchell said made me change my routine a little over the last few days. Apart from his advice to ‘neglect everything else’ (sorry, David, no can do – I’m a woman), he instructs, ‘rush to your laptop and open it up’ but always keep a boring homepage so you won’t be distracted by the Internet. Ah, distraction! Yes, I’ve allowed myself to be distracted too often and it eats into writing time. For example, coming home from the morning school run, I find it hard to walk past the basket full of washing waiting to be hung out, the less than tidy kitchen with breakfast things dumped in the sink, and I won’t bore you with any more examples. So, can I do it? Can I ‘rush to my laptop’, neglect my multi-tasking ‘stay at home mum’ duties and write instead? Well, yes as it happens. This week, I’ve shoe-horned in several extra hours of writing and editing, simply by turning a blind eye to household eyesores. Chores can just as easily be done in the afternoon or evening. They don’t have to eat into my precious ‘home alone’ time while my daughter is at school in the morning.
I can still be ‘a halfway decent parent’, supervise homework, feed my daughter, and have those all-important little chats about her day, whilst folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher. Cook a meal or do a trolley dash at the supermarket as well, and the day is gone. Mitchell is right, in my opinion. There’s only time for one other thing as a parent and I’ve chosen to write. I take my hat off to those mothers working outside the home, who manage somehow, invariably with more than one kid, to hold down a job, full-time or part-time, raise their children well, and still write fiction. I know many open the laptop at night while their children are in bed, but this is something I’ve never been able to do. I’m a night time reader, but not a night time writer.
As often happens, when you are musing on a particular topic, you come across other related articles that tap into your thinking process. In this case, it was a David Sedaris story, ‘Laugh, Kookaburra’, from The New Yorker magazine, which I chose as my bedtime reading the other night. Sedaris describes a visit to the Australian outback and how his host, a successful lady who managed to retire at the age of 55, tells Sedaris and his partner to picture a four-burner stove.
“One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” In order to be successful, she suggests, you must cut off one of your burners. In order to be really successful, you must cut off two. Pat had cut off two – family and health; Sedaris admitted to cutting off friends and health. In his partner’s case, work was the only thing to go. I’m afraid I recognised myself in this – I’ve turned two of my ‘burners’ very low, if not quite off (yet) – friends and health (‘fitness’ would be a more accurate word for me perhaps).
What about you? Did the four-burner analogy strike a chord as you strive for success and prioritise certain aspects of your life at the cost of others? The questions I’m asking myself are, how do you measure success as a writer, can I really ever achieve it, and if so or if not, is the time devoted to writing worth it if the cost is lost friends and bad health? I have to admit, I feel great about how my ‘working’ week has gone so far – valuable editing work done on both a novel and a new short story, and worthwhile planning for two more pieces of short fiction. I’ll continue to ‘rush to my laptop’ in the morning, but maybe, instead of making that second cup of tea and grabbing a few biscuits around 11-ish, I’ll take 15 minutes out for a spot of Yoga or to ring a friend, and keep the gas flowing to one of those neglected burners.