Writer in Residence

'Write when the baby sleeps' and other impossible writing rules

By Lindsay Zier-Vogel

Small baby sleeping next to an open laptop / Photo by Lindsay Zier-Vogel

Years ago, long before I had any kids, I read that Alice Munro wrote when her baby napped, so when I was pregnant with my first kid, I told myself I’d do the same. It was 2015, six years before my first novel would be published, and I was terrified of losing my identity as a writer, that was tenuous at best. I had published bits here and there over the years, but my MA classmates had books (PLURAL!) under their belts and I had half-written novels that I’d edit and edit and edit (and edit). I had to write. I had to, and so, out of sheer terror that I was going to be become “only a mom”, I kept on writing.

I had visions of being THAT mom, the mom who used her mat leave to write a brilliant novel. That was the daydream that kept me from existential panic after a 2am nursing session in the pitch black. Who was I if I wasn’t a writer? The question looped every day that I didn’t write, the question that got loudest at 4am, but always hummed in the background, while I roasted sweet potatoes to purée, while I sat in bed with the perverted moan of the breast pump, while I walked in small circles around my neighbourhood listening to Ira Glass break up the world into three manageable acts.

“Write when the baby sleeps,” I’d tell myself, insisting I didn’t need to nap even though it had been months since I’d actually slept more than a few hours in a row. That’s when Alice Munro wrote, and if she could do it, I could do it. So I did. I wrote. Except Jack didn’t nap, not really. It’d take forty-five-minutes to get him down for a fifteen-minute nap. The ratios were wrong. The ratios were ruining me, but still I insisted on writing. I had to write. If I didn’t, I was going to lose even more of myself.

I wrote with tears streaming down my face, not so much crying as exhaustion pouring down my cheeks. I wrote because I didn’t know who I was otherwise.

And then, when Jack was ten months old, I printed off everything I’d been working on—a novel about a lifeguard who was terrified of drowning, who sat on the edge of Lake Ontario every day, watching geese and swans and the occasional kayaker. It was terrible. It was worse than terrible. It was choppy and disjointed and unreadable. Of course it was. I’d written it in fifteen-minute windows of delirium, always expecting Jack to wake up, always waiting to be interrupted. And I was. I was always interrupted.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I knew I could not write a novel. I knew it wouldn’t be worth it. I would sleep when the baby sleeps like everyone says. I would stare at the wall. I would watch “The Good Wife”, all seven seasons.

And then, just before she was born, I remembered fragments of a project I had started and stopped a million times over. It was a bunch of letters that a character named Claire wrote to Amelia Earhart. Then I had my baby and named her Claire.

At that point, my identity as a mother was fixed, and the kind of mother I was was already established. I didn’t have the energy to fight it. I was a mom. And I was writing. I wasn’t a writer (in the way I wanted to be) yet, or maybe I was, but I thought maybe this time I could write, or at least try. 

I made rules this time around: I would not write if I hadn’t slept at all the night before. I would not write when both kids were home. I would not write if I was sick or if the baby was sick or I was exhausted. I would not write when I had a fever of 41 degrees Celsius with a red streak of mastitis stretching across my left breast. I would not write when I wanted to sit and drink coffee and stare at the wall. I would not write when I just wanted to watch “The Good Wife”.

I figured, though, that I could write letters in the small tiny pockets of a nap—a page, maybe a page and a half. That I could do.

The character that was named Claire became Grace, and suddenly, she was pregnant, something I couldn’t fathom writing about when I was pregnant, but now, firmly on the other side, it was fascinating to write about. One step beyond, it was easier to look back. I started writing letters in the tiny windows when Claire (the baby) slept.

And then she slept. Claire slept. For two-and-a-half years she’d nap easily and soundly. She slept on me, or next to me, and I’d write a letter, or two, or three, on my computer, on my phone, on a scrap of paper. I didn’t read them for months, I knew better, but I wrote letters. 

I didn’t have a novel at the end of that year, but I had the letters that would become “Letters to Amelia”, but more than that, I had my identity intact. I was a writer. I was a mom. I realized that with strong enough boundaries, I could be both.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Lindsay Zier-Vogel is an author, arts educator, grant writer, and the creator of the internationally acclaimed Love Lettering Project. After studying contemporary dance, she received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. She is the author of the acclaimed debut novel Letters to Amelia and her work has been published widely in Canada and the UK. Dear Street is Lindsay’s first picture book, and is a 2023 Junior Library Guild pick, a 2023 Canadian Children’s Book Centre book of the year, and has been nominated for a Forest of Reading Blue Spruce Award. Since 2001, she has been teaching creative writing workshops in schools and communities, and as the creator of the Love Lettering Project, Lindsay has asked people all over the world to write love letters to their communities and hide them for strangers to find, spreading place-based love. 

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Letters to Amelia

Grace Porter is reeling from grief after her partner of seven years unexpectedly leaves. Amidst her heartache, the thirty-year-old library tech is tasked with reading newly discovered letters that Amelia Earhart wrote to her lover, Gene Vidal. She becomes captivated by the famous pilot who disappeared in 1937. Letter by letter, Grace understands more about Amelia while piecing her own life back together.

When Grace discovers she is pregnant, her life becomes more intertwined with the aviation hero and she begins to write her own letters to Amelia. While navigating her third trimester—amidst new conspiracy theories about Amelia’s mysterious disappearance, the search for her remains, and the impending publication of her private letters—Grace goes on a pilgrimage of her own.

Underscoring the power of reading and writing letters for self-discovery, Letters to Amelia is, above all, a story of the essential need for connection—and our universal ability to find hope in the face of fear.