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6 Survival Tips for Women Writers

02/04/2015 10:41 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

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Whenever I speak to aspiring writers at libraries or bookstores, I inevitably hear stories like these from women:

"I used to write, but then I had my kids and quit."

"I just retired from my job, so finally I have a little time to write."

"I've been working on my novel for about 10 years."

"I would have started my book sooner, but my mom was ill and needed me."

Listening to the job and family responsibilities women are shouldering makes me wonder how any women write books at all. It also makes me recall a time, about 20 years ago, when I was in their shoes -- a writer with a toddler and another baby on the way, a husband, a house, and a part-time job -- and attending talks by authors who had "made it." Whenever possible, I asked how they managed to shoehorn writing time into their busy lives. I wasn't even worrying about publishing at that point; I simply wanted to figure out how to find time to write.

At one talk by a famous male mystery writer, who I shall not name here for fear that you'll go set his house on fire once you read this, I asked how he managed to write with two small children at home.

He raised an eyebrow. "Easy," he said. "I have a wife."

"I have a husband," I pointed out, confused.

Now he grinned. "That's not quite the same thing."

All right, I didn't slap him -- not because he didn't deserve it for such a flippant response -- but because I knew there was truth in what he was saying. My husband is one of those step-up-to-the-plate guys who does the lion's share of the cooking, believes children need their dads, and pretty much is a team player even when it's time to do laundry.

However, I am the family caretaker, in the sense that I am the one scheduling pediatrician appointments and haircuts, attending sports events, taking my widowed mother out for Sunday drives, etc. I love doing all of these things, but let's admit this right now, if only to ourselves: a woman's work is never done, because our children and parents and great aunts and best friends and even our neighbors next door all have needs, and we respond.

Therefore, when it comes to a choice between something perceived as "frivolous," like writing or painting or following any other artistic passion that neither makes us money nor improves our beauty or fitness, we tend to shove that activity down lower and lower on our "to do" lists until it falls off completely. It's very hard to tell your child, who wants to play Monopoly, "Oh, no, honey, sorry, Mommy has to work on her book this Saturday."

See? It sounds selfish, and perhaps it is, from the child's point of view. Or from the point of view of your spouse or partner, who secretly believes you aren't going to publish anything anyway, so why not just go to the movies, or the big sister and brother, who the child then bothers because you're no fun, and who can't believe Mom won't drive them to the mall because she's working on another dumb book.

The one moment that changed my writing life more than any other happened soon after I met that mystery writer, fortunately. It was at the Boston Public Library, where I went to see political activist and writer Grace Paley speak to a packed house. Despite the crowd, Paley graciously spoke to everyone who approached her after the event.

After telling Paley how much I adored her short stories, I asked the same old question: "How did you manage to get any writing done with young children at home?"

"I didn't," she replied. "I used day care."

It had never occurred to me to pay for day care while I was writing fiction -- after all, it wasn't like my husband and I had a lot of cash to spare -- and yet, I realized right then that I had to find a way.

And I did: I took on more paying work and set aside some small amount of money every week so that I could hire the woman across the street to look after my children for a few hours each week while I wrote. I felt guilty, of course -- what sort of debutante was I, thinking that I deserved this luxury, when nobody seemed much interested in buying my stories or novels?--but, looking back on my career now, I know that was the single most important decision I ever made as a writer.

You might not be in a position to do that. You might be a single mom scrambling to pay the rent, or a middle-aged mother trying to put kids through college, or someone whose elderly parents seem to need you 24/7. What then? Here are some survival tips for women writers:

1. Believe That Writing Is Work

It may seem that your writing is a hobby, especially if you're crafting the kind of fiction that only literary journals might be interested in publishing, but writing is work. No published writer has managed to get into print (or even online) without countless hours of labor. Yes, it's a labor of love, but it will take you hours to perfect your craft. Give your work those hours. And, when you doubt the merits of what you're doing, remember that you, as a writer, are in effect a cultural historian. Where would our culture be without artists?

2. Value the Process

Even when the writing is going badly -- as it so often does -- believe in the process. You can't learn to ride a bicycle without pedaling the damn thing yourself and falling off a few times. Scraped knees and elbows are signs that you're learning. So are rejected manuscripts.

3. Give Yourself Deadlines

It's easy to take 10 years to write a novel when you don't have deadlines, or to stop writing altogether. Find a way to put yourself on a writing schedule. This is probably best done by joining a writing workshop, which you can do for free or at a very low cost. Check out local community college classes, adult education centers, libraries, online writing courses, bookstores and coffee shops that host open mics. Or start your own workshop and make the deadlines firm for members.

4. Find a Community

Yes, writers spend a lot of hours alone. We love our sweat pants and flannels more than anybody. However, it takes a village to publish a book, from writing critiques to advice about agents and the publishing process. There are writers living near you even if you don't know them yet. Find them by attending author readings and literary festivals. (This photo shows me with my dear friend Sandi Kahn Shelton, who also writes as Maddie Dawson.)

5. Ignore the House

Sometimes, it feels like the house is like another child, doesn't it? Always whining about dirty floors and cluttered counters, it can get on your nerves. Set yourself time to write each day -- early morning before you go to your job, or at night when the kids are in bed, or every Saturday afternoon, whatever works -- and during that time, closet yourself in one clean corner of the house and ignore its pleadings about the vacuum. If anyone in your family complains about the mess, you know what to tell them: "I'm writing, sorry."

6. Defect From Your Family

This is probably the most important advice I can give any aspiring woman writer: Leave home. I don't care if you borrow a friend's empty kitchen while she's away for the weekend, sign up for a writing retreat or rent a motel room, but find a way to get out of your house and think, even if you don't get much writing done when you first try this. Your family will survive, and if you can find a way to do this on any sort of regular basis, you will find it easier and easier to remove yourself from the swirling Bermuda Triangle of infinite domestic duties. Soon, you will embrace this meditative writing time, and it will become easier to make the almighty leap between caretaker and woman writer.