Curled, clinging against me, Doubt wakes me up every morning at 6 a.m. sweating. “You’re still alive,” she pants, “But you’re a failure. So fat and old and I think you might have cancer, also you’ve wasted your whole life, and you’ll never catch up, no matter how hard you think you can work. Redemption is impossible. You have ruined every opportunity.” Clearly, she’s been having nightmares. Every morning, I peel Doubt off, tuck her back into the comforter, and go downstairs to make sure my 13-year old son eats breakfast, a lunch packed, and makes it on the bus to school, and then before grabbing my waking 3-year old son, I grab my notebook, and start my morning pages, a habit I learned from “The Artist’s Way,” and can’t quite shake. About halfway through those longhand pages of brain vomit, I open up a tarot card app on my phone, look up the card for the day, and then free write until I finish three pages.
After that, my writing day gets a little haphazard…
Five out of seven days, I go to work at Starbucks around 5:00. I get home around 11:00 and the night belongs to my husband, to sharing music, videos, food, movies, and television shows.
Between the hours of 7 a.m and 4:30 p.m. some of the things I have to do include: feed the children, bathe the little one, do laundry, take out the trash, work on one or both of the magazines I edit for, look for and apply to jobs that actually have something to do with one or both of my Masters degrees, make doctor’s/ autism therapy appointments for the kids, go to those appointments, other random emails and errands, clean and vacuum the dirtiest rooms, play with/ read to the little one, make sure the big one gets his homework and chores done and make sure that he is ok, connect with other writers on Twitter, grocery shop, take the dogs out, mop the kitchen floor, get the little one down for a nap, try to take a nap myself, take a shower, get ready for work, and of course write, read, and submit work.
Once upon a time, I met Kelly Link at Vortext, a writing salon for women. We were talking about something, when found myself going on about how hard it was to find time to write, to work with the consistency, focus, and intensity I felt like I needed to. I don’t know what was actually going through her mind as she stared off into the distance, but it looked a lot like, “Excuses, excuses, excuses. Blah, blah, blah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I felt a little shamed by that look. A little chastised. Called out. Life is hard and busy and impossible for every person and every writer. Valid or not, no excuse was going to grow my writing, complete my projects, or grant me a writing career. Only working was going to do that. Only actual writing was going to do that. I was going to have to get dedicated and I was going to have to get scrappy.
For the beginning of 2019, I decided to write a professional development plan for my writing just as I would for any career. It was basically a process of coming up with big goals for the year, and breaking them up into smaller goals, all things I could control, like what projects to work on/ finish, how many submissions to get out, what residencies to apply for, how many open mics to participate in, that kind of thing. Each month I take those year goal tasks and come up with month goal tasks. Every week, I come up with weekly goals. Submit to two places. Write a blog. Read a book. Finish the first draft of a story. Then I look at my work schedule for the week and all the errands and appointments, and I assign myself some daily writing task goals. On my busier days, it might just be 30 minutes of writing. On June 1st, I started taking another stab at my novel, and my every day goal is 500 words. I give myself more tasks on days off or less busy days. I’m also working on a story collection, and write flash fiction whenever an idea or voice comes to me.
I am a planner, a to-do lister, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for things to get done. It just means I’ve thought about what I want to accomplish, so I’m not floundering when I have a minute to write. I rarely just have a minute to write. I make sure to make very realistic daily goals, only pushing when there is space in the day. Keeping the kids alive is my first priority, then comes the writing and the dishes. I have no set time. My young son is beyond rambunctious, and he gets into actually everything, and he climbs on everything, and he is wild and dangerous, and is only distracted for minutes at a time. Sometimes he watches a movie while I sneak 20 minutes at the kitchen table. Sometimes I write from the couch and he climbs on me with his 27 elbows and I hand him a notebook and pen so he can write too. Sometimes I catch a minute if he goes down for a nap without me accidentally passing out too. Sometimes my husband or sister is around to watch the kids, and I sit down at the table to write (no enclosed office) and they talk to me about politics, television, work, developments in science, etc, and I ignore them, and try not to let it slow my pace and muddle my concentration. I just find whatever time and space I can the minute my kids basic needs are satisfied and all major comfort of life threatening errands are done. I make writing my second priority. If my husband, sister, or older kid have a problem with a dirty floor, they can clean it themselves or wait for me to get around to it.
This is not ideal, but it is working. If I miss a day, I let myself know that it’s ok. Because it is ok. Because life is hard and we have to forgive ourselves when we have a hard time keeping up or when we need a rest. But I write pretty much every single day, and work is getting finished, submitted, sometimes accepted. I am getting closer and closer to my goals and dreams, 5 minutes, or 20 minutes, or a note on my phone while hanging out with my husband at night, at a time.
At the end of every writing day, I call Doubt downstairs, share a couple of cookies with her and, out loud I say, “We worked really hard today. That was a good job. I did a good job today.”
Caroljean Gavin is a writer, storyteller, sometimes poet, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with her husband, two sons, and a one-eyed Shih Tzu named Moxie. Her work has appeared in places such as Barrelhouse, The Ampersand Review, Voicemail Poems, The 2011 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology and is forthcoming from Bending Genres and The Conium Review. Currently she edits for Luna Station Quarterly and is working on a novel, and one or three story collections.