“The thing is,” I pointed out, “It’s all work. This is work.”

“The thing is,” I pointed out reasonably, “I’m working even when my fingers aren’t physically pressing the keys.” I pointed helpfully at my head, trying to indicate the furious labor going on inside. “Writing is not a linear process. It’s all work. This is work.”

My argument might have been more compelling if I hadn’t been standing in my boxer shorts at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon drinking an IPA and watching the local porcupine trying to snag that last apple without falling out of the tree.

“You may be working,” Jo replied, “but I want to punch you really hard in the neck.”

It seemed like an uncharitable thing to say to a man who was hard at work writing his second novel. It seemed doubly uncharitable given that Jo is my wife, and that our division of labor – the very division that led me to be standing on the porch in my boxers in the first place – was something we had hammered out together, something we had both happily embraced.

I pointed this out. The things she said next were even less charitable.

steampunk-library-1
The problem, as it turned out, was my trying to write from home. When Jo and I moved to Vermont, newborn baby under one arm, newborn three-book deal under the other, I had a romantic notion of writing out on the deck while my infant son happily puttered about my feet. Jo, who works part-time, imagined ample opportunity to grow beets or trim roses or massage the local deer, all while our son puttered happily about under her feet. At the end of each day we would gather around a rustic table, break bread, and regale one another with the day’s adventures. The infant? He would be still happily puttering, we thought.

I had a romantic notion of writing out on the deck while my infant son happily puttered about my feet.

Funny thing: infants do not happily putter about one’s feet.

Funny thing: infants do not happily putter about one’s feet. At least, my infant did not. My infant was excellent at squirming, fairly decent at screaming and puking, and utterly remedial in the “happily puttering” category. Trying to write while watching my son was like trying to read while wrestling an octopus in the water at night. Jo was hard pressed to find time to massage a single deer. Our house was a wonderful, warm place, but very chaotic, very loud. Not an environment terribly conducive to writing.

And yet, the thing was, I still wanted to be around. Puking and screaming notwithstanding, I love my son more than I realized it was possible to love anything, and he was never going to be two months (or four months, or eight months) old again. The solution seemed clear – work from home and come downstairs to read kid books or snuggle during the writing breaks. I could get the book done, see Jo and Felix, and help out around the house more than I’d be able to if I was working in town.

This was a terrible idea. I’d start upstairs, writing happily away, until I hit a snag. This usually took one to three minutes. In another situation I’d soldier on, bang my head against the keyboard a few dozen times, and solve the problem. When I could hear my family laughing out in the yard, however, it was easy to close the laptop (for just a few minutes, mind you!), head outside, and start roughhousing in the clover. Bucolic bliss! Domestic intimacy! Momentary co-parenting!

Anyone reading closely will have paused at that last ejaculation. Momentary co-parenting, seductive as the notion might seem, is not a thing. Not only is it not a thing, the thought that it might possibly be a thing is utterly infuriating to the parent doing the lion’s share of the parenting, in this case, Jo. Seeing me playing with the baby, she’d seize the chance to do some other task: maybe something crucial to our continued survival, like calling the propane company, maybe something crucial to her continued sanity, like reading a few pages of a book. So far, so good.

The writing engine, however, never really quits – it just goes into neutral for a while. Sooner or later, while cavorting in the leaves with my son (I realize the season just changed from summer to fall. This went on for a while.) I’d have the (hopefully) brilliant idea that would solve the most recent plotting (or character, or historical) problem, leap up, start to go to my computer, then realize that I was the only parent in sight.

I’m embarrassed to say I often felt aggrieved.

This was my job. Tor had paid me to write three novels, and I needed to deliver those novels on time. And then, of course, there’s all the ancillary activity that comes with writing: tweeting, responding to tweets, blogging, doing interviews, writing guest posts, going to readings, blurbing other books, and the rest of it. I thought of myself as a person working nine-to-five six or seven days a week, even if I was working from home. These little breaks were, in my mind, the equivalent of stepping away from a desk in a cubicle to spend a few minutes chatting at the water cooler. Everyone takes breaks at work; that doesn’t mean you’re not working.

As Jo pointed out to me, however, you can usually tell when other people are working because they are at fucking work. A break at the water cooler looks different from a guy still in pajamas going sledding with his son or cracking open a beer with his wife at noon. While everyone in a traditional workplace understands what’s happening (or at least, what’s intended to happen) inside the office, the expectations inside a home are far more fluid. I felt fine – I felt happy – sliding fluidly between my three roles of writer, husband, and father. Jo, however, felt baffled.

“It’s impossible to tell,” she protested, “if you’re working, or hanging out, or playing. I don’t know when you’re done for the day or planning to keep writing all night. You might come down and play with Felix for two minutes or an hour, and it’s not fair to expect me to know.”

And she was, as she usually is, right.

“You may be working,” Jo replied, “but I want to punch you really hard in the neck.”

I believe as firmly now as I did then that the creative process is non-linear. I usually have my best ideas when I finally slam the computer shut and go for a run. Which, of course, leads me scurrying back to my computer to type furiously for an hour. From inside the walls of my own head, it makes perfect sense, but from the outside, from where my wife is sitting, it looks like selfish insanity: We’re chatting. I’m playing with the baby. I HAVE TO GO RIGHT NOW THIS VERY SECOND I HAVE A GREAT IDEA. It is a process built for one.

The solution, as most good solutions are, has been simple: I go away to write. I spend a lot of my time in the public library in town. I also drink what is probably an unhealthy volume of coffee at our local coffee shop. There is just one rule that Jo and I have agreed upon: writing happens somewhere else.

Our rule has been crucial in keeping me from getting punched in the neck, but it’s been tremendously valuable to me in other ways. The great thing about writing, as a profession, is that you can do it anywhere, anytime. The awful thing about writing, as a profession, is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, which means that I, at least, am always tempted to be working, to be writing. When I was single, this didn’t matter. Writing was probably a better use of my time than trying to beat Elder Scrolls III using only pillows as weapons.

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

Buy The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley: Book/eBook

Now that I have a family, however, the order of priorities is all topsy-turvy. I love writing, I am contractually obligated to write, and it’s the main source of our income. And yet most days, it’s very, very hard to pull myself away from my son and my wife, to go to the library when they’re cooking pancakes, or going to the farm, or just reading books on the couch. Without a clear line of demarcation between family life and writing life, I’d constantly be trying to do both at the same time, and fucking up both.

Hence the rule: I go away to write. Which is why I need to write like a banshee right now. I’m breaking the rule. I’m home. My wife is upstairs putting my son to bed, and when she comes down, I’m closing this computer, shutting off all thoughts of plot and character, and drinking a bottle of wine with the woman I love.

Written by Brian Staveley

Brian Staveley

After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades, is the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. The Providence of Fire, is due out in January and available for preorder now. Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order.

http://bstaveley.wordpress.com/     @BrianStaveley

Discussion
  • neth September 8, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Damn but I do recognize this ‘argument’ and struggle in life. And Aidan, welcome to the club because you are next. I appreciate this article for that very reason – it’s a struggle to maintain a family-work balance. Regardless of your career. And creative solutions are necessary. And spouses get angry and resentful. And (hopefully) they make up. And along the way fun is had with kids and they (hopefully) grow to be wonderful additions to the human race.

    And secondarily, I could not banish the image of a 1980s-era Chevy Chase movie where he moves to Vermont (New Hampshire?) with his wife to write the next, great American novel. Funnyfarm? Anyway, best of luck. I know these struggles well (in my own way).

  • neth September 8, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    And…can I claim bragging rights for commenting before Paul?

  • Dave Thompson September 9, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Yeah, I hear this so very loudly. It’s a different set of issues that what I deal with – trying to write on top of a marriage/family as well as a dayjob – but the conflict is all the same! Glad you found a solution that’s working for your family, Brian :)

  • Aidan Moher September 9, 2014 at 8:36 am

    @Neth — It’s not a coincidence that I asked Brian to write this essay just a few weeks before my first child is due. ;)

    @Dave — Like you, I’ve got a full-time day job, a blog to edit/write, and a child on the way. Fiction’s tough to fit in already, and I’m still an amateur juggler, so the next few months/years will be… interesting. I’m looking forward to figuring it all out!

  • Me September 9, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Try it while being a) the main at home parent b) combining that with working part time and c) doing a correspondence degree. :D It’s tough *whatever* your arrangements. Especially with the first (cos you get all guilty if no one is giving them ALL THE ATTENTION. They can live without, after a certain age. In fact it can be good for them to realise the world does not revolve around them. Newborn is of course a different matter — and *everyone’s* lives get turned upside down. Once they are in a sleep pattern though…)

    More lately I’ve been working a 65 hour week at a different job. With 3 deadlines.

    And the busier I am, the more work I get done

    When the kids were small I wrote while they slept. It was the only way. Now they stay up later than I do but at least we can negotiate what is “do not talk to me” time

    the trick is not to let the fact that someone else *seems* to be having a better time distract you. Your kid needs a bit of structure in his/her life. So do you. You are old enough to abide by it.

    As for: I HAVE TO GO RIGHT NOW THIS VERY SECOND I HAVE A GREAT IDEA.

    This is what notebooks are for (excuse me a second I just need to write this down). Later, train your kids to help you see interesting details when you go places. Then you write those down too….

    It’s tough

    But so is working as a doctor and rasiing kids

    Or being a stay at home mum

    Or doing *anything* with young children

  • Courtney Schafer September 9, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Great article, Brian. When I got a book deal not long after my son was born (and he, too, was not a happy puttering baby…more like a 24/7 screaming baby), I can honestly say that book deal became the source of the worst fights my husband and I have ever had. Both of us were shambling, stressed-out zombies (the screaming! It never stopped!), which did not help our tolerance and tempers. My husband rightfully pointed out that when we’d decided to have a kid, I had said nothing about taking on a second job with the effective hours of a start-up company. I was working part time at my engineering job, home with our son the rest, and my only hope of finishing my 2nd book in time for deadline was to write every spare second I wasn’t parenting or day jobbing. Which meant my husband never got to spend time with me, plus he had to do lots of solo parenting on weekends while I locked myself in the computer room for something that was supposed to be a hobby. (I’m not one of those people who’s ever had aspirations of a full-time career as an author.) So, yeah. Not a recipe for a happy marriage. We worked it out, like you and your wife did (it helped when my son finally grew out of his horrendous babyhood and became a happily energetic preschooler). Both of us had to give – my husband had to accept the writing was important to me, and I had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up the “book a year” schedule. There’s only so much time in the day, and if my marriage was truly important to me (which it is!), then I needed to spend some of that time with my spouse, and not glued to the computer. I think every couple goes through an adjustment after the birth of a child, and everybody’s got to find their own balance. It’s not always an easy process, but it’s worth the effort.

  • Tammy Gibaud September 10, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Punch you in the neck. I like your wife already. I would love to see something she writes too. I know she has a few novels rolling around in her head, but hasn’t found the time to put them on paper, or the computer.

  • Aidan Moher September 10, 2014 at 5:31 am

    @Tammy — It’s not fiction, but you might want to keep an eye on A Dribble of Ink next Monday if you’re interested in Jo’s writing. ;)

  • Jennifer Austin September 10, 2014 at 6:14 am

    This sounds so familiar. Except I’m doing your wife’s job and your job! I have set aside nap time for kiddos to write, but it wasn’t enough. Now twins go to daycare two days a week. It helps, the writing and the sanity, but the laundry, dishes, etc. are always there. And no one else is going to do it. Since my writing doesn’t technically pay yet, I’m stuck with this situation. Hubby is the bread winner. And he does come home and help with kiddos as soon as he walks in the door. There’s no beer drinking in the recliner for him. :) But the whole thing can be frustrating. I loved what you said about shutting the laptop at night and just spending time with your wife. That’s really what I need to do, but since every second is about creating this career from scratch, well, I’m not so good about just spending time with Hubby. Here’s to improvement!

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  • Anna September 19, 2014 at 1:57 am

    I just loved this! I’m an editor, not a writer, but I completely understand that work/baby balance. I’ve always enjoyed working from home precisely because, when I need to take a break, I can do something useful instead of just wandering to the office kitchen to make yet another cup of tea. But it’s so much easier to be away from home, putting in your hours, so you can tick that item off your day’s to-do list (‘work — check!’). Everybody knows you’ve been working — what else would you be doing while sitting at your desk? Luckily, my baby is pretty good at puttering, so I can get a certain number of tasks done while she amuses herself throughout the day. The hard part is when I’m counting on a nap to fit in some sustained concentration — and then she wakes up early!

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