Writer, with Kids: Elise A. Miller

Elise A. Miller, author of: Star Craving Mad, “Forgive Me,” “Some Great Reward”

Age of kids: 8 and 6

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

I only began writing seriously a few years before I had kids. What had started as an acting and performing pursuit distilled organically into a writing path, which I found a far more efficient and satisfying way to express myself. I include this tidbit because I am still figuring out my writing self as I parent—there was nothing so firmly entrenched in my habits or my body of work, except for loving to write, that anchored me once the kids were born, so I felt shaken pretty hard when I became a mom.

Mostly I wrote while temping in law firms in midtown Manhattan with other aspiring writers, comedians and actors. I hosted and curated a monthly reading series and was surrounded with a great community of writers. I performed readings around the city and when I wasn’t doubting myself I generally felt like an authentic, relevant voice.

When a friend asked me to join her romance writing group, inspired by a call for submissions by Harlequin’s (then) new imprint, Red Dress, I joined for no other reason than I couldn’t think of a good reason not to. A bunch of us met weekly for hummus, mimosas and workshopping. I had great fun writing, loved the camaraderie, healthy competition and audience. This combination of factors kept me going. When my agent asked to represent it, I felt like I’d won an Academy Award. I got a book deal within weeks, which I later learned is a rare occurrence. I said to my husband, probably with tears of joy in my eyes, “Wow, it really is possible to make money creatively, doing something we love! I’ve done it! I’ve arrived! Now we can start a family!”

The baby brought new focus, hormonal surges, a perilous drop in ambition, and of course a time vacuum. Whatever upward momentum I’d gathered as a writer vanished in a sleep-deprived haze. The reading series I hosted became a burden once I was a mom—schlepping to the lower east side from Brooklyn with an infant was no picnic. Our apartment grew too cramped for comfort, especially when baby number two arrived in 2006.

I did manage to write another novel when my son was 18 months old but my agent rejected it. It was not my best work, I admit, but I was proud of the accomplishment. My ambition was stunted; I grew frustrated. It probably didn’t help that my expectations after publishing my novel included a witty televised chat with David Letterman and a Malibu beachfront property—something glassy and white like Jennifer Aniston might rent for forty-thousand dollars a week. None of this came to pass.

Instead I started blogging about my confusion, and shortly after that we moved out of the city back to my hometown suburb in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. Soon my writing contacts became cyber ghosts—Facebook friends.

I beat myself up daily for not writing another novel, cultivating myself a petri dish of self-loathing and isolation. Friends told me to give myself a break, but I found this hard to do when other writers I knew managed to publish novels while their babies were toddlers. Two authors who come to mind had full-time nannies, which I did not. Still, I compared myself to them.

In the meantime I continued blogging, grew obsessed with food and yoga, developed horrible back pain, a subsequent distracting crush on my back doctor, and like a throbbing carbuncle, my second novel burst out of me finally, only six years after the first. It took about five months to write the first draft, which I typed manically during whatever breaks from the kids I could carve for myself.

There is no precious writing spot or time anymore. It took me six years to stop waiting for the sea to part for my creative work, but more, it took that long for an idea to stick. My writing schedule is erratic. The only plan I have is to get some writing done every day, whether it’s a blog post, a journal entry or a story. Sometimes I bring my laptop to the kitchen counter, and write while I make meals for the family. Or I lay in bed with my laptop on Saturdays while my husband takes care of the kids, or I schlep my laptop to some institutional chain cafe on a Sunday and write for a few hours. My husband is very smart. He knows that it’s better in the long run if he cares for the kids while I get some writing done. I’m more prone to ignore the family when I’m in the middle of something like a novel, something with momentum. I’m more likely to leave the laptop alone between projects and spend more time as an engaged mom.

The good thing about short bursts is that I always leave an easy thread hanging. I can slip in and pick up where I left off, in the middle of the action. The bad thing is that sometimes I spend more time rereading what I’ve written to get myself back into the flow than I spend adding new prose.

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

It’s hard to be of two minds. When I’d rather be writing, I get irritable and ineffective as a mom and when I’d rather spend time with my family, my writing grows stiff and uninspiring. Mid-project, I zone out, gather a fog around me and drift away. I do sometimes succeed at joining everyone at the dinner table, physically and emotionally, and I’ve been known to strategically enter the topic of my latest project into meal-time conversation. I like that my kids get to see me work, get to see me struggle at a creative task I love, get rejected and then work some more. This is an important lesson to share with them—perseverance.

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

My children feature heavily in my latest novel. The problem is, now they can read. I expect to be heavily vetted in the near future. My writing is darker because I am more isolated and lonelier here, so that moodiness inevitably seeps into my work.

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

Getting paid. Generating work. Cultivating a new and renewed writing community. Casting a wider net for inspiration. Prioritizing my time—good food, tidy surroundings and groomed eyebrows all take time away from writing and being with my kids, but they are all integral to my sanity. And I feel like a failure at times—I’m never totally a writer or totally a mom. But of course I am both of those things and slowly it is becoming enough to be just okay at two things I love. I don’t need to be phenomenal. It’s phenomenal enough living a life I actually choose.

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

Keep your sense of humor handy.

Ask your kids to help you through perplexing plot-points. If their answers involve poopy, pee-pee, Lady Gaga and/or Bakugans, that’s okay. It’s good to go through the journey together. This way, when you’re being a grouchy yenta at the dinner table, they won’t take it personally.

Don’t expect the transition from writer-head to mom-head to be smooth. Expect rockiness.

Take a hit of accomplishment from the skimpiest chunks of writing time. Enjoy a single sentence. A thought. A word.

Be kind to yourself.

Tagged with , , ,
Posted in Writer with kids
One comment on “Writer, with Kids: Elise A. Miller
  1. Susan says:

    I just love this series (as I’ve said before…)!
    Would you ever consider featuring a composer on here? I know that’s a different kind of writing, but it can present many of the same family/work challenges. I ask because I have a composer friend who is the primary caretaker of his two young girls, and I think he would have a lot of interesting insights to offer here. His name is Scott Gendel and his website is here: http://www.scottgendel.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Writer, With Kids