Writing With a Toddler: Creating While Sleep-Deprived

Posted: April 15, 2015 in Dark Art Cafe
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Last summer (2014), my wife Samantha and I moved to Sioux City, Iowa, for 4 months so Samantha would be closer to her work at Camp High Hopes, a state-of-the-art camp for people with disabilities. My wife is my hero, and her work is important and life-changing for the campers with whom she works. But she usually makes a 2 hour round trip commute each day during the school year. The move was to take some of the commuter stress out of her day, allowing her to focus more fully on summer camps and to be closer to Liam and I.

The perk of the move, for me, was that we got put up in college apartments close to the camp. A quiet, (surprisingly clean!) two room place with a desk by a window, a full kitchen, and air conditioning. The perfect little writing space for four months, where I could work on my novel-in-progress. No household distractions like cleaning gutters, mowing the lawn, gardening, etc.

No distractions, that is, except for my nearly one-year-old boy Liam who was then crawling around at a quicker clip and beginning to pull himself up on the furniture.

Many of my good friends are stay-at-home parents and full-time writers of various stripes. Any frustrations or poop-on-the-manuscript stories I could tell would likely pale in comparison to these friends who somehow manage to run households and create original work and make it all seem par for the course. There was a time, writing my last book, A Blessed Snarl, before I became a father, when I romanticized these friends and writers like them. Sure, I thought then, they have all the time in the world to write, like when the kids are napping or playing quietly.

Then I spent a summer trying to write full time while being a full-time stay-at-home parent.

I hazily recall finally getting Liam to go down for a nap, tip-toeing out of his room while trying to avoid the three squeaky spots in the floor, making coffee, settling into my chair at my desk in front of my laptop (internet clicked off, manuscript Word doc. open) and feeling absolutely exhausted. All I wanted to do was have a nap, but  I knew that would be an hour of precious writing time wasted on beauty sleep, and because I know for a fact that sleep does not make me more beautiful, I’d push through and try to get in-scene: try to make my characters move through the tired fog I myself was lost in.

Thank God for editing functions like cut & paste. Most of those sleep-deprived scenes have been either heavily re-worked or scrapped altogether.

But I learned something on those days when I’d try to force characters through a room, try to imagine what they’d do or say or think, all while essentially intoxicated with lack of sleep. (Driving tired is the same as driving drunk, they say; I assume it’s the same for writing). I learned that forcing myself to write while exhausted made me both a half-assed writer and parent. My scenes were clunky and I was no good to my boy when he woke up and wanted to play.

I also learned I didn’t need to sacrifice one for the other. (Don’t worry, you parents reading this, if it had come to that I’d have sacrificed my writing for my son. I’m not some egocentric American male writer, circa 1970, who thinks my art is worth more than my family). I learned I could strike a balance, and that to do so I had to listen to my body and my boy. So, I learned to take short naps right when I put Liam to bed. 15 min. or so: enough to reboot, essentially. Then I could do household chores like laundry, dishes, and general clean-up (living in the apartment made these tasks more minimal than at home). And then, in the remaining time of Liam’s nap, I could read over what I’d written the day before and block out scenes in a notebook, scrawl dialogue exchanges on shopping receipts I kept on my desk. Read a bit.

Then Liam would scream that he was awake and it was time for him.

All those notes I kept and the mental writing I did during the day (when I was alert and not dopey) guided my evening writing sprees after Liam went to bed and before Samantha got home late from camp. Between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., five days a week, I hammered out the rest of that rough draft.

Once I found that rhythm, that balance, both writing and parenting became invigorating. Which meant I was alert enough to remember all the crazy and beautiful things I saw my son do that summer: that time I took him to Bacon Creek Park and lounged beneath a tall tree while he crawled off the picnic blanket and found pine cones to show me, his face dappled in the late afternoon sun.

In moments like that I knew he’d hijack my novel in the best way possible. And he did. (But more on that later …)

  1. jboelhower says:

    I just got my first novel done last month while I worked and still found time to be a father of six kids, 14 years to 19 months. I totally related to this post. As I am at a crossroads in my work life, your post hit home for me.

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