When Life Is a Distraction

Homemade organizer
My homemade calendar/planning book

I’m terribly organized. I use a homemade planner where everything is scheduled and to-do’d and recorded. I keep a family calendar online so everyone in my family knows where he or she is supposed to be. My schedules are exact. Dance drop-off/viola pick up are coordinated for the same time every Tuesday. I run four mornings a week. I have the 5th grade literary journal meeting every Wednesday. I edit the school newsletter Thursday morning at 6 a.m. I do my own writing from 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays. And my Deb Ball posts are always done and scheduled by Friday end-of-school day, so I have Friday nights for family time. My schedule is inviolable.

Except when it’s not.

For instance, this past Friday, I was feeling a little frantic because my galleys came in and I needed to turn them around in about a week and my husband was just getting back from a business trip in California and my daughter needed to be packed not only for a sleepover at the synagogue Friday night but in preparation for a four-day school trip next week to science camp, and I was taking my son to Maryland for the weekend so he could attend a camp friend’s bar mitzvah and the school newspaper was late because one of the writers didn’t turn in his front page piece and I had to coordinate end-of-soccer thank you notes and how to get my daughter to her Nutcracker rehearsal (no, Virginia, Santa Claus doesn’t come to the Brown household but we do permit our daughter to dance like a shiksa) and I was so in control and SO FREAKIN’ on top of everything and at 1:25 I was ready to drop off my daughter’s overnight bag at her ride’s house and pick my son up early from school to head to the airport and nothing could go wrong… until I realized I had forgotten to pack for myself.

Writing in airports
Me, writing this in the airport, unaware that I’m dressed just like the person next to me. Photo taken by son who was annoyed to have to stop playing a video game to snap this pictures.

Distractions happen. This post didn’t get written ahead of time. It didn’t get written in a nice quiet room with a cup of tea at my side. Instead it’s being written at the airport on a late Sunday afternoon, with weak WiFi, and people tripping over me because I have the outlet.

Once upon a time, there was a young writer. And she only wrote when she was home alone, early in the mornings, fresh from a run, before she had to be at her 9 to 5 job. She was well rested. She had a Diet Coke next to her. And in complete silence, she wrote stories. And then that young(er) writer got a job at an Internet start-up. And she wrote at home, no longer in the morning, because after going for a 5:30 a.m. run, she had to be at her office by 7 a.m. So late at night she sat at her computer. Sleepy. With a cup of coffee next her. And in complete silence, she worked on essays. And then that (not as) young writer got married. And she still worked. And she still ran. And now she also wanted to make time for her husband. So she sat at her desk in her home. Tired. A glass of wine next her. And with the Red Sox game blaring from the next room, she tried her first NaNoWriMo novel. And then that (definitely not) young writer had kids. And it all went to hell.

Writing with young kids was incredibly challenging. In those early years, I was freelancing as a writer/editor/proofreader (basically, if someone would pay me to do something on paper, I did it), getting no sleep (seriously, my daughter was an actual patient of Dr. Ferber; those of you with children will understand the significance of this), managing with only part-time daycare and a husband who was working longish hours at a tech company. Writing was not as consistent as it could have been. I had to accept that. Life was one big distraction. I had to realize that those early years weren’t time to start a novel. But it didn’t keep me from writing. I wrote short pieces. Essays. Stories. Flash everything. Writing was no longer a solitary activity at my desk, drink in hand. It was something to be squeezed in. The upside is I learned to tune out noise. This did not come naturally but it was a necessary survival skill I had to learn. To this day, I can sit in a noisy cafe (or airport) and tune everything around me out and just focus on the words. I have been known to hide in my room typing, while yelling through the door at squabbling siblings, “Wait for your father to get home before you kill each other! I’m writing and I don’t have time to clean up the blood!”

Look, I’m not perfect in my writing habit. I am often (okay, always) tempted by the Internet (“I’ll just peek and see if anyone else added MODERN GIRLS to his/her Goodreads ‘want-to-read’ list” and “I wonder if Louise posted any more dessert photos on Twitter?”). For that, I installed Freedom, which blocks the Internet for a set period of time. Yes, I could just turn off the WiFi. But then I would just turn it back on. The only way to get back on to the Internet while on Freedom is to actually reboot your computer and even I am not that lame to restart everything, even if Louise’s food photos make me drool with desire.

I’m also a nosher. Nothing can lead me away from my computer like food (especially if I’ve been looking at food porn online). Every five minutes when I’m working on a difficult scene, I’m up, raiding my kids’ candy jars. When that happens, I try to head to the library. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I have to just give in to the candy. Sometimes my keyboard is smeared with chocolate.

galleys of MODERN GIRLS
My galleys! My galleys! My freakin’ galleys!!

Distractions happen. They will continue to happen. I’m behind on NaNoWriMo. I’m late with this post. I need to finish reading my galleys and send them off to my editor. But if you decide you are going to write, you simply need to make it happen, one way or another. You can plan for the distractions. You can plan around the distractions. And every now and then, you can simply give in to the distractions and realize that the writing will have to wait for a bit. For me, at this moment, I’m working despite the distractions. As soon as I’m done writing this post, I plan on opening up Scrivener, popping on headphones so a playlist will block out the phone conversation of the woman next to me, and I will return to working on my novel.

Well, I will, right after I run to the airport newsstand and buy myself a Milky Way.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 7 Comments

  1. Loved the story of transition from single young writer to married with children writer.Life happens, which is a good thing because if it didn’t we wouldn’t have anything to write about. But I’m with you on the need to be organized. In July I had shoulder surgery that had unexpected complications. For about three months the organization part of my brain was fried. A few days ago I decided to drop everything and get organized. I feel SO much better. Your post came at just the right time for me to smile and nod rather than bang my head on my desk in despair.

  2. This post is giving me PTSD flashbacks to when my kids were tweens. I was in my MFA program then, and between driving them around, writing the PTA newsletter (why do all writer mothers get sucked into that horror show?), and doing my schoolwork I gained 25 pounds and stopped showering altogether. You are doing GREAT.

    1. We writers moms write for the newsletter because most of us aren’t very good at coordinating the bake sales or helping first graders with their math or running the coding club. At least writing the newsletter can be done at home in our pajamas! 🙂

  3. That is a beautiful calendar/planner. I keep everything scheduled in my computer/phone so my 3 year old won’t run off with my notebook.

    When I was in my twenties I loved the romance of writing during Happy Hour, fending off everyone who thought my notebook was an invitation to sit with me and ask what I was writing. Now, I know it was training for writing with kids.

    1. That is the best description yet, Katherine. I’m sure there are a lot more connections that could be made between fending off drunks in bars and raising children (especially in the toddler stage!), but the writing one is hilarious.

  4. I love the twist on wait til your father gets home: “Wait for your father to get home before you kill each other! I’m writing and I don’t have time to clean up the blood!”

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