In 2007, I was twenty-four years old and newly married. I was also an aspiring writer. After collecting a lot of rejection letters, I finally got to see my name in print in a small literary journal. The piece was a personal essay about my new life as a military wife. Back then I’d lay awake at night after my husband fell asleep, wondering what would happen if he died in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever the Army might send him. I was terrified of losing him.
Fast forward to 2019. I’m now thirty-six and a mother of two. I’m still writing and I’m still married—well, sort of. My husband and I are currently separated and getting a divorce. Our marriage may have survived the military and deployment, but somehow my fears have come true anyway. I’m losing him.
I wish I could write this essay as a tale of triumph. You know the type, with glossy pages and a snazzy headline like, “My Divorce Devastated Me But Now Watch Me Thrive!” in Ladies Home Journal. I would delve into my pain and grief, but by the end of the piece I’d gush about how my children are doing great and how my most recent book became an instant bestseller and how my handsome boyfriend named Jake Gyllenhaal recently proposed and we’re moving onto his mega yacht for a trip around the world
“Caroline Tung Gyllenhaal” sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?
My reality is far less shiny (and without any sign of Jake). I’m juggling two jobs and two kids and all of the stuff that comes with being a grown-up, like cooking and cleaning and saving up for retirement. And did I mention that my basement flooded a mere four days after we moved into our current house? Thank you for that, Mother Nature!
So how do I weave in writing into this chaotic mix that’s called my life? Ha! That’s a great question that I’m still figuring out, but here’s what I’ve been doing so far.
Utilizing Word Sprints and Public Shame
I’m very lucky to be able to write part-time. I can dedicate about 15 hours of my workweek to writing (the remaining 25 hours goes toward my job at We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit group). Fifteen hours is a decent chunk of time, but it can go quickly so I have to be super disciplined. Which I am not. But, hey, change can happen!
Right now I’m drafting a Cold War alternate history novel for Scholastic, and I’m aiming to write 2000 words every day. Some people can churn that out in an hour, but 2000 words might as well be a half-marathon for a sloth-like writer like me. But deadlines are deadlines so I hold myself accountable by doing word sprints. My process goes like this:
- Write for 30 minutes.
- Add up how many words I’ve written.
- Take a break.
- If needed, announce progress on Twitter to publicly shame myself so that I will write more.
See? Social media has its uses!
Squeezing Out More Writing Time
Sometimes I get really busy at WNDB so I need to carve out writing time elsewhere. So what’s a single mom to do? I’ve tackled this in three ways.
First, I share custody with my soon-to-be ex and he’s very willing to step up as needed. On the days that he has the kids, I usually use that time to hammer out more writing. (And send emails to Jake Gyllenhaal. Kidding.
Second, I got a membership at my local YMCA, which offers 2 hours of childcare, Monday to Saturday. I’ve definitely been that mom who drops her kids off at the Fun Zone for an hour so that I can sit in the lobby and make headway on my book. I’ll admit that I feel a lot of guilt over this because I’d rather be spending time with my kiddos, but they really like the Y and I do need to make money so that we can, you know, live.
Third, if I’m really in a bind, I’ll drink a massive cup of strong black tea around 8:30PM so that I can stay up late and work after my kids are asleep. I can’t really recommend this option because A.) sometimes my brain is so mushy after a long day that the words I write between 10AM and midnight are semi-garbage, and B.) this strategy doesn’t seem super sustainable or healthy. But! You have to do what you have to do, and that’s why I keep a big box of English Breakfast in my cupboard.
Giving Myself a Break
The phrase “self-care” gets thrown around a lot these days, but we all need to do it, especially if you’re a single parent. Case in point, I spent most of this past summer either working or writing or parenting and not much else. For a few weeks this schedule worked out fine, but then I got major burnout. There were nights when I should’ve been writing because I didn’t have the kids, but my mind was so fried that I ended up watching an endless stream of YouTube videos. (Might I recommend the “Truth or Drink” series on Cut?) Then I’d feel guilty about not writing and would beat myself up for it. A fun cycle!
Eventually I realized that my brain was revolting against me. Give me a break or everything you write will be trash! it seemed to say. Since I don’t like writing trash, I listened. Thus far I’ve been gardening, reading, working out (ugh), and watching “Harlots” and YouTube clips. Granted, I still spend a lot of free time on writing, but my brain seems a lot less crabby.
Now Watch Me Thrive!
Maybe in a couple years I’ll have it all figured out and you’ll find my story splashed on People magazine with phrases like “Billionaire Author!” and “Sloth Rescuer!” under my name. Until then I’ll keep trying to be a good mom and a decent writer and a responsible adult who puts her money into savings instead of buying butter croissants. I may not be thriving, but I am surviving and I’m adjusting to my new normal, day by day, inch by inch.
There will probably be bumps in the road ahead, but you know what? It’ll all be worth it—especially when Mr. Gyllenhaal finally proposes.
Caroline Tung Richmond is the award-winning author of The Only Thing to Fear, The Darkest Hour, and Live in Infamy, and the coeditor of Hungry Hearts. She’s also the program director of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in children’s literature. A self-proclaimed history nerd and cookie connoisseur, Caroline lives with her family in Maryland. Visit her online and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.