Lisa Unger is the award-winning New York Times and international bestselling author of 11 titles, most recently Heartbroken. Her novels have sold over 1 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 26 different languages. But more importantly, she is the mom of six-and-a-half-year-old Ocean Rae.
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
It’s hard to think of anything that hasn’t changed since Ocean Rae arrived on the scene December 25, 2005. Prior to that, there had never been anything that rivaled my desire to write. Of course, I knew I would love her. But I was not prepared for the laser beam blast of sheer adoration that changed the meaning of the word. I wasn’t prepared to only want to be with her. I used to get up at 5 and roll over to my desk and get to work. I would often write all day. Motherhood changed that.
Pregnant, I was racing her to the finish line for my sixth novel Sliver of Truth. I thought we had an arrangement. Just stay in there until I’m done, I pleaded. Then I’m all yours. Even in utero, my girl had a mind of her own. She arrived two weeks early. I finished the book in the weeks after she was born, while she slept happily beside me. Of course, those early weeks when we were both sleepy, and I was blank and blissed-out were easy. Even though I was tired, I was coasting on happy hormones, feeling tapped into life and creativity and the universe in general.
As she got older, finding balance was harder. But once upon a time, I worked a full-time job while writing. Because I used to write on the train during my commute, during my lunch hour, late at night or early in the morning, I found I was used to finding nooks in my life and making them productive. I wasn’t interested in a nanny or significant amounts of childcare (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). I had to find a way to balance both of these consuming, creative enterprises that occupied me heart, soul, and mind. My wonderful husband, Jeff, was a real partner in making that happen.
When Ocean started in the Montessori program at age two, my time started opening up a bit. This spring, she just graduated from kindergarten and will be entering first grade in the fall. And I still work around her schedule. I want to be here for her in the afternoons. And so I am disciplined about the hours I have to write. In the mommy-writer balance it’s use ‘em or lose ‘em.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
Simply put, family comes first. I work around Ocean’s schedule. That’s not always easy, especially during pub time, or in the endgame of a novel. But I figure that the work will be there. No matter how important it seems for me to be working right now, I only have Ocean for five minutes. Right now, I’m the sun and the moon; she wants to be with me more than she wants anything else. But I’m smart enough to know that she won’t always want that as much. So I cherish my time with her, and work around her schedule. I still manage to write a book a year; and for now that has to be enough.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
Ocean has made me a better writer. She has introduced me to all new levels of patience, compassion, wonder, and joy. She has changed the way I look at the world – it’s more beautiful and terrifying than ever before. She has ramped up my levels of creativity and intuition. Her questions make me think about things in a totally different way. Everything in my life is better and more interesting because she’s in it, so naturally, that makes me better at what I do.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
To get to my creative space, I have to run a gauntlet of responsibilities. I find I can’t really give myself over to my fiction until my daughter has everything she needs. So, I often feel like I’m running a mental obstacle course before I can get to work. But once I’m there, I think the challenges I face make me more able to focus. I have to be very disciplined about the hours I have to write, and I have to make sure they count. I think the biggest challenge is finding balance between what our kids need, and what we need to do creative work. Hopefully, we’re creative enough to manage it all – most days!
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
Oh, parenting advice is even trickier than writing advice. Parenting is a roller coaster; it’s the full rainbow of experience from unconditional love, to total exhaustion. The career of a writer is similar in that way, comprised of dizzying highs and crushing lows. My advice is to remember that it’s about the journey, not the destination. If you are blessed with children, and with a creative spirit, remember that you are one of the lucky ones. Even if it’s messy and complicated and not always easy, it’s a gift to have a life so full.