Writer, with Kids: Jane Smiley


Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Private Life, Horse Heaven, Moo, 10 Days in the Hills, A Thousand Acres, The Man Who Invented the Computer, Good Faith, and others

Age of kids: 33, 29, 19

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how did it change when your children were born? How did it shift as they grew older?

I’ve always written every day, for a few hours a day–maybe 1 1/2 to 3. This fits in pretty well with the kids, because you aren’t busy all day. It didn’t change when my first one was born–I hired a babysitter who came two hours per day (in those days and in Iowa, she charged $10.00 a week). Usually I wrote, but sometimes, because my daughter wasn’t a good sleeper, I took a nap! But I figured that was okay, too. Often the babysitter was just there for my daughter’s afternoon nap, but at least I knew that I had two hours, and to get on with it. I think it was good to have this sort of structure, because I could always count on the two hours, and I didn’t have to worry about it. I would be upstairs in my room writing, and the babysitter and my daughter would be downstairs. I could hear them playing or whatever, but I didn’t have to pay attention. The really good thing about it was that I knew I had to get to work. No procrastinating, since I was paying for the time. This got me into better habits. For the children who were born subsequently, I used about the same system, though for #2, I took her to a babysitter a few doors down the street, and for #3, the babysitter came in. When they were around three, I put them in daycare for a few hours a day (by the time my first daughter was three, I was also teaching). I should stress that I was living, first in Iowa City and then in Ames, Iowa. Ames was a uniquely great place to write and have kids, because Iowa State had a great child development program, and the daycare in town was very up to date and wonderful. I used to think that the kids had a much better time in daycare than they would have had at home–terrific teachers, lots of activities to try and to do. Also, Ames was compact and daily life was easy to manage–the grocery store was across the street from the daycare, and about three blocks from my house. It took me five minutes to get to work. These sorts of geographic conveniences were very important to me (and Ames has an excellent school system).

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

I think it’s really important to define your work time and keep it separate. You go into your workspace and close the door, and think about your work, then you finish for the day and walk away from it. I usually contemplated it when I was, say, chopping vegetables or cleaning the catbox, but I was fairly practiced at paying attention to whatever I was doing when I was doing it, and forgetting about other stuff. But I also think it’s really important to do other stuff, not to sit in your workspace brooding. The brain needs change and rest, especially physical activity. If I’m stuck somewhere in a book, the best thing is to go do something physical (in my case, ride a horse). The break refreshes my brain, and ideas come. You have to forget and stop concentrating to invent. Thus, being a parent offers lots of times to just let your work problems go, and then have an idea come to you–while you’re nursing, for example, or walking down the street to the store or something. I did not find kids a distraction from work, but a relief from it, and VICE VERSA. Contemplating my project was also enjoyable when family life got to seem chaotic.

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

When my kids were young, I used writing to think about family life. I didn’t write very often about my kids, but I did write about the idea of motherhood and how families work (esp. The Age of Grief, but also “Long Distance,” “The Life of the Body,” Ordinary Love and Goodwill. We learn about family life in a lot of different ways–by growing up in families, and hearing our relatives talk about our families, etc., but also by having families. When I was studying literature in high school and college, all of the writers we read were either men or women who didn’t seem to have had children (George Eliot, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton ), so when I started writing, I thought mothers’ voices were missing in literature. I know now that there were a few around–Shirley Jackson, Enid Bagnold, Rebecca West, Jean Kerr, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe–but they weren’t presented to us in school as important.

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

This changes. At first, it is finding the time and the energy to do both, especially if a baby is not a good sleeper (two of mine were, one wasn’t). The question of daycare persists. I was lucky to live in Ames, but I know that the question of nanny vs. daycare is a constant one in most places, and whatever you choose, you are likely to have doubts. I always thought that full-time motherhood was a problem for me, because it engaged about 85% of my brain, so I didn’t have much time to think of other things, but I felt restless. When the kids were at the daycare, I felt comfortable–I knew they were well cared for and having a good time. When I was a child, I had been much less supervised than they were. I thought they were safer than my friends and I had been, so that was something of a reassurance. And they did turn out to be more adept at interpersonal relationships than I was, something I always attributed to their day care experiences.

After they are in school and on their own, then their care isn’t as much of a dilemma as certain other things–do I write about them? They are fascinating, so this is tempting. Do I write about their father? What may I reveal and what may I not reveal? How much of my inner life am I prepared to put on the page? My own kids have been pretty leery of reading my work, and I don’t mind this. They can get around to it after I pass on. Some authors, male and female (say, John Cheever, John Updike, and Ayelet Waldman) have taken their home lives as their subject matter more often than I have. My interests have been more outward than inward. I don’t know if that’s a choice or a habit. There are two sides to the dilemma–should you share their lives and activities? and what will they feel when they read about your life, activities, and thoughts? So far, I have no idea which of my books my children have read, or what they think about them. That’s probably the best way for me. I do remember watching a movie called Quiz Show, about a 1950s quiz show scandal. The protagonist’s father was a famous man of letters. A room in his house is filled with pictures of his greatness–awards, famous people, testimonials, etc. I remember being really offended by this, and thinking that who you are in the house is their parent. They can find out about the other stuff on their own, not from you.

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

Ideally, you would live in a place that is kid friendly, you would establish your writing habits and your career early so that the children didn’t distract you, but also so that the fact that you are a writer is just a part of who you are as far as they are concerned. Ideally, you would also have a mate who is willing and able to share childcare responsibilities, and finds it fun to take the kids somewhere when you are hard at work, or who can cooperate if you have to do some research somewhere (when my kids were 2 and 6, I went to Greenland for three and a half weeks). Ideally, your mate is enthusiastic about your working life and everything that comes with it. Ideally, you would be able to write if there was noise or the phone rang. You could deal with distraction and not be thrown by it. You would not need absolute silence (I’ve met some writers who do–very difficult). When I think of women writers with kids, I have to mention Anthony Trollope’s mother, Frances, who wrote dozens of books while rearing four sons, and was, maybe “the most provocative writer of the early Victorian period.” She was very adventurous, supported her family, and nursed her husband in his last illness while writing. I think her main virtue is that she just kept at it.

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Posted in parenting, Writer with kids, writing
11 comments on “Writer, with Kids: Jane Smiley
  1. Amazing. And awesome advice, even for those of us without kids. Sometimes I work for two or three hours and then I think, “I don’t have kids! I should write all day!” Then I beat myself up for not doing it, but it is just as Jane says — you need the time away to process, and only then you can come back to the page.

    • admin says:

      Rachael, I found that really helpful, too. Also, specifically as a parent, I love the reminder that our role in the home is, first and foremost, parent.

  2. I couldn’t agree more–as a single mother with a son (now 20) I think the best advice, by far, is “keep at it”! The writing might be slow-going, the worries many, but if you want to write, WRITE. I gave my boy lots of attention and savored my time with him, but I also snuck in some time for my own projects, even if it meant sacrificing sleep 😉

  3. xina says:

    Interesting and inspiring! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Lisa Hughey says:

    I love this “who you are in the house is their parent.”

    It’s enough that they know what we do when they aren’t around just like parents who go into a traditional office.

    My kids have learned to respect my time when I am working (mostly). However my son was just home from college and all those years of training, “mom’s working, don’t interrupt her”, went out the window. :) Of course, I didn’t complain because I miss him and I love that he still wants to talk to me.

  5. Infrastructure is key, no doubt about it. Thanks very much for posting this.

  6. L.G.C. Smith says:

    Though I don’t have kids, I have a six-year-old niece who lives next door. I find I’m struggling with boundaries because when she calls (her parents are great at making sure she doesn’t just pop over whenever she gets bored), I’m a total sucker for the activities she’s cooked up for us. Your post underscores for me that I really, really, really have to set working hours now. That will free me up for the time I want and need to spend doing other things.

    By the way, almost twenty years ago I taught “A Thousand Acres” in one of my freshman comp sections at UC Berkeley. I’d just returned from a stint at a college in South Dakota, and the family dynamics in ATA hit me hard. Tragically familiar. My students at Cal loved it. My students in SD would have recognized it.

  7. Beverly says:

    Even though I am childless, I appreciate so much the encouragement to recognize that protecting writing time and family time are equally important.

  8. Shannon says:

    What I would give for 2 hours a day at $10 a week. Holy smokes! I have two right now, 3 and 8 months, and I pay $48 for three hours, 1 day a week. And neither one is/was a good sleeper. But I peck away anyway. So it goes.

  9. Barb says:

    This is inspiring. Just keep at it. No matter the circumstances. Just keep at it. I enjoy writing in the wee hours of the night because the phone doesn’t ring, no one disturbs me, and I can’t see the housework that needs to be done. Thanks for the interview…and the reminder to “keep at it” regardless of the chaos around the keyboard.

  10. jessica says:

    I love the idea of having help while you write or nap. sounds beautiful and creative. thank you for sharing

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Writer, With Kids