Published on June 2nd, 2022 | by Chital Mehta1
On Learning to Write With Chaos
My writing desk is filled with stickers and wooden blocks. The pile of books that I keep aside to read is scattered. My notebooks are lying on the floor half open to pages where I hurriedly scribbled ideas about my characters, titles that I came up with during the shower, and another short story idea that came to me during school pick-up. My notes stare at me, begging me to finish my projects. My wall is filled with sticky notes that are scribbled with crayons in places; some are even torn. This is the place where I have learned to arrive every day after the lights go out.
When my son turned 15 months, I considered returning to writing, but I realized that while my body had the strength to go on, my head usually felt like yogurt that couldn’t be shaped in any way. I’d spend hours watching the television while deciding to wait out the years. I told myself, I’ll write someday when my head isn’t a mess and my desk isn’t a pile of clutter.
It was a lie I told myself for a long time. Waiting for the mess to clear away was like asking my son to transform himself into an adult overnight. So, I pulled myself together and signed up for an MFA program. I had to teach myself to read again because, without reading, there wouldn’t be any writing. Three days a week, for two years, after dropping my son off at daycare, I worked on a virtual writing program that helped me exercise the writing muscle that had remained dormant for a long time. After I finished the program, I wasn’t scared of facing the blank sheet. I began filling it up with things that I’d categorize as bad writing. But that’s how it usually begins.
In 2019, when I had another baby, my life was thrown into chaos for a second time. I had a four-year-old preschooler and a baby who demanded every inch of me. This time around, I felt more confident that this needy phase wouldn’t last forever…but it often felt like forever. When I went to the library for picture books, I randomly grabbed paperbacks from the fiction section while my toddler yanked me in a different direction by my T-shirt.
At home, I’d flip to the backside to see what other novels the writer had written. If they had written plenty, I’d google to read more about their personal lives. Any kids? Small or big? If they didn’t have any, I’d think, Oh well, that’s why they wrote so much! If they did have children, I’d wonder about the kind of resources they had access to that allowed them to write so much. Did they wait until their children were older or did they write all along? Which part of the day were they the sanest, and could they use it to write? Did they stay up all night after their kids went to bed? How did they manage to keep the spark alive?
More than fighting for time, I realized that as a parent-writer, I have been fighting for writing space inside my head. Even after the lights are out and the kids are asleep, there are nights when the words will not come, when my desk and chair will turn away from me, and the blank page will threaten to drown me. The months I have spent working on my novel turn into years.
While parenting is mostly about making a routine, it’s also about being prepared for routine to be thrown into chaos. There are sick days, tiring days, good days, bad days, and days that simply pass by without anything happening. I have struggled to write on days when there is peace and I have written in a rush when I had to cook, wash the dishes, change diapers, and respond to a talkative kid all at the same time.
I attended three writing conferences in 2020 because everything had switched to virtual settings owing to the pandemic. Most of these conferences allowed parent writers to connect. We spoke about our chaotic lives and the need to write, the need to make space and time for our words, and the need to complain about how hard it is to write and parent. Just knowing that there are parents who still write—at nap time, in cars, in showers, in the toilet, in the kitchen, at playdates, in the night after everyone had slept—helped me understand that I wasn’t alone in my struggle to write.
Some days when I can’t work on my novel, I write notes on my phone or paste sticky sheets on the wall. I write the names of my characters, a letter to my main character, or I free-write on any of the characters, or just about the fact that my writing is difficult and I can’t seem to find a way to plow through it. This doesn’t help me make any progress with the book that can be measured by word count, but it allows me to attend to my characters, because like my kids, they are needy for attention. I realize how similar my roles are when it comes to parenting and writing because, very often, I have to step away from my writing and kids so I can return to them with a full mind. They won’t be cross with me when I finally return to them after the break.
I am not a writer who shows up at her desk every day. I probably will not be that writer for a few more years. But for the time, I’ll be that writer who learns to keep the chaos out of her head each time she reaches out for the blank page. I have despised the act of putting the light on and staying up to write when every part of my body wants to shut down. When I learned to keep the chaos of the day out of my head, I have come to enjoy the blank paper’s company on long, cold nights.
My fears are very real. Fear of being in the “I-am-too-old-to-write” stage. Fear of working on a book for years. Fear of not having the luxury to write for hours. Fear of finishing a novel that might not be the best. Fear of never reaching the finish line. Fear of spending too much time on a sentence when time itself is in limited supply. Fear of the time that passes too quickly.
But I still write, because my main character wants something that won’t let her sit back. At least, not yet. Not until I have helped her reach where she has to reach. And when I am too exhausted to even think about her or the writing, I won’t write. Perhaps, I’ll spend the night under the covers with my family or snuggle on the couch with an unhealthy snack.
I will come back to my work-in-progress because even if my progress is slow, I am doing enough. I will let that be enough for now.