How to Write When You Don’t Even Have Time to Brush Your Teeth

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Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash, edited by the author

I’m writing this — like everything — on my phone, in the dark, with a single clumsy thumb.

It’s not a great system. (On the first attempt, Google interpreted that sentence as “ours not a great sudden.”) The glare stings, my wrist cramps. I can see a few sentences at a time, at best. It’s like writing through a keyhole.

I long for my laptop and a table, perhaps at a cafe near a generous window. Or the ultimate luxury: editing on an actual piece of paper. What I would give for a red felt-tip marker and a latte.

But here I am, wrestling my Android like some kind of techno-Jacob, losing badly.

Why?

Because if I turned on the light, it would wake the larval human currently draining the life out of me through my left nipple. (Always, for some reason, the left one. This kid has strong opinions.)

This is the only way she sleeps.

If she is not being nursed by me, or rocked by my husband, she is running at full speed. This is true for naps, and this is true at night. I haven’t slept, really, in a year.

She is my second child, and we’re in the middle of a global pandemic babysitter ban, so even if I did by some miracle get her to sleep in a crib, I’d have to contend with the older one. At this point, I’m a human-shaped construction of scaffolding, duct tape, and unbrushed teeth.

If I have ten minutes to myself, I have to use it to do things like shove a sandwich in my face, or actually do my day job, or wash dishes. Or poop. (But I better not flush it before my 4-year-old has a chance to inspect its size and consistency. This is my life now.)

So why am I using my few scarce moments of quiet to write this little missive to you, on my phone, in the dark?

Because, at the end of a trying day, it gives me a little lift to think that I could be useful to you. After all, if I can keep writing with my thumb (now 90% numb under the weight of this fat baby’s head), maybe I can help you do the same.

So in that spirit, here is my strategy:

First: remember that your writing is not for you

If you’re worth your salt, you write for the same reason I do: you want to make something of value, and then you want to give it away — probably to complete strangers.

What a profoundly lovely thing.

We forget this with stats, claps, likes, and the rest. We start to think that the point of writing is to gain fame or money. But we shouldn’t write for ourselves — a hot bath is better for your well-being, I promise, and you’d likely earn a higher hourly wage at McDonald’s — we should write for the people we’re giving our stories to.

And if you’re writing because you deeply want to give something to other people — to say something to them that they really needed to hear, and that only you could have said — then you’ve got to believe that it’s worth finding time for those people.

For example, I wrote the first essay I’d written in a long time just a few months ago, when I was working full-time remotely during the pandemic with both of my small children in the house. To put it gently, things were…not great. So I wrote an essay explaining why (and how) companies should be cutting parents slack. I wrote it so that my friends could share it with their companies, and they did — it got thousands of views in just a few days — and many of them told me how useful the article had been.

By scraping together the time to write something vulnerable when I was at my absolute worst, I actually helped other people. If that isn’t worth the effort, what is?

Another example: I’m writing this, right now, for other people who are barely hanging on. I’m writing this for you.

I want you to know that when you feel crushed and exhausted and worthless, you are the opposite of that — in fact, you might have more important things to say now than you ever have before.

When I’m thinking that I might be able to help you, it makes sense to find space for writing in the nooks and crannies of my day.

Not everyone will love what I write, or even like it, but if you do — that’s enough of a reason.

Second, know that the harder it is for you to write, the more your voice needs to be heard

If you’re childless, well-adjusted, and financially stable, it’s not that hard to bang out some 10-point productivity listicle Why I’m Doing So Awesome and How You Can, Too.

That’s why we have so many lists like that, and why they’ve developed that uncanny, Stepford-quality sameness. Personally, I have no interest in them.

What I want to read is The Secret Lives of Exterminators or 5 Bizarre Things Your Bus Driver Sees Every Day. Or maybe, What it Feels Like to Have Triplets. I want to read these things because they would teach me something new — but pieces like that are hard to find precisely because the people who need to write them might feel they lack the time or the skill to tell their stories. Certainly it’s harder for them than it is for Mr. Listicle.

But we need their stories more.

If you’re finding it impossible to write, perhaps we need your story more, too.

Keep your audience in mind, and snatch ever sliver of time you can for them

The conventional wisdom is to set aside the same time for writing every day, but that’s not possible for a lot of us. Certainly not for me. So make this commitment instead: when a little sliver of time appears, snatch it. Write a sentence or two, and keep going until you have to stop.

The only time I have is when my children are asleep. Since I have to hold my child to get her to sleep, that means I have to write on my phone, in the pitch dark.

If I were writing for myself, I’d think not today, I’ll just close my eyes. But I’m writing for you, and I think you deserve a little better from me, so I pull myself together and swipe a few sentences.

Whoever you’re writing for deserves better from you, too. Maybe you have to write on the train, or during the 3pm lull in your shift, or during your regular 2am bout of insomnia. Or even on the toilet. Whatever. It might take you weeks or months to write a thousand words, and as many more to edit it — but I think you’ll find that, as you get into the habit of scraping together those spare moments, more and more time appears to you.

You will get faster. It will get easier.

At the end of it all, you’ll have a wonderful gift to give to a complete stranger.

And remember: doing this makes your life better, too

Of course, finding the time to write ends up being good for me, too. I feel purposeful. I feel useful. I get to challenge myself. I worry less that all my knowledge and good traits are fossilizing under the silt of daily life.

I can’t tell you how many naps it’s taken me to tap this little essay out. Sometimes a nap yields half a sentence, sometimes eight sentences, rarely more. But I snatched each one out of the time I had, and now it’s done.

And you’re reading it. And perhaps it’s helped you. This gives me some joy in a very difficult day.

To me, that’s worth it.

Professional writer, parent, educator. Unusual woman.

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