I was six months pregnant with my first daughter when I started a novel-writing workshop at the home of a famous LA novelist, a male, who shall remain unnamed. It was at his Hollywood Hills home and you had to be recommended to get into his class, so I was elated when a friend got me in, just in time. It was an eight week course, which would end right before the baby was born. It was perfect, I thought. I arrived at his home, pen in one hand, belly in the other.
(On that day, I was wearing clothes.)
The grand novelist himself threw open the door to my timid knock, swung his arm out, and declared, Welcome to the (his name) workshop.
Then, he looked down and gaped at my belly. Oh no, he said. Are you going to give birth in my home? I assured him that I would not.
He was clearly horrified, but what could he do? He couldn’t kick out the pregnant lady, just for being pregnant. I greeted everyone, and of course the students asked when I was due and all the questions you ask pregnant women. But nobody asked what I was writing.
The novelist guided all of us eager students to his library where he had shelves of books written by former students. These students had thanked him in their novels and he expected us to thank him too. Then, he looked at my belly with large eyes and said that it was impossible to write anything worthwhile during a big life transition.
We walked back downstairs and began the workshop. I made it through this class without giving birth in his living room, though it would have served him right. For the next eight weeks, all he saw was my belly. I learned a great deal from him, but I left him, cooking in a stew of insecurities about whether it was even possible to achieve the lofty goal of publishing novels while raising children. I wondered if any of his students’ novels were written by parents. Was it in fact impossible to write during a big life transition? And wasn’t childhood marked by transitions one after another?
I was determined to write and publish books while raising kids, so I joined a critique group. The woman who ran the group, Susan Merson, became a wonderful mentor and teacher, but at first she laughed when I said I planned to finish the novel I was writing in a year. She had a teen and said I’d be lucky if I wrote anything at all for three years. I wondered if I was deluding myself, but I stayed in the group, and soon gave birth.
Susan was right about not writing immediately after the baby came: I didn’t write for about a month. Between no sleep and the steep learning curve of taking care of a little wiggly pink creature, I was too overwhelmed to think of anything else. But then, after a month, I continued writing my novel about a modern-day slave in Los Angeles. It was based on countless interviews and a research trip to Moldova, and I was determined to finish this book.
I wrote when our daughter napped. She wasn’t a good sleeper, and she needed to be on me to sleep for any length of time, so I put her in a baby wrap and typed away.
I wrote while she did tummy time. While she did played in her playpen. While she rocked in her swing.
I wrote while nursing. I always had a pad nearby to write descriptions or ideas or character studies.
(Note the Harry Potter book and journal underneath on the coffee table.)
When I wasn’t actually writing, I was reading, listening to books on tape or thinking about writing. I planned scenes while I did the dishes, cleaned, changed diapers, and drove to baby playdates.
And I kept going to that critique group, to the surprise of all. None of the other writers had small kids, but they encouraged me, applauded my efforts, and gave me valuable feedback.
Soon, I had a toddler running all over the place, getting into everything, and she needed my full attention when she was awoke. I wrote during naps. Soon, there was only one nap and I learned to write very fast in an hour. I thought about my upcoming scene during the time leading up to the nap, imagining, getting my mind into the body of my character, and then writing like a maniac next to my daughter in bed so she’d sleep longer. My house was often messy and my hair was never done, but that was okay.
On the weekends, when my husband was home, I worked part time and I wrote, both Saturday and Sunday, leaving early, when the baby was in good spirits. My husband and I traded off, so he could get a break, and exercise or write too.
Then, baby number two came along.
I stopped working part time, but I kept writing on the weekends. In the week, our older girl watched TV during the baby’s naps, and that’s when I wrote. TV is wonderful in small doses for parents who want to achieve their dreams and don’t have money for a babysitter.
When our girls were one and four, we moved from LA to New York, and I decided my novel was ready. I sent my novel to a literary agent, Kate Lee at ICM, who loved it, and suddenly, I was an agented writer! I’d sent a previous novel to over twenty agents, who had all rejected it, so I’d prepared myself for rejection, but Kate accepted this novel immediately, which I thought meant it would also be published quickly.
Next, Kate sent me editorial notes, which meant there was a time frame for me to finish. Our first daughter was in morning preschool, so I hired a babysitter for the mornings to take care of our one year old, and that’s when I wrote revisions. After a year and three rounds of sending it back and forth, Kate submitted it to agents. But none of them wanted it.
So then, I did a major rewrite, from scratch, which took another year. I wrote everywhere I could, on trains and in playgrounds, on weekends, and in every spare moment.
Finally, it was ready. Kate was about to send it out to a new group of editors. That’s when I got very lucky. I was returning from the National Book Award Reading on the train with a friend and talking about my book when I noticed a woman watching us, and listening. The woman followed me out of the train and said, excuse me, I’m an editor and I’d like to read your book. It was Kendra Levin at Penguin. Kate sent the book to her, and she loved it. Finally, miraculously, Penguin bought my book. Two years later, my first young adult novel, Trafficked, was published.
Trafficked made many book lists and is now used in high school curriculums across the US. My second novel, This Is Not A Love Letter, was named by NPR as a Best Book of 2018.
So, if you’re a mom out there, and you’re a writer, I just want to say, don’t believe anyone who says you can’t write while raising kids. It may take a little longer, but I did it and you can do it too.