Fixin’ to Write: On writing with a newborn

In July 2017 my writing group started a collective blog on the creative process called Fixin’ to Write. Each week one of us posts about our experiences of finding creativity in everyday life. Here’s my second post for the blog, about writing with a newborn baby. It was first published on 16 November 2017.

I didn’t keep a journal when my first daughter was born four years ago. For the first week, my partner and I kept a notebook recording details of feeds, nappy changes, and the odd piece of commentary: “Day 3: a no good, terrible, horrible, very bad day”; “Day 5: first parental fight, re dates.” Dates the dried fruit, or dates on a calendar? Four years later, I have no idea, and the notebook is no help. Soon after it stops altogether.

Later, I wished I had kept that notebook for longer, or even better, an actual journal recording my thoughts and feelings. Becoming a parent was momentous and life-changing, and not entirely positive. I ended up writing a book about it, and when I did, I had only unreliable memory to go off. I think I did okay at recounting the experience, but I wished I’d kept better records.

This time, I decided, would be different. Not that I expect to write another parenting memoir, but I wanted a real-time account of my ante- and post-natal experience the second time around. Also, I was nervous that my post-natal depression and anxiety would recur. In the past few years I’ve learned that journaling is an important therapeutic activity for me, so I was determined to do it for my mental health.

There is a particular writing method I like to use. It comes from the unlikeliest of sources: it is born of my love (read: obsession) with the TV show Gilmore Girls. This love runs so deep that last year I purchased and listened to the audiobook of Talking as Fast as I Can, a memoir by the show’s star Lauren Graham rushed out to coincide with the release of the show’s reboot on Netflix. Graham has an engaging prose style, but this is not a great work of literature. However, it contains, like an Easter egg, a chapter on her own writing method, which is so surprisingly great I’ve been telling other people about it ever since. She calls it the “Kitchen Timer” method, and she credits screenwriter Don Roos with teaching it to her. It goes like this:

You set a timer for one hour. You sit down at your desk with two documents: your current writing project and your journal. You turn off (or ignore) wifi, put your phone on Do Not Disturb, and work in silence, or with music that has no lyrics. You start the timer. You do not get up from your seat until it goes off. During the hour you can write/revise/work on your project, write in your journal, or sit staring at the wall. It doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t get up until the timer goes off. You can switch back and forth between your project and journal as many times as you like. It doesn’t matter if you don’t write anything in either, as long as you sit and honour the hour. At the end you take at least a 15 minute break before sitting down to do it all again.

I love this writing method. It’s how I wrote my book in a short period last summer. Some hours I was super productive. Some less so. In one memorable hour, I did nothing but write TRUST THE PROCESS in my journal over and over. It felt ridiculous at the time, but I did TRUST THE PROCESS and it worked. After a couple of weeks working between two and four hours in this manner every day, I had the manuscript of my book ready to send to the publishers. And as painful as the hours could sometimes be, at the end of each one I felt a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction. Having met my goal for the day, I could relax and enjoy my time with my family in the afternoons and evenings.

photo of Holly's cluttered writing space in her living room with her black  journal on the coffee table in the foreground and a pile of laundry in the background.
How I read and write these days

I haven’t followed the method religiously since finishing my book, but I’ve been trying to get back to it. Whenever I do manage to pass an hour in this way I feel great. So as I approached the birth of my second child, I decided I would follow the method and write every day, from as soon as I went on parental leave at 38 weeks. I knew an hour a day was ridiculously unrealistic with a newborn, so I set my sights low and aimed for 15 minutes per day. I got my partner on board and he agreed to support me in this goal.

And here we are, seven weeks later, with a five-week-old baby, and for the most part I have stuck to my commitment. I don’t have a specific writing project at present (again, trying to keep my writing goals realistic with a four-year-old and a newborn), so apart from this blog post, all I have used the 15 minutes for is to write in my journal. It has still been incredibly hard to achieve. So often the moment I lift up my pen someone wakes up, needs a feed or a nappy change, bursts in the door or has a tantrum. My journal pages are littered with half finished paragraphs and sentences and incomplete thoughts. I attempted to write my daughter’s birth story in chronological order, but there was no way that was going to happen, so it is recorded instead in a series of fleeting images.  I haven’t managed to meet my goal every day, but I’ve tried not to beat myself up and just get back on the horse the next day. I’m over a week late completing this blog post.

But I am doing it. I am writing with a newborn. I read back on some of the pages I have filled in the last five weeks and I can already see why it has been worth it. The wildly fluctuating emotions, the strong images from labour and birth that are already receding from my brain but are recorded forever on the page. Most of all I can hear the confidence in my voice. The hard-won knowledge that I know what I am doing, both as a parent and as a writer. All I need to do is get up each day and do the next thing that needs doing, and the next, and the next. One of those things is to write in my journal. The rest will take care of itself.

selfie of Holly in a red shirt nursing her baby with her journal sitting on the side table nest to her
How I read and write these days