Parenting & Playwriting

When do you write?

This post is the second column of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. Find the first column here.

Here’s what my advice column will offer you: a place to ask questions and share grievances about juggling life as theatre artists and as parents. Here’s what my advice column will not offer you: much actual advice you can use. For those of you masochists longing for some truly crappy advice, email me at

so much depends

a sleeping

deaf to my

peaceful in her

I had a good thing going for a couple of months. Laura's daily nap aligned with Lizzie's pre-school, and for two hours every day, I could sit in blissful silence and write, or at least think about writing, or barring that, read about other people writing. Then some alien force invaded my baby and instead of napping at the appointed time, she commenced with the screaming. Despite my every effort, my good thing has gone with the wind. Laura still naps, mind you, but only after Lizzie has returned from pre-school, effectively ending my precious-beyond-price writing time.

With Laura's delicately timed nap gone, I had two options: write in the morning before the children wake-up or in the nighttime after they've gone to bed.

Clearly, writing in the morning is by far the preferable option, when you have one foot in dreamland and your mind is unsullied by the day's worries and cares. I have long had a vision of myself as a writer who rises at 5am and after a quick shower, sits down with her decaf herbal tea and writes steadily until 8am, when the children awake and the day breaks wide open. I am also ten pounds lighter, better toned, and sporting if not an actual coif, something resembling a bonafide hairstyle. What this has to do with writing, I cannot say, but trust me when I tell you, the Catherine who rises at 5am to write pays much more for her haircuts.


I had a good thing going for a couple of months. Laura's daily nap aligned with Lizzie's pre-school, and for two hours every day, I could sit in blissful silence and write, or at least think about writing, or barring that, read about other people writing. Then some alien force invaded my baby and instead of napping at the appointed time, she commenced with the screaming. 


In order to actualize this vision, I set my alarm clock for 5am and placed it on the dresser on the other side of the bedroom to force myself out from underneath the warm covers. I live in a hundred-year-old house on the prairie, and the converted attic where we all sleep is ten degrees lower than the rest of the house in winter (in summer, of course, it's stifling). I was banking on the shock of the cold to wake me up properly. The next morning, however, I awoke at 8am. The morning after that, I awoke at 8am as well. This went on for a full week, before my spouse (who I'll call "the Professor" for the purposes of this blog) vetoed my self-actualization for good. The Professor had grown weary of getting out of bed at 5am to turn off the alarm before it woke the children. I, apparently, never budged.

Suffice it to say, I have since become a nighttime writer.



Writing at night has its challenges; namely, you're tired as shit. It's also the only time of day you can watch grown-up television—you know, research for the pilot you're never going to write but keep telling your agent you're keen on doing. Then there's all the unanswered email and facebook messages to respond to, not to mention reading all the latest on What—you're not familiar with Whedonesque? It links to all news pertaining to Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Very important reading. There's also all those Harry Dresden novels to get to, but for argument's sake, let's pretend you don't have addiction issues with the more fantastical of the genres.

Anyway, writing in the evening requires its own arsenal of tools. First, it should go without saying: turn off the internet. Just shut that baby down. So what if your router is persnickety and won't always boot back up properly? Just do it. And for the love of all that is holy and good, don't even pretend you're going to stick to that sugar/gluten/dairy-free nonsense you read about on Stock up on dark chocolate, salt and vinegar chips, and coffee. Strong, black, beautiful coffee that gets your heart pounding and hands shaking. Slurp that sludge up like you're going to be up all night, because you know what—that's the idea.

Then light a candle on the dining room table, place your mug to the right of your laptop, chocolate to the left, and sit down and write for as long as you possibly can.

Around 1am, you'll run out of creative steam, but you won't be ready to sleep, of course, due to all the coffee. Break out a bottle of red wine instead. Turn on Downton Abbey. Around 3am, you'll be sufficiently dozy, your head filled with lush British landscapes, and ready to dream. Don't worry about setting your alarm clock; the children will wake you in a couple of hours.

The next day, when your children want to know why you're so cranky and tired, put on your best Dowager Countess voice and tell them: "Are you a Lady or Toad of Toad Hall? Go to your room to play."

When do you write? Tell me in the comments!

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Thoughts from the curator

A series on balancing responsibilities as a working playwright and as a parent.

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I'm a college student, but I find your comments really interesting. I'm studying playwriting in undergrad at Brooklyn College. I write in the morning if I have time, but I am more likely to write at night. In the morning I do the terrible "let's check my e-mails," and then I have 30+ e-mails to sort through. I like writing in the morning more, but it's a work in progress.

"Writing at night has its challenges; namely, you’re tired as shit." This made me laugh because I AM that mom who gets up at 5 a.m. to do yoga and write. Let me tell you, it has its challenges; namely, you’re tired as shit. I did my first-ever 24 hr play over this past weekend. People were amazed that I was alert in rehearsal after being up all night to write. So there is ONE genre that parenthood practically trains you to handle.

I'm so glad you're writing this series. My fears can tell me that there is no room in this business for older writers, for parents, for anyone who can't live like a 22 year old with no responsibilities and a low overhead. Well, that was one stage of my career, and it's over. So long. Others are enjoying that stage now. I did that, loved it, but honestly wouldn't trade what I have now to be back there. I just wish I knew better how to walk this new road!

Like I don't spend enough time feeling guilty for not being a better mom...I have to budget time to feel guilty for not being a passionate enough writer. Glad I'm not the only one who can waste their precious free time on facebook and the DVR.

Once upon a time, I thought I could do it all. Have an academic career. Write plays. Raise two children. Maintain a happy marriage. Even have a normal life that included sleeping, eating, seeing friends, participating in my children's schools, etc. What was I thinking, right? Actually, I have been able to do it all ... just not simultaneously. I consider myself extremely lucky. But. My only professional productions at well-regarded established theatres took place before my second child was born. That child is now a sophomore in college. And I quit my academic job nearly four years ago, so now I'm a real life full-time writer. I even have time to "market" my work, which I pretty much didn't do at all for, literally, decades. So now all I have to do is to persuade those professional theatres to take me seriously as an "emerging" writer even though I first received that appellation when I was a young thing in my 20s with the hubris to consider people like me (retired from other careers and calling themselves writers) as mere dilettantes.

Back in the day, when I was beating myself up for not making more time for writing, I read a book on time management for writers. One chapter suggested making a chart to analyze how you were spending your time. There were categories for self-care (e.g. exercise, going to the dentist) but no suggested categories that involved taking care of other people. So, yes, I agree with Catherine C that the model for a writer (or any kind of artist) in our culture is one of someone without responsibilities--or someone whose responsibilities to other people are covered by someone else--a wife, perhaps? By the way, I filled out the silly chart and discovered that I was already using considerably more hours in the week than actually existed--and that was before surfing the net provided a major distraction!

Evelyn--you mean they don't just start taking care of themselves completely at 13? Now I'm completely bummed out. : )

Kara--yes, yes, yes on the time issue. It affects everyone. I really do have to turn off the router to get quality work done, but right now, I am off to find "Borgen"...

Funny essay and similar to my writing schedule (although this winter I've found myself watching Danish drama, like "Borgen," on BBC 4's iPlayer in the wee hours after struggling with a play I'm currently working on). I think the brutal lack of time is an issue that a lot of playwrights, not just playwriting parents, have encountered, mostly because of full-time jobs or ricocheting between many demanding part-time gigs, trying to keep afloat. I'm always in search of someone else's good advice or epiphany ... although I've yet to be able to get off the internet, due to my love of streaming radio whilst writing. But it is about the discipline to not check email or sites like the Guardian that's the struggle. Still, the lack of focused writing time is the most damaging issue I face day to day.

I go to a cafe with no wi-fi as well -- because I can't be trusted not to check email. Part of the many pleasures of having a teenager is having conversations with them about solitude, concentration, procrastination, and imagination -- and having them speak from their own deep experience. That doesn't mean my son doesn't go into high dudgeon if I say I can't take to you meet your pal at some public transit impossible place because, kid, I've got a play to write. At the same time, my kid is almost 15 and I realize his trajectory is away, so making time for him amid writing deadlines, readings, and other playwright pleasures is the highest priority. Thanks for this column, Catherine.

Thanks for sharing, Trey. Finding time to write is certainly a challenge for many non-parents as well. I'm happy, however, that you manage to squeeze in Downton Abbey here and there. Sounds like you have an awesome fiance!

Hi Catherine -

I'm not a parent. I run a non-profit (and am the sole full-time employee) which leaves me with a daily deficit when it comes to spare time. Top it off with a fiance that is on an opposite schedule and it seems like all spare time must be spent watching Downton Abbey with her or you're not really engaged, your the writer that stares at a sleeping woman every night because it's the only time you see her. So, I often fall short on my writing goals but get blessed time with a woman I love (and a noisy maid that I hate... Damn you O'Brien!!)

The only solution I've found to carving out time to write is to confront that I am not strong enough or reserved enough to go it alone. So, Bridget and I had to come to terms: I can either write because I want to be a writer, or I can watch Downton Abbey because I want to be a professional Downton Abbey watcher when I grow up.

Now, in the evenings when I tumble thru the door from work and want chocolate raspberry ice cream and snuggle time, my loves banishes me to the bedroom, to close the door, put on the soundtrack to The Grey and finish that play that will ultimately be the proudest accomplishment of 2012 for me. It sucks that I need the help, but having both of us on the task makes reaching my daily goal more manageable. And when I've written four or five nights a week, we celebrate... with the TV and Instant Netflix.

Anyhoo - this series is really rad. Thx -

Although we have a home office, I can no longer count on my 3 year old twins to play downstairs with a sitter while I work upstairs. They always come calling. Loudly. (MOOOMMMYYYYY!!)

We also have 7 therapists that come and go to work with my special needs son, and the phone rings, packages get delivered. The peace, albeit exhausted peace of having napping babbling infants is long gone.

I now have to hire TWO baby-sitters at the same time for 9 hours a week. One stays with my special needs son during therapy and one plays with his brother. I then rent a desk at a local workspace so I can (hopefully) meet my deadlines. Just about everything I earn is eaten up paying for me to work.

Next year they will both be at preschools in the morning and early afternoon. Hopefully I'm not crazy to count on that time to get some work done. Like you, Im fried at 9 pm, and haven't been productive at night.

I love that you're keeping this conversation alive, Catherine!

Taylor, I'm at a cafe now, and instead of writing my ten pages, I am sitting here responding to you. Internet is the worst!!! Sounds like you have the right idea!

I could no longer trust myself with turning off the internet and not watching the prime time line up on my DVR, so at ten or ten thirty I let the spouse put the kiddo to sleep and I go to an all night diner (IHOP, Denny's, etc.) and set up shop. Best part is that they don't have WIFI and the servers and cooks get bored around one in the morning and come over and start talking to you, and sometimes you can ask them questions about the subject you're writing on and get some diverse opinions and life stories. I always tell them when I'm stealing a good line. But the alarm clock in the morning was never a good idea. Never got up once.