He doesn't even know how to pronounce it, but my 6 year-old son is my strongest writing advocate. Many writers who are also parents struggle with the work/life/writing balance (most of us are not full-time writers and kudos to those who are). Often, kids are seen as an obstacle to productivity. They eat your word counts. They scream through your revelatory scenes. They shove Legos into your printer. And the one time you can escape to Starbucks for a few hours, well, screw that is what they seem to say as they magically produce a 101 F fever before you can sit down with your soy latte and you have to run back home.
Pretty much since Thad was born, it's been the two of us. Which involves a lot of multitasking. One eye on the baby and one eye on dinner in the oven and one eye on the text messages coming in--wait, that's too many eyes. Hold up.
Quick back story (cue Wayne's World dream hands)...
When Thad was in preschool, I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing. I knew I wanted to write books, and I knew I needed to get better in the process and jump in and hone my craft. I applied to the only 2 low-residency programs within driving distance and crossed my fingers. They were both amazing schools with great faculty and exclusive acceptance rates. The odds were stacked against me but I didn't have any other options. I had (still have) a full-time job and a toddler, so there was no possibility of floating off to sunny California or crisp New England for a full-residency program. Small miracle: I was the last person accepted to my Queens University class in 2011, and I went on to finish my MFA in a couple of years. I produced the first third of a really bad novel, 1 whole novel that is currently in its 4th draft, and a pile of short stories. And I became a much better writer in the process. I also formed the weekday habit of rising at 5:30am to write before Thad woke up and editing/critiquing/reading after 9pm after he went to sleep. This is still my routine. And Thad holds me to it.
My son is my advocate and my coach. He is not my best friend. He is not my cheerleader. But he does support my cause (whether he knows it or not).
Here are some ways in which my kid (and kids in general, and your own kid) can be a great writing coach:
1. He tells me when to take a break.
Though I try to stick to my schedule, often I'll get stuck at my laptop. So more than once, Thad has strolled into my office, and put his hand on my hand and stopped me typing. WHAT THE HELL?! THE NERVE OF MY OFFSPRING!
But before I can get out the words, "You're grounded forever," Thaddeus gives me the smile--the one that usually says he's up to no good--and tells me to come check out his epic Transformers battle he's waging on the coffee table. And you know what? I stop typing mid-sentence, because let's face it: Optimus Prime is a hell of a lot more interesting than my current dilemma of whether I should use the word saturnine or melancholy.
(And if that's not enough reason for you, studies show you should physically take a break from your computer at least every hour or rest and re-focus your eyes every 20 minutes.)
2. He asks, "What if..."
Every so often, Thad and I like to go down to the train yards. We park the car, climb on the hood or sit on the trunk, and lean back to watch the trains passing by. They're covered in graffiti and art, and we talk about where they're going, and spell out the company names when we can see them.
One day, he asked, "What if we were on that train?"
"Like hobos?" I said.
"What's a hobo? No, I mean, we lived on it. Like a city..."
"A city." I thought about this.
"There aren't enough traveling train cities," he concluded, and folded his arms behind his head.
WRITING EPIPHANY! We drove home, and I immediately sketched out what would become my next novel.
3. He reminds me of the importance of POV.
Thad hides from me at bedtime. Every night. It drives me insane. I'm walking around like an idiot, holding dinosaur pajama pants in one hand, calling his name, and knowing he's behind the bedroom door like he was last night, and the night before that, and the night before that, since basically dinosaurs actually walked the earth.
But there was this one time when he didn't hide behind the bedroom door. I heard a laugh...it was coming from underneath his desk. "Come here with me," he said.
I got on all fours and crawled under the desk, and from there the bed looked like a mountain, and if I looked closely, Thaddeus said, I would see tiny soldiers running down the mountain toward us. We proceeded to fashion a defensive fort out of his chair and some baskets, and he didn't go to bed until like 10pm and technically that makes me a bad parent I guess but I don't really care. Because sometimes you have look at the world or a story from whole different level to fully appreciate it.
4. He regularly exercises all of my emotions.
And then there was that one time in TJ Maxx when I thought Thaddeus had been kidnapped. When you experience that kind of fear, and that feeling that you're capable of throwing anyone into a coma if they come near your kid, well...you can re-create those emotions on the page. When you're raising children, it's like a feelings buffet at your fingertips--you never know what's being served and what's going to come up next.
Frustration, disappointment, anger, giddiness, euphoria, contentment, hope, etc. All strong stuff in the moment, all good stuff you can bring to the page.
5. He has a limited amount of patience.
--What are you writing, Mom?
--Well, it's a story about these two people who can't be together and--
--There's a war happening, he cannot leave his country because of this political mandate and meanwhile, she's unhappily married to a wealthy investment banker who's been suffering from depression but won't grant her a divorce, while their eldest child, a daughter, is pursuing the latest art movement that is considered provocative... (THAD'S EYES START TO GLAZE OVER)
...and they couldn't be together anyway because, well, he has these inner demons and--
--Demons? That's awesome!
And then we go get ice cream.
6. He reminds me to serve others.
Sure I want to be happy while I'm writing. I also care about having readers and an audience. As I've said before, people who claim that they only write for themselves and that they don't mind whether anyone reads their work are a little silly. It's like building a house no one will live in.
As writers, we don't live in bubbles. We think we do...and yes, we have a lot going on in our heads. But there are people out there who need you. Not "you" the writer, "you" the whole person. Thad wouldn't survive without me. By taking care of him, and taking care of my friends, my family, and my community, I become much more aware of the shifting foundations of the human condition, what drives us at our cores, how we react when pitted against the day's challenges. By becoming more compassionate, I can identify with more than one character while writing. And by serving others, I ultimately serve the story.