Writing…with children

I want to be a novelist. I want to see my books on the shelves of bookstores. I want to talk to people about the stories that are in my head. And I want to do that as my job. That is the dream. It’s a lofty dream. And it’s all the more complicated because I am a writer…with children.

Kids make everything messier.

Leaving the house is infinitely harder and requires complex terrorist negotiations.

Eating a meal is fraught with flying food and temper tantrums about broccoli touching potatoes.

Going to sleep is a perilous activity that can be interrupted at any time by puking, screaming, or banal updates, such as, “I woke up.”

Even simply moving around your house is now an obstacle course with hard plastic or pointy wooden toys ready to stab you at any moment.

Kids make everything messier.

Me trying to be a writer is no different. Writing my book has taken me almost 5 years so far. And while great novels often take a heap of time, mine is taking so long because of children. Children being born. Children not sleeping. Children not stopping. All the children all the time.

If I could sit down and write my novel in larger chunks of consistent time, I feel like it would be more cohesive (I’m dreading reading it all at once…all in a row…oh, the horror) and that it would probably be DONE by now. Or at the very least, in a third or fourth draft phase.

My book is being written, though, and I feel it’s because I’ve come to accept that writing with children comes with its own set of rules. Here they are (as I know them):

1. Be prepared to write at any time. 

I write at night after the babies go to bed. I write first thing in the morning when I can convince myself that writing is more important, more dear, than a couple more hours of sleep. I write in the morning, when Isaac and Lillian are still getting along. I write during nap time under Lillian while she watches a movie during her quiet time, until I ultimately fall asleep because I’ve stopped moving. One piece of advice that is given to writers is to set up a routine, to write at the same time every day, but when you’re writing with children that golden writing time is a moving target…and you’ve got to hit it when you can and nap when you can’t.

In the morning, when everyone is still in pyjamas.

In the morning, when everyone is still in pyjamas.

2. Be prepared to be joined. 

There is nothing my babies love more than to join me in writing. When I pull out my computer, they also want to pull out their toy laptops. When I’m writing by hand in my fancy journal to plot out my book, they also must have fancy journals. And when I’m editing my paper copy of my written words in my binder, they also want to write and print and colour in a binder as well. I make sure that whichever way I’m writing at the time, they also can join me…otherwise, they might try to join me in other ways…

Isaac...helping...

Isaac…helping…

Lillian sharing her writing with me.

Lillian sharing her writing with me.

Sophie and her masterpiece.

Sophie and her masterpiece.

3. Be prepared to be interrupted. 

Life doesn’t stop just because you need to finish a thought, follow through an idea, or wrap up a section. Children don’t look at you and see you sitting and quiet and pensive and decide, “I’m not going to bug her. She looks busy.” They think the opposite, in fact. They see you there, with your super exciting looking pens and paper, with your coffee that might still be hot, with your eyes closed, maybe, so you can drown out the outside stimulation and focus on the voices in your head, and they say, “This is our moment. This is the time to sit on her, lick her, ask her to help me with my craft, my game, the voices in my head.”

Isaac helping me write this blog post...on my lap...with his blanket.

Isaac helping me write this blog post…on my lap…with his blanket.

4. Be prepared for your solo writing to be a compilation. 

When I was in my writing class, we were tasked with providing critiques of the other writers’ work. I would often have to hand back copies of their stories with Sophie’s scrawls all over them, because she wanted to help. Everyone was lovely and said it made the critiques more charming…but in truth, I wonder how many authors would put up with that kind of nonsense. In my fancy novel-planning journal, you will find crayon, marker, pen, pencil and stickers, all from each of my children. And I like to think of it anthropologically, that when my biographer goes through my notes, or when my planning goes viral, like Ms. Rowling’s, they’ll see that I was writing with children. And that that is not for the faint of heart.

Stickers from Sophie...to help make my book look beautiful. Success.

Stickers from Sophie…to help make my book look beautiful. Success.

5. Be prepared for all the rules to get tossed out the window. 

If there’s one thing I know about child-raising, it’s that the rules change, sometimes moment to moment. I’ve had to come to terms with this in my own writing life, and it’s been a hard pill to swallow. I have all of these ideas and all of these words and the characters are screaming and want to be let out, but they can’t because I am a full-time mom, both in work and at home. It’s what I do. And that means that sometimes I’ll get to write on consecutive days. And other times I won’t be able to write for weeks, or even months. That sometimes I’ll nail writing in my scriptorium that Ben built for me in our laundry room and others I’ll be at the dining room table. That some days I’ll have energy and creative fire, and others I’ll want to nap with my free time. It’s the way of parenting, it’s the way of life with children, and it’s the way of writing. Sometimes things go exactly as planned. And others are so far from any plan you wonder if you’ll ever get back on track. At the end of the day, though, I’m a writer. And whether it takes me 5 years or 10 years to finish my book, I will. Because how else will I ever shut the voices in my head up?

~ Julia

Roses

A while ago I posted about entering a short story contest. I meticulously read over the rules and discovered that if I shared my story here, online, I would be eliminating my chance at winning. So I didn’t. And today I got confirmation that I didn’t make the longlist. Boo.

In better news, I can TOTALLY post my story here now. 🙂 Thanks for reading it. Thanks for reading our blog. And thanks for putting up with this navel-gazing post. Happy Friday!



Roses

A short story by Julia Mills

Taken by our talented Andreah

Taken by our talented Andreah

Grace walked away from downtown, taking the sidewalk around the bend in the road out to where country touched the edge of the village. She looked into the windows of houses she passed, noting empty dining room tables, bowed heads of women washing dishes, a foursome playing cards, and a thin old man sitting reading under a light as if he were an exhibit.

She stopped at the last and grandest house on the street. Large and sided with white, the house had black shutters and a wraparound porch bordered by rose bushes and precisely trimmed shrubbery. Two rocking chairs and a child’s tricycle sat on the porch. Some of the large windows were lit and some were dark, but with no obvious pattern. The house belonged to Mr. Frank Hunt, the sole lawyer in town, and his wife, Muriel, president of The Horticultural Society.

Grace had stolen away here a few times before, always after dinner had been cleared away, needing to escape Robert’s two-year old demands, John’s silence as he worked at the dining room table, and the one that was missing, her dead baby, Alice. On those other visits, she had clipped a few of the prize-winning roses to bring home, but it hadn’t seemed to make a difference. They were beautiful, adorning her mantle, her nightstand, and the bathroom counter, but they weren’t enough. Grace wanted one more bouquet, large enough to fill the centre of her dining room table.

She walked to the side of the house where she had left her gardening shears, and made her way to the first bush. It looked like the roses were on fire, a burnt red orange. The shears made quick, clean work of clipping the blooms; the first time she had come she didn’t have her shears, just her hands, and she had to twist and break each stem. Grace clipped a half dozen of the orange roses, dropping them to the ground as she went. She’d gather them all afterwards. Best to keep her hands free to cut now.

Next was a bush heavy with red blooms, their deep blood heads droopy with the weight of their petals and fragrance. It reminded her of the colour of her underwear when they were first trying to have a baby, making love and holding their breath every four weeks, hoping that it would take, that this time was the time.

She clipped all of the blooms off of the bush. When the ground was covered, she moved onto the next, a bush of creamy yellow roses. Grace touched some of the petals, wondering if they were as soft and smooth as they looked. They were. Like Alice’s cheek. Her rosy, beautiful cheek. And then her cold cheek. Blue and empty. Who knew babies could just die in their sleep?

Grace clipped the bush until there was nothing but stubs left and a carpet of yolk and green on the ground. She was breathing hard. She moved onto the next bush. Then the next. Then the next. The sound of rhythmic clipping and rustling filled the back yard, as roses landed on grass.

Then.

“Grace?”

She paused.

“What are you doing?”

She turned.

Mrs. Muriel Hunt was making her way down the steps and into the backyard towards her.

“Grace!” Muriel’s voice was loud and had something sharp in it. Hysteria. Muriel stared at the ground, at Grace’s feet, behind Grace, at her yard. “What are you doing?”

The shears hung in her hand. Then they fell to the ground.

“You are going to pay for this.”

Grace was silent. What was she doing?

“You stay right there.” Muriel turned and ran up the stairs and into the house, leaving the door open, screaming, “Frank!”

Grace sat down on the grass. What was she doing?

“She’s crazy. She’s cut down all of our roses. You better do something about this. The damage is unbelievable. You are going to sue. I’ll have to start all over again. Years of work—”

“Muriel.” Frank knelt down in front of Grace.

“Grace? Are you okay?”

Grace looked at Frank. He’d only ever called her Mrs. Whittier. In town. At church. She used to be Mrs. Whittier. Now she’s Grace. Crazy Grace.

She started to cry, resting her head in her hands, elbows digging into her thighs.

“Grace.” Frank lifted her up and carried her into the house, putting her down on a couch and wrapping a blanket around her. She was still crying.

“I’m going to call your husband.”

Receding footsteps and voices.

“She’s ruined everything. Everything. What are you going to do?”

“Muriel.”

“I want you to do something!”

“Her daughter died.”

Grace lay down on the couch, pulling the blanket over her head, hiding with her warm breath. What was she doing?

Then.

“Grace.” John’s hands and voice.

She pulled the blanket down and looked at him. Oh, his face was so worried. And his hands. He hadn’t touched her in months. Not since she had slept through the night and let Alice die.

“Grace.” It came out like a breath, full of air and defeat. He sat beside her and pulled her to him. Her ear was against his heart.

He rocked, as if she were Robert or Alice. He rocked her like she was his child and he was the parent and he had to be in charge and she was in trouble and he would fix everything.

His voice rumbled up from his chest. “What happened?”

“Muriel found her outside.”

“Cutting down my rose bushes!”

“Muriel.”

“They’re destroyed.”

“Muriel.” Strong, stern, then, “John, I thought you should come get her and take her home.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry for whatever damage—“

“No damage.”

Then Grace remembered. She lifted her head. “Where’s Robert?”

“He’s with Sarah.” John smoothed her hair.

“Sarah? Where’s Robert?” Her own hysteria was rising in her throat.

“In the kitchen with our daughter, Sarah. I think they’re getting a snack.” Frank smiled kindly, sympathetically, pathetically.

John pulled the blanket tighter around Grace’s shoulders. “Let’s go home.”

“I’ll get Robert for you.”

“Thank you.” John stood up, pulling Grace up with him. He adjusted the blanket again, then wrapped his arm around her. Grace leaned into him. She was so tired.

They made their way to the front foyer where they were met by a sleepy Robert, eating a piece of bread and being held by Sarah, a child herself, a miniature Muriel.  

Grace reached out, touching Robert’s hair. John and Frank talked more, but she didn’t know what was said. Then they left, retracing Grace’s steps until they were home.

John left her in the bedroom so he could put Robert to bed. Grace stood there, unsure of what to do, until John came back. John took the blanket from around her shoulders and started getting her undressed.

“Robert is sleeping,” he said, as he pulled her shirt up over her head. He slid off her pants with her underwear. He went behind her and unhooked her bra.

She was naked and cold.

Then he was putting on her nightgown, up over her head, pulling her arms through and the hem down so that her bum was covered. Then he lifted her hair out of the neck and kissed her on the forehead.

It was his turn. His pants, underwear, shirt, undershirt off. His pyjamas, top and bottoms, on. He led her to bed, to her side. He pulled down the sheet and blankets she had cleaned and tucked, put her beneath them and retucked them around her.

He went around to his side and slid in, curling around her, holding her, breathing into her neck, his cold nose pressing into her hair, her bum in the curve of his pelvis.

“I’m so sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“John.”

“Listen. We’ll be okay.” He sounded like he was trying to convince her. “We’ll be okay.” Now he was convincing himself.

The sound of the dark house filled the silence.

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

She rolled over. He held her, her nose being tickled by chest hair poking out over his top, his skin and her breath combining into a damp warmth. Her arm was tucked between them, her hand on his chest. She could feel his breathing change. Quicker. More desperate.

Then she was kissing him. On the mouth. Her tongue looking for his, his finding hers. Then he was pulling her tighter.

Then her nightgown was up over her head and on the floor. His pyjamas were coming off, buttons unbuttoning, pants slipping down.

And then they were one again. Moving together again. Again. Again. Again. Again.

At last.

Then they slept, deeply, until Robert was climbing on top of them, telling them it was morning, it was time to play, it was time to wake up.

It was time.

Ringing in a new you

‘Twas the season of cookies and eggnog, rum and champagne, sleeping late and long, staying up until tomorrow, and eating whatever whenever however with whomever. It was the season of mirth and good cheer and fun and family and friends and appetizers and chocolate and shortbread and brunch. It was the season of merry and plenty. And now it’s the season of SHUT IT DOWN.

There are commercials about it, about stopping the over-indulgences and getting ‘back on track’. They remind you that you’re still awesome, but hey, stop being so crazy and start getting back in line.

There are deals (OH THE DEALS) of 20, 30, 40, 50% off gym memberships, gym equipment, bootcamp classes and find-your-abs-under-your-keg plans.

There are the great sell-offs and purchases of people’s abandoned treadmills and stationary bicycles and weighted-yoga balls and workout clothes. Wanna make a buck? Sell your dusty workout stuff. Wanna get in shape for cheap? Buy other people’s dusty workout stuff.

And everywhere you turn are people helping you make the resolutions that will set your year on FIRE and give you a bikini body in three easy moves in just five minutes every day.

It’s exhausting. And it’s unrealistic.

Can you get a skinnier, toner, more fit you? ABSOLUTELY. You can. You will if you set your mind and body to it. You will if you make a plan that’s reasonable and realistic and if you really want to.

But can you do it the way you’re being sold it? Probably not. Because they’re not selling you change. They’re selling you a NEW YOU. They’re selling you a promise that they have no intention of helping you achieve. It’s mean. And it’s a vicious cycle that happens every year.

For me, 2014 was the year I solidified my love of running and of exercising. It was the year I really started writing again. It was the year I fought alongside my man for my marriage. It was the year we really got into the groove of being a family of five. It was the year we took control of our spiritual health and made a huge change to where and how we worship. And it was the year of rediscovering bits of me that I had lost in the fog of pregnancy, newborn schedules, breastfeeding and depression. It was a year. And now that I’m facing another year, I wonder what I’d like for 2015. What will it look like? What will we accomplish? What will I accomplish?

Instead of resolving to do a bunch of things (2014 was not the year of being able to magically create more time), I thought I would make a list of things I’d like to stop. Things I’d like to knock-off, cut-out, and generally quit. It seems strange, since statistically this is generally what happens on January 10, the day of quitting all your New Year’s resolutions, but for me, I’d like to get a jump-start on jumping ship.

1. Quit talking trash about myself. I eat a cookie, I eat five cookies, I eat the rest of the cookies and not only does my stomach hate me, my brain is a royal jerk about it. It berates me and tells me in no uncertain terms that I suck, that I’m a failure, and that I’ll never be thin and pretty and lovely because ALL THE COOKIES. In truth? I shouldn’t eat so many cookies, but I shouldn’t be a jackass about it either. It happened. It’s over. It’s time to remember the good things I did do and move on.

Voice in your head

2. Quit wishing away the day. I’m not saying I should stop and smell every damn rose, but I should stop wishing for nap time and Ben time and bedtime and then alone time. I should start enjoying the time I’m in. I have the energy and space and now the emotional and mental capacity to do it, and I’d like to stop living in my depression-era head space. I’d rather live here because I can. I fought long and hard to enjoy this moment. Now I need to stop wasting it.

Living for the weekend

3. Quit glorifying the busy. Oh, I’m a real winner at this one. I can tell you, in great detail, exactly how busy I am. But in reality, I’m as busy as I MAKE ME. No one else. Me. I am busy chasing children, sure, but am I chasing them effectively, efficiently, in the best way for them and me? Probably not. So, I’m gonna stop being a martyr of the schedule and start being the freaking empress.

being-busy-quotes-6

4. Quit coming up with new excuses. I feel like I’m stocked up for excuses on why I can’t/don’t want to/aren’t able to write my book. There is no reason why I need new and inventive ones for the roster. The old ones don’t hold water and work just fine for being weak and ridiculous.

Just Do It

5. Quit avoiding running. I stopped running when I started having weaning depression because from where I sat on my comfortable couch inside my warm house in my bare feet and pyjamas it was SO HARD. And then dear friends Heather and Bethany asked me what they could do to help me get back to being happy-brain me and I said, I need to run. Bethany instantly said, Tomorrow? And we did. I went. I ran. And when I got back I was blissed out on the high of it. I love running. It is in me now. And I need to stop abandoning it just because my brain forgets how awesome it is. I will be running until I am physically unable. Period. Enough trying to run away from running. Toni, Bethany, and another good friend Andrea and I will be doing a half-marathon in May just to solidify my commitment to quitting running avoidance. It should do the trick.

oprah-winfrey running

What are you going to quit this year? And what will you ultimately give yourself in the process?

~ Julia

Now we wait

Well, I did it. I submitted my writing for the CBC Short Story Prize. It was a process that involved taking a 7,500-word excerpt and simmering it down to a 1,487-word short story. It is a brick in the path to achieving my dream of being a published novelist. It is wholly exhilarating and terrifying to have my work out there in front of readers and judges and I’m torn between wanting it to get lost on the way to someone’s desk and winning.

What am I saying? I REALLY want to win! 😉

It’s also November, the month of NaNoWriMo, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month, which is actually an international movement of aspiring writers who scribble furiously for the month of November in an attempt to complete a 50,000-word novel.

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

It’s extreme writing, where content doesn’t matter as much as word count, and completion trumps coherence, but at the end of the crazy period you have a novel where before there was none.

Last year alone 310,095 participants in 595 regions in 6 continents wrote furiously, trying to attain the elusive and grinding goal of completing their book.

Is this particular writing process useful or effective?

Some could argue that it’s not, that it doesn’t allow you to think, edit, ruminate, let characters evolve ‘naturally’ and it’s a lot of time spent on writing crap versus spending that time crafting actual art.

Others argue it’s a brilliant exercise, used to strengthen the writing habit by getting you to write every day, by forcing you to jump in with both feet whether or not you’re ready, instead of sliding your idea into the back of the filing cabinet for when you ‘have time,’ and it’s exciting when at the end you’ve finished something. As someone who’s never finished writing a novel and is currently on her fourth year of writing this one, finishing a book sounds divine.

And some NaNoWriMo books actually get published the traditional way, like the bestseller Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, and one of my favourite and oft-recommended books, The Night Circus by Erin Moregenstern. According to the NaNoWriMo website, there are over 250 books that were written in the dismal month of November under the word-count stress that have been published. That number alone is enough to give hope to anyone willing to put their fingers to the ink-stained grindstone for 30 days (and then countless days revising afterwards).

So will I be NaNoWriMo-ing? Probably not. Because I legitimately don’t have a lot of time and I’m already torn in three bagillion (a real and accurate number, I tell ya!) directions. Because I’m working steadily and at a pace that doesn’t drive my anxiety through the roof. And because I’ve given myself a more realistic goal that has nothing to do with November and everything to do with the end of 2014. My goal is to finish my book, the first, rough, horrible, not-rushed draft of it, by December 31. 

I feel like this will give me time to rework it and massage it and get it ready to be submitted into the big bad world of publishing (it’s only big and bad to me because it’s unknown and terrifying…I’m sure it’s actually lovely and everyone is super friendly and there’s no pressure whatsoever) (YEAH, RIGHT) by the fall of 2015 when I have more babies in school than at home and more time (HA!) than I have right now chasing a preschooler and a toddler during the day. I’m full of hope. And delusions.

But to everyone who is writing away right this second, who is watching their word count climb, but never fast enough, and who are going to question their sanity multiple times over the next few weeks, especially if they take part in the overnighter where, you guessed it, you write through the night into the next day with other like-minded (read: CRAZY) NaNoWriMo-ers: good luck! I wish you high volume and a solid first draft by December 1.

To those who also submitted their short story for the CBC Short Story Prize, also good luck! I hope I win, but I also hope that the right story wins.

Now, to get back to tinkering with my tome of nonsense. Who knows? Maybe four years won’t have been a waste of time.

~ Julia

P.S. Kim asked for an excerpt of my short story and I really wanted to oblige! I was going to publish the whole story here as my post today, but then I reread the contest rules and that would count as my story being published and therefore automatically disqualified. You’ll just have to wait until next year. If I get shortlisted, my story will be published online and I’ll post the link! If I’m not, I’ll send the story to people still interested. Until then…fingers crossed!