Fatherhood, Priorities, and the Habit of Writing

How can you maintain the habit of writing in the midst of the duties and priorities of life?

A recent essay for Humane Pursuits explored the question “Can I Be Creative and Married?” ​This essay connected with me because I struggle with similar questions not only as a husband, but also as a father.

At this point in my life, I have a family of five, and it’s difficult to keep up with the demands of providing for my family. But I am also compelled to write. Writing is part of who I am. But writing demands time. Writers need time to focus without immediate stress hanging over their heads. They need to have time to cultivate their minds through reading. They have to have at least a few moments here and there for solitude and reflection.

But time for these things is in short supply for parents. We spend our energy day after day working, parenting, providing for a family, and simply trying to keep up with the demands of life. Our American lifestyles are particularly work-focused and stressful, and for some of us, when we don’t have much time for reflection and creating, something just doesn’t feel right. It’s as if the world becomes drab and gray. Something is missing.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know what works for everyone else, but these are some ways that I have been able to keep writing over the years:

I’ve become a morning person.

I have found that it helps immensely to structure my day so that I can write early in the morning, before anyone else is up. I used to stay up late at night, but I’m a much better husband and father when I get enough sleep. By getting up early instead of staying up late, I can have a regular time to write and yet still have energy in the evenings for quality time with my family. Now I love to get up, make a pot of coffee, and spend some moments in solitude before the day hits with all its fury.

I’ve learned that I need to turn off screens.

When I stay off the web and the TV, my creativity level rises. Just one look at email, news headlines, or social media can lead to an endless rabbit trail of articles, videos, and other time-killers. I don’t need to see cats scared by cucumbers. I don’t need to watch all the sports highlights. What I need is to cultivate a three-dimensional life.

I’ve learned to make writing a regular habit.

To paraphrase author Michael Perry, if you shovel some manure every day, sooner or later people will notice that you have a pile. Over the years, when I have kept a regular morning writing habit, I have gotten much more accomplished.

I’ve learned to get out of the house and have experiences.

Writers need a well of experiences to draw from.  I don’t take my family to the farm, to the zoo, or to the park simply to write about it, but as we experience these things together, I gain material for reflection, and these experiences tend to be what I write about.

I’ve learned to remember my priorities.

Writing is a priority, but it’s far more important that I’m there for my wife and children. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn, but I’ve learned it. If I don’t write as much as I would have liked to, that’s okay. First, I need to be there for my family.

Overall, when I do these things, I can be the best husband and father that I can be, and also, from time to time, cultivate the discipline of creative writing.

Here’s one example of the kind of writing that results from these habits. This poem is based on a hike my family enjoys taking on an island that lies on the river that runs through our small town in southern Wisconsin. In the poem, I tried to capture a sense of wonder that I and my children have been placed together in this fleeting life. In a vast, and ancient world, and in all of the ages of history, it is amazing to me that I, my wife, and my three children have been placed here—together.

Evening, Tivoli Island Trail

For my daughters

Take my hands, girls,
and hold them
tight. The bridge has
no railing, so we’ll
step carefully over
to the river island.
But first—look
down. Below us flows
the river, deep and dark,
its currents slow but sure,
arriving from miles before
and flowing for miles beyond.
Now step with me
onto the shore. Yes,
little ones, we can toss
these stones into the river,
and watch them slip
under the waves.
The sun is sinking fast,
so we must finish soon.
And there, the trail
that leads into the trees,
with shadow
of birch and oak.
But we’ll not take
the trail yet. First
we’ll savor this shore,
this daylight fading.
I love
your sweet faces, lighting
at white flowers
growing in their small graces
along the shore.
A few moments more,
and then we’ll take the trail
into the trees.
Though overgrown,
that path is well worn.
We’ll see the ancient oaks,
weather-beaten,
that have stood long,
long before you, before me,
before your grandfather,
and beyond. And down
the trail we’ll find,
again, the river
on the other side.
We know it’s there
because we see, not far,
the light of setting sun
beyond the trees.

Image via Unsplash

Nathan Huffstutler

Nathan Huffstutler teaches college literature and writing in southern Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and their three daughters. He has published essays, book reviews, and poetry, and he loves bookstores, nature, and wonder.

1 Comment

  • May 8, 2017

    Josh H.

    This is such a stunning reminder and challenge that life does indeed afford us the opportunity to contemplate and reflect–if we’re willing to pursue it. I often find myself in a similar situation, torn with priorities on all fronts.