Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You (debut novel, forthcoming spring 2014, Penguin Press)
Age of kids: one son, 2 ¾ years old
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
Before I had kids, I wrote the way lions eat: not at all for days or sometimes weeks at a time, then in 6- or 8-hour binges that lasted long into the night. Each morning I would read over what I’d last written and then read books and blogs, eavesdrop in coffee shops, stalk people on Facebook—you know, research. Late at night, I would lie awake thinking about my characters and the plot problems I was currently facing. This pattern would go on until eventually insight struck—usually in the wee small hours—and I’d tiptoe into the bathroom so as not to wake my husband, scribble some notes on scrap paper, and head back to bed. Then I’d get up in the morning and write and write and write until I hit another wall. Repeat.
Once my son was born, of course, that kind of schedule was no longer possible. Now I don’t have the luxury of waiting to get “inspired”—and I don’t think there’s a parent alive who gets 6 uninterrupted hours to do anything! These days, my schedule is much more regimented; it has to be. When my son is at preschool, I have to work because it’s the only time I have: I can’t stay up late anymore because I’ll be exhausted the next morning, and exhaustion plus toddler is a recipe for disaster. So I try to remind myself that I’m paying for work time, and that helps me get (a little more) focused. After a lot of experimenting, this is the current working system:
At 8:30 my husband takes my son to preschool, and I get a cup of tea and am sitting at my computer by 8:35. I answer whatever emails are pressing, maybe send a tweet or two, and then get to work. Usually half the battle is just getting myself to look at the story again, so I’ve set up my computer to open the current file automatically when it boots up—when it’s right there in front of me, it’s easier to get started. To further trick myself into working, I tell myself I just have to read the story over, and usually by the time I’m a few pages in, I’m going, “Hm, okay, I can make that better” or “Oh yeah, I remember where I was going with that” or “Oooh, I know what happens next!” Or sometimes, it’s “Okay, that HAS to go”—trimming off deadwood and other bad writing is work, too.
I work until 11:40, save what I’m doing, and pick up my son at 11:45, and we have lunch. He doesn’t nap any more, but he rests in his room for an hour or two while I respond to emails or read (because reading is also work, for a writer). Then once my son gets up, I’m done working for the day. If I have to finish something, I sometimes write a bit more after we’ve had dinner and put our son to bed, but usually I just hang out with my husband. I think that downtime is important, both for writing—you need give your brain some fallow time—and for your relationships.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
This has been one of the things I struggle with most. It’s really, really hard to step away from the story or the scene that you’re immersed in. When I used to write for 6 or 8 hours straight, I was a zombie when I came out of my office, my brain was so fried. I needed a good night’s sleep and some serious goofing-off time—like a couple hours watching TV or shopping online—before I could really function like a normal person again. But you can’t really do that when you’re taking care of kids, even with the most helpful and involved partner. Sometimes I wish my brain worked like my iPhone, where I can switch from one app to another, and come back to the first app and find everything just where I left it.
So this is a problem I’m still wrestling with, but some things that have helped are:
(1) Write notes to yourself. When I stop working, I write a little to-do list about what I want to do the next day, like “Finish scene at liquor store” or “Description of the house comes next.” This reassures me that it’s okay to stop working for now—I won’t lose my train of thought or that image I want to work in (or at least I’m less likely to). And plus, I won’t be starting from zero next time I come to work. This is especially helpful on Mondays, when I haven’t looked at my pages since Friday.
And that brings me to (2), which is:
(2) Think of writing as a job. Doctors treat patients all day, but when they come home, they’re off duty: they’re not rounding up their family members to take their blood pressures. The same is (mostly) true of lawyers, salespeople, practically every other profession; work stays at work, and when you come home, you’re done. It doesn’t work that way for writers and other creative artists, of course: we’re always working even when we’re not at the keyboard. But I set aside “off duty” time: when my son is home in the afternoons, in the evenings when my husband and I hang out, and on the weekends. I do my best to really write during my work time, so that I feel less bad about not writing the rest of the time. In the back of my mind I’m still always thinking about my novel or story, but I try to be present mentally, to have that little membrane dividing “work time” and “off hours.” And actually, I often come up with a lot of ideas during those “off hours”—that’s when I’m out doing things, noticing stuff, and talking to people, and sometimes that’s just what you need to get your writing going the next time you sit down to work.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
There’s that old saying that the job of the writer is to make the familiar unfamiliar, and to make the unfamiliar familiar. That’s almost a perfect description of parenting, too. For a young child, everything is unfamiliar: they’ve never heard thunder before, or eaten a tomatoes, or petted a dog, or seen a giraffe. (My son’s head whipped around the first time we went to the zoo; he was clearly thinking, “What the heck is THAT?”) Spending time with a toddler can be an amazing education for a writer; you get to see all this familiar stuff through fresh eyes as your child sees it for the first time. And, at the same time, your job as a parent is to try and explain that new world to your kid, to put things in terms they understand. I find myself saying things like, “Okay, this is a muffin, which is kind of like cake, but it also has blueberries in it,” or “A hill is like a really, really big mountain that’s made of rocks.” That’s also pretty great practice for writing: finding ways to describe the unfamiliar.
Becoming a parent has changed the subject of my work a bit, too. I’d always written about parent-child relationships in my fiction—often the moments when children realized their parents were vulnerable or flawed. I didn’t realize most of these stories were from the point of view of the child until I became a parent myself. Now I’m more aware of the flip side of that parent-child relationship, so I’m writing stories about parents who realize they are not totally adults themselves, parents who are surprised by flashes of insight and wisdom in their children—you get the idea. One of the major themes of Everything I Never Told You is the expectations parents have for their children, and the pressures children feel to be just like—or completely different from—their parents.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Right now, it’s time management. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything. I have been nagging a good friend—a geneticist—to get to work on making us some clones, and at another friend—a physicist—to work on time travel. Until they get that figured out, though, there will just always be a little less writing time, a little less downtime, and a little less sleep time than I want and need. Sometimes a lot less.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
When I had my son, my teacher Peter Ho Davies told me, “Don’t underestimate how much writing you can get done in 20 minutes.” He told me that he wrote much of his novel—which was longlisted for the Booker Prize—in 20-minute snatches while his then-infant son was napping. I’ve yet to master the 20-minute work period, but I took his larger meaning to heart: kids and writing can coexist.
There have been a lot of prescriptions lately about how many kids writers should have. If you want to be a writer, don’t have kids! Okay, you can have kids, but have only one! Try and ignore all that. If you want kids, have them. You will find a way to write. Some people have sitters for a couple hours a week, some have daycare, some take weekend writing vacations, some stay up late after the kids go to sleep, some get up early before the kids wake up, some wait until their kids are in school—and some write holding babies in their laps! A good friend of mine took turns with her husband, who also worked at home: she wrote for 15 minutes while he minded the baby, then he worked for 15 minutes while she minded the baby, back and forth, all day. I don’t know that that would work for everyone, but the point is: have faith in your writing. You will find a way to get it done.