Escape from the ashram (an entirely misleading title, but not really)

I.

This was last week:

This was two years ago:

This was seven years ago:

(And fourteen years ago, there was just one of them, and it was all harder, because it was new.)

You send me this:

and we laugh. But then I think… no. No, actually, that’s wrong. For me, anyway. See, without the children, I wouldn’t have written any of the work that really matters to me—the books, the best blog posts, the articles that captured the tension inherent in all aspects of business and life (especially for women, especially for mothers).

More—before children, I did not know how to love. I did not understand what suffering really was.

There’s a quote I’ve intermittently encountered (I haven’t been able to track it back to its source, my apologies) along the nasty lines that for a woman writer, every child is a lost book. It has always made me bridle, and today, I would like to officially say to that originator of the quote and everyone who has since repeated it, as an excuse it keep herself silent: So. Fucking. Wrong.

I do get why they say it, you know. Why they might even believe it. We live in a culture that hasn’t figured out how to value women, motherhood, or creativity—International Women’s Day, the still-enduring lip-service to the Victorian Cult of Motherhood, and adoration of WEALTHY and FAMOUS musicians, painters, and authors notwithstanding. Being a woman-mother-creator is much more difficult in a patriarchy (we’re still one) than being a man-father-creator. Our burden is bigger. And, we’re not supposed to—we’re terrified of being—selfish.

II.

Ender is playing a Lego.com video game on Sean’s laptop at the kitchen table while I sit beside him and work on mine. Flora comes in, to the soundtrack of a Harry Potter audio book. Groggy-eyed, she asks for a kiss and French toast; I ask for fifteen more minutes.

When Cinder trundles down the stairs before noon—well, probably after—I will thank him for doing the dishes before going to bed at 3 a.m. And stand on my tiptoes to kiss his chin, because I can no longer reach his forehead unless he stoops.

And then I will tell him I’ve found a way for him to earn the $50 that’s his heart desire right now.

III.

I don’t actually want to write about the difference between selfishness and self-care (and, more importantly, self-actualization). A. Everyone else is doing it and B. It’s not a paradigm I’m going to shift in that particular way (I have another plan, but it’s a secret, sssshhhh). Instead, I want to tell you how important it is for me that my work be rooted in this messy, crazy, unpredictable, demanding FULL life. In this kitchen. In this family. In this community that throws an extra obligation at me just as I need to hit a critical deadline. In… reality.

Not in an ivory tower or the isolation of a writer’s retreat or an ashram.

Instead: in this child’s need to crawl into my lap at the precise moment that I need both hands to type and all my faculties focused on what it is I am trying to put into words.

Jane: Ender, I love you, but get out of my lap.

Ender: I love you more, and I need Mommy cuddles now.

On some level, I have been fighting this for the past three years. It was three—three-and-a-half, coming up on four!—years ago that I realized the nature of my work had to change. Before, it was enough to me that I was writing for a living. How lucky was I? Writing for a living, and able to be the primary caregiver for my children. Supporting my family, fulfilling my need to be a writer, and being the mother I needed, wanted to be. What more did I need?

Well, as it turns out… there was some stuff… but that’s probably a novel in itself, or even a hefty self-help book (that one of you can write; as I’ve said, I have other plans).

During that transitional time, I spent a lot of time dreaming of month-long writers’ retreats and week-long conferences and government-funded residencies… I substituted them with occasional weekends alone in hotel rooms (or friends’ apartments) and self-created 12-hour writing marathons in cafes and sheesha lounges. I was chasing “the time and space” to really do my work, to give to it the attention and care it deserved—to give it the sort of focused attention I like to give my family… without, of course, short-changing my family…

…but there was only so much time to go around, right?

And so… a fight…

In the last few weeks, something has shifted.

I have long been able to see the value in this tension between the demands of my kids and the demands of my work. Before 2013, though, the demands of my work were mostly externally created. You know? Editor. Client. Magazine deadline. For the past three years—they have been increasingly, and now almost completely, internal. The drive to create, to make, to write this stuff—it’s all mine. It’s nobody else’s fault, demand, responsibility. I want to—I need to do this.

And now I see the tension between my desires and my life’s demands is not just valuable—it’s also critical. Necessary. Essential—it’s who I am, it’s the reason I write what I write.

And what I want to do going forward is not to alleviate this tension, but to continue to grow how my work comes from my life—how I perform it in the middle of life.

Now—this does not mean that I will not make focused time and space for it. I need that 12-hour marathon at least twice a month. That occasional weekend away is part of an equation that then lets me work in hour-long, 15-minute increments the rest of the time. And the week-long writers’ conference—it’s a gift I will continue to give myself whenever I can.

But it’s what I do on the ordinary days, full of mess and chaos and conflicting demands and dentists’ appointments and children fighting and supper burning and “fuck, we’re out of groceries again, am I a bad mother if they eat cereal for supper? Wait—they can’t even do that, because there is no milk” that determines what I make, how I create it… why I write it… and who I am.

This is a good feeling.

I hope it lasts.

III.

This is today:

xoxo

“Jane”

PS This is a disclaimer to mothers of babies and toddlers: My children are aged fourteen, twelve, and seven. They can get their own breakfast. And lunch. The elder two routinely make supper. Everyone’s old enough to do their own laundry, run a vacuum cleaner, take out the garbage and the recycling. There are no little people sucking on my nipples or needing me to change their poopy diapers. The amount of time that I have to give to my work now compared with what I had seven years ago is exponentially bigger.

Like… I can’t even express how much bigger. When they were little, real work only occurred when another adult could tend to their needs, or when they were asleep.

And they so very rarely all slept at the same time.

But all that time—it was like compost, fertilizer, seeds. This time, this current place of—I don’t even know how to express where I am, because it’s not a place of tranquility at all… it’s a place of explosive creativity and drive and celebration of tension, it is so many things, but tranquil, yeah, not so much—this current place-space I’m in has been created by journeying through the demands and exhaustion and challenges of the baby years and the toddler years and all those “I thought it was supposed to get easier, when the fuck is that going to happen” years.

I am still, to be honest, not sure that it gets easier. Parenting, I mean. It’s gets… different. And we get… better (or, in some cases, worse, but that’s also another story).

PS2 POSTCARDS IN CUBA, the final leg, you won’t get to see until the fall or so. Because this final leg of the postcards is very, very different… and I want to deliver it properly. And that takes time. This, incidentally, another shift: I have all the time I need—and I refuse to give myself Internet/social-media induced FOMO/YOLO/DO IT RIGHT NOW! psychosis.

Because… priorities, baby.

PS3 Sometimes, I think Maria Popova and I share a brain: Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence 

Priorities, baby, priorities—or, “I don’t” as an answer to “How do you do it all?”

I finally figured it out, and so I’m going to tell you. You see…

Ender: “Mom! Where are you?”

…you’ve been asking me for years, “How do you do it?” What I thought you were asking was “How do you work and take care of your babies; how do you write and homeschool” and variants on the above…

Flora: “Moooom! Where are you? Ender wants you!”

…and I would tell you, and you’d get this glazed and confused and frightened look in your eyes, and never actually—so it seemed to me—hear anything I said—certainly in no way heed my unadvice. But I had this immense epiphany the other day…

Cinder: “Mooooom! I want to make cookies; where the hell is the margarine?”

…that is was my fault—I wasn’t telling you what you needed to know, because I wasn’t hearing what you were asking. You see, while I thought you were asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender just stole my orange marker, tell him he has to give it back!”

Cinder: “Hey, Mom, can you wash the good cookie sheet? It’s covered with chicken grease.”

Ender: “It’s! Not! Fair!”

… while I thought you were asking, “How do you find the time to write and take care of the kids and take care of the house and exercise and have a life and, and, and,” what you were actually asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender won’t leave me alone!”

Ender: “Mom, Cinder pinched me!”

Cinder: “Mom, the little bugger stole my Lego guys again!”

…what you were actually asking is…

Ender: “Maaaaaa…”

Jane: “Shut up, shut up, shut up! GET OUT OF HERE! Now! Outside! All of you! Give me 30 minutes, and then you can come talk to me. Now—out. OUT!”

Flora: “Mom, it’s like zero degrees out. And raining.”

Jane: “OUT!”

Cinder: “Maybe she just means out of the room.”

Jane: “OOOOOOUUUUUTTTTT!”

Ender: “But I’m hungry!”

Jane: “There are bananas and bagels in the kitchen. GET! OUT! AND STOP ASKING ME FOR SHIT! OUT! NOW!”

… what you were asking me was “How do I work (write) while interacting meaningfully with my children while making amazing dinners while keeping an immaculate house while pursuing my personal interests ALL AT THE SAME TIME.”

Yeah. So, the answer to that…

I DON’T.

YOU CAN’T.

YOU WON’T.

If you have this picture in your head of your laptop computer on the kitchen table, and you writing a novel—or, fuck, even a 1500 word article—while washing the dishes, peeling potatoes and teaching your children math and having a meaningful conversation with your lover…

Cinder: “Are you done yet? About that baking tray…”

Jane: “Clean it yourself or make chicken-flavoured cookies, I don’t care, leave me alone!”

Flora: “Is she done?”

Cinder: “No, she’s still pissy.”

Jane: “Writing! I’m still writing!”

Cinder: “Writing, pissy. It’s kind of the same thing.”

Jane: “Only when you interrupt me. NOW GO AWAY!”

…you are dooming yourself to failure, because all those “while’s” are impossible.

You know this intellectually, right? You can’t, oh—have a shower WHILE typing on your laptop. Make risotto WHILE scrubbing the kitchen floor. Paint a bedroom wall WHILE having sex.

So. You can’t write (work) WHILE interacting meaningfully with your children (or cleaning house or making supper or buying groceries or doing yoga or…)

Now, you CAN—I do—do most of these things sequentially, at different parts of the day-week-month.

But…

You will do some better than others.

And choosing to give time to some things will mean less time for others.

Priorities, baby.

Again, you know this, intellectually, right? But practically… you never seem to hear me. You know, like when I tell you what a crappy housekeeper I am, or that my children eat cucumbers and mustard as snacks when I’m on deadline? And you think I’m being funny?

The truth: say, I have two hours. In those two hours—I can write a story—edit a chapter—craft a rough draft of a pitch.

Or. I can make risotto.

(I don’t, by the way, know how to make risotto. But I understand it involves standing at a stove for an eternity, stirring a pot of rice. Fuck. That.)

Or. I can scrub the kitchen floor and the stairs. Or, do laundry or make the beds or declutter.

Or, read a chapter or two of Harry Potter or Hank the Cow Dog or Wow! Canada to the kids, teach Ender to read, help Cinder with his math…

These are all things that I should do, and do do at some point in a week (month… year… except that risotto thing, that’s just NEVER going to happen).

But if what I need to do—want to do—with those two hours is write a story… then I have to use those two hours to write the damn story.

And that may mean ensuring other-adult child care for my children.

Jane: “Moooom! I’m on deadline, can you please come and take the monsters AWAY for a while BECAUSE THEY WILL NOT LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Or, leaving the house for two hours for an adjacent coffee shop, so that the house—“The fridge really needs cleaning today, Jane, it does, it does, clean me!”—doesn’t make its passive-aggressive demands on me.

And, picking up a roast chicken or frozen pizza from the grocery store on the way home instead of making the perfect, healthier pizza crust from scratch (this, by the way, I can do and I do do… just not on deadline days, y’know?).

I have become much better at this over the years. Accepting that my time and energy are limited—as are yours—and becoming better and better at channeling that time and energy into the things that are really important to me.

So. I write. Every day. (Really. Sometimes, utter crap. But. Every. Day.)

Read with my kids. Take them on amazing adventures. (Most days.)

Exercise religiously, no matter how urgent the deadline, because, health.

Make guilt-free time for my friends and loves and just for myself, too—but not so much for organizing the Tupperware drawer (or for people who drain me).

Scrub the kitchen floor only when it gets to THAT level of filthy—or I desperately need to procrastinate (sometimes, that happens).

Never, ever make risotto.

Cinder: “You done yet?”

Jane: “Two minutes.”

(I think, by the way, that if making risotto is an essential part of who you are and need to be, you will find a way to make risotto and write/work and take care of your kids and all those other things. You will maybe let something else slide more than I do. Read less, stir more. Stay home more—the stirring demands it—and skin your knees in the wild less.)

Priorities, baby.

Cinder: “Hurry. I didn’t scrub the tray that well, the chicken fat caught fire and I can’t turn off the smoke alarm.”

Jane: “Coming.”

Priorities.

You’re welcome.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-priorities

P.S. Speaking of priorities—I’m taking a sabbatical in October and November from Nothing By The Book while I pursue other priorities. Stay in touch via Instagram (@NothingByTheBook), and come back in December, will you? I promise I will be back.

Oh, and babes—I want to take my brood to Cuba, Mexico or some other hot-and-beachy place for (ready for this?) January, February, March 2016. If you’ve got a lead on affordable and cockroach-light accommodation (so long as we’re walking distance to a swimmable beach, we are not picky, and will co-habit even with pestilent insects), email me at nothingbythebook@gmail.com.

“Jane” out.

Days of the Week

I.

Yesterday was the day I wanted to brush Ender’s hair. (I do brush their hair, sometimes.)

Jane: Where the hell is the hairbrush? … OK, so I last brushed your hair, right here, in the middle of the living room. Um… what are the odds that I would have taken it back upstairs to the bathroom?

Cinder: Pretty much zero.

Flora: That doesn’t sounds like something you’d do.

Ender: Didn’t you throw it across the room because you got so mad at me?

We find it. In the Lego tub.

Jane: I definitely did not put it there.

Flora: Don’t look at me.

Cinder: It was probably Ender.

Ender: Sounds like something I would do. So Mom couldn’t find it.

II.

Today is the day that I explain to the children that reading a 700 page book of poetry backwards-and-at-random while listening to Leonard Cohen is something I NEED to do for WORK. IT’s WORK, dammit.

Flora: It. So. Is. Not.

Jane: Pretend it’s the Government of Canada’s Technical Guidance on Reporting Greenhouse Gas Emissions and LEAVE ME ALONE!

III.

Monday was the day I locked myself in my office (it’s a metaphor; I don’t actually have a door) (I don’t exactly have an office either) (but whatever, I make it work) (it works) (I work) (I write) with Philip Larkin, Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott and The Edge Foundation’s favourite maverick scientists* and then, for a while, abandoned them all for Sufi poets and philosophers. I sucked on the end of a fountain pen I was not using and threw chocolate wrappers at my computer screen, and called it work.

Intermittently, Sean brought me down food, coffee and chocolate.

He didn’t once ask—“Did you finish?”

Nor, “Did you start?”

IV.

Tomorrow is the day Stella’s mom looks after my children in the morning and afternoon and Baby M’s mom will look after Stella in the evening because that’s the way the web of a community works.

V.

Sunday is never a day of rest. But I stop moving, for a while. I have a bath in the dark, with Leonard Cohen.

Ender: Mom? Where are you? Mom? Come outside with me?

Jane: I’m in the bath. Not wearing any clothes. So, um… no.

Ender: Are you crying? Why are you crying?

Fact: You can’t listen to Leonard Cohen in the dark and not cry.

Fact: You can’t cry in front of your children FOR WHATEVER REASON and not freak them out.

Ender: Daaaaddddyyy! Mommy’s crying in the bathroom!

Sean: Um… Jane?

Jane: I’m fine. I’m listening to Leonard Cohen.

Sean: Wouldn’t you rather listen to some happier music?

Jane: No!

I turn on the lights, dry off, get dressed, and take Ender outside. I’m not done NOT moving yet. I lie on the brown, damp grass, soak up the sun.

VI.

Saturday was the day on which Flora slept over at Frederica’s house and Stella had a sleep-over with Ender, and we played Cards Against Humanity and laughed and when the night ended my lungs hurt and maybe, possibly I had broken a rib.

VII.

Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Saturday. Sunday. They blur and knock into each other and I try to find their rhythm and sometimes I do, but too often it eludes me. An email, phone call in the morning sabotages everything.

You: But you thrive on chaos, right?

Me: That story is running out of juice…

VIII.

Today or tomorrow or maybe yesterday, I will go for a walk with Rumi in my pocket and try to photograph the wind.

IX.

Cinder: What are we having for supper today?

Jane: Oh, fuck. Probably… food. What’s in the fridge?

Flora: Food. An assortment of food.

Jane: Good. Food. We’re having food for supper.

Flora: Some of it’s slimy.

Cinder: Don’t worry. If it’s gross, I’ll bake cookies after.

X.

Today’s the day everything happens, and tomorrow’s the day it all begins again. And I can’t quite remember what happened yesterday. Right. I wanted to brush Ender’s hair, and couldn’t find the hairbrush. But then did.

I have to go now. Leonard Cohen wants me to take another bath with him.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-days of the week

PS I now desire a Blue Raincoat.

*This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial 2015)

Life hacks for work-at-home moms and other crazy people: always have a Plan Z (and, be a Timelord)

NBTB-Life Hacks1

My day goes horribly wrong at 10:08 a.m., when the planned child hand-off misfires, and, instead of starting my working day with a child-free and care-free work-out session, I show up at the gym with a crying five-year-old in tow. You know how there are moments when… oh, what? Essentially, you need to make a conscious decision:

“This day will not go as planned. Attempting to fulfill the agenda I set for it yesterday is suicide.”

And then, you need to take a five minute—five second, even—pause to weep. Then breathe.

Then, you need to do physically exhausting, difficult things for a while. No, really. Take a page from my active children: when the world’s just not right, and you want to punch someone… run. Hang upside down from the ceiling. Do push ups until you puke. (That’s 14 for me…)

And then… you look at the day and think. OK. So. No six-hour block of time during which I was going to do all the things. AND write the next great novel. OK. So. What can I do instead? What bits and pieces can I pick off the agenda instead?

And maybe the answer is… none of them. Today, none of them is going to get done. Today needs to be a kid day, a sick day, a play day, a no-earn day, a no-set-goals day.

But often, the answer is… Well, fine. No way can I write today, that won’t happen. But. I can send THAT long overdue email. And I can book THAT interview. And I can follow up with THAT client about THAT no-show payment. (Excuse me… I’m going to go do just that…)

And maybe, with the five-year-old in tow, today is the day that I prep suppers for the next two days… because that buys me an hour, two on each of those days, during which I can do, if not ALL THE THINGS, then at least some of the things.

Or maybe, today’s the day I have a mid-day bath. Or hey, today’s the day I call the client who knows and loves my kids… and interject family reality into the life of Corporate Canada.

“Want to grab a coffee with me and this gorgeous redhead I know?”

And so, some of that happens, and also this: I meet a friend who’s going to a play matinee, and she takes my progeny into the play, and I sit outside the theatre and I write…

Not the six hours I planned to have. But one hour, two hours—hell, 20 minutes—is better than zero.

When I talk with work-at-home parents and parents who’d like to… but can’t imagine how the hell to do it, I find the difference between the two groups is pretty simple. Those of us who work-at-home have two skills.

First, we know how to turn on a dime. To reposition. To recognize that Plan A just went out the window, Plan B is impossible, but maybe, maybe we can take some elements of Plan F and Plan X and graft a zombie that will see us through the day. (Also, we have Plans A through Z, and their variations, in the back of our minds at all times. Because Plan A pretty much never happens…)

Second, we’re Timelords. We know how to grab every last minute of productivity out of those 20 minutes when we have to.

If I had had my six hours, as planned, some of my time would have gone to… making coffee. Drinking coffee. Going for a walk. Checking Facebook. Maybe popping in a load of laundry….

In the 90 minutes that my son is watching Y-Stage’s Pinocchio, I work for 88 minutes. (I have to take a pee break at the 67 minute mark.)*

I leave you today with the most useful productivity-sanity strategy I’ve acquired over the past decade. Turn reading – writing – sending email messages… into three separate tasks.

Mind-blowing, I know. Bear with me. Consider:

  1. It takes no time at all to read email messages. And you can do it during periods of distraction, with children turning summersaults in the background.
  2. It takes no time at all to send an email message. And, ditto.
  3. It takes time, concentration and attention to write email messages. And nothing worth reading (over 144 characters, anyway) was ever typed with thumbs on a phone.

So. Read your messages on the fly if you must. Why not (actually… so many reasons to why not. But more on that another day). But don’t respond. Think. Then think some more. And then, when you have that 20 minute-1 hour block of time… think about it, that’s really quite a lot of time, and yet not enough time to write a draft of the next great Canadian novel or even a barely coherent-but-fileable feature… write out your thoughtful e-mail drafts… that actually answer the question your clients / sources / grandmothers raised in their email.

And then… you can send them out when you’ve got a minute or two here or there. And you will never think, “Oh, crap, why did I hit send!” on anything again.

You’re welcome. You may not realize what I’ve done, but I’ve just completely changed your life.

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. For about 10 minutes last week, I changed the world. Read about it here: Women in Leadership: Opportunities lost, and not because our bosses are misogynist pricks.

Episode 356, in which everyone swears, metaphors are tortured, and a bad story gets filed

subtitled, why my children swear… and why I’m not going to stop…

I.

Ender: Mom? You know what the difference between you and me is? You swear at people. I just swear for fun.

Go ahead. No, please, go ahead, indulge the judge within. There are so many things WRONG with that statement, I don’t even know where to start.

It’s only partially true.

I don’t really swear AT people. More at the THINGS they do.

More often yet: at my self. My brain. The things it refuses to do when I really need it to perform…

Still. I hereby resolve to swear less. In front of the sponge-like four-year-old, anyway.

II.

I have this deeply insightful point to make and I’m just trying to find the right way to lead up to it, and then…

Flora: Mom? Do we have any of that delicious bean mush left?

Jane: What? That? Yeah?

Flora: Can I have that for breakfast?

Yes, of course, but I have to help her heat it up—because it’s been left overnight in the pan and so requires some, um, resuscitation shall we say—and then, ok, a tortilla or two to go with it, and then by the time I come back to the laptop, I can’t remember where I was going, what I was thinking…

Yeah, gone. Forever. Here. Read this instead:

III.

Jane: Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, why is this piece so fucking bad? It’s easy. It’s simple. A goddamn chimpanzee at a typewriter could write it, so why… Jeezus—Keerist, why. Am. I. So. Fucking. Brain. Dead. Today? … hey, Cinder? I’m going to walk over to Vendome to get a coffee with whipped cream in it and clear my head, wanna come with?

Cinder: That depends. Are you going to talk to yourself and make weird hand gestures and roll your eyes and stop suddenly and shout, “YES!” or “Fuck, no, that won’t work,” because you’re stuck on that story?

Jane: Um… maybe…

Cinder: Then no. But can you bring back some of that good focaccia bread? And don’t eat it all on the way home!

OK, this stopping swearing in front of my children thing probably isn’t going to happen.

And also: seriously, a goddamn chimpanzee with a typewriter could have written it better than I had in that first draft form. Your writing tip for the day, boys and girls: an amateur despairs and gives up. A professional despairs, goes for a walk, downs a triple mocha, and redrafts.

IV.

The thing is, though, I’m feeling kind of lonely and really do want company.

Jane: Flora? Wanna go to Vendome with me?

Flora: Are you going to talk to me as we walk, or ignore me and just mumble to yourself and do that creepy thing with your eyes?

Jane: Um. I don’t know. Maybe?

Flora: Can I make a video of you and put it on Youtube?

Jane: No!

Flora: Can I make a video of you and show it to all my friends?

Jane: Why do you hate me?

Flora: We don’t hate you, Mom. We just like to mock you.

Awesome. I go for my walk alone.

IV.

I redraft. It still sucks. Woe is I. Or rather, woe is my editor, who will have to fix it.

Point: “Filed.” I’ve told you before, have I not? An amateur thinks it has to be good. A professional knows it just has to be done.

V.

This is the moment where I try to adapt the good/done, amateur/professional metaphor to parenting. It’s rather torturous, but it goes like this. The amateur/theoretical parent—i.e., your childless friend who is so full of theory and advice and knows exactly how he will raise his kids or even any first-time, first-year mom at that stage of the journey (do you remember that stage? I find it’s fading for me, too fast, thank goodness I write so I have proof of how insufferably arrogant and “right” I was)—thinks it has to be perfect. That it can be perfect. The professional parent—that is, anyone who’s done it in the real world for more than a year—knows it just has to… be. It just… is.

It gets done, every day.

Right?

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-Everyone Swears

I become a Timelord, and tell you why when you say “I’m too busy,” I think you’re handing me a lame excuse

It happens like this: Sean buys me a Dalek dress and…

…actually, no, it happens like this: I’m trying to get together with a friend, and we’re comparing schedules, and arrive at a date 18 days out.

“Seriously?” I say. “This is the first time that works for both of us?”

She shrugs. “We’re amazing people with full, busy lives. You’re in deadline hell until the 8th. I’ve got this, that and the other until the 13th. Then you’re on a new story. Then…”

Then… I become a Timelord. I bend the laws of time and space, and we get together the next day. I’m still in deadline hell. She’s still got this, that and the other. We take a break for a slushy walk and a glass of wine.

Deadline hell is there when I come back. So is laundry, and a living room that looks like it’s been ransacked by very unskilled terrorists. And an eternal construction zone on the bottom floor of my house. And… oh, so many tasks, duties, obligations that can contribute to making me feel “too busy.”

And, ok. I’m busy. Stuff to do, always. But I’m not “too busy.” I’m not too busy to do the important, fulfilling. Or just the… fun. I’m not too busy to live. And neither should you be.

Want to know the secret to being a Timelord? It’s three-fold.

First, to steal shamelessly from United States Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum: “Prioritize A, B and C. Discard C.”

You know this. You probably do this. But you know what? You’re probably discarding the wrong C. See, getting together with my friend for a glass of wine—that’s an A. Right up there with reading to my kids at bedtime, meeting my deadlines, and NOT skipping a single work-out session.

Second—ready? This is the big one—realize that amidst your “I’m too busy,” you’re going to piss away a lot of time. OK, let’s not make it about you: in the middle of my “I’m so busy! Waaah!” I’m going to piss away a lot of time. I’m going to feel burnt out and spent, and will need to recharge and get refreshed before I can slog through another 12-hour “must produce” day. I can spend that inevitable piss away time unproductively, feeling like I should be working-doing-something, wallowing in guilt and ick… or I can plan to spend it in a re-energizing way: taking two hours away from deadline hell to go sledding with my kids. Recognizing that by Wednesday night, there is no way I will be capable of working into the night, and so, that’s a really good night to go to the theatre, yes, babe, let me arrange for a babysitter.

Third—and this is what separates the Companions from the Timelords, beloveds—I say yes to 20 minute commitments. It goes like this:

“Mom? Can we go sledding?”

And I look at the clock, and it’s 11:20, and Sean and I are doing a kid-and-car switch off in 30 minutes; his workday over and mine beginning. And my “too busy” instinct is to say “No.” Right? By the time the snowsuits are on… You know what? Screw it. I say yes.

We’re out the door in 5 minutes, on the hill in 10. Sean meets us there; I effect a snowpants- into-“suitable for client clothes” change in the truck. I make my meeting, cheeks frostbitten, a little sweaty—but happy. I spent 20 minutes outside engaged with my kids doing something, instead of inside, marking time until the switch-off, listening to bored kids whine.

It also goes like this:

“Hey, I’m five minutes away from your office and with a 35 minute gap until my next interview. Time for a coffee?”

And like this:

“I’m heading down south to Costco this afternoon with all three kids. Meet at the River for a sanity walk before or after?”

That’s all:

1. Prioritize—but make sure “A” includes the things you really need to do. Yoga, if that’s your thing. Poker night if that feeds your soul. Chocolate. Wine. Sex.

2. Plan for piss away time—and turn it into time for stuff you want to do that feeds your mind-soul-body.

3. Say yes to doing something for a very short time—use your “in-between” and “waiting” time instead of just filling it. A walk can be a 20-minute commitment. Less. As can getting naked with your lover. Or writing a blog post, pitch or long-overdue email letter (remember those?) to a forever friend—or at least the first draft of one.

So… Timelord with me, will you? And don’t tell me you’re too busy. I know you’re busy. Me too. Kids, family, money-tied work and love-tied work. Volunteer commitments. Dishes that won’t do themselves, and a bathroom that refuses to self-clean (is there a warranty for that?). And also: books I want to read, plays I want to see, events I want to experience. Friends I need to see. Places I need to  be.

And yeah, sometimes, deadline hell, work hell, this-that-or-the-other (the newborn, the un-potty-training toddler, the sick parent, the near-death experience, the divorce, the massive natural disaster, the nothing-else-matters event) takes over everything. Of course. Sometimes, you can’t bend the laws of time and space.

But most of the time… I can.

xoxo,

Jane

NBTB Timelord

P.S. In a totally coincidental unplanned, event, my Strategy Session column this month is about Sweating The Big Stuff:  stop putting out the fires and start strategizing. And it opens with Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, whom I met in Martin Seligman’s Flourish.

P.P.S. For the bloggers in the audience: When I am in deadline hell, blogging—in particular, that aspect of blogging that involves interacting within the blogosphere and doing all those social media things, becomes “C.” And gets discarded, without a second thought, without guilt. Writing for the blog(s)* becomes “B” (when I’m truly a Timelord, it is “A”).

*If you can’t get enough of me, and having out-of-box ideas about education, I also write about unschooling and my kids’ learning journey at Undogmatic Unschoolers. My real self’s business writing portfolio is hangs out at Calgary Business Writer. Looking to connect in the SM (social media, get yer mind out of the gutter) universe? Go to Find “Jane” … or just follow @nothingbtbook on Twitter. Easiest, lowest effort, highest ROI act.

The unBlogger’s Manifesto

I am a writer.

I am a mother. I am also wife-lover-partner-mate. Daughter-sister-aunt-neighbour-friend. Citizen-voter-kinda-wanna-be-an-activist-but-too-cynical-to-really-make-that-work-volunteer.

I am a deadline-meeting-craving-negotiating-not-really-your-employee-but-I-know-you-sign-my-cheques-and-I-will-deliver-what-you-need-when-you-need-it-professional.

I am so many, many things; I have so many roles, facets, hats. Some I carry always (mother-wife-friend-writer), some I put on and off (cyclist! Except, no, not this month). Sometimes I wear/am six at the same time. Sometimes, one swallows me entirely, eclipses all the others (and if you have children, you do not need to ask which one).

I am so many things, all these things.

What I am not…

I am not a blogger.

(I am not a lawyer-dentist-mechanic-nurse-gas-station-attendant-preschool-teacher either. Nor an eco-warrior-homesteader-radical-homemaker-stay-at-home-mom-academic-marathon-runner-yogi. Do not take what I say here as an attack of a role you embrace, cherish, an identity that defines you. Be who you are. This is not about you. This is about me.)

I am not a blogger.

But…

I have a blog.

I write a blog.

I play in this wonderful place I’ve created and keep on creating. I love my little Nothing By The Book platform. Writing here fills me, feeds me, pleases me. It is part of what I do.

It does not define who, what I am.

(But if it defines who you are, do not frown, get angry, throw nasty things-words at me. Wanna be a Mommy Blogger? Be that. Love that. Jane Austen was once dismissed as a “lady novelist”; does anyone remember the men who labeled and reduced her as such? Humour blogger, homeschool blogger, fashion blogger. If it fits you, wear it, flaunt it. This is not about you. This is about me.)

I blog-write chiefly for me: to create a record of what is; to play with what could be; to process what sucks; to celebrate what rocks. And also, to practice, fine-tune my craft, my skill. There is no other platform a writer writing today has that offers both the freedom and discipline a blog does:

  • The freedom to write on whatever impassions you—and to play with structure-voice-rhythm-delivery in a way no editor-client will ever, ever tolerate
  • The discipline of writing publicly, for an audience.

That means I also, inevitably, constantly, each time, write for you too.

Writers need readers.

(Short digression: Writing for self is completely different than writing for an audience: if you’ve kept a chaotic, self-indulgent, angst-filled diary as a teenager, you know this. Writing for self is—and perhaps should be—undisciplined. And it has its use, its purpose. But keeping a journal does not make you a better writer. Just a more self-aware one. Writing for an audience—regardless of whether it is an audience of one or an audience of hundreds, thousands, millions—is about sharing something, evoking an effect, a response, a reaction. It requires discipline. Thought. Skill. Craft. Blogging hones that.)

But…

I am a writer.

Not a blogger.

unBloggersManifesto

That means my energy in this place goes into—writing. Creating. Re-writing, re-crafting, letting things simmer-marinate-develop-change. Loving what I’ve written. All that other stuff—commenting, Tweeting, sharing, hopping, you-read-me-and-scratch-my-blogging-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours? Meh. I don’t care. I’ll play, every once in a while, if I want to. I’ll read you, religiously or sporadically, if I love you. And sometimes, I won’t. Often, actually, I won’t. Because being mother-writer-partner-provider-community-member-human takes up a lot of time.

And that’s the way it should be.

I have been telling my cyber-tribes for about six weeks, more, that I’m penning The unBlogger’s Manifesto. I’m worried I’ve oversold and undelivered, because, you see, this is not about you. It’s about me. My priorities, my goals, my clarity. Of what I am. Of what I am not, and do not wish to be.

But, beloved… make it about you. What are you? What are you not?

Clarity’s a rather glorious, if elusive, thing.

For ink-casters-and-word-players, blogging-parents-and-not of all genders, citizens-and-tourists-of-the-blogosphere, and “real” readers everywhere, but most of all for my “Bloggy Sisters.” You know who you are.

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. “Jeezus, Jane, you’re not gonna go all navel-gazing and self-referential on me going forward, are you? Because I do not come here to read about the ‘to-be-or-not-to-be’ of blogging.”

“No, beloved, never again. Just this once. But I might inflict some writing about writing on you. Because that’s a rather important hat-role-identity. That cool?”

“Maybe. Just don’t bore me.”

“Never, my beloved. Never. I promise.”

The naked truth about working from home, the real post

Showerhead

I’m in the shower when the phone rings, and I hear it through the water and the door, and I know who it is even before Cinder hollers, “Mom! It’s for you!” Shampoo in my hair and my eyes, I’m leaping out of the shower and out of the bathroom without turning off the water—where the fuck is the towel?–and skidding into the combination Lego room/Sean’s office that holds the only upstairs telephone.

“Hello, “Jane” speaking,” I say crisply, sharply. Out of breath? No way, not me–the phone voice kicks in ASAP. My well-trained eldest son—the ire of the mother for misbehaving on the telephone is legendary—hangs off the receiver. On the other end of the line is a VP of a blue chip Bay Street company (like a Canadian Wall Street, but less sexy and exciting) I’ve been stalking for a few days, and I need to talk to him today. He’s in an airport—“Houston? And how’s the weather?—he’s got five minutes, what do I need? I speak quickly and cut to the chase: this, that, and, above all, a comment on that mess. The door of the room creaks open, and my daughter comes in. She sees the phone at my ear and mouths, “Mom? Why are you naked?” I mouth back, “Towel! Paper! Pen!” I cast a desperate look around the room—full of Lego and an assortment of my husband’s crap, including a printer, why the fuck is there no paper here? Or pencils? How can there be no writing implements in the bloody office?

The VP’s already talking and I see, gloriously, buried under all the Lego, a purple marker. This is how the professionals do it, boys and girls—I grab that marker and… I move to start writing on the wall, but the two-year-old comes in, and I have a brief second thought. I make desperate hand motions at my seven-year-old, and—she’s well-trained in this this too—she immediately says, “Ender? Want to watch a show on the i-Pad?”

But their exit is too slow–they’re still in the room and I start to scribble. With the purple market. Not on the wall. On my leg. I start at the thigh and work my way down, to the ankle and instep, contort myself, and write on the inner leg. Then the other one… The VP’s a gold mine. He gives me exactly what I need, and I’m transcribing every word.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I sing as I hang off. And become aware that

a. I’m naked in my kids play room

b. my legs totally covered with purple marker

c. the purple marker is a horrible, kid-friendly, washable piece of shit

d. the water from my hair is dripping onto my legs and smearing! Smearing my interview transcript!

“My laptop!” I scream, and Cinder bounds up the stairs with the lap top. “Um, and a towel!” I add. I’ve been anticipated: Flora’s in with the towel. I grab the towel, the laptop. Scrunch my hair with the towel before tossing it over my shoulders and torso. And I start to transcribe. From the top of the leg—never before am I so grateful for the remnants of the baby weight that give some heft to the thigh—down, up the inside. Down the other one.

And yeah. I got this, that, and the comment on that mess in particular. Fucking score. My heart beat slows down. I’m going to meet deadline, and the story’s going to kick ass.

What you need to know:

 a. It’s not supposed to be like that.

b. It’s like that much too often.

c. If you can’t handle life throwing that at you with regular irregularity, you shouldn’t even think about working from home with children underfoot.

I’ve worked as a freelance writer since 2000, and I’ve popped out babies in 2002, 2005 and 2009. They’ve all grown up in this: I managed three weeks off after Cinder, four days after Flora (I went into labour actually in the middle of an interview, and had to cancel another ), and with Ender, I blocked off a luxurious two-and-a-half months off… sabotaged about four weeks in by a favourite client.

What I mean when I say I’m a freelance writer: I churn out five-to-ten-thousand+ words a month for a variety on business publications and clients (my real life business portfolio here for the serious-minded in the crowd).

What you really want to know: what this means time-wise and brain-wise and child-wise. The time commitment is erratic: I’d say at least two hours a day spent in just keeping on top of having the work—that is, emailing back and forth with editors and key contacts, keeping on top of what’s happening, clearing up questions and details on what I’ve filed etc.—and anywhere from 12-40 hours a week in research-interview-writing mode. My target weekly work rate is 20-25 hours (12-low-effort-maintance, 8-12 high-effort research-interview-writing hours). Less than that, and I’m setting myself up for a hellish 40+ week down the line. (My target earn rate, by the way, is the equivalent of a full-time job within that 20-25 hours. But that’s a topic for another post…). Once or twice a year, I actively invite a hellish week or two because of a particular project, client, or painful state of the bank account.

I used to get the “How on earth do you do that with a toddler and a baby?” comment all the time; now I get the, “How the heck do you manage that with homeschooling?” And everyone who asks it is looking, if they’re honest with themselves, for a magic bullet. They’re looking for that instruction sheet, that secret, that has them visualizing me sitting at a desk typing away—or on the telephone conducting an interview—while my children quietly and peacefully play at my feet.

No such thing. How do I work from home with children underfoot?

The short, and really honest, answer is—in ideal circumstances, I don’t. My most productive and efficient output happens when another adult is in charge of them. My husband—my mother—a neighbour—a friend—a paid babysitter. That childcare and that focused time don’t happen spontaneously. I plan the hell out of my work weeks and work days. I schedule interviews for the days when the kids are planning to spend a day with Grandma. I swap child-care with my film-maker husband. I pay for it when I must. In a four-hour block of child-free time, I get two-days worth of work done. Perhaps more. On the days my mother takes the kids for a long 8-10+ hour day, I am so uber-productive my brain and fingers (and sometimes throat) hurt at the end of it.

That low-maintenance work—checking email, social media, initial research, screwing around on the Internet and calling it research—these are things I can do with kids underfoot, during the littlest one’s naps, while the older two are really engaged with something. These are things I can do in spurts, things that don’t require me to enter the flow or to fully focus. Telephone interviews? I never plan to do these without another adult in the house or the kids (under sevens anyway) out of the house. Writing? There are things I can write in spits and spurts, off-the-top-of-my head, and in 45 minutes after I put the kids to bed. A 5,000 word feature on the history of the Canada-US Softwood Lumber Trade Dispute? Or an analysis of what’s really at stake when it comes to the proposed oil sands pipelines? I need focused time and space to produce that, and I prefer not to sacrifice sleep for that.

Sleep-deprived writers produce second-rate drivel. (Unless they’re in the flow on the novel. That’s different. Right?)

So. In my ideal world, working from home still requires an investment—financial, or otherwise, in child care. But life is rarely ideal. No matter how well I plan, every story and every project has its share of surprises. A cancelled interview—spontaneously rescheduled just as the toddler needs to go down for a nap or the baby needs to nurse. An editor’s demand for a last-minute rewrite, due yesterday. A client’s panic attack requiring me to pull an all-nighter—or to rely on the house’s assortment of electronic devices to babysit the children while I pound away at the keyboard. A last minute “I shouldn’t take this story, but oh-my-god-I-get-to-fly-to-Montreal-to-interview-the-prime-minister!” assignment. And havoc reigns.

Planning allows me to ride out the havoc. The irregular regularity of the havoc trains the children. They know a deadline must be met. They learn by age four how to behave when Mommy’s on the phone (she doesn’t push it too much: tries to keep those unplanned interviews to under 15 minutes).

(Sorry, until age four—no guarantees. A DVD might buy you 15 minutes. Or it might not. The good news: with my almost-8 year-old and 10 year-old, I can handle whatever havoc hits with them taking it in stride. I now only have to outsource the three-year-old on the days when I have to write, write, write—or spend the day glued to the telephone. And increasingly, I can outsource the three-year-old to his siblings. Not for an entire workday—but for a decent stretch of time. So yes, it gets much, much easier as the kids get older. But when they’re little? It’s tough.)

And that, friends, is the naked truth about working from home with children in your life. Possible, rewarding, the only way I want to work.

But it’s work. It requires planning. It throws you curveballs. It don’t look like that sepia-postcard dream you’ve got rolling in the back of your mind in which you write an award-winning article effortlessly while a perfectly balanced and delicious meal is already simmering on the stove and the toddler is at your feet playing with dinky cars for two hours. It’ll have to racing out of the shower naked with shampoo in your hair at least once in your life, and teaching your children swear words nobody at the playground knows yet.

Think you can do it? Of course you can. Right?

More like this: The naked truth about working from home, the teaser

This post is being recycled as part of A Mother Life Hum Day Hook Up #33: 

A Mother Life

The most recent Nothing By The Book post is How we teach children to lie, without realizing it.

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(Split personality alert: If you are interested in my business writer alter-ego, you can find her portfolio at Calgary Business Writer and on Twitter .)

Thanks for visiting!

xoxo

“Jane”