Kim Brooks is at work on her first novel. Her short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Chapters, The Missouri Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Meridian, and other journals. Her non-fiction appears frequently on Salon.
Age of kids: 6 and 3
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
Before having kids, I did all my best writing off-schedule, impulsively, without much planning or forethought, usually sandwiched between long stretches of doing nothing or doing something unrelated to writing. I’d return home from traveling and find myself drafting a story instead of unpacking. Or I’d write as a break from studying or grading or waiting tables or trying to get into med school—whatever I was supposed to be doing at the time. Writing as procrastination, distraction, or rebellion was where my most vital work took place. It’s a lot trickier now that “the other thing I’m doing” is raising kids. I’m very luck in that I’ve found great part-time childcare and have a supportive spouse who’s also a writer. Overall, though, I’ve had to become a lot more organized and regimented in my routine. I try to write every day, even if it’s only a few sentences. I use Freedom to keep me from waisting precious babysitting hours goofing around on the internet. And when scheduled writing time doesn’t pan out, I do the best I can to sneak it in, writing when a more practical person would be doing dishes or folding laundry or putting contact paper into the kitchen cabinets or designing holiday card templates. It’s so hard to make a living as a writer, and so I think most of us, whether we have kids or not, write by stealing time from something or someone. If I had a desk job, I’d probably be sneakily minimizing Word documents when my boss came around. Since I’m at home, I try to steal time from the less vital aspects of childcare. I love my children beyond words, and they’re always bathed and fed and read to and played with, but I do often skimp on the extras. I wish there were enough hours in the day to write AND to make homemade vegetable broth and hand-sewn Halloween costumes, but there just aren’t.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
I don’t. At least, not as much as I wish I did. For me, this has been one of the greatest challenges of balancing writing and parenthood, particularly since I began working on a novel. With stories or essays, it’s much easier. I can complete a draft in a few afternoons spread over a few weeks, and then revise in spurts. I find novel-writing requires a tremendous amount of endurance, and so inevitably it spills over into other aspects of my life. It’s not unusual for me to be at the park with my kids, thinking about some change I want to make to a character in my book or a problem in a scene. It happens, and then I do the best I can to pull myself back to earth and let my subconscious do some of the work while I enjoy mom-time. I do find it helps to stay busy, to get out of the house and go places and plan lots of outings. I’m more likely to float away into novel-land if I’m sitting around the living room than if I’m out at a park or museum or library. And also, I try to compensate for my daydreaming by limiting other distractions—long phone conversations or texting or surfing the internet while I’m with my kids.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
When I was in graduate school, a teacher came into class one afternoon and announced, “If you’re not writing at least four hours a day, you’re never going to make it as a writer.” I was horrified. Back then, when I had so few tasks competing for my attention, when I had what now seems like impossibly huge amounts of free time, sitting in front of my computer for more than a couple hours was excruciating. Now, maybe because long stretches of work-time have become a rarity, I find that when I do have the hours, I’m able to write in much longer stretches. I find it easier to lose myself in the work, maybe because the silence and solitude of writing time has become a release from the day-to-day grind of childcare. Once a year when my husband is home from work for the summer, I try to do a two-week writing residency, and I know I would have hated this experience before having children, that the solitude and pressure to produce would have been overbearing. Now, the hours and day there slip away. Time alone to think and write has become a gift instead of a burden. Plus, no one asks you to sweep up Cheerio’s on a residency.
In terms of the craft of writing itself, I don’t think parenthood has changed much of that at all. The aspects that were hard for me are still hard. I write and read for the same reasons I did before kids. If anything, I suppose parenthood has shifted my areas of interest as a writer. I used to write a lot of short stories about dysfunctional family life, atypical parent-child relationships, families thrown into crisis by mental illness. Now this sort of kitchen-sink stuff doesn’t excite me. I have my own domestic dramas to deal with and don’t feel the urge to recreate a fictional one. Instead, I’m doing more historical fiction or fiction with a semi-magical or other-worldly quality.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Parenting and writing challenge me in exactly the same way: both involve a constant ceding of control and a terrifying acceptance of chaos. So often, I catch myself wondering why I didn’t finish my book in six months like so-and-so did, or why a particular character doesn’t fit into the role I’d carved out for her, or why it took me three drafts instead of one to make a simple plot fall into place. Or I obsess over all the external benchmarks or worldly rewards that seem out of reach or unobtainable. I spend a lot of time battling against my own desire to control elements that are largely out of my control. Really, the only thing any writer has control over is the writing itself, and sometimes, not even that. As an inherently anxious, achievement-oriented person, I find this lack of control exquisitely uncomfortable. And I also find that it’s compounded by the fact that raising children presents the very same feelings of powerlessness.
Before having kids, I secretly imagined that I’d somehow know just what to do to produce well-behaved, well-regulated, well-adjusted children who would sleep through the night and eat their vegetables and never have earth-shattering melt-downs in the check-out line at Target. Then the kids arrived and I realized that, in fact, I knew nothing. So much of both parenting and writing involve improvisation, trial and error, fucking up and then trying to dissect the fuck up and do things at least a little bit better the next time around. I joke that in my next life, I want to be a tax attorney or a chemist, something that involves a great deal of predictability and precision.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
My first piece of advice is to keep expectations low, especially during the baby years. I remember when I was pregnant with my son, I’d hear people say things like, “Oh, babies sleep all the time the first year,” and I’d think, wow, I’m going to get so much writing done. Well, my son was not one of those babies. He didn’t sleep at all his first three months, and after that, he never napped for more than 40 minutes at a stretch. I did almost no writing that year and became really depressed, in part I think, because I felt like I was somehow failing. When my daughter came along, I braced myself for another year of zero-productivity. When she turned out to be one of the mythical sleeping babies, I was pleasantly surprised. My second piece of advice is to seek out and accept help wherever you can get it. I have two amazing babysitters, and I know they’ll both be in the acknowledgments of any book I ever write.