#5onFri: Five Ways Being a Parent Taught Me to Be a Better Writer

by Joan F. Smith
published in Writing

Stepping into someone else’s shoes is a defined part of both creating and reading fiction. One thing no one told me was that I would change so much as a writer once I had a kid. It makes sense: becoming a parent forces someone to become an entirely different role; it broadens life experience in an immediate, all-encompassing way. There’s also the adage about children being like hearts walking around outside of your body, which is not unlike your books wandering the world, falling into the hands of readers.

One of my major worries pre-kids was how much less time I’d have to write, but as it turns out, I not only write more now that I’m a parent, but I also come up with more ideas. That includes the one for my upcoming book The Other Side of Infinity, which features a clairvoyant character inspired by my (mistaken) desire to quell anxiety by knowing everything that was coming when I had my second baby.

1. The Well of Emotion 

The first, the strongest: I prepared for the fact that parenthood would introduce me to all kinds of new feelings and emotions, but I did not prepare for exactly how deep I’d feel them. 

To my even bigger astonishment, as a writer, I felt emotions more deeply. I understood fear more once I became a parent. And despite my history with loss, I was wildly caught off guard by the newfound fear of losing my kid or my kid losing me.

To make matters even more emotional, I had to think about a tiny-but-growing person’s feelings in new ways, too. There’s a pipeline between helping your kid navigate feelings and emotion that has a resemblance to the way you help your characters navigate their feelings and reactions, too.

2. Patience 

If patience is a virtue, then I am virtue-deficient. I am not a patient person by nature, but it turns out being patient helps me enjoy things more. When I figured out that patience was extremely important for decent parenting, I decided to act as if I were patient, which has helped partially. 

Patience in publishing is an entirely different entity. Things are hurry up, wait, and then run. I’ll never forget pulling over to celebrate my first book deal . . . and then I did the math and figured out that my book would publish about two years later. 

Ideas come at their own pace, plot points materialize when they’re ready, and writing that first draft is nothing but chipping away at something bit-by-bit. An act of patience.

3. Time Management

My husband and I thankfully agree on many things, and one of them is that I am an unfortunate estimator of time. (A recent experience where I guessed it would take me two hours to paint a bedroom that then not only took fourteen, but also displaced us for two nights is a great example of this). 

I imagined this may get better with parenthood, but I imagined incorrectly. Parenting brought with it a whole new level of time sucking. A ten-minute rush out the door became a two-hour slog; naptimes are somehow both precious and limiting all at the same time. 

It’s really hard for me to turn writing on and off at scheduled times, but I learned to dictate my work into my phone during daycare (and now school) pickups and drop-offs. If a thought struck me while out for a walk or run with a stroller, I’d speak it directly into my Notes app. When I’m back at my computer, I can then copy/paste it directly into the document I’m working on and finesse it into something legible. Every single book I’ve completed has included dictation this way, and I’m so glad it’s part of my process.

4. Expect the Unexpected

I have to roll with the unexpected so much more often as a parent. I solve countless problems a day, sometimes before I get out of bed. I find missing underwear, I send extra soap into classrooms when I hear a classmate is out with a stomach bug, I navigate friend-hardships, hurt feelings, the act of sharing. I’m not just planning my life anymore, I’m steering the lives of those around me.

As a writer, I’ve always leaned plotter—I don’t start writing a book until I know how it’s going to end. The more I outline, the faster my experience in writing goes. 

Whether that comes from the amount of daily problem-solving I do or just through experience, I’m much better able to brainstorm ideas to solve problems I run into than I used to be. I’m also excellent at giving myself permission to deviate from what I’ve planned, which has led to some of the best scenes I’ve written. 

5. Reader first 

A huge part of writing is the not-writing part: the thinking, the brainstorming, the seeking of inspiration from all walks of life. 

Back when I was up nursing in the middle of the night, I noticed that I was reading a ton, which excited me because everyone said they had no time for reading once their kids were born. And then once my kids got into reading and bedtime included multiple board books, I played a silent game of predicting what would happen next in my kids’ stories. There’s a familiar cadence to storytelling, even when they’re board books. Beginnings, middles, and ends are universal. 

For me, at least, parenting is a self-study in character complexity. I know a lot of people who joke that they’re at their wit’s end by the end of the night, and then when their kids are finally asleep, they miss them. Choosing to parent was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’m so relieved that it’s only aided my writing career. 

Whether or not you choose to parent, these lessons—practicing patience, reading a ton, rolling with what you can, re-strategizing your time, and working on stepping into other people’s shoes—can only aid you in your experience. Good luck!

Joan F. Smith is an author, dance instructor, and former associate dean of creative writing. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Joan lives and writes in Massachusetts, where she was the 2021 Writer-in-Residence at the Milton Public Library. When she’s not writing, she’s either wrangling her kids, embarking on a new hobby she will quickly abandon, or listening to podcasts on a run.

For more information, you can find her on her website.

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