Weekend Writing Inspiration: 7 Creative Strategies to Survive 'Distance Learning' and Keep Writing this Fall
July 31, 2020
With many school districts here in the U.S. planning to open this fall with “full distance” or “hybrid” learning in short order, many writer-parents are anxiously wondering how to keep working their day jobs — let alone keep writing and preserve our well-being — on top of being full-time educators. (And even if you’re not in the U.S., let’s face it: writing and parenting always requires creative planning to pull off, so hopefully this is useful to you, too.)
As someone who has been working from home since 2002 (I’ve kept my business running through my two boys’ early childhoods; they’re now 6 and 12), I’ve come into this situation knowing firsthand how frustrating it can be to try to eke out time and space for work and writing in the midst of taking care of children. And managing distance learning only complicates the care.
Having said that, I also know it’s possible to continue to write, even when pressed for time, energy, and mental bandwidth.
Let me share with you a few things I’ve learned over the years.
First, a caveat: Even with educational changes as a common baseline, each of us is in a specific, unique-to-us situation. “Parenting” runs the gamut of life experience: single parenting, parenting with a partner; parenting with inflexible work schedules, parenting with flexible work schedules, having childcare support, not having childcare support; or parenting kids of different ages, needs or temperaments, etc. The permutations are endless.
As always, therefore, take from these ideas what best serves you, and ignore the rest.
Here are seven strategies to help you survive distance learning and keep writing this fall:
Commit to writing no matter what, even if you write ‘small’
When my second child was born (and I was grappling with massive sleep deprivation), I quickly established my key writing priority: To keep writing, no matter what. I didn’t care what I was writing specifically, but rather that I was writing at all. After years of working hard to solidly establish my writing habit, I wasn’t about to let it go. Writing is too critically important to my identity and sense of self. I put in a small amount of writing time every day — usually while my little one was napping — and made it happen.
Even if you’re forced to severely limit how much time you put toward writing right now, it’s worth it to keep going. Writing small — in short increments of time or page counts — can be a lifeline for a writer in terms of both identity and progress.
And in case you’re doubting the value of small increments of writing time, I finished a page-one rewrite of a script in 15 minutes a day during one of the most personally difficult periods of my life because I was absolutely committed to writing no matter what.
Give your writing ‘priority boarding’
Even with distance learning happening, give your writing priority boarding in your day. It’s like making your writing your own first-class passenger by writing in your most optimal time of day, when your mind is freshest and clearest, even if it’s for just five to 15 minutes.
Priority boarding also means that you protect your writing time (think of those first-class cabin curtains). In my household, this looks like me getting up before the rest of my family so I can write first thing in some quiet time and space. If I have to wake up a little earlier when distance learning starts, I will.
Save your easiest tasks for ‘crossover’ time
Think of your day organized into layers of time. There will be the small pockets of quiet, protected time you create; kid time when your children need fully focused attention from you, and “crossover” time when they’re engaged or working independently but may still need support to stay on track.
Use protected time for your most important work (including writing), kid time for focusing on them and schooling where they need support, and crossover time for any easier tasks you have. Note that I’m not defining lengths of time here. You’ll expand and contract the quantities to fit your circumstances.
An important part of this strategy is to save your easiest tasks for crossover time. These are tasks that require less of you, are asynchronous (don’t require scheduling with another human), and are relatively easy to do with kids coming and going or making noise. For me, for example, this includes things like making minor edits or formatting a script; updating websites, managing social media, scheduling, bookkeeping, or checking in with my online writer’s community. I save this type of work for when it’s less impactful to be interrupted.
Find creative moments to write
While you’re thinking about how to design your writing schedule in and around distance learning, keep in mind these possible spots to make writing happen:
- While the kids are sleeping:This can mean early mornings, late nights, nap time, or even in the middle of the night if you’re a flexible sleeper.
- While the kids are having screen time:If your kids are allowed screen time it can create some household quiet time that’s optimal for writing, conference calls, or other work that requires focus. Pro tip: Schedule screen time so everyone knows what to expect.
- While the kids are immersed in online learning: If your kiddo has a pattern of being able to distance learn without supervision, this can be a good time to write. Alternatively, it can be a time to do any easier, asynchronous work.
- In your car: A few writers in my community find that writing in their cars (with a partner in charge of the kids) is a way to carve out some isolated time and space for writing.
- While your partner manages the kids: If you have a partner (or fellow parent you’re podding with), set it up so you each have uninterrupted time to work.
The big ideas here are to find creative spots in the day for writing, as well as syncing up the right kinds of work with the types of time you have available.
Train yourself to write on command
If you haven’t already done this, now’s the time to train yourself to write on command. Instead of warming up before you start writing, just jump in. Warming up isn’t a luxury we have right now. I’ll also assert that it isn’t something we actually need. Writing frequently (i.e., daily or near-daily) is a better way to stay “warm” with your current script-in-progress.
Writing on command means having your script files at the ready (e.g., constantly open on your computer) and when it’s time to write, you write. Try setting a timer, too; the “start” button can trigger Pavlovian-style action.
Allow time to adapt to distance learning
When school starts, give yourself time (I’m estimating the first two weeks) and expect school to be new and different (rocky, even); learn the patterns and rhythms, find your footing, and discover what works well for you and your kids. Everyone will need an opportunity to adjust. Adapt your writing plan as you learn what works.
Be generous with yourself
Look, this whole situation we’re in is extreme. Parents are taking it on the chin. Making writing happen requires significant effort to begin with, and this only makes it harder. And, it’s still 100% worth it. This is who you are. It’s an investment in your career, growth and future. At the same time, make sure you take time off, too. Be generous with yourself; don’t expect miracles, and give yourself and your kids as rested a parent as you can be in the middle of all of this. You all deserve that.
Your weekend writer’s assignment
As school approaches, think about how you can build in protected writing time, even if it’s just a little bit. Mentally catalog asynchronous or easier work you can save for crossover time. Remember to give yourselves time to adjust when school starts, too.
Written by: Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter, columnist, and blogger who redesigned her life and career to support her calling to write. She specializes in sci-fi action and space fantasy, and her most recent project is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story for a Canadian producer. Jenna is also a writing coach and the founder of Called to Write, where she has helped hundreds of writers overcome procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance so they can get their writing onto the page and into the world where it belongs. Jenna writes about writing, creativity, and calling at calledtowrite.com, for ScriptMag, for Final Draft, and teaches for Screenwriter’s University. Download Jenna’s free guidebooks for writers when you join her mailing list at https://www.calledtowrite.com/mailing-list