Carpool Diem

"A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity." ~Franz Kafka

“A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” ~Franz Kafka

It’s 5 AM on a Sunday, an hour that will remain unknown to many if not most. The faithful have another hour at least to sleep; the drunkards and revelers have given up and gone to bed. It feels like it’s just the stars and me, the stillness, the quiet. It’s perfect.

When I started writing my first novel, my son was three months old and my daughter, three years. I’d been writing non-fiction for years, freelancing for health and fitness magazines, and was somehow able to work during the day in between feedings and diaper changes and trips to the park. To write fiction, though, required (for me at least) some stretch of uninterrupted time in order to inhabit the minds and lives of other people. So I wrote from 7 – 9 PM, after the kids were in bed.

Gradually, however, they became less compliant about bedtime. They swung from the hour hand as though from a chandelier, made mockery of the minutes. The number of hours I spent in their company increased, and though I love it—and them—they were squatting on my writing time.

Since they both were in school by then, I shifted my writing schedule: instead of dividing my efforts into non-fiction during school hours, fiction at night, I crammed it all into the daylight. I took fewer magazine assignments. I wrote in my head while unloading the groceries, then hurried to my desk to recapture the thoughts. I arrived at the carpool line early, stretched the sunshade across the windshield, and wrote with the engine idling and the air conditioning on. I trained myself to go in and out of my imagination more quickly; like being a springboard diver instead of a distance swimmer. I wrote whenever and wherever I could during my non-momming hours so that I could meet my self-imposed quota without encroaching on my time with the kids.

Now they are twelve and nine, and somehow, in spite of their independence, they seem to need me more instead of less: help with prioritizing their workloads; daytime visits to the orthodontist; baseball, basketball, lacrosse and guitar practices, games and performances; comforting and aiding with all the miscellaneous pre-pubescent travails. I don’t want to miss any of it—but I also have a job to do. It was starting to weigh on me, this constant, low-grade angst of wondering when I was going to be able to get to my desk.

Several months ago my screenwriting partner, Tobey, started the ritual of meditation and writing at 5 AM. You should try it, she said. Oh no, not me. That last hour of sleep is far too sacred. She said that the first thing you do in the morning should be what’s most important. That made sense, sort of like the idea of eating the frog. Still, I resisted. Even when she reported her progress and her swelling word count, I resisted.

Until the week that my son was home with the flu. My little prince on the dais, calling out at regular intervals for: hot baths and ice water, his blanket and a book, will you tell me a story and will you lie down with me? Of course, of course. I set my alarm clock for 5 AM the next morning.

Four weeks later, I don’t need the alarm clock anymore. My word count has gone up, my angst has gone down. Now, instead of slicing random slivers of the clock, I do my work first, and all day long I feel that afterglow of accomplishment. In fact, I finished the first draft of my new book this weekend, ahead of schedule.

I’d tell you more, but now I must go; I hear the children stirring.