Writer, with Kids: Jessica Dewberry

Jessica Dewberry. Family
Jessica Dewberry’s work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mutha Magazine, and other places. She is currently writing a memoir and a compilation of essays and photographs.

Age of kids: Frank, 16; Cabe, 11; Iona, 10

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

I was still a teenager before I had kids, so the idea of seriously writing or having a writing schedule wasn’t even a part of my psychology. By the time I had my first child, I was a junior in high school, and I do remember writing very bad poetry then, between feedings, learning to change diapers, or when my son was napping after those all-too-frequent, twice-a-day baths no one ever told me weren’t necessary. Those poems were often drawn over with stars and moons, face profiles of fictional people, and crying eyes reminiscent of the Latino Mi Vida Loca culture because I was into that then. I didn’t begin to write more frequently until after the birth of my other two kids. It was still poetry, ekphrastic poetry and nearly a decade before I ever heard the word ekphrastic. I was 22.

A couple years later I started reading heavy again, and I did more of this – thank the universe – than writing. I needed to learn how to write and get away from the far-out abstract sentences that sounded good but said very little, and reading fed me even more than writing those bad poems did. This time period coincided with returning to school at a community college, and I’d take my kids to my mother’s house, so she could help with them while I did “school work,” which was really me just reading obsessively in one of her back rooms.

When I transferred to a university, I was working three part-time jobs while going to school full-time, and the kids seemed to live at daycare, so writing outside of the requirements was off the table. Since my program had an emphasis on creative writing, I took all the writing courses I could and designed a couple for independent study. I became really good at seeing how others put their stories together and talking about it, but I still struggled when writing my own. I remember a lot of crumbling concrete metaphors and people being lost. There was always a young female protagonist trying to navigate terrain that was seemingly unfamiliar to her; although, she grew up in the setting. I was simply continuing to use writing as a cathartic practice while figuring out how to expand upon what I truncated and often missed altogether in those poems.

I finally began to better understand my writing process and how to write a story myself towards my senior year of college. By then, I had stopped working two of the three jobs, and only attended school part-time, so I could write and parent with more flexibility, which was much needed because my oldest was 13 and determined to break a law. I was also wrestling words and ideas with more strength, so I wrote whenever possible. I’d take the kids to school and have a couple hours before I needed to be anywhere, and I’d write. I’d write while they played outside the front door with other kids in our complex, and through all the, “Look at me mom,” requests while they swam in the pool or while waiting on them at gymnastics and karate, but that was also sporadic and outside anything that would be considered a routine. Some days I didn’t write at all and still don’t, while other days, I write like my life depends upon it because in some ways I feel it does.

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

I don’t think I really do. Whatever I’m writing or editing usually takes precedence. In general, I’ve had to work at being present. I used to become really frustrated when the kids demanded my attention because I just needed and wanted my time. Of course, when they were younger it happened more often, but as they get older, I become better at dividing myself – being in motion and doing things while writing sentences in my head and scheming ideas. I can physically put down the computer or my scrawled-up notepad, whip a meal together, beat a kid at Monopoly (I really don’t know why they still ask me to play.), discuss Yugioh cards and the non-negotiable steps of actually taking a shower, run errands, then do a little song and dance back through the door and back into a project with new material and better ideas on how to convey something. At times when I’m helplessly “sunk in,” they heed the warnings signs and induce parts of our daily routine for me. They’ll take it upon themselves to assemble a sandwich for dinner or remember to follow some rule I’ve enforced but usually have forgotten – their way of helping out.

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

Because writing and motherhood are so inseparable for me I’m not sure I can fathom one without the other. I’ve been maturing right alongside my kids and all my bad writing and the books I’ve read. Together, it has added depth to my work and helped me learn to better take care of myself and the kids. Motherhood, and not just for those who had kids young, demands a commitment to become self-aware and more inclined to work at “fixing” patterns and behaviors, so we can be healthier adults and mothers, whether or not we’re conscious of it or choose to adhere to it. I work at this all the time, and my writing is never only about trying for a beautifully crafted essay or story, it’s also about whatever soul-work I’m doing and therefore about finding a way through the process. I have epiphanies all the time while writing on how to resolve an issue with myself or with the kids, so we can live together a little more harmoniously. Sometimes it’s easy like asking more questions and listening, other times it’s more difficult like when I realized sending my oldest son to live with my brother full-time was best for the whole family. For me, motherhood is a paradox that seems to constantly shift to expose more meaning or single out more roots to excavate. I swear there is always someone whispering, “Ante up, Jessica,” while I’m thinking, “Man, I really dealt these cards,” but I write through it anyway, and, we and I are always better because of it.

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

Making enough money to sustain us. I look at other writers and wonder how they manage to produce work and have everything they need, and I’m talking the basics, not excess. I tend to see more of an either or situation: either they don’t have kids, or they have kids but have a partner or even an ex that helps sustain them somehow. I’ve never experienced being a working artist without kids or having a partner I can rely on for support, and as a result, we’ve gone without many things and moved around often, especially within the last couple years. I’m almost positive I’m not the only one doing this the way I am, but I’d sure like to know where the others are, so we can compare notes.

It also seems like time is always running out, and I’m constantly reminded by every back-to-back summer birthday my kids have. For this reason, I’ve had to adjust how I gauge progress because I was coming up short and was ridiculously hard on myself. I swore to the heavens that I’d have my first book completed by now. When I decided this, I think I was convinced there was a demarcating line between aspiring and accomplished, and publishing a book meant a person had navigated the threshold. Now I’m not sure where I stand on the subject or if it’s even necessary to figure it out, but I do know I feel capable of conveying whatever I need to, and with that, I’m good.

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

Be extremely selective with who you take advice from. I spent a lot of time deciphering advice about parenting that didn’t work for me or my kids. I’ve been encouraged to keep secrets that could, upon revealing, positively affect my kids’ life decisions. I’ve been told to work within governmental systems because my options were limited for financially supporting my kids outside of being a welfare recipient. It all held a tinge of truth – I’ve kept secrets, been on welfare, but none of the advice was helpful or positive, and it took a lot time to unspool the threads of consequence after I accepted it.

Aside from that, the intentions of my family members are generally good, but no one is a writer or an artist or even a reader, and I really want that not to matter, but it’s been my experience that they just don’t get it. If I had listened to my father 12 years ago, 5 years, even 6 months ago, I’d be working right now as a nurse, and although that might curb his worry (maybe even mine) that someday my kids and I will end up completely homeless, it would be the absolute death of me. So, I encourage writers with kids or those planning to have kids to seek like-minded folk, and create a supportive circle however possible. That’s what I do now, and that’s what works.

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Writer, With Kids