The Writing Parent – Support System How-Tos

Column by Vanessa Shields

I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.

There’s a point when you realize that none of what’s happening in your writing life could happen without a wildly vast, intelligent, risky and extraordinary group of people all working together to make it happen. To make the impossible possible. When you’re a parent, I feel confident in saying that the same is true. You know the saying about it taking a village to raise a child/family? Well, it takes a village to raise a writer, too. 

So let’s talk about how important it is to cultivate a support system that helps you get your writing done – from ideas to writing to editing and revising to submission and publication. What are some key elements necessary in creating a support system that will enable you to have a flourishing, prolific and passionate writing life while being a parent? 

Communication is number one. Much of what we do as writers begins in our minds and stays in our minds until we sit somewhere, usually alone, to write these ideas out. For me, the most important thing I have to do with my family is tell them that I need time to write. I fully believe in the ‘ask and you shall receive’ motto because it can ring true if you’re specific and kind in the asking. If I have a deadline approaching or if I can feel that ruffling of stress in my chest because I haven’t written and I have to get the words out, I know it’s time to talk to my family about it and ask for the time to write.  

The hand-in-hand partner of communication is scheduling. You know your family’s life schedule. You know your body and your mind. You know your creative process, so be specific and honest with your self and your family about what you need to get your writing done.  

For example, I know I’m not a morning person. Getting up early to write is really difficult for both my body and my brain. I used to be able to do this, then I turned forty and my body was all: nope, honey you need to sleep in the morning! When I ask for time to write (whether it’s at home whilst sitting at the dining room table or out of the house somewhere), I’ll look at our family schedule (this includes school, extra-curricular activities, meals, etc.) and I’ll look at my work schedule (I do have a part-time job that I need to factor in) and I’ll be honest about the chunks of time that are available for me to write. I’ll schedule in my writing time like I would schedule in anything else we do. It gets equal importance to whatever else we schedule in. I’ll even write it on our family calendar so everyone can see it – including me.  

What happens next is a fierce discipline that I have to muster in my self to follow this writing schedule. This is when the challenges come flying at me like hungry pigeons in a European piazza. I have had to train myself to not get distracted by things around me. At home, distractions include the constant mess that resides on our dining room table where I write (currently, on the table there’s a teddy bear, letters to be mailed, my journal, a granola bar, crumbs…), sounds of the kids playing, talking or doing whatever they’re doing, the dishes in the sink, the laundry in the basket, and all the other domestic-related things that I could do around the house if I wasn’t writing. I have to let them go 

If I’m out of the house, distractions still exist. The Internet is a danger-zone. Seeing people I know could be a problem especially if they want to talk. Food could be a challenge if I stop writing to eat. And, of course, there’s the lovely cacophony of sounds that come with writing anywhere, really. I’ve learned to tune them out (most of the time).  

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far takes practise. When my children were very small – infants/toddlers (okay…under that age of eight) it was extremely difficult to carve out any time at all to write – especially a chunk of time longer than about 30 minutes (and that was an eternity!). There was just so much to do. All.The.Time. And, I was physically exhausted so finding the energy to write when the time did arrive to do so was sometimes needed for napping or watching a show.  

It has taken me years to train myself – my brain, my body, the characters/stanzas in my mind – to learn how to write on a schedule. Inspiration comes when it comes, and it rarely comes during scheduled writing time. It takes the fierce discipline I mentioned to stop everything and give yourself the gift of writing.  

Over time, it gets easier, but that doesn’t mean that new and exciting challenges like guilt, self-loathing, fear, exhaustion, self-judgements and other powerful ‘Can’t-Write-Monsters’ don’t keep smacking into you when you take a seat and put your hands on the keyboard or wrap your fingers around the pen. It is hard to be a writer. It is hard to write every day. But it is not impossible 

A few more points about support. Sometimes asking for help must reach beyond your inner-circle or your immediate family – ie. your kids/life partner. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends – engage this group of people if you find that you need extra help with your writing schedule. Even hiring a babysitter is an option…if it’s an option that fits you financially. The point here is that your support ‘circle’ can extend beyond the immediate. But you’ll still have to ask and you’ll still have to be honest about the timing, and you’ll still need to be disciplined when the time comes to sit and write.  

Did you see the word risk up above? I included it because it’s risky, this process of creating a support system. You have to communicate honestly – and that means being honest with your self. You have to ask for help when there’s always the possibility of the answer being ‘no.’ Then you have to ask again. Always be polite too. Use your please and thank-yous. Manners matter! 

There are bigger risks too. What if you want to teach or take a class? A workshop? What if you want to apply for a residency or travel to write at a retreat? These are big asks that require courage and a gathering of support that will enable you to be away for much longer periods of time (as well as lead-up time to prepare for said class/workshops/retreat). Oh, and there’s the cost of these types of writing endeavours too. If you’re applying for grants, you need time to write them.  

Phew. I’m feeling a stress tightening in my chest just thinking about these things! But, friends, I’ve moved through them all in my just over twelve years of being a parent.  

I’ve found the courage and taken the risks. I’ve broken down and sobbed from guilt and fear too. But I’ve never stopped writing.  

And do you know what is the most beautiful and extraordinary part of it all? This support system I’m telling you about – the people who love you and see how hard you work at your craft – they’re learning from you. Your kids are watching you struggle and succeed, cry and rejoice. They’re learning how to ask for help and carve time out of days when it seems like they’re isn’t any. They see how discipline works when you’re sitting at your messy dining room table writing. And the harder you work for your craft, the harder they’ll work in supporting you.  

This summer I attended the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in Creative Writing. I left my family for eight days to attend this workshop out of town. It was the longest time I’d been away from my family ever. I had to reach into the tips of my toes to find the courage to leave. But I did it. Because I knew I could. I knew it was time. I wanted to gift my self and my writing this workshop. And my family and support system extended into hearts and wallets to help me make this dream come true.  

I hope your support system continues to grow and adapt to your writing process and successes. Keep up the courage, people. The world needs writers. The world needs you.

Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. Her book Look at Her (Black Moss Press) was released in the fall of 2016. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. Vanessa is the owner of Gertrude’s Writing Room – A Gathering Place for Writers. www.gertrudeswritingroom.com. For all things Vanessa, visit her websitewww.vanessashields.com.