Hand that rocks cra­dle also writes

A nov­el­ist and Times critic of­fers tips on how to bal­ance fam­ily needs and a book.

Los Angeles Times - - Book Review - THE WRIT­ING LIFE MARY McNAMARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC mary.mcnamara@latimes.com McNa­ma­rawill be at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sun­day in a panel on “Risky Biz-ness: Fic­tion That Cel­e­brates and Sat­i­rizes the En­ter­tain­ment In­dus­try” (10:30-11:30 a.m.).

A dozen years ago, my edi­tor at the Los An­ge­les Times asked if I wanted to in­ter­view nov­el­ist Mary Gor­don, who was in Los An­ge­les on a book tour. Enor­mously preg­nant, I said yes, partly be­cause I love Mary Gor­don and partly be­cause her ho­tel was two blocks away from Cedars-Si­nai Med­i­cal Cen­ter — if I went into la­bor dur­ing the in­ter­view, I fig­ured I could just walk.

Given my state and Gor­don’s sym­pa­thetic na­ture, our con­ver­sa­tion turned to­ward the dif­fi­cul­ties of work­ing and, in par­tic­u­lar, writ­ing moth­ers. I con­fessed that hav­ing tried and failed sev­eral times to “Write That Novel,” I feared that now I’d never do it. Non­sense, she said. (I be­lieve she ac­tu­ally used the word “non­sense.”) She had writ­ten her first novel, “Fi­nal Pay­ments,” with two young chil­dren. Moth­er­hood was ex­haust­ing, dis­tract­ing and con­sum­ing, but it also made you very, very or­ga­nized. “You will be amazed what you can get done in a free hour or two when that is all you have,” Gor­don said.

And she was right. That first child is a shock, but even­tu­ally six hours of in­ter­rupted sleep feels nor­mal, you find day care you trust and ac­cept that you now have two full­time jobs. You learn how to carry on three con­ver­sa­tions at once while mak­ing break­fast, pack­ing the lunches and get­ting ready for work. Your floor may be a mulch of cheese-stick wrap­pers, tan­ger­ine peels and stray socks, but you know how to dis­sect a day and work a cal­en­dar.

And so, even­tu­ally, I be­gan to write fic­tion again. It took three tries — the first book was so bad I couldn’t get an agent, the sec­ond got an agent but no pub­lisher, and the third, “Os­car Sea­son,” was pub­lished by Simon & Schus­ter. Now there’s a se­quel, called “The Star­let.” Both are Hol­ly­wood­ish books, but while some read­ers want to know if the char­ac­ters are based on real stars or ac­tual events, more of them just want to know how I did it. How the mother of three chil­dren with a full-time job, an em­ployed hus­band and no nanny man­aged to write a novel.

So here’s the an­swer: It’s very dif­fi­cult. But so is los­ing 30 pounds or learn­ing French or grow­ing your own veg­eta­bles or train­ing for a marathon or any of the many other things work­ing par­ents of­ten man­age to pull off. While it’s tempt­ing to keep the idea of writ­ing wrapped up in a glit­tery gauze of muse-di­rected cre­ativ­ity, it’s just an­other sort of work, one that re­quires ded­i­ca­tion, com­mit­ment, time and the nec­es­sary tools.

So like any good work­ing mother, I’m of­fer­ing you a list of what I think you ac­tu­ally need. (You will no­tice this list doesn’t in­clude “an idea”; I’m go­ing to as­sume you have one of those.)

A sup­port­ive part­ner. I know sin­gle work­ing moth­ers who write, and they are su­per­hu­man sa­vants and out of my league. I couldn’t have done it with­out my hus­band, who is also a writer. Re­jec­tion makes it easy to quit, par­tic­u­larly when you al­ready have a job, but af­ter that sec­ond book did not sell, he forced me to give it one more shot. I told him I would need three hours ev­ery day to do it, and be­cause I can­not think be­fore 8 a.m., it would have to come in the evening. So for more than a year, I went off the Mommy clock at 8:30. Richard was in charge of bed­time, and I sat down at the din­ing room ta­ble and wrote un­til 11 or 11:30.

Kids who read. It helped that the chil­dren could un­der­stand what was mak­ing Mommy so cranky — she’s writ­ing a book! (Frankly it made more sense to them than my job as TV critic, which they still refuse to con­sider work.) Kids who are in­volved in ac­tiv­i­ties that re­quire prac­tice of more than

one hour. Some­where in the edit­ing process of “Os­car Sea­son,” our third child came along and the night­time sched­ule stopped work­ing — Mommy can’t ig­nore a nurs­ing baby no mat­ter what time it is.

So, much on soc­cer of “The fields, Star­let” gym­na­sium was writ­ten bleach­ers and dur­ing choir re­hearsals.

Alap­top. I used to be­lieve in the or­ganic power of the pen on paper, but un­less you have your own per­sonal tran­scriber, who has that kind of time? Lap­tops are the mod­ern woman’s equiv­a­lent of Vir­ginia Woolf’s fa­mous room — they can turn any room you’re in into your own. I blush to dis­close that I did a lot of writ­ing at our lo­cal Star­bucks (memo to Star­bucks: Turn down the mu­sic).

Adaily goal. The im­por­tant part of this phrase is “daily.” You have to write Ev­ery Sin­gle Day, and I mean it. Ob­vi­ously there are ex­emp­tions for death and ill­ness, but it’s like di­et­ing or work­ing out — if you start skip­ping one day or two, it’s all over. Some writ­ers go by pages — three pages a day seems com­mon. I go by time. Two hours is ideal. One is bet­ter than noth­ing, three is the max­i­mum.

The abil­ity to men­tally mul­ti­task. In­stead of veg­ging out dur­ing your com­mute or while gro­cery shop­ping, you need to use this time to work on char­ac­ter and plot. Most writ­ing hap­pens only in your head, so any time you are do­ing some­thing rel­a­tively mind­less, you should be se­cretly writ­ing. It helps to take notes — I re­dis­cov­ered the grade-school joys of writ­ing on my hand. The will­ing­ness to give up a lot of other stuff. What­ever you have as your “me time” is now his­tory. Hour-long work­outs? You could be writ­ing. Lunch and or din­ner with friends? Ditto. Hob­bies of any sort? For­get them. Va­ca­tions? Take them, but take your lap­top too. (Cruises are good be­cause they have child-care cen­ters that the kids ac­tu­ally like and then your part­ner has some time too.) My hus­band and I try to keep a date night, but while I was writ­ing “The Star­let,” that of­ten meant get­ting a baby sit­ter so we could go sit in a café and work for three hours. So ro­man­tic.

Pa­tience and a stiff up­per lip. It takes a long time to write a book. A year, two years, three years. Then you will have to re­write it. And cut out at least two of your fa­vorite parts. I guar­an­tee it.

Dis­cre­tion. Of course you want to tell ev­ery­one that you’re writ­ing a book, and who­ever you tell will then be forced to ask what it’s about (only a few will hon­estly care, by the way). But talk­ing about writ­ing a book is not, as it turns out, the same as writ­ing a book. In fact, it of­ten proves to be the op­po­site of writ­ing a book. Like­wise, don’t ask any­one to read any­thing un­til you’ve got an ac­tual story. As in a be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end. Peo­ple can’t help you un­til they know what you’re try­ing to do, and fuss­ing over the de­tails is not a lux­ury you can af­ford un­til you’ve told your story.

Re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions. I sup­pose there is some­one out there who could write the Great Amer­i­can Novel while work­ing full time and rais­ing three kids, but I ain’t her. My two books are Hollywood mys­ter­ies, which I didn’t have to re­search be­cause I have writ­ten about the in­dus­try for years. I think they are very good books, well-writ­ten and fun to read, but they won’t win a Pulitzer. That will have to wait un­til the kids head to col­lege.

Oh, and writ­ing a book does not, by the way, guar­an­tee that you will be the next El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert or Dan Brown. And al­though this seems like sim­ple com­mon sense, it comes as quite a shock to some. But if you’re a writer, you don’t write for money or fame or a chance to dish with Oprah Win­frey. Ba­si­cally, you write be­cause when you’re not writ­ing, you’re even more cranky than when you are writ­ing. And as my kids can tell you, that’s say­ing some­thing.

Polly Becker

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