This Abundant Chaos

Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.

This post was originally written in 2013 for the first iteration of Rattle & Pen. It was never actually posted, however, and has languished in my docs file ever since. But today I’m lifting it from that limbo! Why? Well, my family is on week two of our spring break, and this old narrative about balancing parental chaos and writerly frustration is speaking (loudly) to me again. Some struggles never do quite resolve. ~ KSL

Like this. But not at all like this. (Image Source)

This afternoon I’ve been thinking about how my writing habits have adapted (or not) to the chaos of life as a parent.

The truth is that some days there’s no adaptation at all—there is only submission. Yesterday was one of those days. Though I was hoping to return to the writing project I’m working on and tackle (again) the problematic bit of dialogue on page 75, domestic obligation beat out creative impulse and instead of writing I cleaned the house, made a Target run, swept the garage, did five loads of laundry, and mowed the lawn. In between those tasks I also, of course, performed the usual duties of child-rearing—preparing little crust-less sandwiches for lunch, wiping up after that lunch, reading stories, giving baths, getting teeth brushed, doing homework, etc. By the time the children were asleep, I was tuckered out. Completely. I climbed into bed, read a page (yes, a single page) of someone else’s brilliant novel, then gave up and called it a night. Some days are like that. (“Even in Australia,” my little one would add. You fellow parents will get that reference.) And so today, I was determined to get a little writing done. I dropped the kids at school and parked in the far corner of the school lot, pulled out my laptop, and got to it. I had two hours until preschool let out and I was going to make those two hours productive.

This might seem strange—hunkering down in my car in the school parking lot to work. (It occurred to me that some concerned citizen passing by might notice me lurking there in the school lot in my Subaru and think that I had less admirable ambitions than revising a bit of dialogue, but I couldn’t let that worry get in the way.) But since becoming a parent I’ve had to learn to be more flexible about my working environment and more efficient with my time. In my twenties, when I had all day and night to write, I indulged every diversion. (Not sure what to do with this paragraph? Time for a walk to clear the head. Tedious revision ahead? Better make another pot of coffee! Tricky last line? Maybe reading the last line of every book on the bookshelf would be inspiring.) With children in the house, however, there’s no room for indulgence. Here’s how I write now:

1. In the bathroom, sitting on the bathmat, my back against the tub and the overhead fan on so that I can’t hear my husband playing “dragon-fairy-fighters” with the kids in the next room.

2. In the coffee shop across from my daughter’s preschool, with my headphones in and tuned to a website that plays white noise for free so that I don’t mentally sing along to the lyrics of the Motown songs the barista seems to prefer.

3. In the public library, at a table behind the last row of the stacks (as far, far, far as it is possible to get from the children’s section).

4. In the garage, in the middle of winter in New York, with a space heater running at my feet and my down coat zipped to the chin.

5. At four o’clock in the morning, in the beautifully silent kitchen, the sky outside still dark.

6. At eleven pm, at my desk, the children asleep in one room and my husband asleep in another, my body weary but my brain finally set free and wired.

7. In the last pew of an empty church on a Monday morning. (This one might have been the best.)

This is all to say that the biggest adaptation I’ve made as a writer since becoming a parent is that now I write when I can, however I can, because that’s the only way I’ll ever get any writing done. And though I know my twenty-something self would have looked at this routine I keep (if permanent chaos can be called a routine) and found it less than ideal, it’s actually pretty much working for me. I feel pretty good about the work I do and how much of it I’m getting done. I’m still not by any means a quick writer, and I do occasionally look at the writers I know who do not have children and feel a pang of jealousy at their productivity. (In contrast, if I can get a paragraph or two an hour, that’s a good pace for me.) But the truth is that my kids aren’t the reason for my pace; I’ve always been a slow mover on the page, and I’ve actually improved my efficiency since becoming a parent. I don’t give in to distractions the way I used to. I’ve housebroken my once-wily focus and can now sit down and get to work without first having to check my email, read the day’s news, and drain my cup of coffee. And it would take a fairly urgent, fairly serious interruption to break that concentration once I’ve set it running.

I think, ultimately, my two lives (parent and writer) inform each other, enrich each other, and make the challenges of each sphere—the familial and the professional—more bearable. When I have a terrible writing day—the sort on which all I do is write shit and then delete it—and I emerge from the office or return home from the library in a putrid, horrible, self-loathing mood, the kids still bound down the stairs to greet me. The little one still jumps up and wraps her legs around my waist, her arms around my neck, and kisses my face in greeting. The big one still bounces up and down in his eagerness to tell me what I’ve missed during my couple of hours away. And within minutes that rotten mood is evaporating, the stink of the day’s writing getting a little less fetid. The writing cannot sink me for long.

Conversely, on those long days when the children are whiny, and the un-mopped floor is gritty with sand, and I truly and wholeheartedly do not think I can have one more fight about the pink pajamas and why they really and absolutely must be washed today, I have this secret preserve in my mind—a personal refuge. What should I do about this character’s reluctance? What would she say right there, and how would her face look as she said it? The domesticity cannot sink me for long.

I sometimes wonder what my life would be like without one or the other of my loves—my family or my writing—but I can’t carry the question very far without feeling the deep loneliness of absence, and the deep joy of gratitude for this unwieldy chaos I’ve chosen, this abundance.

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