When I was pregnant with my first baby, I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to write after he was born. I read every article I could find about writers, with kids, and gleaned that I would write when he napped (thanks, Alice Munro!). Of course, newborn naps aren’t really naps, they’re tiny pauses in the onslaught of newborn needs, and my first kiddo was not a sleeper and writing felt impossible. Well, that’s not true, I wrote anyway in the bull-headed way that I have, and then when the fog cleared and he slept and I started sleeping (ish), I read what I had been working on and it was fragmented and disjointed and generally terrible. It was terribly depressing. BUT then this shift happened, the shift everyone told me would happen, but that I didn’t quite believe in. My baby started napping solidly, on a mostly predictable schedule (and not on me, or in a stroller!), and then my time to write also became more predictable.
When I’ve done writing residencies, I wear the same clothes every day and listen to the same album and write in the exact same spot at the exact same time, and even eat the same things for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I take away all the extra decisions, so that I can live inside whatever I’m working on. I need sameness and structure, and impose a strict schedule on myself. The days of spending a month on a farm in Nebraska, or in a house in a tiny village in Burgundy seem laughably far away these days, and yet, the tricks I picked up there have served me so well while writing in the early days of motherhood.
I wear the same clothes. I always make a cup of Earl Grey tea in my favourite tea mug (not to be confused with my favourite coffee mug). I write in the same place. I put on the Department of Eagles’ In Ear Park. (I have been listening to that album while writing since 2010 and I am Pavlov’s dog and whenever I hear a song from it out in the wild, I feel I should instantly be writing).
When my second baby arrived, she took over my writing room. I was really sad about it at first, gutted even. I felt like I was giving up the final corner of myself when I replaced my desk with her crib. I loved my writing room. It’s the tiniest room in our house, with the best morning light, and it was filled with all my books and Love Lettering Project supplies, and quilts I had made. I moved my little office to the basement and it’s actually the most lovely little nook. It’s filled with all my books, my quilts, my Love Lettering Project supplies and the comfiest little couch. I have the best art hanging above my desk, a box of letters from my dearest friends, and my Amelia Earhart stamps framed and cheering me on. But it turns out, I don’t write down there. For a stretch, I was writing on the couch, but our living room is always strewn with ukuleles and Lego and dinosaurs and half-read kids’ books and balled up toilet paper “gifts” made by my son—most recently a book about Amelia’s airports. It’s too cluttered to sit and write there these days, and I refuse to waste precious naptime tidying up.
So now I write in my bedroom, in the centre of my bed. We got a king-sized bed earlier this year, an extravagance that took a long while to justify, but it is absolutely glorious and my very favourite place to be. It’s the room in the house furthest from any kid messes and our bed is a huge white fluffy island, the oak tree outside the window my dependable writing companion. I take my tea with me, open iTunes and put on Department of Eagles and write, or edit, or these days move my first person narration to third person.
I’m working on a book about Amelia Earhart. Well, kind of. It’s also about Grace, a 30-something library tech in Toronto, who is in love with Amelia and writes her letters as she navigates her way through her own life. I often look up photos of Amelia while I’m writing, typing in “Amelia Earhart hair cut” or “Amelia Earhart beach”, trying to find photos I’ve never seen of her. She breaks my heart and fills my heart, her beautiful smile, her confidence, the small cracks in her confidence.
My research is haphazard at best. I find tiny anecdotes—like how she was a social worker and helped Syrian refugees learn English, or how she loved tomato juice, or how she fell in love with flying on the edge of Lake Ontario during the CNE’s airshow, or how she called the plane that carried her across the Atlantic her “little red bus”—and hold onto them like lucky pennies, turning these tiny fragments into stories. There is so much I don’t know about her. There is so much I imagine I do.
This project is written in letters and sections of prose, and there’s something so perfect about the structure that lends itself perfectly to how I’m able to write these days of limited childcare—in short intense bursts, while the baby naps. I’m constantly amazed by how much I can get done in a short amount of time. It also helps to have my incredible writing group, The Semi-Retired Hens cheering me on and giving me feedback and asking all the right questions. Whenever I feel stuck, I think of them, writing in their own homes, trying to figure out all of the strange things required when creating entire worlds on your laptop.
Morning naps are for fiction. Afternoon naps are for grant writing (my job!) and/or non-fiction (I’m working on two books based on my community arts project, The Love Lettering Project—a non-fiction how-to guide and a kids’ book!) and evenings, after the kids go to bed are for grant writing, email sending, pitch writing, all the work-work I didn’t get to earlier in the day and all the other writing that writing requires—blog posts, newsletters, final reports, etc.
One day a week, I have both kids all day. On these days, I try to wake up early and bury myself in writing before my fella leaves for work and I have both kids all day. I used to swim in that early morning window, but realized after snapping one too many times at the kiddo to nap already that I was so desperate for them to nap so I could write, (and so of course they didn’t nap!), that I needed to do it first thing. Put my own oxygen mask on first and all of that…
Of course this is my most aspirational routine. Of course there are days the baby is teething and refuses to nap unless she is on me. There are days I am too tired to write (and I have finally stopped trying to push through those times and started giving myself a break), and then the other 24 hours a week I need to fit in my work-work which takes priority over my own projects.
Though it’s not writing-writing, I’ve also learned how essential swimming is to my writing process—it’s where I’m able to think and let my mind wander and float and drift, untangling all the things I couldn’t untangle when staring at a computer screen. I sort out nearly every problem in both my life and in my writing life while I swim and if I go for too many days without a dip, my mind starts to get all jammed up and I can’t stand to be around myself. I would love to swim every day, but it’s just too hard to fit it all in, so I aim for 4 times a week. And lately, I’ve been loving daycare pickups. I pull the kids in the wagon and they steal each other’s snacks and make jokes I don’t understand and sometimes fight, but they’re behind me, and my brain can wander.
I’ve realized recently, that the hardest part for me about having babies was losing the time, space and mental capacity to let my mind wander. But now that my kids are 3 (well, allllllllmost three-and-a-half) and 15 months, it can wander. Six weeks before the baby’s first birthday, I realized my mind could once again hold big thoughts. I could look at my novel as a whole, instead of staring at the single document I had open on my computer. It felt like all of a sudden there was a new room in my brain, a room where I can bank big thoughts, a room where I can put things in to mull over. I don’t always have time to hang out in that room, but it’s there and it is both empty and full and I’m so grateful to have gotten to a place where this room exists. So though I write in my bed, with ink stains on the sheets and smears of mid-day chocolate, when I’m not writing, I still have that new room in my mind. I love that room.
Lindsay Zier-Vogel is a Toronto-based writer, arts educator and love letterer. Her work has been published in various publications including the forthcoming edition of The Letters Page (University of Nottingham), Where The Nights are Twice as Long (Goose Lane Editions), Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers and Wild Swimmers (Frogmore Press/Pells Pool, UK), The Temz Review, The Toronto Star, The Lampeter Review, Taddle Creek. She is currently working on an epistolary novel about Amelia Earhart, titled “Letters to Amelia” and is one of three contributors to the popular swimming blog, Swimming Holes We Have Known. Her hand bound books of poetry are in the permanent collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library. Lindsay is the creator of The Love Lettering Project, an internationally acclaimed community art project that has been bringing anonymous love letters to strangers since 2004. She is currently working on two books about the project – a DIY guidebook for adults and a children’s picture book.