A couple of months ago, a friend—an artistic filmmaker—asked me: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, health and volunteering? She asked this not as a rhetorical question, but as someone who seemed truly to expect that I would have an answer for her. But the fact of the matter is, despite my having written one work of fiction and dreamed up the ideas for others amidst all those other responsibilities and activities, I have no idea. Really. It turns out that just because one has done something doesn’t mean one knows how to do it. Or at least, how to explain how to do it. Even to oneself.
I’m not sure what answer I gave her. I know I felt the need to give her some substance, some words of advice, a recipe she could hold onto and pull out whenever she does have children, a household that needs more tending, a cause for which she feels driven to volunteer, other demands on her time that take her away from her own creative work. That’s what I would have wanted had I been in her place, asking someone else. I suppose I made something up; it was probably neither eloquent nor useful nor satisfactory, although I know it was truthful. I have been to writers’ conferences in which a handful of established and successful authors have sat on a panel and fielded questions from hopeful writers, and on hearing their answers I’ve thought to myself: well, that’s not very helpful. And now I fear that, should I ever be honored enough to sit on such a panel, I will let others down in the same way. But I understand why.
It’s a question I ask myself a lot these days, and it comes in two parts. Part 1: How on Earth did I do it? And Part 2: How on Earth do I continue to do it? And now that I am no longer on the spot, that I have had some time to mull it over, I realize that the recipe is one that is unique to me. It’s a melange of my personality, my background, my circumstances. It won’t fit exactly for anyone else. There are no neat tablespoon measurements, no fixed stirring times. My ingredients:
Dogged—some might say stubborn—perseverance
The compulsion to use every shred of time toward accomplishing something
The belief that 20 minutes is enough time to accomplish something (this ingredient was given to me once I had children)
Patience (this was an ingredient I had to plant and nurture, not one I already had in my pantry)
(As you can see, none of these are particularly creative.)
I took all these things, and then I linked as many parts of my life as possible to some aspect of my creative pursuit: I take kathak dance classes (through which I get my exercise), I volunteer for the Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance, I incorporated the dance into my novel, and I enrolled my older daughter in a class that I teach. I’d like to say that this was all the result of a well-thought out plan, but no. It’s just how things happened.
The truth of the matter is, I just cram it in wherever I can, between work-related conference calls and school pick-up, during the younger one’s nap times while the older one plays with a friend, at a café while rehydrating and having some lunch after a dance practice, in the evening after tucking the little ones into bed and before their father returns from his martial arts class. As Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, said in a March 2002 interview on Writer Unboxed: “All my life I’ve been doing my work in the intervals between making a living and living my life.” (And if I could write a book half as beautiful and haunting as hers, I would feel fulfilled.)
And yet my version of cramming it in “wherever I can” pales in comparison to what I’ve read from other writers. I don’t have daily word-count goals, I don’t write at a specific time of day or week, I don’t get up an hour before the children as many writers suggest. I don’t think much about my creative projects while doing other things like shopping for groceries, I don’t compose dialogues among my characters while driving, because during those times I usually have chatterbox children with me, or I’m planning out family logistics or meals, or I just want to let my brain float. I don’t tend to work once the kids are in bed because that is my time to spend with my husband, and to catch up on other things like reading and reconnecting with friends on the phone. And honestly, I don’t always feel inspired to be creative. The pressure to produce something in a limited time can be counter-productive. Sometimes I manage to set aside a couple of hours to work on my book, and my mind is blank. But for me the key is to honor my decision and make sure I use that time for something at least related to writing. I read agent and editor blogs, I think about a blog post of my own, I daydream about ways to market my book once it’s published.
There is much room for improvement, and for increased efficiency. And so, while I’m not unhappy with my system, I am curious, and would still ask the same question of others: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, and the other demands on your time?