I’m a Single Mom. Do I Still Get to Write?
How I decided that even as a single mother who lives pay check to pay check, I have the right to dedicate my life to writing fiction.
How much longer am I going to put up with being poor, I wonder, as I prepare for my son’s ninth birthday in a week. Preparing for his ninth birthday means figuring out if I can afford Legoland. My son wants to go for his birthday, but tickets cost around $100 a person, and there are three of us, including his older brother. The birthday boy also wants new games for his Nintendo Switch. That and he wants to have a party with a jumpy castle and to invite all his friends from school. I’m a single mom who earns a living as an online tutor. I live pay check to pay check with no savings and no retirement fund, working part-time, so that I’ll have time to write. I don’t want a high-pressure job that demands a lot from me. I’m investing all of me into my writing.
Sure, that’s all fine, but what about my kids? Did they choose this life of scraping by just so I can follow my dreams? I tell myself that I’m modeling something important for them, that you don’t surrender for anything. But what if I’m also teaching them not to jump ship when that ship’s already sunk?
I’ve been working on my current novel for five years now, and I’m still not done. If I haven’t finished it by now, will I ever? I feel ashamed every time someone asks, “Is your book done yet?” When I say, “Almost,” I’m lucky to receive a skeptical look. If I’m not lucky, my questioner will cringe. Didn’t I say the same thing a year ago when they asked? Or they take on a parental tone. “Just finish it already.” All that’s missing is a finger-wagging. They don’t need to wag their finger at me. I wag my finger enough at myself. I’m my own biggest critic and I’m wracked by self-doubt.
There are many reasons that I shouldn’t be writing. I get very little support from my ex. I should be working a full-time, corporate (non-creative) job to give my children the kind of childhood they deserve, one with Legoland birthdays. But I don’t. I’m still hacking away at this writing thing. Who am I to think that I’m talented enough to keep this up?
Is my desire to be a fiction writer a creative drive or is it a mental illness?
You can’t imagine how excited I was by Anna Burns’ 2018 Man Booker Prize win for her novel Milkman, though of course before this win I had no idea that she or her book existed. Look at that — a writer much less privileged than myself, who grew up working class in Northern Ireland, who lived off of charity from the local food bank in order to write her novel. If she can do it, so can I. I can weather poverty because having free time is the only way to write something good.
Of course there’s J.K. Rowling, the welfare mom who went on to write an award-winning series of young-adult books enjoyed the world over. J.K. Rowling also struggled with poverty, but she still succeeded. Follow her model, I tell myself. I can do the same! But J.K. Rowling wrote books about an orphaned boy wizard who triumphs in the face of adversity while I write about unhappy white people cheating on each other and having perverted sex. I worry that my writing isn’t as good as J.K. Rowling’s or Anna Burns’. I mean, they’re both really talented. What about me? What if all this sacrifice is for naught? What if I never write something that’s that good? What am I waiting for anyhow? Just finish the book already! Finger-wag in my direction.
I pick up my self-esteem from the gutter. I’m not a total novice. I’ve had some fiction published in short form though in only the most esoteric of journals. Still, I’ve got a ton of experience — well, experience in starting and then casting aside other novels when I decided the plot wasn’t working out as I wanted, or I simply got bored with the story line. I’ve done this so many times I wonder if I’ve got something wrong with my head. Is my desire to be a fiction writer a creative drive or is it a mental illness?
One of the biggest arguments I had with my ex before I left him was over whether or not I was a real writer. In his opinion I wasn’t because I hadn’t finished a novel yet. Yes, I was writing one, but I wasn’t done with it and there certainly wasn’t any interest in it from any publishers. I hadn’t even spoken to any publishers. I was putting in zero effort to network or build a platform. Still, when I finally left him two and a half years ago, one of my biggest fears was not whether I’d ever find love again but whether I’d be able to continue writing. Being a writer in a household with two incomes is one thing. Doing it in a household with just one is quite another. Our sons now live with me full-time, and I’m in charge of paying my own rent. I’m the one who makes them dinner each night and helps them with their homework and takes them to soccer, etc. And I’m also the disciplinarian. Me — the online tutor, who has two degrees but who still refuses to get a job that pays her a decent wage because she’s busy following her dream. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if I’d be able to find a job with a good salary at this point. I’m pushing fifty. Am I too old?
I have to believe that I haven’t put this much work into something for nothing.
In a sense, this is exactly what keeps me writing. I’ve gone too far to turn back now. I’ve sacrificed too much not to see this through to the end. I can’t stop. All the time I’ve invested, the years of work — all I can do is take one step in front of the other, put my fingers to the keyboard and keep typing. This is all I can do even if all I see is darkness ahead. (I’m creating drama now, you see; I’m a fiction writer.) I have to believe that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I have to believe that I haven’t put this much work into something for nothing. I have to believe in myself. I have no choice. To stop believing in myself is to die a creative death and maybe even a real one.
No wonder social media abounds with glib adages from self-declared life coaches framed in squares or spat out in 140 characters or less. My feeds alone are full of inspirational quotes. “Just believe in yourself: No one else will.” “Believe so deeply until it manifests for you.” “No more I’m not good enough: Your belief determines what’s possible.” “Creativity takes courage: Never give up.” “You are beautiful and your voice deserves to be part of our world.” “Everything is possible with the right mindset.” Really? My son wants to go to Legoland for his birthday and I don’t really have the money to make it happen. Yes, my voice deserves to be part of this world, but if so, why do I receive so many rejection letters from publishers? Oh, yeah, I haven’t received any rejection letters lately because my book’s still not done. Finger-wag me, please. Believe in myself? I have to. There are so many things that otherwise point to my failure. I have to keep banging away at this writing thing. I have to put up with the shame and put up with the poverty and ask that my two sons do, too. Mom can’t buy you a new Nintendo Switch game because Mom has a dream. Maybe Legoland will happen next year, but this year why don’t you just go outside and actually experience the world because Mom can’t afford anything else.
I’ve failed a lot, but I’ve gotten back up, dusted myself off and tried again.
My son asked me the other day if when I finish my book I was going to make money.
“I don’t know,” I said. He took a moment to think over my answer.
“So you mean it’s a gamble?”
This from my ten-year-old son. Yes, it’s a gamble, I told him. It’s a gamble if the book gets published at all let alone if I make any money from it. I told him I was taking a chance, that when we want something badly enough we’ll do anything to get it. I told him I’ve failed a lot, but I’ve gotten back up, dusted myself off and tried again. More glib adages from social media: “You can’t win if you don’t try.” “The only losers are those who’ve never played the game.” Maybe. But still the bills need to be paid. But perhaps in the end I will have been successful in teaching my sons that if they believe in something enough they should fight for it, even if they don’t know if they’ll succeed in the end.
“Out-grind, out-hustle, outwork everyone else.” “A dream doesn’t become a reality through magic; it takes sweat, dedication and discipline.” I sometimes feel like I’ve been training for the writing Olympics. No one expects an ice skater after winning a gold medal to say that she was just lucky, she didn’t work that hard to win, she just skated around on the ice and performed a quadruple axel and poof: she won first place. No, these athletes always talk about the hard work that went into getting ready for the games, about all the sacrifices they made to train to be the best. Why in the world did I ever think writing a novel would be easy, that I wouldn’t have to shed blood, sweat and tears to write something good? I suppose I just never knew I’d have to shed so many tears. Call it hubris. I believed I was smart and educated enough that this writing thing would be a piece of cake. I’d bought into so many programs that sold an easy route to writing a novel. This is understandable. We all want things to be easy in life. If my sons had their way dollar bills would rain from the sky and they’d get to stay home from school every day. Homework would be easy. They’d always get an A. They’d sashay into their classrooms on test day and achieve a perfect score just because they’re them.
What no one’s selling is just toil away alone for years in the dark.
Isn’t this also what our social media feeds are full of: false pictures of success? “Follow my six proven steps.” “Adhere to my expert plan.” “Change your life for the low price of $99.99.” “Go from no income to earning in six figures in just a year.” Every time I scroll, I see someone else selling a get-rich-quick scam. What no one’s selling is just toil away alone for years in the dark and trust that at some point you’ll make it. We’ve been trained to want success now and brainwashed to believe that it’s possible. Who wants to work hard anymore?
I’ve come to the realization that writing is for crazy people. No sane person would spend the hours I do writing, editing, re-editing and re-editing. No one else would spend all that time writing just to discover that a story doesn’t work. No one else would throw away all that work, then sit down to begin it again — and again. No one else would do all that just to send out her work for publication, wait four to eight months only to receive a small slip of paper in the mail, “Thank you for submitting but it’s a pass.” What kind of masochist am I? I’m wasting my life. Maybe my life is already ruined. Of all the stupid things I’ve done, wanting to be a fiction writer is one of the dumbest. Fiction writing as a career is wholly impractical. It just takes so much time to do it well. Too much time. No one ever told me writing would be easy. I just never imagined it would be this hard.
I will never be able to give my children all the material things they want but what I can give them is a belief in themselves.
I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching lately. I’m divorced. My father is only getting older and at some point he’ll die. My mother is already gone. I’ll be left all alone, just me and my two sons. I’ve had to think a lot about my future. Luckily this is something writers do well: we like to think. We like to look at a situation from all sides. We like to try to find the truth. What I’ve come up with is this: There’s a deeper reason to why I write. There’s a reason why I hack away at this every day. Writing fiction is not just about wanting to publish something. It’s about advocating for myself and my ideas. It’s about taking all that self-doubt and rising above it. Who am I to think I have the right to write? The hell I don’t. My voice is worthy. In a world where I’ve kept my mouth shut so many times in order to make other people happy, as a writer I get to say what I want. Writing is a celebration of my beliefs. Writing is a celebration of me.
Yes, a celebration, and why else are we on this planet but to experience joy? Yes, we’re here to survive, to make a living, to get ahead, but pleasure is also part of the equation. Writing gives me pleasure. It’s helped me get through the pain of my divorce. It’s helped me get through the pain of so many things. Writing gives value to my life. Writing gives my life meaning.
The fact is I don’t want a fucking full-time corporate job or I’d have one. I don’t want to work full-time. I want to write. I love writing even if it’s hard and often full of rejection. I do it because it fuels my soul. Isn’t this a valid gift to pass down to my children? They might not always get everything they want but they will learn that happiness doesn’t come from a job or from money or from your relationship status or whether your mom takes you to Legoland for your birthday or not. Doing the small things that make you happy each day is what life’s all about. There are many things you can’t control in life but how you spend your day is something you can. The pursuit of happiness is not a privilege, it’s a right. Even though I’m a single mom living pay check to pay check I can still choose to pursue what I want in life. I will never be able to give my children all the material things they want but what I can give them is a belief in themselves.