The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer


Writers with children often complain about the difficulty of combining these two particular endeavors. It’s not easy, but I am here to tell you, my fellow writers, that it can be done. I raised two sons while writing eight novels. True, I could have written 15 without the kids, but I consider that a fair trade-off.

It won’t happen by itself, though. Children are sneaky buggers and will consume all of your time if you let them. If you’re serious about writing, you need to create conditions in which writing is possible. Fortunately, a few simple rules and equipment are all you need. I’ve compiled a little list. I hope it will help.

Things You Need

A Room of One’s Own. If you have not yet read the Virginia Wolfe essay of that title, do so at once. Then designate a room in your home as your writing space. Doesn’t matter what sort of room, as long as it has a door. I knew a writer with 10 children and a tiny house; she worked in her garden shed.

lockChildproof Your Space. By childproof, I don’t mean make it safe for kids. I mean make it impossible for them to get in. Not just a door, but a lockable door.

A Dog. I recommend a German Shepherd – not the American-bred shepherds with the sweet disposition of cocker spaniels, but a European-bred dog with plenty of protective drive. My late, lamented Maya understood and enforced the sanctity of my writing space. She was a sweetheart of a dog, but anyone who entered my office while I was working was greeted with a ferocious volley of barks. She never bit; she only persuaded.

German Shepherd Military Working Dog

A Helpful Partner. Not essential, but highly desirable. Someone has to pick up the slack.

Early Education. When my children were toddlers, I taught them to recite two things: their address and the following mantra.

Me: “When can you interrupt Mommy at work?”

Boys in unison: “In case of fire, flood, or injury with spurting blood.”

The one time my younger son burst in on me, he actually was covered in blood. It was his brother’s, not his own. Basketball accident. Sweat suits aside, the great advantage to working at home is that you’re actually there when you’re needed.

Besides, it doesn’t hurt kids to be independent. It might even help.

angelic childrenGood Kids. You can’t supervise children and write at the same time. Therefore, it’s helpful to have good kids. Of course, good or bad, you might as well resign yourself to the fact that kids will cut into your writing time. For one thing, they like to eat. For another, they tend to take up activities. I drove half the circumference of the earth conveying mine to practices, games, meetings, friends’ homes and various activities. But when I wasn’t being Taxidriver Mom, Dr. Mom, Chef Mom, or World’s Most Embarrassing Cheerleader Mom, when I was working, the mantra applied.

Duct Tape. In case all else fails.

Orneriness. There is no “nice” in writer. There is obsession. There has to be, especially for novelists, because novels take a long time to write. To succeed, you must batten down your inner sweetheart and practice saying no, and not just to your kids.

It’s easy once you get the hang of it. “Could you run the bake sale for the PTA?” “No, I’m working.” “Would you mind watching Cindy for the afternoon?” “Sorry, I’m working.” “Come take a dip in the pool.” Okay, that one I give into.


I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

19 thoughts on “The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer

  1. I love this post. I have a nine-year-old daughter and a fourteen-year-old stepson. Once I read an article called “The Working Mother’s Guide to Writing a Novel.” The part I remember most was the part that said, you no longer have hobbies. That part was hard to swallow being that I am somewhat of a professional “hobbiest” from rock climbing to gardening to bird watching… But alas, it was true, and cutting back on the zillion other things I love to do has been the ticket to finding space to write a novel. I am now working on my second one after my first got published. Thanks for this great post, Barbara, on how to get it done!

    • Janie—It’s tough to do everything: work, raise a family, AND write. So yeah, I guess hobbies do take a back seat…although a bit of exercise does sharpen the brain, they tell me. I keep meaning to try it.

  2. Me: “When can you interrupt Mommy at work?”

    Boys in unison: “In case of fire, flood, or injury with spurting blood.”
    LOLOL! That’s a good one! 😉

  3. When our children were young my husband closed in an area under the stairs for me, complete with door – and lock. Anybody else would have considered it a dungeon fit only for prisoners. To me it was was heaven!

  4. Actually, this just makes me wish I worked at home. Although if I had a home office, I would definitely have to get one of those block-yourself-off-the-internet programmes installed [g]

  5. “There is no “nice” in writer. There is obsession. There has to be, especially for novelists, because novels take a long time to write. To succeed, you must batten down your inner sweetheart and practice saying no.”
    I have copied, pasted, and printed these words and am going to pin them to the wall in my office. I have no children (and they’d be grown by now anyway), but I do have an inner sweetheart who loves saying yes, curse her. Oh, and a cat. I can’t say no to the cat, but I’m definitely going to start saying no to the inner sweetheart.

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  7. I can so relate to this today! I told my eldest that Mummy just wanted 30 minutes on my laptop, he said ok as he was playing Minecraft. 15 minutes in I have given up as every 10 seconds he calls my name! This is why I usually only blog when they are asleep!


  8. True words, Barbara. When the kids were young I actually wrote more. Now that I have more time I tend to procrastinate.

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