Lyle McKeany on being a writer and a dad
Q&A with the creator of Just Enough to Get Me in Trouble
Hiya writer friends,
Today we’re talking to Lyle McKeany, the creator of Just Enough to Get Me in Trouble. Lyle is a dad with a full-time job outside of writing and a musician who has also always been a writer. But the pandemic and a new work-from-home schedule is what pushed Lyle to really commit to his writing—with stories that often center the experience of parenting a child with special needs, in a style that is vulnerable and moving and often quite funny.
I was curious to hear about his writing routine and how he finds creative time and energy between the demands of work and fatherhood. And how a newsletter has provided some structure around all of that. So, let’s get to it.
Writers, meet Lyle!
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Lyle McKeany on being a writer and a dad
That’s one of the paradoxes of being a creator. It’s much harder to create than it is to consume, yet you feel better when you create instead of consume.
B: So it was September of last year when you wrote, "I'm a Writer." What was it that inspired you to write that?
L: Back in the summer, the pandemic was in full swing. I was working from home and essentially gained two to three hours of my day back without my work commute. It got me thinking about what I want to do long-term. What do I want to be working towards in two years, five years, or even ten years? What can I be doing now that can compound over time if I keep at it?
Pursuing writing wasn’t the first obvious answer for me. It took some soul searching (I’m cringing as I write that phrase). I knew I wanted to be creative in some way and be able to express myself and move people with my creative work. Almost twenty years ago, I was able to do that as a musician on a major label. I’ve dabbled with writing and producing music in the years since, but something about it didn’t feel quite right.
Then one night, I was feeling frustrated and stuck. For some reason that escapes me now, I opened a Google doc and started borderline ranting about what was on my mind. I showed it to my wife Allison the next morning and she encouraged me to keep writing.
I wanted this first piece to be a public declaration that I’m taking on this new identity as a writer.
Looking back, do you now feel like you've always been a writer? What kept you from owning that identity sooner?
I absolutely feel like I’ve always been a writer, I just didn’t connect the dots until recently. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I write all the time.
When I was in the band, I wrote a tour diary when we were on the road. This was before social media and before I knew what I was writing was a called blog.
Later on, I wrote on my own blog on WordPress, then on Medium a fair amount. But most of those pieces were business/tech-related, with only the occasional story about my band days. Otherwise, I hadn’t written publicly beyond a text, email, greeting card, handwritten note to Allison, or the random social media post in at least five years.
Let's say you're meeting someone for the first time at a writer's conference. How would you introduce yourself?
In a way, I still feel like an outsider since I'm new to writing and publishing consistently, so I have some imposter syndrome still. I'm certainly not an author yet. I would say something similar to what my Substack landing page says: "I'm Lyle and I write personal, vulnerable, and sometimes funny stories about the messiness of life and raising a daughter with cerebral palsy. I publish them in a weekly newsletter and I'm working on a memoir book project as well."
Is writing an aspect of your day job?
It isn’t right now—unless you count the delicately worded sales emails I have to send sometimes. I’m working on transitioning to something else that will have writing at its core, but I can’t say more than that at the moment.
It seems like you have a really consistent writing schedule. Can you tell us what that looks like with a full-time job and a family? And what makes you stick to it?
My life is certainly busy with work and family—including raising my young daughter Em who has cerebral palsy. I’m a night owl and I also have to give Em medicine in her feeding tube at 11:30 pm every night. The rest of my family is usually asleep by 8:30 pm, which gives me a good amount of time for creative work.
I stick to it because it feels good to be creative. I used to spend that time catching up on my work or consuming other peoples’ creative work. I’ve often felt like I could create art that’s impactful, but it’s always been much easier to consume after a long day. That’s one of the paradoxes of being a creator. It’s much harder to create than it is to consume, yet you feel better when you create instead of consume. Don’t get me wrong, though, I still have Netflix binge nights sometimes!
Since you've not worked as a professional writer (I think?), what are some other ways that writing has benefited you in life so far?
Writing about business/tech-related topics helped me get work at startups years ago. More recently, writing has connected me with people I never would’ve met otherwise. Writing online has this incredible ability to break down borders.
For example, back in January, I received a long comment on my piece “I’m in a Tunnel”. It was strange because I had published it two months prior in November. It was from a new mom named Sam in Vancouver. She was still in the hospital a couple of weeks after giving birth to her son James. His birth story was remarkably similar to Em’s. I responded and left my email. She emailed me an we’ve been in contact ever since. Thankfully, James’s medical situation isn’t quite as severe as Em’s. Those types of connections never would’ve happened without me putting my writing out there publicly.
When do you feel most creative?
Definitely at night. When the sun goes down I tend to get a burst of energy. I’m weird like that I guess. I think it’s also because I’m always thinking about ideas for my writing throughout the day, so when it comes time to sit down to write at night I usually have some idea of what I’m going to work on.
How has starting a newsletter impacted your writing practice?
The newsletter has been the main driver of my writing practice since it’s where I publish the majority of my writing.
I schedule my newsletter to go out at 8:08 am PT (the 808 is a reference to the famous Roland 808 drum machine). I picked a specific time because I know without that I’d end up sending it at 11:59 pm PT. When 8:09 am rolls around, I’m already thinking about what I’m going to write the following week. It’s interesting how even a self-imposed deadline can be so effective.
I recently decided to move from publishing on Thursdays to Saturdays instead because I noticed there would be a second bump in opens/views on the weekend. Plus, I think my memoir style of writing lends itself more to a weekend read.
Can you speak to the overlap in your life between you as a father and you as a writer? How do those two parts of yourself intersect?
They’re very intertwined for me since I tell real stories from my life and many of them involve Em and my stepdaughter Sara.
Here’s a quick story for you:
We recently bought a spa. Actually, we bought it in December, but it took over three months to get it delivered and installed due to COVID delays.
On Easter Sunday, I suggested we take a morning dip before breakfast. We all changed into our swimsuits and Allison changed Em into hers. We skipped barefoot across the cold cement and descended into the warm spa. Allison was holding Em in the water. We have to be super careful with her in the water because she has trouble holding her head up consistently due to her cerebral palsy.
About five minutes later, Em starts making a noise that Allison and I know all too well. She was pooping. I immediately hopped out of the spa, grabbed Em, and put her on the ground next to the spa on a towel. Em’s eyes went wide because it was freezing after just coming from the hot water. Em’s swimsuit somehow caught everything.
After we cleaned Em up and we were back in the spa, Allison said, “Well, now you have more writing material.”
As someone who hopes to be a parent someday in the future, I have to admit, it worries me that I'll lose my focused time to write. How have you managed to hold on to yours while parenting?
I couldn’t do it without the time I have to myself at night. If I were more of a morning person, I’d push myself to get up earlier before the kids are awake. As a parent, it’s important to have some time for yourself. And as a parent who’s also doing creative work, I believe setting aside time for creativity is an important form of self-care. For me, it’s even more important than other self-care activities I do like exercise, meditation, and even just vegging out watching TV.
You write about parenting a child with cerebral palsy with so much eloquence and vulnerability. Did writing about that part of your life come naturally or has it been a process?
I wouldn’t say it came naturally. I knew I wanted to tell my story. I wanted to capture my experiences with my daughter and express myself. But I also wanted to do it in an artful way that would resonate and move those who read it, even if they don’t know me personally.
For my piece “The Hardest Day of My Life (Part 1)”, I originally wrote it in past tense. It happened in the past, so writing it in past tense made sense at first. I had recently read a memoir book that was written in present tense and I liked it a lot. So I tried changing my piece to present tense and I found it to be much more powerful and gripping. It made writing the piece more difficult because it felt somewhat like reliving that intense and traumatic day. But it also helped me remember small details I had forgotten. It’s funny because I don’t know if I’ve ever written in that style before that piece. If I did, it was decades ago when I was in high school.
Can you tell us about your book?!
I’m writing a memoir book about the past 3+ years of my life. It’s about figuring out how to move forward when life throws you a gigantic curveball. It’s about waiting to have my first child until later in life (I was forty at the time) when I wasn’t sure I would have kids at all after previously getting divorced. It’s about how the dreams I had of fatherhood were flipped on their head when Em was born. It’s about dealing with the fallout from the traumatic experience of her birth. And it’s about adjusting my expectations and learning to be not only a dad but a dad to a special needs kid.
How does one *start* a book exactly? (For real.) Did you just start writing? Start with an outline? What has committing to this project looked like for you?
At first, there were some obvious stories to tell, so I started out writing those. Most of those stories are the more intense ones. I’ve published some of those as standalone essays in my newsletter, like my piece “Beauty Out of Chaos” which is about a time in the hospital when Em stopped breathing and the nurses had to call a code. I’ve been tweaking and adapting those stories so they work within the longer narrative of the book.
I might actually be allergic to outlines. I’ve been using a program called Dabble for writing the book and it has some helpful tools for organization. But my process is generally more disorganized than I’d like it to be.
What’s been most difficult is filling in the gaps between the pieces I’ve published in my newsletter. There are transitional parts that need to be in the book but might not lend themselves well to being a standalone essay.
What do you hope to accomplish as a writer in 2021?
I have a few goals. I will continue to publish a weekly piece without fail. I want to have a solid first draft of the book done by the end of the year, if not sooner. Audience growth is high on my list of priorities. I’m trying to get on podcasts or be featured (like this one, thanks so much, Britany!) in order to spread the word about my story. But most of all, I want to keep being creative, continue to improve as a writer, and move people when they read my work.
That’s all for today friends. A big thank you to Lyle for answering my questions.
If you’re a paid subscriber, I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday for lots of writing opportunities.