photo: audrey keller photography
Emily Gray Tedrowe, author of Commuters: a novel
Age of kids: 9 and 6
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
It’s weird—so much of my writing process has been forged in the crucible of having kids, that I can hardly remember what it was like to write before I became a mom. I think back then I tended to write in sporadic bursts, a coffee shop here and a park bench there. Maybe I had the freedom, but I certainly didn’t have the discipline. When my first daughter was an infant, I forced myself to write for every minute of her naps, which wasn’t too arduous—or productive—because her daily sleep habit, in our house, was known as “the thirty minute special.” When she was a few months older and I was teaching, I formed the habit that would carry me through the next years and a first attempt at a novel (not a success) as well as my next try, which became Commuters: I got up at 5 am, every morning including weekends, to write for about an hour and a half before the day started. About as brutal as you’d imagine, especially during those months when I was also up in the middle of the night breastfeeding. Getting my writing in before dawn was how I taught myself to be a writer. Now that my kids are older, and I write in the (later) mornings after taking them to school, I look back at those years with awe and amazement. How did I do it? Lots of coffee. Some bleary pre-writing internet surfing. A fair amount of dogged stubbornness. A great husband who knew he was “on duty” if either of the kids woke up while mommy was writing. It was hard, and I had to give up a lot of things besides sleep (exercise, late night conversation, evening TV). But given the choice between a day of feeling wasted and having written a page or two, or being well-rested but no further along in the work… well, that was easy. (Also, here’s a secret I discovered: far easier to get up at 5 am every morning than to do it once in a while.)
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
Great question. This is really important to me, because although I teach a college course sometimes, my main job, aside from writing, is to be the primary caregiver for our two daughters. I don’t want to space out when I’m with them—even if that was possible, given the sheer volume of their enthusiasms and squabbles—I really want them to know I’m listening, both in the serious moments and in the silly ones. It’s hard for me; a lot of times I’d really prefer to be in my own thoughts. And it’s easy to “mm-hmm” one’s way through the nineteenth minute of a stuffed animal wedding. What helps is that parenting is actually a nicely designed counterpart to the interior, quiet, sedentary world of writing… after writing I love to be at the playground, for example, or to cook dinner and supervise homework. The physical work of parenting, and its (mostly joyful) noisiness, are a good break for me from the quietness of my desk. Another thing I do when possible is to include my girls into my writing world. We do “family reading night” after dinner sometimes—everyone in the living room with a pile of books. We’re heavy users of our public library, where I can fit in a bit of research while they browse. They come with me to museums and book festivals, bookstores and readings. I bring them on “field trips” to locations I want to check out for a current project, and they take lots of photos with my phone. When they were little, they used to love when I’d print out a full manuscript—they would pull out each page as it unspooled, holding it up with delight while I scrambled to keep a minimum of collated order.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
Probably mostly in that if it’s not top priority, I’m not going to spend time on it. If I weren’t a parent, I might be trying lots more book reviews or essays on art and music, or personal essays, or other forms of writing. I might have a currently-updated blog, a super-clever twitter feed, a gorgeous photo tumblr. I love all of these when other people do them, so at times I’m tempted. But because I’m clear on what matters most to me—writing fiction—I hone in on that in the little time I get to be at my computer each day. Reading is also a big part of my life, so if I do have extra time I’m much more likely to be reading rather than anything else.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
For me, it would be the definite lack of long dreamy unoccupied hours in which to think globally about, for example, a novel-in-progress. I know people without children don’t exactly have a surplus of long dreamy unoccupied hours, of course. But one thing about parenthood—as it exists in my house—is that there is constant talking, constant interaction. I can whittle out the bare bones time to sit down and bang out my daily word count, but other than that I’m in a running conversation with two sharp chatty girls all day long. Like, from 7 am until bedtime. It’s a big problem—where can I find the mental space to roam over the novel as a whole, to let it float into view and reveal itself? Not, clearly, during the rat-a-tat back-and-forth of “mom, can I” or “mom, she did this” or “mom, come quick!”
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
Make friends with other artists who are parents. It’s helped me so much. One year a filmmaker friend and I traded babysitting once a week to give each other time to get our work done. I also commiserate and strategize with the fabulous friends-who-are-moms in my writers’ group. When you know you’re not alone, it breaks up the pity party. I couldn’t imagine my life without either my children or my writing, and I feel grateful for the problem of how to juggle both.