Writer, with Kids: Ben Tanzer

Leaves

Ben Tanzer is the author of Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again, Orphans, You Can Make Him Like You, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, Daddy Cool, Lucky Man, and I Am.

I don’t know balance and I never have. I don’t know from moderation either, but I love the sound of it.

I do compulsive and mania well though. I understand extremes. Binge eating, television watching, gin & tonics. I know those things intimately. Give me five Jelly Bellies or 500 hundred and I will eat them all in one sitting. Feel free to tell me that 24 is on DVD or that Orange is the New Black has been released en masse on Netflix and I will consume them. Pitchers of drinks. Those too. I’ve done all of it.

I can quit anything, stop, dead to me, easy, but manage something. No. Not really. Barely. Never. Not reading or running or jerking-off or drinking or watching television.

I’m all in, and I am all consumption all of the time.

But I am also a parent and I have a day job and I write, and I am fully engaged in those things as well, and so, how should I talk about the balance between writing and family and work?

How do I balance all of that? How does it work? And what does it look like?

It looks a lot like family and work coming first and everything else, writing, my compulsions, being bent and molded around those things. It’s also about stealing time, my time, down time, extra time for work or children or spouse or rest, and seeing every new or unexpected free moment as an opportunity. If lunch is suddenly free, I write. If my wife Debbie and the kids go out for several hours, I write, run, watch television, jerk-off, all of it.

Which also means endless slotting, planning, thinking about what every hour of every day might look like, and trying to work that schedule, no flagging, no perfection, or fatigue, nothing precious, constantly plotting, and making it happen.

When it is time to go to work, I work, when it is time to parent, I try to be in it, and when I have decided I am supposed to write, I write, 30 minutes a day, every day,

Except for when I don’t, the writing that is, because Dr. Seuss will tell you, sometimes it won’t, or can’t, so you adjust, new plan, new time frame, new slotting.

All of that and small bites, always small, and doable. To be thinking about everything, and all of the moving pieces is overwhelming, but focusing on the parts that comprise those pieces, and looking at everything incrementally, that works, it can work, and much of the time it does.

The other thing, no fat, no unplanned Breaking Bad marathons, no losing myself on the internet, no excessive drinking, or sleeping in, because even my compulsive, manic binges need to be scheduled.

Which might mean they are not really so manic, and may in fact represent a kind of balance, I guess, hope. Or at least a balancing of sorts, though more like playing Jenga than walking a tightrope. Shifting pieces, making adjustments, being in the moment, and focused, breathing, believing it will all work, and trying to make it so.

As I write this, I am struck that this all sounds boring, or I do anyway, possibly crazy, and not that fun, or funny, and I am fun, and funny. Really. Ask anyone.

I also think that I may sound like kind of dick, that I am making it sound like this works smoothly, and that it is doable if you just fucking do it. That there is no real failure or frustration. There is, but I have to ignore those things, the rejections, the things that don’t work, and the spikes in depression I feel when something doesn’t hit like I want it to.

I don’t have time to dwell on that stuff, not here in this piece, not in real life, not when I’m writing or parenting or going to work. Not anywhere.

I didn’t get started for a long time, not with writing, or parenting, none of it, and before the kids, and the writing, and the work, I was all compulsion and fat and wallow, and I had fun, but I don’t want that anymore.

Which is also a kind of balance I guess, I lived one way, and now I try to live another.

Both versions are fine, but this one is better.

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Posted in Ben Tanzer, parenting, Writer with kids, writing

Writer, with Kids: Curtis Smith

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Curtis Smith, author of Beasts and Men; Witness; Species Crown; Truth or Something Like It; Sound and Noise; Bad Monkey

Age of kids: one boy, 11

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

Before my son, I wrote whenever I wanted. Over the past 11 years, I’ve developed a schedule that works around our time together. I get up at 5:00 am and claim an hour or so of quiet time before work. After my boy has gone to bed, I write for another forty-five minutes to an hour. It sounds a bit regimented, but it works for me. Knowing that my time at my desk is finite helps me focus. I look forward to the absorption that comes with sitting down with a story or essay. If I can get a decent paragraph or a few sharp sentences during the course of a day, I’m happy.

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

I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing. I keep work at work, and I can put my writing thoughts on hold while I’m with my family. Sometimes I’ll scribble down an idea that I’m afraid of losing, but beyond that, my writing side doesn’t interfere too much with my family life. Now once I’m at my desk during one of my writing times, then I’m not as flexible. Still, being a parent always comes first. One’s spouse may have have signed up for the hermit-like tendencies of living with a writer, but one’s children didn’t have that luxury.

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

It’s had a pretty big impact. It’s a new perspective. Suddenly the universe has a new center, and everything looks a bit different. Being a parent has deepened my emotions—my empathy and my fears. Even if I wanted it not to spill over into my work, I don’t think I’d be able to stop it. I feel that I now regard the world with a new lens, one tinged with a color I didn’t know or understand before. I’m not saying parenthood has made me a better writer—but it has definitely made me a different one.

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

I guess the time issue can be a challenge—but for me, the benefits of being a parent outweigh the challenges. I think writing is, at its core, a type of self-discovery, a continual asking of questions of one’s self and beliefs. Parenting is similar—it’s a constant search for our best selves, or at least for the projection of our best selves.

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

I’d say it’s a great ride. Nothing goes too much as planned, and that element of surprise, while maddening at times, is also a real gift. My child has led me into an uncharted region of my heart, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Curtis Smith had more to say about parenting in an essay for Philadelphia Stories.

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Posted in Curtis Smith, parenting, with Kids, Writer with kids, writing

Headed out into the world, an armful of books. And news, links, etc

Hey! I’m so used to spouting off on Twitter and Facebook that I sometimes forget there are people keeping tabs on me over here instead. So let’s play a bit of catchup.

I’m heading back out on tour. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, we stand a decent chance of running into each other. I’ll be in Seattle for the AWP conference 2/26 to 3/2, then am getting in a rental car with D. Foy on a small-press-fueled Pacific Northwest road trip. Check out the dates and details on my Events page. Please come out and say hi! And if you can’t make it, keep tabs on us on Twitter and Facebook with the #LunaAndFoy hashtag. There’ll be blog posts, videos, and general hijinks. We’re going to see how much trouble a couple of middle-aged authors can get into when left unsupervised.

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Also, I’ve done a few interviews recently, and published some essays, and I’ve done a lousy job of sharing that with the blog, I know.

Interviews:
The Austin Review
Brooklyn Based
Busking at the Seams

Essays:
Uprise Books Project
Nailed Magazine

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Writer, with Kids: Natalie Serber

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Natalie Serber, author of:Shout Her Lovely Name

Age of kids: 21 & 23

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

I really didn’t have a solid writing practice before children. I basically wrote when I felt like it. In college I wrote all the time. When I graduated I was a book buyer for an independent bookseller and a waitress and a flighty person who was busy having fun and figuring out who I was. It wasn’t until after I married and had my second child that I seriously began to pursue writing.

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

I remember having serious worries about this when my kids were small and I was pursuing my MFA. I would get so deep into my characters that all kinds of things in my day would be relatable to the stories. I was constantly jotting down notes to myself. I worried about being a mediocre mom. Or, conversely, I would be so absorbed in the minutiae of parenting that I’d feel I could never be fully present in the work. I struggled a lot with this bifurcation.

It’s funny, I remember a moment when I was an undergrad and I was at a party and instead of being fully present at the party, having fun, being absorbed in conversation, drinking and eating, whatever, I felt myself sort of physically above it all, observing. Looking at gesture, tone, imagining the desires and conflicts of the people present. After, a writer friend of mine and I spoke about it and I felt so proud. It was as if I’d learned to dream in a foreign language. As if I’d reached a milestone in learning to live like a writer. Learning to be vigilant all the time for the trigger of a story or the right detail. And, then as a parent, I felt (feel) so much responsibility, I didn’t want to be above it all. I wanted to be fully present to participate in the joy and intensity and chaos.

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

Before children, I never felt the joy/fear mix so fully. The awe and wonder of holding your baby, along with this suddenly deep deep connection you have with your partner as you two share the intimate knowledge and appreciation of this new little being. Parenthood blew open the doors of my heart.

In relation to my writing, being a mother made me more compassionate, empathetic, and open. It made me understand how important it is for a writer to have great affection for her characters, no matter how much they screw up, no matter how much you might not want to eat dinner with them, you have to recognize and honor their complexity, their ability to surprise you. (Think teenagers here!) No judging.

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

When my children were little and needed me more…when parenting was more hands on, it was all about time. My husband had the job that supported our family and thus, caregiving fell to me. And, as an only child of a single mom, that’s what I wanted, but I found it very difficult to carve out space and time to write. I didn’t want to impact the family, especially since, for years, my writing brought in no money. I felt selfish. Once the kids entered school, things were easier. I wrote at cafes, in the school parking lot, early in the mornings and sometimes after they went to bed. I was grateful to be reading them stories, making valentines, having dinner parties, but, my writing came second. Do I regret that choice… sometimes, sure, but we had a happy time.

With older children, when parenting becomes more mental and less physical, the challenge for me is disentangling myself from their upsets and crises. Bad stuff happens and when it does, I can’t shake it. I become consumed with trying to help out, to make things better. Sometimes you can’t. At those times, I’ve wished for a job-job. Somewhere I had to go and do something rote, just to take my mind off of whatever might be going down with my kids. My mind just isn’t available to be creative. I’m afraid that is still a challenge for me.
There is a lovely symmetry to how things worked out vis-à-vis the balance of writing and raising a family. My first story collection, SHOUT HER LOVELY NAME, came out the year my youngest child went to college. It actually seemed perfect. Instead of an empty nest, I had a full next.

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

Don’t require the perfect space, a big chunk of time, or absolute quiet. Life with kids is messy and wonderfully chaotic. Train yourself to write whenever you can steal 10 minutes. Write inside your head while you stir the spaghetti sauce or change a diaper or are at your day job. Write while you’re in the bathroom. Write while they nap. Write while you nap! If you wait for the perfect writing environment, it may never happen.

Most of all: go easy on yourself. Go easy on yourself. Go easy on yourself.

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Posted in Natalie Serber, parenting, with Kids, Writer, Writer with kids, writing

Writer, with Kids: Amelia Kahaney

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Amelia Kahaney, author of: The Brokenhearted and The Invisible (to be released in October 2014)

Age of kid: 5.5

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

When I try to remember life before kids, it seems to me that I had endless time to write and that I squandered most of it. I wasn’t a novelist yet before I had my son. I wrote short stories, which took a lot of time get right. So much time, in fact, that many of them never became right at all and sit to this day on my hard drive, never to be published. I wrote during the day, mostly, or whenever I could squeeze it in. There was no rhyme or reason to how I organized my time back then. I had one writer friend who wrote every day and was fanatical about preserving her rituals and schedule, and I remember thinking I could never be like that.

I sometimes let myself believe that before kids, I was never tired or taxed. But that can’t be true. Life is hard, with or without children. I’m sure I was tired a lot of the time, though it seems like nothing compared to what would come after motherhood. I know one thing for sure: My mind was sharper than it is now. In my graduate school days and directly after, it gleamed like a set of knives in a drawer, ready to be of use to me whenever I could force myself to sit down and write. But despite this sharpness, or maybe because of it, things were always so difficult for me emotionally when it came to writing. Every writing session was tinged with a sense of desperate confusion about who I was as a writer, what on earth I was supposed to be doing, where I was supposed to be headed. I would never have used the word “career” in regard to writing back then. It was just this weird, fretful occupation I had when I wasn’t busy making money, having relationships, or learning how to cook.

After that initial first six months of motherhood where it felt as if my life had imploded and Nothing Would Ever Be The Same Again, I began to try writing again. I remember turning in something new to my writing group when the baby was maybe nine months old and it was clear from their response that it was awful. Just unbearably bad. I went home and cried, and wondered if I’d forgotten how to write entirely and if this was it for me now, just baby and working for a paycheck and no room for anything artistic again. I worried about this for probably the first two years of my son’s life, even after I started to write again.

When my son was eleven months old, I started ghostwriting because I’d been laid off and we needed the money. And those books I ghostwrote were what changed everything. Suddenly writing was tied in a tangible way to money, and I had no choice but to devote myself to it as a serious practice. I wrote more intently and voluminously as a ghostwriter than I’d ever written on my own, and I learned in the year and a half or two years of that process that I could actually write novels. I don’ think I really believed I could do it, until I had to do it, for money.

Including the ghostwriting, I’ve written five novels since my son was born five years ago. This fact is astonishing to me. And though my brain still isn’t as sharp or gleaming as it used to be before motherhood, I’ve learned to have some discipline about the act of writing. The regularity of putting quite a lot of words on a page helps quiet the panic that used to always be such a huge part of the writing process for me. I now write most days, and I find enormous comfort in seeing the pages stack up in the Word document. And now I dare to use the phrase “writing career.” It only feels mildly fraudulent to say this now instead of straight-up preposterous.

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

This is really tough for me, and I fail at it often. I think especially with my husband. It’s easy to devote the hour or two at the end of the day to getting on the floor and playing with your kid, whose needs are massive but simple. It can be harder with your partner, who wants to have a non-distracted ear, who wants the person he married to be there to hang out with him, rather than a shell of a human who is stressed, irritable, and feeling short on time due to the three hours she spent making play-doh animals when she should (in the insane, self-flagellating part of her mind) have found a way to be writing. On particularly stressful months when deadlines are looming, my husband will take my son both weekend days and they’ll go on excursions so that I can finish a book on time. When they come home, it’s clear they’ve had all this fun together and that I’ve missed it, and I can get pretty sad about that. I hate that the thing that is easiest to sacrifice in the name of work and parenthood is the time we used to invest in our marriage. It’s probably indicative of the period we’re living in, where kids rule the roost and get an extraordinary amount of our attention, and we forget that time with our partner, time with no kids in sight, is actually just as important.

I should also add that things have become much, much easier now that my son is in kindergarten. He goes to afterschool four days a week, and this is the first year where I feel like I actually have enough hours in the day to write, attend to my other job, and be a decent parent to my son. Now if only I could incorporate more time outside of the house with my husband, I’ll have truly cracked the code.

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

Parenthood made me more ruthless with myself in terms of weekly page counts. It’s much more important to me now to finish something than to get it perfect. The kind of books I’ve written have all been under very tight deadlines, and I’ve learned how to get them done on time with less and less stress each time. The added knowledge that as a parent I won’t often be able to work at night or first thing in the morning, the knowledge that my hours are extremely set, has probably forced me choose good over perfect more quickly than I would as a non-parent.

The other thing parenthood makes you do is consciously choose sanity over melodramatic hysteria. It’s more efficient to be sane, and I feel I’m doing less harm to my child if I try to embrace (sometimes forcibly) being calm and unflappable and reject being terrified and self-loathing, even though the latter are probably my more natural states of being when it comes to writing. Faking sanity goes a long way, I think. If you fake it enough, the anxiety and self-hatred kind of shrivel up and die a little, and you can get back to the work of putting words on the page.

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

I think I’d have to go with money. There’s never enough of it, and checks never come on time. It’s very stressful. Having a child in New York is not an economically easy thing to do under the best of circumstances, and then having the audacity to try to earn a living in the arts on top of it? You need ovaries of steel. A trust fund would also work in place of the ovaries, I’m told.

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

When I was massively, waddlingly pregnant, someone I respected told me that Joyce Carol Oates had six children. I marveled at this fact – six children and she wrote close to 100 books! If JCO could do that, I reasoned, surely I could have one child and find the time to write a few books.

When my son was very small, there seemed to be no money and even less time, and suddenly I was expected to ghostwrite a novel in three months. It seemed impossible, so I would constantly tell myself, “Joyce Carol Oates had six children. Stop complaining.” This mantra helped me, a little.

But just this year it occurred to me to Google her, because suddenly the whole six kids thing seemed off. So I did. JCO had no children, in fact. Just a drive to write that was so powerful that in college she trained herself, she said, by “writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them.” The person who told me about her six children must have said it sarcastically, and I’d been pregnant enough not to get the joke.

So now that I don’t have JCO to fall back on, I’m left saying about writing with kids that many others have done it, so you can do it too. And the lucky thing is that birth control is available—you don’t have to have six children. Nor do you have to publish 80 novels. All you have to do is fake a semblance of sanity while your kids are small. As they grow up, enjoy the swaths of time you used to take for granted. And my biggest piece of advice is five words I keep taped to my laptop. They are good to remember as a goal for motherhood and writing both. It’s supposed to be fun. If it isn’t—and god knows it often isn’t—you’ve got to try your best to find your way back to the fun. That’s your biggest responsibility, as a parent and as an artist. Enjoy yourself enough so that others can enjoy themselves too.

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Posted in Amelia Kahaney, parenting, with Kids, Writer, Writer with kids, writing

Writer, with Kids: Vica Miller

Vica Miller & girls
Vica Miller, author of Inga’s Zigzags, a novel; short stories

Age of kids: 7.5 and 4.5

I always wrote whenever I could, but having kids made me more disciplined. Before children, I would write late into the night, or take a whole day (on a weekend) writing. Neither one was an option once I became a mother. Sleep deprivation was the main curse in the first year of parenthood. I couldn’t write at night, and I couldn’t write early in the morning. The only time for writing was my girl’s nap time, and, once I returned to work from maternity leave, nap time on weekends. That’s how I wrote my first novel, Inga’s Zigzags (out on May 14, 2014), and that’s why it took eight years to finish.

When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I started the Vica Miller Literary Salons, a chamber reading series held at NYC art galleries. One of the main reasons for launching them, besides providing a stage for good writers to be heard, was the need for an external force to keep me above the breastfeeding, the sleepless nights, something to push me back into the writing world, so that I could remain part of the conversation. The Salons were monthly for a while, but then I turned them into bi-monthly, for obvious reasons. I mention them because the focus and complete dedication needed to produce one every other month is the same recipe that helped me carve out my writing routine, of which more below. (Disclaimer: any kind of “schedule” only kicked in once my youngest turned two. )

Becoming a parent made my writing more urgent, I think, more immediate and precise. I can’t say that I am a better writer because I am a mother, but I have become less selfish, as all parents do, more open to the world around, better at nuances, at noticing little hurts, understanding humanity, and that definitely informed my writing. I think becoming a parent is the shortest path to humility, and that is equally important for writers and not.

Here are a few things that help me juggle my writing and my kids. It’s neither a panacea, nor advice, just some lessons learned. Hopefully, they’ll be useful to other writers.

1. I believe in writing workshops away, led by excellent writers who are great teachers. I took one with Peter Selgin (Drowning Lessons), in Tuscany (my youngest was two then), and another with Simon Van Booy (The Illusion of Separateness), in the Berkshires (the girls were six and three) . Both experiences were straight out of a fairytale, for I could write for a week, uninterrupted, and with excellent guidance. But those are expensive, and you can’t do them unless you have a great partner. My husband is my savior.
In the Berkshires, we talked about juggling parenting and writing, and Simon, a single father at the time, shared advice that I heeded to:
a) Quit drinking.
b) Go to bed early, when kids do (9 PM). Wake up at 1 AM and work for three hours (or get up at 4 AM and work for three hours). I can’t do three hours in the middle of the night, but I could do two.
c) Promise someone (a loved one, or an important figure) that you’d be finished by a certain date.
d) Skip brunch with friends. Write instead.

I started my second novel, The Shadow of a Blue Doll, in Simon Van Booy’s workshop in June of 2013, and finished the first draft by December 31. I also published three new short stories since. Ongoing workshops and writing groups help keep the routine.

2. Write in the morning. Every writer I know swears by the early morning hours as the most productive and creative, and it’s no different for writers who are parents. But then there are school drop offs, dog walks, early meetings at work, and to write every morning turns into a dream. We created a schedule, where sometimes I do both drop offs, and sometimes my husband does. This way I carved out two mornings for writing.

3. Flexible work hours. Aspiring writers can rarely afford to be full-time writers. Most writers have other jobs, as editors, researchers, teachers, etc. I run communications for DataArt, a global technology firm, and it’s rather demanding. When my second daughter was born, I reduced my work load by hiring a tech PR agency, and took a pay cut. With this scenario, in addition to two mornings, I have entire Friday afternoons to write.

4. A supportive partner. This should really be the number one on my list. If you’re lucky to raise your kids with a partner, his/her support becomes the lifeline to your writing. My husband does all the cooking (I clean), helps with after-school classes and knows that if I need an hour “to just write”, he’d take care of the girls. Also, I have another routine, which I negotiated with the whole family: Sunday mornings are mine. Once the girls come into our bed for some cuddling, they join my husband to make breakfast, and I stay in bed and write. That’s how I’m writing this post. I know I’m lucky.

5. Talk to your kids about the importance of your writing. We have always involved our kids in everything we do, from the very early age, and talked to them about things that matter to us. My girls know that I host Salons, and that I write. Because it’s an ongoing conversation, I can ask them to please play by themselves for an hour, so that “mommy can finish her project”. They understand it because when they have their projects, I try not to interrupt them. Basically, we’re trying to foster the culture of mutual respect for everyone’s passions and interests. Sometimes it works, not always. But it does apply to the whole family: kids take their time with their projects (they’re both makers), and my husband gets his training time (he runs marathons).

6. Exercise. I swim at least once a week, to stay sane. I get the best ideas for writing, while swimming, in fact once wrote a whole short story that way. It also helps me solve whatever issues might be going on with the kids.

7. Guilt. You’ll always have guilt. Either for not paying enough attention to your family because you need to write, or for abandoning/postponing your writing because your kids (or partner) need you. I heard that some writers sit down to write with their children: mommy works on her book, kids work on their writing or drawing. It never worked for me, but sounds like a wonderful idea for shared quality time. The guilt will never go away though.

Oh, and turn off Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler and email. Shut down the internet. There is a program for it. It’s called Freedom.

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Posted in parenting, Vica Miller, Writer with kids, writing

Writer, with Kids: Kim Brooks

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Kim Brooks is at work on her first novel. Her short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Chapters, The Missouri Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Meridian, and other journals. Her non-fiction appears frequently on Salon.

Age of kids: 6 and 3

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

Before having kids, I did all my best writing off-schedule, impulsively, without much planning or forethought, usually sandwiched between long stretches of doing nothing or doing something unrelated to writing. I’d return home from traveling and find myself drafting a story instead of unpacking. Or I’d write as a break from studying or grading or waiting tables or trying to get into med school—whatever I was supposed to be doing at the time. Writing as procrastination, distraction, or rebellion was where my most vital work took place. It’s a lot trickier now that “the other thing I’m doing” is raising kids. I’m very luck in that I’ve found great part-time childcare and have a supportive spouse who’s also a writer. Overall, though, I’ve had to become a lot more organized and regimented in my routine. I try to write every day, even if it’s only a few sentences. I use Freedom to keep me from waisting precious babysitting hours goofing around on the internet. And when scheduled writing time doesn’t pan out, I do the best I can to sneak it in, writing when a more practical person would be doing dishes or folding laundry or putting contact paper into the kitchen cabinets or designing holiday card templates. It’s so hard to make a living as a writer, and so I think most of us, whether we have kids or not, write by stealing time from something or someone. If I had a desk job, I’d probably be sneakily minimizing Word documents when my boss came around. Since I’m at home, I try to steal time from the less vital aspects of childcare. I love my children beyond words, and they’re always bathed and fed and read to and played with, but I do often skimp on the extras. I wish there were enough hours in the day to write AND to make homemade vegetable broth and hand-sewn Halloween costumes, but there just aren’t.

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

I don’t. At least, not as much as I wish I did. For me, this has been one of the greatest challenges of balancing writing and parenthood, particularly since I began working on a novel. With stories or essays, it’s much easier. I can complete a draft in a few afternoons spread over a few weeks, and then revise in spurts. I find novel-writing requires a tremendous amount of endurance, and so inevitably it spills over into other aspects of my life. It’s not unusual for me to be at the park with my kids, thinking about some change I want to make to a character in my book or a problem in a scene. It happens, and then I do the best I can to pull myself back to earth and let my subconscious do some of the work while I enjoy mom-time. I do find it helps to stay busy, to get out of the house and go places and plan lots of outings. I’m more likely to float away into novel-land if I’m sitting around the living room than if I’m out at a park or museum or library. And also, I try to compensate for my daydreaming by limiting other distractions—long phone conversations or texting or surfing the internet while I’m with my kids.

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

When I was in graduate school, a teacher came into class one afternoon and announced, “If you’re not writing at least four hours a day, you’re never going to make it as a writer.” I was horrified. Back then, when I had so few tasks competing for my attention, when I had what now seems like impossibly huge amounts of free time, sitting in front of my computer for more than a couple hours was excruciating. Now, maybe because long stretches of work-time have become a rarity, I find that when I do have the hours, I’m able to write in much longer stretches. I find it easier to lose myself in the work, maybe because the silence and solitude of writing time has become a release from the day-to-day grind of childcare. Once a year when my husband is home from work for the summer, I try to do a two-week writing residency, and I know I would have hated this experience before having children, that the solitude and pressure to produce would have been overbearing. Now, the hours and day there slip away. Time alone to think and write has become a gift instead of a burden. Plus, no one asks you to sweep up Cheerio’s on a residency.
In terms of the craft of writing itself, I don’t think parenthood has changed much of that at all. The aspects that were hard for me are still hard. I write and read for the same reasons I did before kids. If anything, I suppose parenthood has shifted my areas of interest as a writer. I used to write a lot of short stories about dysfunctional family life, atypical parent-child relationships, families thrown into crisis by mental illness. Now this sort of kitchen-sink stuff doesn’t excite me. I have my own domestic dramas to deal with and don’t feel the urge to recreate a fictional one. Instead, I’m doing more historical fiction or fiction with a semi-magical or other-worldly quality.

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

Parenting and writing challenge me in exactly the same way: both involve a constant ceding of control and a terrifying acceptance of chaos. So often, I catch myself wondering why I didn’t finish my book in six months like so-and-so did, or why a particular character doesn’t fit into the role I’d carved out for her, or why it took me three drafts instead of one to make a simple plot fall into place. Or I obsess over all the external benchmarks or worldly rewards that seem out of reach or unobtainable. I spend a lot of time battling against my own desire to control elements that are largely out of my control. Really, the only thing any writer has control over is the writing itself, and sometimes, not even that. As an inherently anxious, achievement-oriented person, I find this lack of control exquisitely uncomfortable. And I also find that it’s compounded by the fact that raising children presents the very same feelings of powerlessness.
Before having kids, I secretly imagined that I’d somehow know just what to do to produce well-behaved, well-regulated, well-adjusted children who would sleep through the night and eat their vegetables and never have earth-shattering melt-downs in the check-out line at Target. Then the kids arrived and I realized that, in fact, I knew nothing. So much of both parenting and writing involve improvisation, trial and error, fucking up and then trying to dissect the fuck up and do things at least a little bit better the next time around. I joke that in my next life, I want to be a tax attorney or a chemist, something that involves a great deal of predictability and precision.

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

My first piece of advice is to keep expectations low, especially during the baby years. I remember when I was pregnant with my son, I’d hear people say things like, “Oh, babies sleep all the time the first year,” and I’d think, wow, I’m going to get so much writing done. Well, my son was not one of those babies. He didn’t sleep at all his first three months, and after that, he never napped for more than 40 minutes at a stretch. I did almost no writing that year and became really depressed, in part I think, because I felt like I was somehow failing. When my daughter came along, I braced myself for another year of zero-productivity. When she turned out to be one of the mythical sleeping babies, I was pleasantly surprised. My second piece of advice is to seek out and accept help wherever you can get it. I have two amazing babysitters, and I know they’ll both be in the acknowledgments of any book I ever write.

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Writer, with Kids: Javier Moreno

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Javier Moreno, author of Lo definitivo y lo temporal (2008), Inframundo (2010) and Despegue (coming in 2014)

Age of kid: 17 months.

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

My writing schedule used to be sporadic. I tried and tried whenever I had the time and got tired and tried again until I found I was into something. Once there, I started waking up early in the morning, around five, and wrote as much as I could until eight or nine, it depended. Some days I would write all day long. Some days I would start writing late at night, after eleven. Before having children I was struggling with my career as a professional mathematician and writing short fiction pieces was a way of avoiding what I was supposed to be doing. Two short fiction collections came out of that.

When my first kid was born in September 2010 and died three days later I started to realize that I was devoting my life to something in which I did not really believe anymore (i.e., all that structured and kinda pretentious career of trying to become a professor by doing research to publish dubious papers that nobody really reads or cares about) and in the process I was missing out on truly important things (e.g., most of the first pregnancy). And although I continued doing math for a year or so I stopped right away once we were pregnant again. I wanted to be there and I wanted to be the parent in charge once she was born. That would be my job. During the pregnancy, as a sort of homage to my short-lived son, I finished a short science-fiction novel for children about a little kid who helps his older and sick cousin to escape planet Earth and live “up-and-out” in space with his long gone father.

I have been completely in charge of my daughter since she was three months old and her mother had to go back to work. We live alone, with no family near by and not many friends either, in a small college city in Ontario. Life has changed a lot in all sorts of ways but writing is still that quiet place where I find solace before or after the long days with the baby. It has been hard to come up with engaging ideas but during the summer I joined forces with my friend Luis Noriega, also a Colombian writer and father-at-home who lives in Arenys de Mar, near Barcelona, and in less than a month we pulled together 50,000 words of something that now, after some revisions and 10,000 more words, looks like a post-apocalyptic novel for children with amorphous monsters, heroic young girls, and giant robots. The sort of book I dreamed of writing when I was ten or twelve. We hope to be able to finish it during 2014.

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

I have no choice. My writing time is extremely restricted (from 5am to 7am, that’s it) and I spend the rest of the day with my daughter or cooking or, occasionally, cleaning up the apartment. Whatever I must write has to wait. In a way it is good.

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

It has forced me to be more disciplined and careful about time. I has also made me more interested in writing fiction for children and young adults. I still keep some projects of adult fiction on the go but the idea of writing stories for her, the kind of books I wished I could have read when I was growing up, is really exciting.

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

I lose focus easily and the anxieties and responsibilities of parenthood have made me even more prone to distraction. Kids are extremely difficult and dynamic puzzles, always changing and always coming up with new challenges. Sometimes this affects my writing routine. I have had months when I am unable to attain any progress. It is always hard to recover the rhythm.

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

Organize your time. Be disciplined and patient. Keep writing. Enjoy the kids. They are a wonderful disruption. They create new worlds.

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Writer, with Kids: Orli Van Mourik

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Devotion and Distraction
Orli Van Mourik

Almost exactly eleven weeks ago my daughter, Margot, was born howling. The midwife placed her slippery pink body on my chest, still shimmering, and she immediately hoisted her head up to look at me: Why, her perfect ‘o’ of a mouth seemed to ask. The skepticism radiated from her. I didn’t take it personally, just as I didn’t take credit when her elder sister came out laughing. The thing about parenthood is that you understand pretty quickly that each child arrives fully equipped. You might be able to tune up the basic machinery using Buddhism or Analysis or, hell, even Scientology—and there’s always a danger of breaking it—but there’s no turning a Jaguar into a Monster Truck.

At this larval stage of infancy, Margot seems (not unlike her mother) to be a slightly temperamental machine; she registers every change in temperature and balks when handled too roughly. Like a high performance vehicle that demands premium fuel, she refuses to accept the bottle in lieu of the boob and will not be convinced of their interchangeability. She is not so much fragile as she is keenly sensitive to her conditions. Her sister, Scarlet, showed up wearing her party shoes, attuned from the start to life’s joys; with her, I figured out early that my main task was to get out of the way. Margot, by contrast, seems still to be casting one eye back toward the blissful nothing that came before. As her mother, I know that l’ll need to teach her to embrace life’s chaos of sensation. I take this job seriously and want to do it well. I fear that if I fail, she will falter, grow alarmed, turn away from life. I understand this to be a real hazard because I myself am someone prone to these things.

I know that the best I can do for Margot is to beam an uninterrupted stream of light down on her, like the sun in the sky. I also know that this is impossible. Therein lies the great tragedy of parenthood.

We all want to be the sun for our children, I think, at least in our better moments. But we are not celestial bodies; we are people and people are, by nature, inconstant. On my very best parenting days, I’m maybe a Maglite. The beam I emit falters; it goes dim; it veers wildly in the opposite direction for hours on end. This is true of a lot of parents, I think, but I wonder if it’s truer of writing parents, whose brains contain legions. I’m writing this on a dark, soupy winter afternoon, watching my laptop’s clock tick down as my eldest takes an ill-advised nap, the baby slung across a nursing pillow on my lap. The parent in me knows it would be wise to wheedle Scarlet awake with kisses and cuddles so that bedtime goes easily tonight; it scolds me for placating Margot with an absent-minded mouth full of boob. But the writer in me is hungry for more words. These stolen moments feel like wartime contraband, too delicious not to hoard.

Is there guilt? Yes, of course. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an equal amount of pleasure. I spend most of my waking and sleeping hours these days, ministering to the needs of tiny people. This is work I willingly chose to undertake—work that I’m well aware most people don’t have the luxury to choose. And I feel lucky to do it. I also feel, many days, engulfed, less like a woman than like a walking set of hands, always at the ready to wipe a nose or a butt, unload a carful of groceries, cook a meal, button a shirt, place a cool hand on a hot cheek. Never before having children did I truly understand the concept of Mindfulness—how the simple repetition of tasks can dismantle the ego’s armature revealing the quiet mystery beneath. This loss of ego can be liberating, but, inevitably, at some point my western mind recoils from it. Writing, more than anything else, is what restores me to myself. Without it, I feel sometimes like I might dissipate entirely.

For a mind like mine, writing is self-preservation, a necessity. But, of course, in a culture that still views self-sacrifice as the ultimate form of mothering, I frequently feel the need to justify it anyway, to myself and everyone else. My ability to do this is further complicated by the fact that I live in America, a country that hopelessly conflates meaning with money, and I currently net less from writing than I’d earn working at Walmart. It’s one thing to ask your children to sacrifice your attention for the sake of your bottom-line, it’s another to prioritize your own fulfillment over their desire for handmade Halloween costumes, macaroni casseroles and weekend camping trips. Mostly I am able to make peace with this: my children are loved and well tended; they will not wither from a lack of Pinterest projects. The thing I find hard to justify is my wandering attention. When your head holds competing worlds it’s sometimes too easy to let the tide of boredom sweep you away during a detailed recounting of the latest episode of Wild Kratts. When Scarlet sternly informs me that I’m not listening, I feel the jarring atmospheric shift of re-entry and a momentary stab of guilt. It’s not always ideal for my girls when mommy disappears into the recesses of her own brain. But then again, perhaps it’s important for them to see me shine my light inward on occasion. I don’t want to teach them how to disappear. The world will give them plenty of lessons in that regard.

I can’t be the sun, but neither should I be some anemic strain of light escaping under the door. Children end up emotional orphans in just this way, victims of distracted parents who excuse themselves too eagerly from the day-to-day drudgery. To guard against this, I try to keep my writing life and parenting life as separate as possible. I am an emotional bigamist. When I am with my family, I work hard to truly be with them. When I’m writing, I allow myself to forget them. On days when I’d rather be at the keyboard than ferrying Scarlet around from school to class, I remind myself that I have a lifetime for writing, but only a handful of years to play guiding light to these two little people. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes resent their pull on me anyway. I may one day be called to account for this; I’m already preparing for the moment. But I’m also aware that I can’t rid myself of all my shortcomings. Much of this machinery came built in, just as theirs did. My daughters need me to be present, but I can only be as alive to their humanity as I am to my own. If they one day question my choices—well, they’ll always have the work to look to for answers.

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Writer, with Kids: Sean Ferrell

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Sean Ferrell, author of Man in the Empty Suit and Numb

I found my son destroying a drawing. He’d worked on it for at least half an hour, one of his monster creations with a thousand eyes on a hundred heads with a dozen arms reaching across the page. At one time, the monsters were a coping mechanism. As a little boy—three, four, five—he was plagued with worry. Any transition was painful, any change in routine meant chaos reigned. Getting him to school was like a funeral procession: tears and hugs and woeful silence. His afternoons and evenings were wretched affairs. Repeated, oft-answered questions filled our dinner plates, “Will you leave me at school tomorrow?” “Will you pick me up?” “Will I be able to see you when you get there?” “Will you see me?”

Yes, you know I will, of course, yes, you know I will, yes, of course. Answers weren’t important. The questions ruled the roost.

A wellspring of worry. Worry without cause or purpose. Nameless, shapeless. I asked him to describe the worries.
“They’re like little things in my head that I know aren’t true, but they won’t leave me alone.”
I asked him to draw his worries. “Lets draw them so we can get rid of them.”

I gave him a pad of paper and a black marker. He drew a blob with three eyes and a gaping mouth. I suggested that once he threw it away that worry couldn’t come back. He put it in the trash. He drew another. I left him alone with his worries. A short while later he came out of his room.

“I want to keep them.”

We found a tissue box that was almost empty, made it so, and labeled it “Worry Box.” He shoved his worries into it. He added to it for days. He’d take his worries out and look at them, count them.

“I have so many worries,” he said proudly.

“That’s great,” I replied. Enthusiastic. Encouraging.

He drew worries all the time. He was calmer. He’d carry some paper in his pocket on the way to school. He’d show me the worries he’d made during the day when I picked him up in the afternoon. He’d squirrel them away before bed, stuffing them into the Worry Box atop all the old ones. Panic dried up. It still burbles occasionally, but doesn’t flood like it once did.

He grew. He’s still a decade from voting, but at eight he seems a lifetime away from the worried little boy who clung to my leg at preschool, crying for promises of my return. The worry box was filled, emptied, filled again, and then, after several years, forgotten. It’s somewhere in his room. Maybe under his bed. Worries are forgotten but not gone. I used to find little drawings of monsters in his pockets when doing laundry. No more. Now I find large, carefully rendered creatures in his backpack, or strewn across his bedroom floor. They fill the page, with eyes and teeth and arms too numerous to count, with scales and antennas so small I wonder how his pencil has a fine enough point to scratch them out.

So here was my not-grown-but-so-much-bigger-than-little-son destroying a drawing, a detailed monster, but with an anger I hadn’t seen before. He crumpled and ripped the paper. His teeth grinding and bared. This wasn’t shedding a worry, this was destruction. I asked for calm, for a deep breath, for a reason why.

“It’s not right. It was different in my head and it isn’t right.”

“Well, I thought it looked great.”

“No, it’s terrible.”

I thought about arguing the point. It was terrific, I thought. But something had taken the usefulness of his creating, the digging out of his troubles that had no source other than being human, and turned it against him. Here he was, pounding the table with his tiny grown-up fist, yelling that I was wrong, that he was terrible at drawing, that he was never and could never be any good at it because what was in him was still in him and not out, not on the page. Perfectionism. I wanted to argue, but knew I couldn’t. How could I argue against something that plagued me as well? “Do as I say, not as I do and do and do” only works so often, which is never.

I said, “You know who you sound like?”

“Who?”

I said, “You sound like a guy I know who tries to write books. For a long time he worked and worked and worked on a book and he couldn’t get past the first page. Sometimes he couldn’t get past a sentence. He wanted it to have the exact shape and feeling and smell that it had in his head. He couldn’t get it right on the page and so he never got very far. He was frozen. It took a long time for him to realize that each time he wrote he got a little closer to that thing in his head, that each day was practice. Now he gets more work done, and he finishes books, and he feels much better because sometimes he gets the work out and it does feel and smell like it did in his head. It’s not about getting it right, it’s about getting it out.”

“Who is this?”

“He wears your dad’s clothes,” I said.

My son screwed up his mouth and rolled his eyes the way he does whenever I refer to myself indirectly. The man with his father’s hair and beard likes to think he’s clever.

“I still don’t like it,” he said. “It’s not right.”

I said that was fine. I said he could throw it out if he wanted; could shred and bury it under eggshells and banana peels if he needed. I wouldn’t and couldn’t stop him. I said that my point was that it’s okay to be dissatisfied, but not to be cruel to the artist who is only trying his best.

He nodded. “I know. I’ll draw it again later.”

“I look forward to seeing what you come up with.”

I asked him if he wanted to see what I’d been drawing. When he said yes I pulled out the most recent printed draft of my current project. I still edit on paper (the man wearing my shoes is old) and the pages were full of crossed out lines, arrows, footnotes, and scribbled revisions. I told him I was getting it into shape. But never on the first try.

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