The primary caretaker

Ever since KRH was born, now seven months ago, I have been Dad only part of the time. Which isn’t to say I haven’t always been a dad, but for much of the week, I am busy at my day job. For the most part, when I’m at work I’m not parenting. My mind isn’t in parent mode. In a similar vein, for at least some of the last seven months, while I’ve been happy to be the person taking care of KRH for an afternoon or an evening, I have never been the “primary” parent for a long period.

That’s in part been because of the physical reality, because although he’s started solid food, we were never able to get KRH to take a bottle with any frequency, so until recently he needed Mom at least a few times a day. And in part, my wife has been the one on leave from work, so the vast majority of taking care of the baby has fallen on her, even as she’s needed to recover from pregnancy and birth (a job I think we often underestimate).

Long story short, I’ve never really taken up the full time job of caring for a child.

That’s going to change shortly! Next month, I’ll be starting parental leave, while my wife goes back to work. For my wife, it’s going to be difficult to leave KRH, but we decided we wanted either of us to be able to take care of KRH on any given day, and we decided the best way to do that was to make sure I had time to be the primary parent. So for about three and a half months, that’s going to be my job. I’m really thankful that my wife is willing to give me the opportunity to do it, because I think I’m going to learn a lot and hopefully have great times in the process.

What this probably isn’t going to be is an opportunity to write a whole lot. I’ve already cut the time I’m writing down because I just haven’t been able to keep up lately. I’m expecting, honestly, to get almost no work done while I’m on leave. I’m expecting taking care of KRH, plus doing household things, to take most of my time. If I do have time to write, great, but I don’t anticipate it. So while my writer brain really doesn’t like that and screams about it, I’m getting an opportunity to just spend time with KRH. It helps, of course, that he’ll be as playful and independent as he’s yet been and it’ll be warm and lovely for the months I’ll be on leave. So I anticipate lots of summer walks and trips to the park and the zoo and festivals and all sorts of similar things.

I have a while until this begins, but I can’t wait. I’m sure when it happens I’ll have a lot of things to post about.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
59% Complete
53,137 of 90,000 words

I want it five years ago

I spend a lot of time thinking about personal growth. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that we are imperfect creatures by nature, and that there is always some way or another we can improve ourselves, be it our health, our personality, our habits, whatever. As a writer, I see how slowly improving my writing techniques and output will eventually yield massive gains and indeed that has been my plan for a long time.

But somehow, I think, my thinking about growth has gotten twisted, or maybe always been twisted. As a society, I think we hear a lot of stories about people who made massive changes overnight. They quit smoking cold turkey or took up a health lifestyle or quit their jobs to write or were one day struck by an epiphany and did something. And I think we tend to idolize those people whose willpower, apparently, is simply enough to sit down and make that massive change.

I don’t think most change comes from that method. If it does, maybe it shouldn’t. Sure, if that works for you, but I can’t off hand think of anything I’ve accomplished through that kind of massive change. And yet, if you looked at my planning document(I use and love my Volt Planner, I’m consistently setting goals across multiple areas for massive change. I’ve gotten better about breaking goals down into achievable bites and strategizing methods, but I’m still often trying to pack big changes into a month.

I think one of the reasons I’ve found the jump to parenthood so difficult is that I somehow expected that it would be a milestone and an opportunity. I thought that since everything would be changing, it would be an opportunity to set all the blocks of my life exactly as I wanted them. I’d eat perfectly after KRH, I told myself. I’d get really good at stealing 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there of writing, so that I’d actually write more and more efficiently than before. I’d get to the gym more regularly, something I only started doing a few months before KRH was born. And so on and so forth.

Does it shock you, dear reader, to learn that none of those massive changes worked out? Even though I had broken things down into achievable bites? It turns out that having a baby was more difficult than I expected, in different ways than I expected. So here I am, six months after KRH was born, and much of my change is still unmade. It doesn’t help, I think, that when I set out to make a change, I want it to happen five years ago, and if not then yesterday will have to do.

Now, this realization is a bit funny because I’ve long mentally accepted the idea of continuous growth. But I think I really need to focus on the fundamentals and try and do less of what doesn’t work. So in May I’m going to do that, and I’m going to pick a few narrow areas to try and improve in, rather than filling my list with to-do things. We’ll see what kind of progress I can make.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
56% Complete
50,197 of 90,000 words

Six months

I knew things would be tough after KRH arrived. I expected it to be. Indeed, I feared never being able to write as a parent. I worried that this was going to be the end of my writing career. I worried I simply wouldn’t have the time. I wondered what I’d give up and sacrifice for this duty of parenthood that I’d chosen. Of course, I looked forward to that duty as well. I had a ton of curiosity about who my child would be, how they would grow up, and what our time together would mean both to me and them. But there was a definite period where fear was one of the things I felt the most.

Six months have passed, as of yesterday. A lot has happened in that time. The stringbean baby has grown up a lot. He has hair and two teeth (and he’s kept the bright blue eyes I love so much). He’s grown so much, and now he’s as chubby as a baby should be. He talks (for a given value of talking). He grabs things (my hair and beard, mostly). He’s happy and healthy. He can roll over onto his tummy. And much, much more. What seems like an eternity is also the merest heartbeat, as near as I can tell.

So where are we? Where am I? Maybe that’s a better question. I don’t think I exaggerate to say that the last six months have been the most challenging of my life. For all that I feared that KRH might be the end of my writing career, I didn’t think having a child would be so hard. In those six months, I’ve run on less sleep than I thought would be possible. I’ve had the foundation of my life shaken deeply just from KRH’s sheer needs and the amount of change going on. I’ve struggled with just what it means to be a parent. A lot of thing have seemed a lot less certain than I thought they would.

Before KRH, I spent a lot of time reading, looking for reassurance that I would still be able to write after he arrived. One of the things that really didn’t allay my concerns was the suggestion that I should give up writing for the first 6 months of KRH’s life. I can’t afford to give up that much of my writing career, I though, and I definitely can’t afford to do it more than once (as my wife and I still plan to have more kids). I decided to ignore that advice, and instead I thought writing through that time would make me a better writer. More diligent and disciplined.

I’m glad I did keep writing through the last six months, but I’ve accomplished a lot less than I thought I would. The hours I’ve been able to spend at the task have been dramatically declining. March was one of the worst months I’ve had, time-wise, since I started keeping track of my hours written. I find it tougher to focus now, and the time I had for myself to write (after I got home from work) is now the only time I have to spend with KRH. That isn’t to say that I’ve accomplished nothing, as I pumped out the first draft of a novel and I’m halfway through a second draft, but I’ve underwhelmed my expectations.

In those six months, I’ve learned a lot. What worked before (writing after work, long afternoons in coffee shops, time to myself for rest and recovery) isn’t the same now. So I need to find different things that will work. I need to learn to refocus and concentrate better than I used to. I need to be able to write on less sleep than I used to enjoy. In short, not at all how I thought this time would go.

I struggle with that a lot. I had a plan for how I wanted these months to be, and instead things have been totally different. I don’t think I understood, in some ways, just how my life was going to change. I’m still not sure I do.

I don’t intend to give up writing. I’m not happy unless I’m chasing this dream. But I think I am going to have to accept spending less time with it than I wanted. I am going to have to adjust my expectations on myself, at least as long as my wife and I have young children. That doesn’t mean give up, but it does mean to adapt and persevere in ways I haven’t had to before. So that’s what I’m going to have to keep doing. But then, isn’t that what we do our whole lives? Yes, this circumstance is difficult, but it will make me better. I think I have to rely on that and have faith in myself.

Like scar tissue

So lately some of my favourite writers have been over on Reddit, dispensing advice and answering questions. At the time, I was struggling with confidence, so I asked Kameron Hurley and Brandon Sanderson the same thing, “how do you develop toughness as a writer?” You can read their answers at the respective blog posts, but they said pretty similar things. You can control the process, not the goal of publication, so do what you want to do.

Chuck Wendig is the writer who, for me, most personifies Dad and Writer. I’ve been following his stories about his son bdub for years, now. So naturally, when he appeared like a swarm of bees on Reddit, I asked him the same question. Here’s what he had to say.

Man, I dunno, it’s like scar tissue. You can’t build up scar tissue without submitting yourself to the slings and arrows of it — you gotta take the hits, you gotta be willing to suck, gotta be willing to take the rejections right on the chin and let it rattle your teeth. In terms of pushing past the bullshit of the world, well, I’ll admit, all the Heinous Fuckery going on in the world makes it hard, but you also have to realize that stories matter. Escapist stories matter. Resonant stories matter. All stories matter, so be a part of that. Commit and contribute. Turn off the news. Turn off social media. Commune with the work and tell the world to fuck off for a little while.

Stories matter. Do the work. As with the past advice I’ve been getting, this was important for me when I received it. I’ve been trapped in a bit of a funk for some time, probably since KRH was born. Not only does the world feel like it’s hurtling toward chaos, I’ve struggled both with the fact that I can’t spend as much time pursing my goal of publication as I used to, and with feeling stuck, like my new project has an uncertain future and that I’m not sure how to take it where it needs to be. I’ve been starting to emerge from than funk lately. This is a good reminder that what I’m trying to do matters. Writing is important. My writing is important. I needed that.

Meanwhile, I also asked Wendig about writing as a Dad. His thoughts.

Well, in some ways it’s easy, because being a writer isn’t like being at a 9-to-5 job — I can come in, make breakfast, make lunch, still be a part of his life and then go fuck off to Imagination Unicorn Karate Land for as long as I need to.

But here’s a few tricks:

a) write early in the morning, before Tiny Human awakens b) forgive yourself and the kid — it doesn’t really start to get easier until they’re 2-3 years old c) it’ll get much easier when they go to school, too d) carve out little pockets of writing time whenever you can

In some ways, it’s a little tough to keep in mind that things won’t get easier. KRH is just 5 months old. 2-3 years old seems like a long way away, and if my wife and I have more children, as is the plan, then it just starts the plan all over again. That feeds into my fears that I’m missing my window, so to speak. But Wendig reminds me that it can be done, (even if I don’t have a magical writing shed). That’s the sort of thing I’m focusing on going forward.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
42% Complete
37,836 of 90,000 words

Write like you’re on vacation

My wife and I are lucky enough to get to vacation once a year. This year’s destination was Cancun, Mexico. Previous vacations have been pretty good; a lot of time writing, some sun, some good food, a few drinks. Paradise for me.

This is exactly how I pictured my time in Mexico. In fact, I took this picture on the last day while rushing to get ready to go to the airport.

When I have time off work, I like to work. No, really. For me, a vacation is an opportunity to spend time doing things I really enjoy, even if that thing is writing really hard. I see vacations as an opportunity to really get some thing accomplished.

Or, I used to. Christmas, when I intended to make a big end-of-year push to get some work done, turned out to be anything but when the whole family got sick, I was worn out, and it was KRH’s first festive season. But this vacation would be different, I told myself. KRH was 5 months old, not 3. We were going with my wife’s parents, who would babysit! I would get up early before everyone did, so I could get my words in and still spend lots of time with my family.

You can probably guess how that went, huh?

It’s not to say I didn’t get anything done. But we arrived in Cancun already exhausted, because preparing for the first vacation was a lot more work than we expected. The plane trip was good and KRH turned out to be an excellent traveller, but it was still a long day and trip. And between the heat, the new experiences, and us adapting to a vacation schedule with a baby, it turns out I actually got very little accomplished at all.

He is both an exceptionally good and an exceptionally cute traveller.

It wasn’t exactly for lack of trying. I did drag myself out of bed early about half the time. But it was sure tough to put finger to keyboard. And once the day got going? Good luck. There was food to eat, and swimming to do. For a nine day trip, we lost two to travel, one on a tour to Isla Mujeres, and the others sure went fast. And you know what? I don’t regret it at all.

Here’s the thing. This is probably going to be the new pattern of vacations. For a while, they’re not going to be free writing sojourns anymore. Instead, they’re going to be about spending time with KRH and his hypothetical future siblings. That’s not a thing I’ve gotten the opportunity to do enough.

NOW NOW NOW is an ethos I’ve embraced for a long time when it comes to writing. As silly as it is, I feel like my window is slipping away, or that I’m somehow missing my chance to achieve my goals. I worry I’ve already wasted too much time and that my goals are getting further away as I get older, not closer. I fear that I’m falling behind others, no matter that it’s neither a race nor a competition. So a vacation, a solid week to write, is always a treasured opportunity. And although losing that is going to be hard and I won’t stop trying to write while I’m off work, what I will do is stop thinking of them as writing priority weeks. Now, they’ll be parenting priority weeks. We need to have that sometimes, right?

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
42% Complete
37,836 of 90,000 words

The process alone was enough

A little while ago, during an AMA, I asked author Kameron Hurley about becoming tough. A few days later, Brandon Sanderson stopped in for an AMA as well. In terms of both craft and persistence (he wrote a lot of books before he got published), Sanderson is the writer I want to be like the most. I asked him much the same question. “How did you develop the toughness to keep at your craft, when I’m sure there must have been times you despaired about ever being published?” I didn’t get an immediate answer and figured my question had already been answered, so I didn’t lose any sleep over not getting it answered.

However, kudos to Brandon, about 25 days later he got to my question. Here’s his reply.

I’ve told this story before, but the biggest moment for me came right before I wrote The Way of Kings. I was unpublished, with a dozen (as you’ve mentioned) books under my belt–books nobody in the business seemed to want to buy.

The decision to go was very personal. It was an acknowledgement that the process alone was enough for me. I wanted publication, I wanted to do this as a living, but even if I never obtained that, I loved the writing process enough to keep going.

I wrote, and write, primarily for myself. I realize this is cold comfort when I’m able to make a living, and you haven’t yet reached that point. However, my decision was this: If I reached the end of my life with seventy unpublished manuscripts, that would be a better life lived than if I’d stopped writing.

Just like I needed that last reply, I also needed this one. I’ve been slogging on a book that is probably, at my current pace, 10-12 months away. I’m really unhappy with that speed, but I’m not certain how to improve on it with the time available to me with KRH around. I’m also continuing to get a trickle of query rejections (when I even receive those). So a reminder as to why I do this is timely. A life spent in the pursuit of publication is a life I prefer one one where I don’t even try. A life telling stories isn’t a bad one, even if I’m my only audience.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
36% Complete
32,746 of 90,000 words

Growth

There are a few kinds of growth. One is the kind KRH is enjoying. He’s still gaining weight and, according to his doctor, is in the 90th percentile for babies his age. That’s pretty good! He is now immensely chubby compared to when he first joined us, but that’s good. Babies are supposed to be chubby. Both my wife and I have, at various times, had awfully sore shoulders, backs and necks from carrying him. He’s also on the cusp of rolling over, and can usually be relied on to wiggle around out of anywhere you leave him. He’s growing and I couldn’t be happier about that.

A different kind of growth is the progression of skills. That’s the kind of growth I’m not feeling lately. Now, not all of writing is about growth. But I think the act of writing each book or project should teach me something and provide an opportunity to advance my skills.

The problem lately, I feel like, isn’t a lack of growth. It’s a lack of grit. And sure, this is the same thing I’ve been struggling with all through February. Consistency is a big problem, and its impacting most things i’m doing. I’m not going to the gym as regularly as I was. I’m not making a regular time to write. And while I’m not making no progress, I’m clearly suffering from it.

James Clear recently wrote about grit, which I think is the thing I’m currently lacking. And rather than merely relying on willpower, he suggests the best way to build it is through consistency and habit. So March is going to be about establishing habits.

As it turns out, there’s one thing I can do to get most of my goals on track. Reliably get up in the morning to write. It works for a couple of reasons. If I hustle, I can get in an hour of writing. If I consistency get up at the right time, eventually my bed time will shift earlier (because I’ve been going to bed and lying there awake because I’m not tired). I write on the treadmill, so that gets me some activity as well. My days run better with these things done early.

What’s likely to get in the way of this habit? Short nights where I don’t sleep much have been the biggest problem so far. I’m going to try and focus on ways to keep myself out of bed after my alarm goes off, like moving my phone farther away from bed (so I don’t grab it and go back). We’ll see if that helps.

In the last week, I made some fair progress on Cloudbreakers. There’s a bit of a pause midway through the first act, so I have some work to do to iron that out. Also, I’m pretty far behind where I wanted to be by the end of February, so without some progress on that I’m going to fall behind my goals for the year. That’s not the end of the year, but it’s my goal to get this book done, so I gotta get on with it.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
22% Complete
19,557 of 90,000 words

When the going gets tough, the not-so-tough have to keep going too

I’m not sure I would ever really describe myself as tough. Toughness to me brings to mind the hardworking and determined. When I think of a tough writer, I think of someone who can take criticism or laugh off a bad review. I think of someone who can take a setback as a challenge, with a gleam of “I’ll show you” in their eye. I think of someone who can go to bed at midnight after a night of writing and get up at four to start again. Toughness, for me, implies a resilience that feels superhuman. I don’t have that.

Nor would I call myself particularly talented. But I decided long ago that talent is something we create, rather than something we’re born with. A talented writer is merely one who has worked really hard. Who is tough, so to speak.

I think writing is a business that requires toughness. Fight for what you want. Make the sacrifices. Outwork everyone. Do better. Be better. That’s how you find success. The writers I look up are the ones who tend to embody these traits. All of them talk about how difficult this business so. Finish your shit. Do the work.

February has been a tough month. My mental state has been so-so. Work is challenging. Life at home with my 4-month old is good, but also challenging. Writing is challenging because when is it not? And my work has suffered.

If I was tough, my thinking goes, I wouldn’t struggle with this. I’d do my work, even when I had a bad day at the office. I’d do the work, even when KRH won’t go to sleep and stay up late to cry. I’d do the work despite whatever awful crap is going on in the world.

That doesn’t mean I’m not doing any work. But I’m not doing as much as I want (as if that were even possible). But often, I find myself feeling like I should be tougher in the face of these things. Isn’t that how I’ll find success? By outworking other writers? By doing the work harder, longer, better, than they do? How else can I compete?

I don’t have a good answer to this. And I feel like, more than ever, I should be tougher than I am. What I have, I suppose, is persistence. I’ve had a lot of friends who have given up on writing. I know others who have lives, children and families and jobs, that don’t allow them time for writing. And they make the right choices for themselves, and those choices often don’t involve pursuing writing. But I refuse to give up on my goal. No matter how discouraged I may feel, or how difficult my life may feel, or how far away from that goal I am, I won’t give up. Is that enough? I don’t think so. But it’s what I have, so I’m working with it and it will have to do.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
14% Complete
12,357 of 90,000 words

Advice

February has been a challenging month. We are sleep training KRH, (basically, teaching him to go back to sleep on his own), which is both exhausting in that the method we’re using (The Sleepeasy Solution) requires KRH to do some crying, and for us to be up frequently to reassure him that we haven’t abandoned him. It’s been going fairly well and we’ve achieved a regular bed time and naps, but it was pretty tough on both my wife and myself. On top of that, the last few weeks have been rough at my work and challenging as my wife and I still try and rebuild our house.

So, when Kameron Hurley, one of my favourite dispensers of writing advice, stopped into Reddit for an AMA I asked her the following.

“How do I become tough? How do I get to the point where my writing attitude is “Do my fucking work and fuck the rest?” How to I cultivate that resilience so that even when things aren’t good, when I sit down at my desk to write, I write?”

Here was her answer.

“Here’s the thing. We’re all going to die one day. Could be an hour from now or a decade from now. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow. When I need motivation, I ask myself what it is that I’d like to have been doing in the days or moments before I died, and honestly, if I could die knowing I gave everything I could to achieving my goals, then great. I’d die happy. You have kids, which does make it harder; you want to have a balance, because on your death bed, you don’t want regrets about that either. Most writers with dayjobs and kids get up really, really early. I get up at 5:30 in the morning, no later than 6am if I’m feeling sullen. I get a lot of admin stuff and blog posts and such done first thing. It may turn out that you need to get up at 5am, or 4:30 am. And when I am like, “Arg, this sucks!” I imagine being on my death bed, not having done all I could to achieve what I wanted, and I think, wow, that would be way worse than getting up at 5am, and I get up.”

In some ways, this advice was about the physical how, rather than the mental how, but at the same time I took it to heart. I hadn’t been getting enough done in the evenings. So I’m moving my bed time earlier, and also moving my wake-up time earlier. So far, it’s working, perhaps because it coincides with us getting KRH to bed far earlier. I don’t know if my bed time is sustainable, but whatever I have to do to carve out time to write without taking time from my family, I’ll do it. But it’s also advice about the motivation behind the writing. I think I needed that as well.

In the mean time, I’ve started rewriting Cloudbreakers.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
7% Complete
6,354 of 90,000 words

Writing through

I don’t think it requires any great leap to say that a lot of creatives are struggling with the ongoing torrent of news. If you lean progressive (as I do), you can find something in the ongoing shittorrent of current events to concern and terrify you. The shooting in Quebec,  a potential constitutional crisis in the United States, whatever. By the time I post this article, I’m sure something new and worse will have happened. As if KRH and having tossed a hand grenade into my relationship wasn’t enough, it’s impossible to so much as glance at social media or the news without hearing about something terrible.

Not long ago, Chuck Wendig offered the advice “Write despite.” And that’s good advice. But the journey for each person to actually getting shit done when the world feels like it’s falling apart is probably going to be a bit different. Here’s how I do it.

Take the time I need. I want to be a writer, and that means writing even when writing isn’t hard or fun. That means meeting deadlines and pushing myself. It means trying, failing, learning and getting better. In short, writing is a career, even if I’m not currently making my living as a writer. But there has to be a balance in my life. And that means doing more than just writing for 8 hours after I get home at night. Sometimes, there’s value in turning off my brain with a video game (Rimworld is my current obsession.)  Or a movie or a book. Or a night with friends. All these things are important to keep myself sane, and also to refuel my creative engine. Some days, I won’t do these things at all. And some days (bad ones) all I can do is refuel and prepare for tomorrow. And that’s fine, so long as tomorrow I write.

Take care of myself. It isn’t enough to just take mental time for myself. I have to take care of my body, too. Although I might occasionally stay up late to hit a deadline, for me sacrificing sleep to write is a losing battle that makes me feel worse and doesn’t help me write better. Sacrificing time from the gym is the same story. Also important is taking the time to cook and eat properly, both to keep my wife fed and because I do best when I fuel myself properly. All seems basic, but it’s easy to forget sometimes.

Stay aware and engaged, but not too aware and engaged. The internet is a seething mass of terror sometimes. I browse social media and such during the day. But when it’s time to write, if I have my internet connection open or my phone out, I can browse twitter all day rather than actually putting my fingers to keyboard. That’s a great way to waste the time I have, so I need to use programs like Anti-Social or just plain put my phone out of reach and write.

Remember why I do this. Why do I write? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to give up on the remote dream of publication, let alone the near-impossibility of writing full time? Wouldn’t my time be better spent with KRH, my wife, my friends and family? Wouldn’t I feel better if I spent more time at the gym, sleeping and playing games? Wouldn’t I spare myself stressing over word choice, story progress, querying agents and writing the best damn books I can? Maybe, but one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m not happy unless I’m writing.

I have a need to tell stories. I want to think those stories matter. I want to think that I can use my passion to make the world a better place for my son, my friends and family. I want to think that people who I don’t know might someday read my stories and have them mean something. Even if I wasn’t chasing publication, I think I would still be telling stories. In part, that’s why I made this blog. It would be far easier to just give this writing thing up for 6 months or so until KRH was older, or until he was in school, or a teenager, or out of the house. But I can’t. So I write because I want to and because I need to.

In other news, I finished my first edit. Now I’m making notes and identifying things I need to fix in a printed copy of the draft. After that, I’ll go back to my notes, re-snowflake, make note of consistency details, write a stylesheet and things like that. Afterwards, I start work on the second draft, a total rewrite.

Progress

Cloudbreakers
100% Complete
416 of 416 pages