Hold Fast to Dreams (Or, How to Pursue Writing while Juggling Young Kids and a Full-Time Job)

Dreams
Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Filled with snow.

Though I’ve always loved reading, I did not grow up with dreams of becoming a writer. Those dreams came as I explored my commitment to education, equity, youth, stories, and social change. Writing, like most things I’ve pursued with passion, sits at the intersection of these pillars. I believe that writing stories is one way I can make a difference in the world. And what else are we here for, but to make a difference in this world that sorely needs change?

But, with a full-time job (that I believe can make a difference in education) and two young children, making time to write is no easy feat. Between meals and drop-offs and cleaning and baths and laundry and oh, my job, and errands, and family time, and maybe exercise, I don’t feel like I get enough quality time with my kids, let alone to time to sit down and write. And yet, writing occupies my thoughts – as dreams are wont to do – all the dang time. I want to be writing all the time. I wish I could be writing all the time. But I can’t be writing all the time.

So, here’s how I hold fast to dreams.

Here are a few ways to keep barreling toward dreams while juggling a job and young family (and/or whatever else one might be juggling):

1. SET GOALS. This turns writing from a fun past time into serious business.

I write down writing and other goals in my New Year’s resolutions and hang them on the wall. I write down more writing goals at the SCBWI SF/South Golden Gate Conference in March. Lately, I’ve given myself a daily word count goal (1000 words). My writing goals are burned into my mind; I think about them all the time because the desire is so deep it sometimes hurts.

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2. MAKE A SCHEDULE.  This makes writing a routine part of each day and week.

My family and I plan around writing time which means a) it will actually happen, and b) I have peace of mind knowing I have set aside time to write. Until recently, my writing hours were Monday – Thursday, from whenever my kids fell asleep to midnight. Now that the baby is on a more consistent sleep schedule (HALLELUJAH!), I’ve been trying out the #5amwritersclub and writing from 5 – 6:30 am, and it’s been AMAZING. Turns out, I can write more in 1.5 hours in the morning than I usually can in three hours at night. I also enjoy evening family time more because I’m not rushing the kids to bed in order to write. So far, it’s been win win.

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3. TREAT WRITING LIKE A JOB (THAT YOU LOVE). This means, barring emergencies or very special occasions, writing time is for writing. It is not optional.

During writing time, I don’t make plans to socialize with friends, I don’t attend social church activities, I don’t turn on the TV, I don’t pick up other projects, I don’t clean the house, I don’t exercise. I do those things at other times, and the least important things fall off the radar. I’ve made sacrifices in order to prioritize writing, because I feel like it is one way I can make a difference.

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I have this quote on my desk. Photo credit: Holstee.com

4. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF QUIET MOMENTS. This means looking for and allowing inspiration to surface in the rare opportunities we have to be still.

I’ve thought of words and sentences for multiple picture books while nursing. I explored the plot and characters of my first YA novel while riding in the backseat on a long road trip. I’ve teased out characters and plot points while snuggling my kids to sleep. Creativity comes in the quiet when I forgo the temptation of my phone and let the ideas come forth.

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What is more inspiring than a pair of sleeping baby feet?

5. MULTI-TASK TO KEEP LEARNING. This means finding ways to keep learning when we are busy but our minds are otherwise free. This also means we constantly keep writing at the forefront of our minds.

I don’t have time and can’t afford to attend many writing conferences or workshops. Instead, I listen to writing podcasts in the car and when I exercise; I even purchased an underwater mp3 player so I could listen while swimming laps. I read picture books to my kids and YA when I am standing in lines, waiting at the doctor’s office, handling business in the bathroom (TMI?), waiting for my computer to load, and getting ready for bed. The best way to improve writing is by reading, right?

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6. FIND A COMMUNITY. This provides the support, feedback, empathy, understanding, commiseration, encouragement, and occasional kick in the pants needed to continue pressing forward when things get hard. Which is always.

My critique groups make me laugh, give the best feedback, and shower me with encouragement. We send each other updates and rejections, as well as news about our families and travels. I volunteer with my local SCBWI chapter, and I love our local conference. This year, I attended Kweli’s The Color of Children’s Literature Conference where I met so many writers and artists of color in children’s publishing. It was one of the most empowering and inspiring experiences I’ve had on this journey. I’m still learning the social media landscape, but I’ve also learned so much just by following leading voices – particularly those speaking out about representation – in the industry.

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Note to self: Take a group pic next time I get together with my critique group. Until then, please enjoy this creative commons photo.

7. BE FIRM BUT KIND. This means…whatever it needs to mean at any given time. No excuses, except when they’re valid.

Kids get sick, the news cycle traumatizes, work gets extra busy, relatives come to visit…Life happens. I am a stickler about my goals and I push and push and push, but once in a while, I just can’t do it. And it’s okay.

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8. MAKE TIME FOR FAMILY. This means setting aside writing and work and giving 100% to the kids…and the hubby!

My writing days are Monday – Thursday. Now that I write in the morning, I’m testing out Fridays too. But, everyday after work and all weekend long, I set aside the laptop and I turn all my attention to my family. On the weekends, I almost never open my laptop and I rarely know where I put my phone. I try to be completely present when I get the chance to spend time with my kids – and my husband appreciates having a few nights to hang out too!

 

 

Starting My Publishing Journey

Remember oh, early December, when I wrote this post on diversity in children’s books? I made a commitment to publish books for children of color and committed to publishing something myself if I didn’t have something in the works by June.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

BWAAAAA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!

I take it back. Clearly, I had no idea what I was talking about when I made that commitment. Since then, I have taken a few little steps into the world of children’s publishing. I started out by researching publishers online, visiting many publishing websites, blogs and boards. I attempted to draft unsolicited query letters to publishers only to realize that perhaps I should be looking for an agent first. This led me into a brief phase during which I thought I would try my hand at illustrating my own stories. That was short-lived. I talked with a publisher who gave me good advice. Namely, learn more about the craft. Work on your writing.

So, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended a conference last weekend at Asilomar. I chatted with beginning writers – like me! – published writers, agents and editors. I was inspired! I was uplifted! I was filled with passion and fire!

And, I am overwhelmed but undaunted by the long road ahead. Key lessons I’ve learned on my journey so far:

Children’s Writing is an Art Form
Writing children’s books is an art. To the untrained eye, a picture book seems like a collection of simple words and a simpler story line. Anyone could do that, I am ashamed to admit I mistakenly believed. Underscore ashamed and the past tense form of believe. I’ve been schooled. There is a world of intentionally executed pacing and page turns, theme, voice, perspective, word choice, rhythm, flow, sound and character development that lives in every book. I never imagined that some picture book writers take years revising their stories to perfection.

It reminds me of teaching. Teaching is an art form. It is possible to recognize a masterful teacher; but, to the untrained eye, it is not always possible to see the thousands of choices s/he is making throughout a class period. Lesson planning and pedagogy aside, there are the relationships built, intentional pacing of the space, specific word choice and signals, teacher stink-eye, phrasing of questions and follow-up and a million other details that make teachers artists.

Great picture books are complex, layered stories told in less than 1000 words. Humanity’s lessons written in 32-40 page stories that a five year old can understand. A writer has to say much with little; it is no easy feat. Children’s book writers take tremendous pride in their art and I am humbled. I want to learn. I want to become a master artist. And it won’t happen overnight.

A sketch from my brief stint as an aspiring author/illustrator.

Empathy and Impact
Stories change lives. They change they way we look at others and the world. One of my favorite memories from teaching English is the day my students read their personal narratives to the class. They shared and learned personal stories with tremendous vulnerability and began to see each other – and themselves – differently as a result.

At the Asilomar conference, author Deborah Underwood shared an example of an everyday story that makes an impact on our perceptions. She contrasted the striking difference of emotions we might feel between two versions of the same experience: being stuck for miles behind a driver going 15 mph on a windy road vs. being stuck for miles behind a driver going 15 mph on a windy road knowing the driver is rushing his sick cat to the vet but is driving slowly because the cat gets carsick with increased speed. Our frustration is curbed and we feel greater compassion and patience when we know the driver’s story.

Stories build empathy and challenge assumptions. As such, they have the ability to create lasting change. Stories shared with the rising generation can shape their ideas of truth and possibility. They can create connections and break down barriers. Stories are tools for equity. Understanding this fuels my desire to write and publish. Writing is not a side-gig hobby I’m dabbling in because of a quaint, momentary inspiration I had after giving birth to Carter. Stories can change lives, can change public opinion, can change the world. So, I will write stories until I learn to write stories.

Perseverance
In an industry where a Newbery Award winning author has ten years of rejection letters from pages upon pages of editors and agents (I’ve seen the pictures and it ain’t pretty!) I’m beginning to understand the sheer grit and determination it will take to reach my goals. It ain’t gonna be pretty but I’m not going to give up. That is all.

(Someone remind me that I wrote this when I’m ready to throw in the towel after 32392834792835601 rejection letters, please.)

Another sketch. Sticking to writing. Maybe I’ll put these on a t-shirt for myself.

Revisiting My Goals
So, it has become painfully clear that this whole, if I don’t-find-someone-who-will-publish-my stories-by-June business is laughably, woefully uninformed. I’ve also realized that I don’t want to self publish. So, my ultimate goal is still to be published. Several times over. But, methinks I need to give myself a lllllllllllllooooooooooooootttttttttttttttt more time. Preferably before I turn grey?

My revised goals for this year:

  • Continue to improve my writing. Form a critique group that meets regularly, take classes, read books. Write a lot, revise a lot. Write some more.
  • Finish at least four stories by the end of summer
  • Submit queries to at least 20 agents by December
  • Don’t lose hope when the rejections come in! Keep submitting and writing.

Closing words that inspired me from the conference:

Crazy and stupid are not the same thing. – LeUyen Pham

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line. – Oscar Levant