Writer, with Kids: Leesa Cross-Smith

Leesa Cross-Smith, author of Every Kiss a War and editor of WhiskeyPaper

Age of kids: 10 and 8

What was your writing schedule like before kids, and how has that changed?

Before I had my daughter, I was writing obituaries for the local newspaper and was only sometimes working on fiction. I didn’t have much of a schedule at all and hadn’t taken writing fiction very seriously since graduating from college. Newspaper schedules are pretty hardcore so I didn’t have two days off together, worked holidays…was nine months pregnant…didn’t have the time to write fiction, really. Once I had my daughter, I had no time to write and didn’t read or write anything really until the last Harry Potter book came out. By then I’d had my son and my husband and I shared one copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and passed it back and forth and back and forth and it was the first book I’d read since before I had my daughter. I didn’t read any entire book for several years, which sounds so weird to say now because I read so much, but I was nursing my daughter constantly, a stay home mom, attachment parent and I couldn’t leave her with anyone else very often because she just wasn’t having it/wouldn’t even drink from a bottle. When I had my hands to myself I gardened or knit and usually slept. When I had a three year old and one year old at home during the days, I did slooowly begin working on my short story collection, praising God for PBS Kids and Goldfish crackers so I could have a half an hour here or there to work a little bit. Now that both of my children are in school, I have more time for things. I also benefit from having the best husband who does his part completely and allows me to have time to myself/time to work.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

I don’t know if it’s changed my work, honestly! I don’t think so. If at all, my desire to write about motherhood is there sometimes…when it wasn’t there very much before. But that being said, I don’t write about motherhood very often, but probably will down the road. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

I try to make myself available for my kids always, but am also hardcore about needing time to myself and time to work. So I will work with my computer on my lap, in the same room with them a lot of the time. But when I need a quiet space, I have no problem telling them Mommy is working and that I need an hour or so in the bedroom with the door locked and they need to entertain themselves. If my husband didn’t sweetly stop me sometimes, I’d probably work 24/7. I can be hardcore and get in the zone and not even stop to eat or drink. Bless his heart for making me sandwiches and tea and coffee and reminding me I’m not a robot. And when it’s time to take a break, I take a break. Laptop away, books up, phone up so I can be present. Yes.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

I’d have to say the events are the most challenging aspect for me. I’m really a house cat and not very big on big events/readings/festivals anyway, although once I get there I do usually have a rad time. But organizing time for me to be away from my family is difficult sometimes and bringing them with me is an option from time to time which is nice but then my husband has to play single parent all weekend and I don’t always want to put that burden on him. It’s easier when we can all travel together but this past summer during my first book tour, my husband and I were like two ships passing in the night and I didn’t like missing out on so much. I can’t even remember some of the cities/hotels I stayed in like I was Mick Jagger orsomething. It was weird and not at all how I normally do things. I had a great time met lots of awesome people but it’s not something I’ll be able to do in that same capacity for a while. It was a little much for me.

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

Everyone has their own way of doing things, fersure. I think time alone is just as important as time together, so I definitely think writers with kids should find time to work on their art even when it’s hard or even when they’re tired. Some of the best stuff can happen then, unexpectedly, methinks. That’s kinda beautiful. And I think it’s important for our kids to see us working, creating things, taking time out to work on ourselves. I think it sets a good example for them on down the road.

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Posted in Leesa Cross-Smith, parenting, Writer with kids, writing

Writer, with Kids: J. Robert Lennon

Friendly John color
J. Robert Lennon, author of: Mailman, Familiar, Pieces for the Left Hand, See You in Paradise

Age of kids: 14, 17

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

My wife and I had children soon after graduate school. Before that, I generally wrote first thing in the morning, every day if possible. Luckily, I was largely able to maintain this for some time afterward—for the first few years of our kids’ lives, we made a living off of part-time teaching and our writing, and we split the day in half—I wrote in the morning, my wife in the afternoon. Eventually I had to get a full-time job (a good one, luckily), and it became a bit harder to keep a regular schedule.

My first story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand, was written entirely during my older son’s naps—since I had afternoon kid duty, I would reap the nap dividend, if I could get him to go to sleep. Often he wouldn’t. He still subsists on very little sleep, at 17; I have no idea how he does it. But it was enough for me to write lots of little tiny stories, all of which ended up in that book.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

I’ll admit, it’s hard. I’m pretty self-absorbed. My kids are old enough now so that they have their own obsessive projects, though, and we all spend at least an hour every day just sitting around in the evening and chatting. Occasionally we peek out from our own heads and remember that there is particular stuff we have to do, with and for each other, and we get it done. But mostly, we’re a family of solitary strivers.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

I’ve been writing about parenthood a fair amount, these past few years. I didn’t expect it would become a topic. My last novel, Familiar, wasn’t really supposed to be about it, but the subject sneaked in and became its primary driving force. Parenthood matured me, as well, and I think has made me more empathetic and worldly. There are other ways to achieve this, of course, but if it weren’t for our kids, I probably would have remained a child myself, well into late adulthood.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

Oh, I think it’s the same problem everyone has—balancing the needs of the inner and outer life. Is writing “selfish”? Is not writing “generous”? Would the presumably more engaged version of myself that sacrificed his writing for family be a better father, or just an embittered asshole? If you ask my kids today whether they’re glad I spent their childhood writing, I’m sure they’d say yes. But maybe I’ve brainwashed them into thinking this pursuit is a reasonable life choice. There’s no answer, really; my wife and I have done what we could, and we have not been jerks, and our kids are smart, hilarious, and above all nice people. But the challenge remains, I guess, striking the right balance, or perhaps striking the right balance between worrying about and not worrying about striking the right balance.

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

I don’t, really. If you want to have a family, and you can, you should have one. And my writer friends’ kids are among the coolest, sweetest, most interesting young people I know. Don’t be afraid that you might just spawn more writers—it’s not up to you. But you probably will. Ha!

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Writer, with Kids: Kara Krauze

Kara Krauze photo
Kara Krauze, author of essays, memoir, and fiction, occasionally blogging at karakrauze.com. Teacher of writing workshops for veterans. Founder of Voices from War.

Age of kids: Two sons, 6 and 8

I’ve started writing this guest post twice already on paper, and many more times in my head, which, when I think about it, says quite a lot about both parenting and writing. We draft, revise, think, overthink, repeat, forget and remember—and start again, with new ideas, and some of the same. During this writing-in-my-head period, I’ve also been wishing for what I might write down to be more positive than what I’ve been saying too often lately: I’m not writing enough. I’m barely writing at all. Last week, thinking about this, I reminded myself of the four manuscripts, one in a drawer, and a second one revised and wizened, well-versed in the vagaries of market and timing and fraught content; and two others in revision. It’s those last two that get me, with their in-between state. Like children in grade school, they are formed, full of personality and habits of their own; but they still need support. They need me. And I am hesitant to let them go—into the world on their own.

My two sons need me, too. Almost every day, I find myself confronting again the inadequacies of time, the push and pull between demands of work, needs of family, and my needs; writing the dominant inhabitant of that final category. But, really, writing converges in all of those. I am a better parent, and a better person, when I am writing; when I have permission to let my mind find the places it’s been worrying, the people and characters it struggles to understand—lives stepped into, inhabited. Yes, sometimes, it is a strain to step back out. But I recognize how much I love this strain—need it—the pressure to be lost in a world of my own making. Which is not the same as a world in my control, and I wouldn’t want it to be. And with the pressure to return to the shared real world, comes the reward of the people I care for, and love, around me. My family, my husband, those two sweet faces, the small arms with their hugs so fierce, and their bodies growing, such that I have to remind them, tame them, now, when they wrap their arms round me: not too hard. But I love how hard, how heartily and fiercely, they love me; how they want to squeeze it into me, or squeeze my love out and into them.

I started writing characters with children before I had children of my own. My boys are six and almost nine—almost half way to college, that small boy growing so big, and this scares me. How fast time is moving. How hard I struggle to keep up. How long my themes have percolated. And then, turning the corner, I see merits in this gestation, the length of the drive; and how slowly it now seems I work.

Fourteen years ago, I began a novel set during the war in Yugoslavia. As a younger woman, twenty-two, twenty-three, I wanted to be there, in the midst of that war, in Sarajevo, a city under siege in the middle of Europe, a continent again confronting genocide. I wrote that novel, the first draft, mostly before my first son, J, was born. Well into it, I sat in coffee shops in London, my belly bursting with him, moving through Meg’s abortion, the birth of Mirjana’s first child during war, the birth of her second, soon wrested into motherlessness, followed by a reshaping of what parenting might mean. Meg looked back, confronted a woman eviscerated by earlier war, Julia, and saw how Julia began to reshape and retrieve a new reality, wary of parenthood; and yet deeply besotted with the resultant grandson, Daniel, again faced with war; but this time as a choice. That grandson, Daniel, held more of me than Meg, the narrator who loved him, suffering for it and then being remade because of him, because of war. Remade into a mother. Now I wonder if it wasn’t an act of cowardice, telling that particular war story from the vantage point of a woman on the sidelines, entirely affected by war, but not immersed directly in it. Her immersion second-hand.

We still think of war stories as men’s stories. Our literature represents this, too. Now I spend time weekly with veterans, mostly men, in a writing workshop I teach—among the most fulfilling endeavors I’ve undertaken. The work and words in that room, the preparation for it, feel, internally, as kindred and appropriate as the side of the equation Meg should represent to me in that novel, and as true as Daniel did. These events and perspectives, woman and man, children and war, all wrapped up in human urgencies, meet on a playing field where stepping into someone else’s shoes—repeated acts of empathy, of placement and displacement—can make someone else’s experiences our own. Distinct yet overlapping iterations of the human condition grow less disparate than they seem. What came next into my own life both evolved from and contrasted with that novel and its characters—their births and wars—as the manuscript came into its then-shape.

I gave birth.

I write that sentence and want to let it sit there, let it fill up.
I gave birth to J, who continues to teach and reshape me every day, almost nine years later. And I continued to give birth to that novel, Down the Street a Building Burned. I couldn’t leave that street, the burning building. I was becoming mother, Mama, Mummy, Mom, before J was even born—becoming his mother, becoming G’s mother, yet to arrive two and a half years after—and becoming the woman who would keep writing. Insisting on remaining—myself.

Between J’s birth and G’s, I wrote a new novel in a fever-dream. Four months from chapter two until page four-hundred, between J’s fourteenth month, just after he learned to walk, I realize as I look back, and his eighteenth. Nappies and breast milk and pen, paper, keyboard, stolen hours. Nap times, weekend afternoons. When I traveled by metro with him across London, eager for movement and journeys and glimpses of other lives, riding the tube, the top of his stroller (his “buggy,” we called it, the grey MacLaren that lasted through two babyhoods, two toddlers)—the top of that stroller became my desk, notepad propped across it, and I was somewhere else, and I was still there, and I was fractured into multiples, and yet so whole in those moments, as I fired characters across a landscape of adultery, motherhood, family secrets, death. Still confronting and collapsing, rebuilding and deciphering, some events that had touched my life directly, and others that had touched me through a deceptive distance.

Pregnant with G, my second son, young J vomiting with stomach flu, my belly again rounded, large, full, I wrote an essay about trying to find—the new reality I was living. “The Invention of You,” the essay was eventually titled, coming from a line from a Philip Roth novel, The Prague Orgy. “No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed—it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.” I was writing life—lives of others—in order to inhabit my own. I lived in my own, insistent on holding it tight, while still grabbing for more.

Women—mothers—are not really supposed to be so greedy. Even now. And I fear I’ve learned this. I revise; I write in too-small bursts. I teach, and try to build something else that seems bigger than me, Voices from War, a space for veterans and their stories, a bridge to civilians who live in a world often untouched by wars. I am busier than I know how to be—and often I perceive this as the richness of my life, my good fortune—and yet I am squelching the hunger for more. For that giving over that comes of living in a world that arrives completely from one’s self, from one’s own writing pen, and yet is magically outside of one’s control. As a parent I feel this too—the magic of these two beings so proximate to me and yet so distinct, and sometimes the fear and helplessness. If I found more magic—wrote wholly from where I am now, from the invention of me that I know remains…incomplete—I might be a phoenix—flying, higher, higher, believing in worlds where truth is what we unearth, not just the facts of what exists. That is a power that seduces, that causes fear.

I am reading the second Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets aloud to G. We’ve just arrived at Harry, deep in the chamber, joined by the brilliant crimson phoenix, and the “sorting hat,” teller of truth and future, bestower of knowledge and destiny. And how have they appeared? Because Harry believed—he believed Dumbledore, benevolent and mystical wizard, remained with him, and then he was. This is how I write now. This is the writer I am—writing too little, yet knowing. Writer. However small the word, the power of all it conveys and enables, it is still here. I still inhabit words, and wear the writer’s invisible cloak.

Each day, I wake up, remind myself. And this is not enough. And so I remind myself of this too. With all I have, I know there is more; and writing is about finding it. Not-writing is about waiting.
Whatever I’ve written here today has leapt pretty far from the two beginnings I haven’t yet returned to. And yet I think I see the threads, thin and gilded, their glint just below the surface, like the themes I return to, again and again.

Living and dying; what we do to each other in between.

One of those beginnings began with an ending: my father’s death, a suicide, an event that has filled the space before and after with revisions and stories and attempts to make sense of paths followed, paths ignored running up against paths taken. Some of the paths invisible, still.

In my other beginning, I wished my mother a happy birthday. Her birthday, a milestone decade this year, arrives in tandem with this posting. As with DNA, I can trace so much back to the lives of these two irreplaceable people. Including the phantom of my father’s absence, utterly entwined with his presence, before his death and since. Including my mother with her loving, strong-willed independence, head of household, through divorce not death, for most of my childhood years, in a kingdom of women: where I learned how to see and how to lead, how to watch and wish. How to love and honor—children and stories. Not as separate and competing demands; but as interlocked continuations, the inventions and evolutions we need. These are narratives grounded in realism, and they are magical.

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Writer, with Kids: Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work!

Age of kids: 2 years and one on the way

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

My wife got pregnant with my son in February of 2012. At the time I was working a day job as a copywriter, so I just wrote at night for an hour or so, or on my lunch break. In March, I quit my job to go on book tour, then Steal Like An Artist became a bestseller and suddenly it looked like I could get away with being a full-time writer. I had all day to mess around and write. In the meantime, I sold my third book, Show Your Work!

Then my son Owen was born in October, so I didn’t do any writing for a while. My wife was on maternity leave for two months, but then she went back to work part-time in 2013, so she’d be gone for the afternoon, with me watching the kid. This, quite frankly, threw my life into hell. Like all stupid new dads, I drastically underestimated how hard it would be to care for a newborn part-time and get any writing done. I didn’t have an office, so I, very stupidly, put on headphones in the morning and wrote in our loft at the top of the stairs. This is how I wrote all of Show Your Work! and it was a complete nightmare.

Eventually, by the end of 2013, my wife had quit her job to watch the kid full-time, and we converted my garage into an office. So 2014 has been spent in relative comfort, working most of the day in the office, with the music (and the air-conditioning) cranked. That said, 2014 hasn’t much of a productive year for me, as I put out the book, and there’s something about a book release and tour that just pretty much screws up my whole year.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

I try to keep really standard hours. Every morning we have breakfast, read a little, then go for a walk. I usually make it out to the studio by 10AM, then I break for lunch, and go back out there until 5:30 or so. Then, I try as hard as I can to just be around, and leave work outside. It’s a really nice life, but it’s not exactly easy. There are still a lot of distractions — it’s hard to go out to write after lunch when the kid is crying and wanting to play with you. I dream of getting an office in town somewhere, putting on good clothes and driving to work.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

Well, it’s changed EVERYTHING, but I’m not sure I can totally pinpoint what it’s changed about the work. You can definitely detect parenthood themes in my poems. It’s given me a different perspective on creativity — for years, I thought hard work trumped talent no matter what, but now I think that we’re born with some stock talent, and then it takes a lot of hard work to pull it out. My favorite phrase is “DNA and daily life,” which comes from the book A GENERAL THEORY OF LOVE. A lot has to do with DNA, and then how you compliment that DNA with your daily life.

I like to think that it’s made me a more thoughtful, kind, humble person, but honestly, I think having (young) children dredges up all sorts of stuff in you that you’d done a good job of suppressing. You know that Lou Reed song “I’ll Be Your Mirror”? That’s kind of what children are. You see all parts of you in them — the good and bad.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

Just the time. All the time lost to diapers and feedings and everything else. Just the “admin” work of having kids, you know? Tim Kreider has a wonderful piece called “The Referendum” in his book WE LEARN NOTHING where he talks about how his married friends with children just can’t fathom the amount of time he wastes. Your time just disappears. It lights a fire under your ass.

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

Don’t expect to get anything done in the first two months. First two months are just survival mode. It took me a full year to be truly adjusted to things, honestly.

When they’re of age for sleep training, TRAIN THEM. Get them on as strict of a schedule as you can, and stick to it no matter what. Getting a regular sleep schedule is crucial, because then you know when you can work.

Write every day, but if you can, just lower your expectations for a year or two until you can find your groove. Go easy on yourself and enjoy your family.

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Writer, with Kids: RK Arceneaux

RK Arceneaux, author of: M.I.L.F.shake, a memoir-in-progress

Age of kid: 1

I bought a vibrator off of Groupon because it was $19.99 (regular $99.99!) and it had seven functions and it was an enormous upgrade from my last vibrator which had gotten lost in a move months ago and I was sick of using my hand to masturbate because I have weak wrists that usually cramp before anything exciting happens and it was 4 a.m. and I deserved a goddamn vibrator. Pretty much since birth my son who will hence be referred to as Fatty Chops, which is his legal name, has been pulling this stunt where he does not sleep and I read somewhere that not sleeping is the mark of (the BEAST) a genius because genius babies have a hard time sleeping since their brains are constantly doing mathematical equations and computing shit and I don’t really know too much about it, Einstein didn’t sleep much as a baby, but all I do know is that I don’t feel too bad that I haven’t slept decently for a year because my baby is so smart. Obviously.

A thing I have learned since becoming a mother that other new mothers might find useful: do not buy a vibrator off the internet at 4 in the morning.

Because my brain had been barely functional and my eyes watery it did not register that the vibrator had two silicone bunny rabbits attached at the base for anal and vaginal stimulation. In defense of Groupon the ad did say “RABBIT VIBRATOR” but I just thought that meant it was exceptionally fast or something and not like, that there were two smiling bunnies attached to shove into my rabbit holes. Perhaps in another life the additions may have been warmly welcomed but the fact of the matter is that exactly one day before this arrived in the mail I bought my son a new toy, a plush smiling rabbit from Anthropologie. Best purchase ever btw, has a little anchor tattoo on his arm, so cute. Anyway, I have become a woman who cannot masturbate with a bunny-shaped vibrator because it too closely resembles my child’s toy. I cannot even spank it anymore without thinking about my baby. Please do not quote that out of context. The point of my analogy (yes, I did italicize the ‘anal’ in ‘analogy’ just in case there wasn’t enough butt sex talk already in this paragraph) is to illustrate how deeply my brain has changed since I had a baby.

All I can think and talk about anymore is my son. I don’t even know what I talked about before I had a baby. I know this deep devotion to him is good and is necessary for survival. If I am not thinking about him constantly he will crawl off and get eaten by a bear or something. He’s really good at finding quarters on the floor, for instance. This often makes me feel insignificant—is the best I can do is blabber about my dumb baby? I used to read the amazing blog STFU Parents and be like, “hell yeah, dumb moms!” and now I paranoidly check to see if someone is screenshotting my statuses and sending it to the site to be mocked. It is that bad. 10/10 of my social media posts are about Fatty Chops. I used to be cool… and now I am a mom. And a young mom! You know how people always say to date and travel and experience the world before you have kids? Yeah, I didn’t do any of that shit. I haven’t even tried sushi yet. I met my huzzy huz when I was 19. I had my son at 22. I dropped out of college because I didn’t like my school and was majorly fucking up and once I got pregnant and had to constantly carry a bag around with me to vomit into, that was pretty much the end of college. No one else in my family had gone to college so dropping out was difficult. I am still a bit embarrassed to tell high school teachers and people who haven’t been in my life for a long time that I am a mom. It’s pretty shitty to think this but I don’t want to be grouped with the stereotypical young mothers who procreate because they don’t know what else they want to do. I try to justify my being a young mom with, “but my husband is much older, *really* old actually, and I am cool and write and shit.” I had never pictured myself being a stay-at-home-mom. Stay-at-home-mothership is incredibly thankless and boring and it makes me think about all the ways I have failed and am not living the future I had imagined for myself once upon a time, but I have learned to cope with the traumas of motherhood and the lack of the future I once saw for myself by writing about being a parent.

The annoying things my son does and the ways in which parenting fucking sucks, as well as the ways it totally rocks (Yo Gabba Gabba Live, anyone?), is an endless cornucopia of stories that basically write themselves. Writing about how annoying Fatty Chops is– he fed the dog his last piece of chicken and now that it is gone he is flailing about, screamcrying tragically because obviously that was the last piece of chicken EVER and how could I let him just feed it to the dog like that? The dog is evil and must be punished. WHY GOD WHY?! Why is he cursed with such a mean mother? And horrible dogs who eat the chicken he put directly into their mouths? It doesn’t matter that there is more chicken to be had because he wanted THAT piece and now it is gone! Woe be to Fatty Chops!—writing about how annoying he is is incredibly cathartic. It turns out lots of people have kids and can totally relate. While it feels like the only craft I have been seriously working on lately is the K-R-A-F-T that I am making for the fat baby who is sucking my soul dry, in all honesty I write more about my experiences as a mom and write better than I did two years when I had minimal obligation and was studying at a cool school in Chicago and spent most of my free time thrifting or leisurely holed up in a cool coffee shop getting served delicious mochas with the most cutting edge latte art by asshole hipsters, half-assedly writing stories in journals or plotting out novels I wanted to write.

It’s much harder to find time to write now that I have a tiny angel who cries when I leave the room, but the insanity of motherhood has given me a much better sense of humor (I hope… please don’t call DCFS on me) and has forced me to write more so I don’t totally lose it. Most of the writing I get done is spent hiding upstairs, pretending to be pooping, sometimes actually pooping, hoping my son and husband don’t notice my absence. The second they realize I am gone all hell breaks loose. We live in the stupid suburbs now too so I can’t even escape to a cool coffee shop because there aren’t any and I refuse REFUSE to be chatted up in a Starbucks about what I am writing. Today I put aside some time to write and just as I sat down on the bed to jot down a real number one hit novel I noticed all the spider webs on the walls, like a shocking amount of spider webs, like we basically have been sleeping in a spider hole. There was a giant death trap right by the son’s crib too, which might have made me feel bad if he ever slept in it, so I had to vacuum the walls and all the spiders up and by the time I was done the baby desperately needed my full and utmost attention because “MOM OR GTFO.” I can’t just leisurely skip off into the sunset to write best-sellers. I have to make executive decisions now: write or continue to sleep in SpiderGate 2014. Oddly I don’t remember there being so many spider webs before the baby, but then again I don’t remember thinking ADORABLE BABY TOY while putting a rabbit butt plug up my ass either.

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Writer, with Kids: Maya Lang

Maya Lang, author of The Sixteenth of June

Age of kids: One daughter, five years old

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

Pre-kid, I didn’t really have a writing schedule. I pretended to have one, would have claimed to have one, but I spent much of that time feeling embarrassed and self-conscious about what I was attempting. Writing felt like a bourgeois indulgence plagued by ennui and procrastination and people bemoaning the process. I couldn’t bear to take it (or myself) seriously.

One night when my daughter was three months old, my breast pump spoke to me. (Please note this is a well-documented phenomenon, lest you think I’m insane.) New mothers usually hear words of encouragement from their Medelas. The air whooshing out in rhythmic intervals produces two- or three-syllable cheers to the sleep-deprived ear: Way to pump, way to pump or You go, you go. Mine had previously issued such rallying cries, but that particular night, it had a different message: Leopold, Leopold. Leo was a character I’d been toying with for a potential novel before my daughter was born, but I’d think of him and his crew abstractly, to amuse myself. Who was I to write a novel? The stubborn pump repeated the name, undeterred. Freud would love this, I thought.

I handed the baby monitor to my husband and went to the local coffee shop. To sit with my laptop for two hours, occupied by nothing other than my thoughts, felt glorious, like the greatest luxury imaginable. I began writing in the evenings and on weekends. I wrote out of necessity and pleasure. I wrote to keep myself sane. By my daughter’s first birthday, I had a first draft.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

I never think of myself as balancing writing and parenthood; I think they balance me. I work, get frustrated, get absorbed—but then it’s time to pick up my daughter from school. I find it helpful to be forced to walk away, to have to forget. Leaving the bubble of writing is what makes returning to it so pleasurable.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if it all?

I tend to think about backstory more. If the parents aren’t around, why? Orphans abound in literature, from Huck Finn to Harry Potter, and it makes logistical sense: doing away with parents enables a kind of clean, pure focus on the character. In writing, as in life, family can be a can of worms.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

Not having a boss. It’s the best part but also the worst, because you have no one to blame when you “need” to pass on that afternoon playdate or field trip. I never mind when my daughter pulls me out of writing—she’s worth it. But I have little patience for the endless array of school events: birthdays, breakfasts, fundraisers, bake sales. I fantasize about having a very mean boss who insists that Mommy cannot make the school concert.

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

There’s an old saying I love: If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The constraints parenthood places on time are like strict word counts or difficult workshop assignments: they force you to dig deep and reach for what’s important, past the plateau of what seems possible. My running joke with my husband is that if I ever dawdle on the second novel, we’ll have a second kid. I don’t subscribe to martyred notions of motherhood where we sacrifice ourselves for our children. I reach for my dreams because of my daughter. I am without question a better person for having had her. And, with that, I must pick her up from school.

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Posted in Maya Lang, Writer with kids

Writer, with Kids: Michelle Wildgen

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Michelle Wildgen, author of You’re Not You, But Not For Long, and Bread and Butter

Age of kid: 3 years old

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

The most productive schedule I ever had was a mix of editorial work and writing. Two days a week I edited, and then three days a week I did a half day of editing and a half day of writing. That’s become much more unpredictable and less regimented, though. When I planned my work life right before having a baby, I found it impossible to imagine what it should look like, and I have been gradually adding hours and days to my childcare plans and finally feel that I actually have enough time to get some work done. But that often means teaching and freelance editing and writing instead of fiction, and I think that to get back into actually generating new work I’ll need to whip my time back into shape. I have a feeling I am looking at the dreaded 5 AM wake-up.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

That’s not a problem lately. How I wish it were. The problem is managing to sink into the project! And yet I think I now need physical distance from my house in a way I never did before. It might be writing at the library but it might also be going away for a weekend.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

I am not sure that it has, but I do find myself about to write about a character with a child, which I rarely did before. And yet I don’t think I will focus very much on the actual parenting-young-children part, which I find endlessly interesting to discuss but for some reason never want to read about.

My characters have always been people I still saw as the grown children of others, not parents of children. I may have tried once or twice to write about a parent but I never had the ability to say what daily life with a child would be like, so I just didn’t cover that in fiction very much. I can’t help but notice that my first character who is also a parent is one I began writing when I was pregnant. I was probably trying to imagine my way into it.

But otherwise, I don’t know if it will change the writing itself. I think I expected my post-birth mind to brim more parental insight somehow. But it’s still me, still floundering with much of the same stuff in life and on the page.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

For me it becomes less about finding the time than about shutting out the worldly details. I think Janet Malcolm quoted a writer in a biography of Sylvia Plath who pointed out that the mindset necessary for any creativity is one of quietness, even near-boredom, the very opposite of the abundance of small tasks and plans that characterize parenthood.

And then there is money, money, money. It is really hard to justify paying your daycare for the time to write fiction that may not provide any cash for a very long time, if ever. I end up privileging any kind of paying work instead. I don’t feel guilty about this as a writer, necessarily–last I checked I can’t buy food with my artistic fulfillment–but it does contribute to a constant undercurrent of things not being quite as they should be. I once told a group of college students that being a writer is like having a child who will never become independent of you. It will always be the thing you should also be doing, that can’t thrive without your time and attention, even as you must do all those other things to feed it too. (They looked at me rather blankly.)

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

Make a schedule! I keep resisting that, or possibly just failing at it, but there is something so productive about sitting down at the same time on certain days and cueing your brain to start thinking in a certain creative way. I just find I cannot simply say, “Oh, great, I have 20 minutes. Time to create!” It doesn’t work that way for me. My toddler needs a routine, and it turns out so does the 40-year-old.

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Posted in Michelle Wildgen, Writer with kids

Writer, with Fetus: Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

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Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, author of Orion’s Daughters and Spark

What is your writing schedule like now, and how do you anticipate it will change when the baby is born?

For years I’ve been very fortunate, teaching part-time with a lot of schedule flexibility and opportunity to write, especially in the summers. Usually I’ll wake up, read for a while, then write or revise for an hour or so. I’ll go to yoga or the gym, get my errands done, have lunch, and then write and/or do class work for three or four hours in the afternoon, either at home or at the library. I’m fairly disciplined and thrive under routine, which has made me productive over the last several years.

Once my son is born, I know routine is going to go out the window. I’m not expecting to get any writing done for a while–maybe I’ll squeeze in a bit here and there, but I’m giving myself permission to put other things (like sleep) first. Then it’s going to be about compressed time, writing while the baby naps, etc. I’m curious to see how the unpredictability and lack of routine impact my work, and me.

Have you and your partner talked about making sure you each get time for your work/creative pursuits after the baby is born? What’s the plan?

My husband, Eric, has a demanding career, and as the work-at-home parent, most of the childcare responsibility will fall to me. We’ve know this and planned for it all along. I think the trickiest part will be demanding and protecting my own creative time and space. We live in a Manhattan apartment; my “office” is a corner of the living room. Even now, I can easily let household responsibilities distract me from my work (there’s always laundry to do, groceries to buy, floors to clean, and all so pressing when the writing isn’t going well).

Eric’s schedule is fairly flexible, at least for his industry, so right now our plan is for me to do most of the night baby-duty, then hand the baby off to him for a couple hours in the morning, so I can get work done/take care of myself–whichever seems more pressing. Once our son is past the newborn phase, I’m hoping to hire a babysitter for a few hours a week, so I can get out of the apartment and focus on being a writer.

Has your writing been affected by impending parenthood? How about your reading preferences?

I’ve always been interested in family dynamics and the pregnancy has made me even more so. This summer I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel that I thought would begin at a different place, but when I sat down to write, what captured me most was the family drama that I’d planned as just a brief intro. One hundred pages later, it’s a main part of the story. As for my reading, I’m picking up a lot of novels that center on family, particularly the experience of mothers. And I’m doing my prep, reading books on birth and child development.

I feel pressure to take advantage of my time and write and read as much as possible now. I want to have a big chunk of this novel draft done so that when I return after having the baby, my sleep-deprived mind will have material to work with, as opposed to having to start from scratch. And who knows how much reading time I’ll get? I realize I’ve taken so much for granted.

Do you look at your published work differently now, knowing your child will read it one day?

I don’t really look at the work differently, but I have wondered when my child will become interested in reading it and at what age it would be appropriate for him to do so. I hope he wants to read my books at some point; I’d love to share that part of myself with him, but I also don’t want him to get weirded out by the darker aspects. I have some doubts that he’ll have a real interest before he’s an adult (what kid actually thinks–or wants to think–about his mom as a separate human being?), so I figure it’ll be okay.

Are you terrified? Admit it. You’re terrified. It’s okay to be terrified. What scares you most about this whole baby-on-the-way thing?

Being entirely responsible for the health and happiness of a little human. We’ve been doing our best to “educate” ourselves, but you can’t really prepare for what having a child will be like. I know Eric and I will make mistakes, even with the best intentions, but I hope we can be forgiving of ourselves and that ultimately our choices will lead to a happy kid and well-adjusted adult.

Also, technology. Eric and I have had a lot of discussions about cell phone and computer use. Who knows what the landscape will look like 5, 10, 15 years from now? It’s a social aspect we didn’t have to deal with until our late teens but which will surround our child from the get-go. When do you let your kids enter the technological sphere? When is it safe? (Is it ever really safe? Which leads to the bigger, most-terrifying question: How do you protect your child from heartache and pain? How do you accept that you can’t protect him?)

You can ask one question of those writers with kids who’ve gone before you. What do you want to know?

What have you done to make and protect your creative space?

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Posted in Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, parenting, with Kids, Writer with kids, writing

Writer, with Kids: Sean Singer

Sean Singer, author of: Discography (Yale University Press, 2002), Honey & Smoke (Eyewear Publishing, forthcoming 2015), and the chapbooks Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water (Beard of Bees Press, 2010) and Passport (Beard of Bees Press, 2007).

Age of kids: two girls, 8 years old and 16 months old

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

My writing schedule before kids was more vigorous. I could stay up all night and was focused on writing much more. My ideal schedule was to write for hours every day. My actual schedule was probably more sporadic, but I would write poems for years, do research for poems, and read a book a week. All that’s changed because children force you to live in the present moment. I write when they’re in school and daycare. I don’t work on the weekends, and go to sleep at 10:30, so nights are also out. One has to be productive and focused with less time. Children being happy is more important than writing a lot.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

I try to sequester time when I can be devoted to the project. My second daughter was born in March 2013 and I defended my dissertation in May; those few months were are a good illustration. It was chaos! If you want to know what that’s like, to paraphrase Jim Gaffigan, “just imagine you’re drowning and someone hands you a dissertation and a baby.” It’s wise to show by action; when the girls see focus and devotion, it cultivates those things in them. Being a writer is something a person has to do, not because it’s rational or even reasonable. One solution is to pick smaller, more manageable projects, like a 1,000-word book review instead of a 50,000 word essay.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

The Objectivist poet George Oppen said: “There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art. Some ideas are not politically useful, or useful to the childhood of a daughter.” I think about that often. I do think it’s more important to be a dad than to write another poem. When you become a father, or a parent, what they don’t tell you is that you are shoved, face-to-face, with your own father’s failings. You see how easy it is to be a parent, and how challenging it is. You have a responsibility and an opportunity to not repeat your parents’ mistakes. You may introduce new mistakes, but the cycle of the past will finally end with you. When you think about a piece of creative writing, you must resist the voices of ghosts: authority figures, teachers, parents. You must engage with language for the process in itself. The product is unimportant. With children, it’s all a process. Anything can and does happen with kids. You have created your greatest poem, in a way. Hopefully, the work will improve no matter what occurs. Being a writer means choosing to write in spite of conditions.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

Society hates working artists. It’s both difficult and impossible. Finding stable work is difficult, or doesn’t happen. Working artists have no value in a capitalist system. Particularly if your work is politically engaged, and works for social justice, you must be mindful that what you make is a kind of gift. I do fantasize about quitting writing all the time, but then some image or impulse will induce me to write again, and again. And again. Being a parent is commonplace, but being a writer and a parent forces you to make difficult and impossible choices. Think of Frost, Freud, Marx, Plath. Honest to God, they were willing to die for their writing. Imagine a culture where we could work in peace and raise our children without having to be worn down by the rent. My greatest fantasy is nothing sexual… it’s to have my own creative writing program, hire whoever I want, teach people how to read. It’s not going to happen.

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

Espresso four times a day. A Negroni or a gin tonic or a whiskey at 5:00 o’clock. Try to find a way to pay someone to clean the apartment. When you’re writing, be writing. When you’re playing American Girl dolls or watching Max and Ruby–as awful as that is– be wholeheartedly into what you’re doing. They can’t mix. Ask for help when you need it. Be generous to your spouse because that person knows what it is… it’s a life of having to just get on with it.

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Writer, with Kids: Benjamin Parzybok

Benjamin Parzybok, author of: Couch, Sherwood Nation

Age of kids
: 7 (girl) and 10 (boy)

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

Before kids, I did a thing which seems right out of some writer’s daydream, which is pick up and move to Ecuador. My partner and I both wrote full time there for six months, and I got the first draft of my book COUCH out of that. I’d wake up, make coffee, and write until I was exhausted/starved; usually around 1-2pm. Then we’d go eat a huge lunch. Repeat. We did it on a tiny budget. When we returned from Ecuador I went back to work, but I’d write long evenings, sometimes until early in the morning.

When I had children, I pretty much stopped writing. There’s lots of reasons for this. I had to be the full-time provider and was still figuring out how to do that, we were always ragged-exhausted, and it just didn’t seem as important. That lasted a few years, more years than I’m willing to admit. They were dark times, and beautiful/amazing/wonderful times, too. I’m not sad I did this, but am very happy I found my stride again. By the time COUCH was published, I hadn’t written for about two to three years.

I started writing again after a long trip to Brazil. My family let me stay there solo two extra weeks to kick-start a new novel (SHERWOOD NATION). The amazing, unexpected side-benefit was that I came back very jet-lagged and did not allow myself to lose that jet lag for a long time, waking very early in the morning to write. I continue to do this: Wake between 5:30 and 6:00am, write for an hour, and then make the kids breakfast and lunch before they go to school. Some days I wake at 6:40, hungover and sleep-deprived, and they can be my absolute best days, where I bust out 400 words of crystal prose. The most important thing is to show up, no matter what.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

My kids are big readers, and my partner is a writer/artist as well, and exceptions are made for everybody. That said, I try to keep as much work as I can to hours when none of them are awake. When they do wake and come sleepily down to breakfast, sometimes I’ll vet an idea I’m working on with them. I really want the art, and I feel like it’s necessary to emotional survival, but more-so is the family. So they come first.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

That’s a good and complicated question for which I’m not sure I have an answer that’s easy to summarize. SHERWOOD NATION has passages by a character who is a parent. I loved writing those and I don’t think I could have written them without knowing that experience. But what else? I feel deeper as a human, more battle-worn, and more a veteran of human dynamics, but am I really? Or have I just cleaned up more shit and made more cheesy-eggs than a non-dad? I have one book on each side of parenthood. One is lighter and playful and funny. One is dark and complex with, I hope, some humor still. Is that parenthood speaking? I’m not sure.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

Time. OMG, time. Since I don’t rely on writing as an income (though it can be a nice bump), I balance a full-time job (I’m the founder and CTO of the boot-strapped tech startup, Walker Tracker), raising kids, being a partner someone would want to actually live with, with my work. For me, that means either 1) Going to bed early 2) Sacrificing a hell of a lot of sleep. It’s usually the latter.

Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

Absolutely, though I fear it’s advice everyone has already heard a thousand times: Write every day. Even if for only fifteen minutes. Even if you’re raw and beat-up and your creative impulses feel like that spider your child worked over with her hammer for half an hour. If you’re blocked on one project, start another. Screw it; if you’re blocked on everything write your name over and over, as many times as you need to. Finish everything. Don’t despair.

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Posted in Benjamin Parzybok, parenting, with Kids, Writer with kids, writing


Writer, With Kids