Jill Talbot, author of: Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007), co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (U of Texas, 2008), editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa UP, 2012).
Age of kid: One daughter, 11.
How was your writing (ideal and actual) before your daughter, and how has that changed?
Before: She sits at a sturdy wooden desk in a basement apartment beneath three shelves lined with paperback books. In the middle of the second shelf, a silver AIWA CD player with separate speakers sends Vivaldian notes through the hidden space with its narrow kitchen, its exposed pipes along the ceiling. On the desk, a curved lamp, a printer, a grass-scented candle, a thick Gateway laptop. Behind her, on the blue bookshelf in the corner, the slow burn of incense. She can only write when she’s in the house alone, when the man she shares the space with is at work or out of town. But here is the most important detail, the necessity: a glass of Chardonnay.
She will write lines for a time, get up like a ghost and float to the refrigerator to grab the green-tinged bottle for another glass. When she’s really stuck, she’ll take her wine up the steps and out the door to the patio, where she will sit in a green recliner and smoke two Marlboro Lights. She will do this all afternoon and into the evening on days she is not teaching, usually spending whole weekends with her words, with her wine. She prints out every page, reads her work aloud, stands in the middle of her living room with glass in hand, performing poetry for an imagined audience. One night, when she’s getting another glass, she comes back to the candle flame catching the pages from the printer. For years, she’ll look at the paper tray’s charred corner as a warning, but of what she’s not sure.
After: While I was pregnant, I quit drinking and smoking (I even quit cussing). It unsettled me as a writer, because I didn’t trust my ability to write without the wine and the Lights. How to get to the depths without a drink? (I soon learned.) Those first sober renderings shaky, uncertain, but in eleven years, I’ve never again written within the wine. And when my daughter was four, she told me she didn’t like the way cigarettes smelled on my sweater, so I stubbed out my last cigarette.
The bulky Gateway traded for a MacBook, the boxy stereo for Pandora, Vivaldi for Philip Glass, poems for essays, Chardonnay for Green Tea, the living room desk for a kitchen table. I never print out my pages (the burned printer left behind at some thrift store along the way). And the man? He left when I was in graduate school studying creative writing, so when I wrote, I’d set her in her swing and Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits on the AIWA, and she’d sway and slumber through at least three or four playings. I’d write for hours to the rhythm of the swing’s cha-chick-cha-chick and the longing of Kathy I’m lost I said though I knew she was sleeping.
Now that my daughter is in school and I teach two days a week, I have full days to write, but I no longer write in the evenings. If I have a deadline and need to write on the weekend, I still set up something that will soothe and distract her while I do—because I get lost in the writing for eight to ten hours. And because I write in the kitchen, she will make whole meals without me noticing. Later, I’ll ask, “Have you eaten today?”
Because she grew up with the writing, she respects the space, the distance where I disappear, and if she truly needs me, she’ll stand in the doorway and quietly ask, “Do you have a minute?” Sometimes, if I’m in the middle of a sentence storm, I’ll say, “No.” But as soon as it’s subsided, I’ll raise my eyes from the screen and give her my full attention.
So much of what I write is not anything she needs to hear yet, so I move into my bedroom and close the door, or once before a reading when I wanted to practice an essay, I read it while she was in the shower.
As she gets older, that too, will change, and the imagined audience I once performed for on a tipsy stage will become my daughter.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
My parents both worked outside of the home—my father a football coach and my mother an Art teacher. Their schedules had them at school or on the field early and home late. My father often came home long after I had gone to bed, and my mother dragged a box of artwork home with her every night. And on the weekends, there were the football games and whole days at the field house, when my father had meetings and my mother made meals for the coaching staff. While I admire their dedication, I always felt they put their work first. In fact, my father, at 80, is still getting up every morning and putting on a suit and tie and going to work for the school district.
Perhaps this is one of the (many) reasons I became a writer, because as an only child, I had to talk to someone. At nine, I started a memoir on my mother’s electric typewriter in the front room titled The Coach’s Daughter. I’m not sure what became of those single-spaced pages, but I do know what became of my promise to myself as a parent: all work stops when my daughter gets home. When we lived in northern New York, I’d write until I heard the screech of the school bus brakes, and I’d make sure my MacBook was off and closed when she walked in the door and shouted, “Hello?” Now that we live in Chicago, I write at a coffee shop until 3:30 and then I head home so that I will be there, really there, when she bursts in, backpack heavy, at 3:50.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
Parenthood coincided with a great rupture in my life, the loss of a great love—the unexpected leaving of my daughter’s father—and the sudden reality of being a single parent. And since then, it’s only been the two of us—my daughter and me.
That compression, to the two of us—what we both see as a shared and secret place—shapes how we make our way in the world, and for me, how I write it or don’t. Definitely the lens through which I see my work has changed, as every book I write is dedicated to her. Because I have that foundation, my writing has taken on a sense of accountability. She’s going to read all of this some day goes through my mind. Can she live with this? I ask. Can I? If the answer is no, I stop writing whatever it is I’m writing. I have books waiting in me—ones I’ll give in to when she’s old enough.
In turn, my daughter holds me accountable to my writing. Once, during a period when I struggled and stepped away from it, I found her in the kitchen striking the keys on my MacBook. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “I miss the sound of you writing.” Forget Chardonnay. Forget cigarettes.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
If anyone reading this knows my work, they know I write mostly about my daughter’s father and his abandonment of us when she was four months old. Because of that, I’ve had to keep my writing life separate from my daughter. Until recently, when I decided that she is finally mature enough to hear the story herself.
We’ve been going on these labyrinthine walks in our Hyde Park neighborhood every night, and I’ve been telling her the story incrementally, a part a night. (She’s numbered them: Part I—how we met. Part II—our life together before her. Part III—when we found out I was pregnant and the pregnancy. Part IV—the hospital.) And some nights I go back to a part to add something I left out. I hesitate, ask, “Is this too much?” And she assures me, “The more I know, the better.” This is not always the rule in writing. But this isn’t writing. Or is it? You see? I’ve just written it. Maybe it’s not so separate after all.
We’re about to get to Part V—when he left. I keep avoiding it. Maybe I’m not ready to tell her one of the truths of her life, but how can that be when I’ve written it, again and again? Perhaps it’s the distance between what we write about the people in our lives and what we tell them.
I told her the other night how much I enjoy telling her the story because, as I explained, “For eleven years, I had no one to share it with.” She: “So you shared it with the world.” (Ouch.)
As we turned the corner to head back to our apartment, I realized my work as a writer isn’t separate from her at all, it’s just something I tell myself so that I can keep writing.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
You can either be a parent who writes or be a writer with kids. Do what works for you. Every guide book about parenting and writing will make you feel like you’re doing it wrong (ex: recommended time limit for an infant in a swing? thirty minutes), so let your child be your measure. If she’s happy, confident, and loved, if she strikes the keys on your computer to call you back to your words, you’re doing it right.
*Note: This is the first piece of writing I’ve ever read aloud to my daughter to make sure I accurately captured our writing life. She said, “Yes, thank you for sharing it with me.”