Lauren Acampora, author of short stories published in The Paris Review, Antioch Review, New England Review, and other journals.
Age of kid: Amity, 2 years
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
Before becoming a parent, I lived in the city and worked full-time. On most days, I’d come home at a reasonable hour, have a quick dinner, and write until bedtime. On weekends, I’d sometimes bring a notebook to a park and write longhand on a bench. When I first became pregnant, I would sit on that bench with a heightened awareness of the squadrons of strollers around me, and sense the looming end days of my independence.
We moved to the suburbs just before our daughter was born. After that, I tried working part-time from home without child care, which was insane, and which left zero time for my own writing. So, I quit my job. I’m lucky that we can live on my husband’s freelance income so that I can be with Amity all day. Now I write fiction whenever I can wrangle the time. The first short story I finished after childbirth was written entirely during nursing sessions, reaching over the baby’s body to the computer, sometimes typing with one finger. This was uncomfortable and made my back ache, but I’d remind myself that William Faulkner used to write in a coal mine. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it helps whip my whiny self into shape.
Now, Amity is in preschool two mornings a week. After dropping her off, I race to the library and write as fast as I can for two hours. I’ve also arranged a little “co-op” playgroup with a couple of other moms. We take turns watching the kids each week while the others go off to do their own thing for a little while.
I used to be a productive little night owl, but now I find that I can barely string a sentence together after eight p.m. I have discovered that wrangling a toddler all day is much more draining, physically and mentally, than working in an office. So, I’ve been forced to become (gasp) a “morning person.” My husband and I alternate days when we watch Amity after breakfast, so that each of us has a chance to do our creative work for a couple of hours.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deeply into a current project?
For better or worse, I don’t think I’ve ever been one of those people who remain deeply immersed in their writing when they’re not writing. Maybe I’m unusually good at shutting it off, or maybe I’m just not writing deeply enough…. Anyway, the reasons don’t matter anymore, because now my family shuts it off for me. The minute I pick my child up from school, the carnival starts back up. Suffice to say, there’s no thinking through character voice while managing a meltdown at Target.
It’s true that I sometimes find moment or two of serenity during the day, usually in the shower, when my mind might settle on a problem in a story or revise a line or two. Then my daughter pulls back the shower curtain and asks me to sing “Wheels on the Bus,” and the moment is gone.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
Well, for one, I’ve gained privileged access to a major subculture of modern American life, and become attuned to some of the rigorous little parental camps that exist within it. This has been delightfully nourishing to my work, which tends to gravitate toward the habits, judgments, and idiosyncrasies of the suburban upper middle class.
Also, parenthood really has heightened my sensitivity to the transient wonders of life, the passage of time, the tragedy of all things beautiful coming to an end…. The biggest surprise is that all these clichés are true, and being a parent allows me to feel them in my bones. I don’t know exactly how to put this, but I feel that I have more at stake in the world. I go to bed every night bemoaning the catastrophes happening every place—and to other people’s children—natural and unnatural. I like to think that this allows me to feel a deeper sympathy for my characters, their hopes and their conflicts, and the psychological bulwarks they construct against the surrounding tides.
On a more practical level, parenthood has put me off longer projects. It was a big struggle to finish the novel I’d been working on before Amity was born—and when I finally read through the finished draft, I was disappointed by how much it dragged. It struck me as a book written by a very tired person. And so I’ve been chopping it into bite-size pieces that I hope to incorporate into a collection of linked stories. I find that the short form is much better suited to the quick bursts of writing time at my disposal. When I was working on the novel, it would take half my writing window just to remember where I was in the plot. It’s much more satisfying to work on short stories and have a sense of completion after just a month or two. I now understand what Alice Munro meant when she said that she did not “choose” to write short stories, but that running a household with small children just made it hard to do anything else.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
For me, it’s been the lack of consistent time for creative work. When writing sessions are dependent on naptimes and bedtimes, their daily unpredictability can be frustrating. And, oh, how very frustrating when the child does not want to nap!
Especially when I’m moving at a good clip with a project, it’s hard not to get a little cranky about not having the solid, consistent time that I’d like. It’s hard not to sit and stew and resent other writers—with kids and without—that have the real or perceived luxury of that time.
But, because of the fickle nature of the writing blocks at my disposal, I’ve learned to switch it “on” quickly, whenever I can, for even just half an hour. There’s no time to warm up, no time for neurotic little rituals. And, I’ve learned to quickly let it go when the time’s up. (For instance, Amity just woke up from her nap as I type this, so good-bye for now.)
Any advice for other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
Remember that early childhood is a very short period, a relative sliver of your total lifetime. I had a writing professor who strongly encouraged me to have a family. She told me that she’d chosen not to have children for fear of sabotaging her writing career, but now that she’s in her sixties, she looks back and realizes what a small sacrifice it would have been in the larger scheme of things.
Take the long view. After a few fallow years of intensive childrearing, your writing career will still be there. And, with any luck, you’ll have a richer experience of life to plumb.
For nursing mothers, I have to say that one unexpected benefit to late-night nursing sessions is the amount of reading you might find you can do, if you can stay awake. I read some pretty big books entirely by nursery lamplight those first few months: The Collected Stories of John Cheever, The Collected Stories of Evelyn Waugh, The Fortress of Solitude, What to Expect the First Year…. Get one of those little metal book holders to keep paperbacks upright, so that you just need one finger to turn the pages.
Other general advice (which I should heed more often, myself) is not to sweat it. Your production is going to slow down a little during those first couple of years, and that’s okay. Cut yourself some slack. But keep at it, even if it’s just coming at a trickle. There’s no better way to preserve your pre-parent sense of self than through consistent creative work.
Of course, all this talk is coming from a parent of only one kid. As for those writer-parents with more than one, I stand in awe.