03 September 2019
Anna Ellory, author of The Rabbit Girls, made time to write as a single mother and offers advice to others struggling to carve out writing time
The image of a struggling writer is familiar, a man (mostly) bleeding for their work, or starving for it, making the product of such labours, somehow, or the more literary. But what happens when a struggling writer is also a single parent whose child eats their time?
The poverty is both situational and absolute. There is no money, but – just as importantly – there is also no time.
Virginia Woolf is frequently quoted saying writers need a room of their own, but this writer was just seeking an hour. So below I have come up with my top tips for finding that hour. Because finding time to write can be a time-consuming task of itself:
1. Treat time away from the pen/laptop as time in preparation to get back to it.
Dream away while doing dishes, washing, playing play-doh, cleaning, tidying etc. These are all opportunities for important daydreaming.
2. Treat anything around you as writing material.
I was playing with my son in the garden with chalks and I chalked an entire narrative arc across the slabs. He didn’t mind because the words also passed as a race-track. Remember to take pictures of your creations or jot them down before they are gone.
3. Wake up an hour early.
This is standard advice, and it hurts. When I was only getting four hours of sleep a night because I was working and my child didn’t sleep very well the concept of waking myself up earlier than needed felt barbaric. BUT, you do get used to it. It’s nice starting the day with something that is just for you; and – once you get past the mind-numbing fatigue (!) – it becomes a productive hour that sets you up for the day.
4. Long walks and the great outdoors.
Walking is thinking.
Children, especially, love the outdoors. I carried my son in a carrier so I always had my hands free. I could jot things down as we walked, I could walk further when he got tired and he would nap in the carrier on the way home, where I could get ten minutes extra to stand at the kitchen side, drink a cup of tea and add to the work-in-progress.
5. Always have a pen / pencil and paper so you can jot ideas, snippets of sentences, whole plots down as you go.
6. A traffic jam, a broken-down car, a cancelled appointment, a delay at the dentist/doctors etc can prove useful writing time.
7. When drafting a novel, you can plan for chapter lengths to be short.
When you get into the edits you can lengthen these out, but if all you have is an hour across the day it feels really good to complete a chapter within that time. Most of the chapters in The Rabbit Girls were about 1,000 words. That was the most I could achieve, some as short as 500 words. In the edits I elongated and elaborated, because my hour at that point wasn’t dedicated to creating but to changing and making better. You can’t do that without the bare bones to begin with.
8. Short bursts of productivity feel good and are achievable. Plan ahead.
Even if it's only 10 minutes before work, or 20 minutes in a lunch break. If you think about what you want to do before you sit down whatever you write will be more productive.
9. Specifically for parents; give your child a notebook and a pen too. You can ‘write’ together.
This also works very well if their pens are paints. And their notebooks are vast sheets of paper that cover a floor or a table. Yes, the clean-up afterwards is dire. BUT you are guaranteed more than 10 minutes.
10. 20-minute exercise:
When you (finally) sit down to write get a timer out and put it on for 7 minutes. And for those 7 minutes complain; complain loudly and messily all over your page. Writing is tough and finding time to write is even tougher. You are allowed time to vent over the frustrated activity as well the frustration trying to get to it. Give yourself that time.
And, at 4am in the middle of winter, I can write 'I am tired. I am so ******* tired'. Over and over for 7 minutes and somehow I do feel a) less tired and b) bored of myself and ready to get on with what I am up at 4am to do?
After the first 7 minutes; when the alarm goes off get another page, fresh, a different pen and set the alarm for 10 minutes and write your heart out, that epic poem, that beautiful prose, the next slice of your work-in-progress.
Finally, set your alarm for 3 minutes and in these final minutes write down where you want to go, what’s next for your protagonist, your plot. If you can frame these into questions, even better, because when you go back to your busy life you can mull them over, and when you get your next few minutes make them count.
It may only be 20 minutes, but there is space to find them every day, for everyone.
The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory is published on 1st September by Lake Union (price £20 in hardback)
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