Mira Ptacin is a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter. Founder and director of Freerange Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, New York Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The National Book Foundation, The Morning News, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure (Harper Perennial 2012); Get Out of My Crotch: Twenty-One Writers Respond to America’s War on Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health (Cherry Bomb Books 2013), and the anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NYC (Seal Press 2013). She is the 2014 recipient of the Maine Literary Award (essay).
Age of kids: Theo, 11 months
What was your writing schedule like before kids, and how has that changed?
Before I had Theo and if I were knee deep in a project, I could easily spend 5 to 6 hours a day writing. After I had Theo, I had to reassess a lot and before I moved forward with my writing, I had to answer the question of “why do I write?” before I decided to proceed. The way I used to write was with an urgency. Like it was a race or a competition. I had no idea what the finish line was or who I was competing with, but I was somewhat manic about it. I think this was a reaction to or the influence that social media and living in NYC had on me. (I was just too sensitive.) So I felt like I had to prove myself, and fast, so I wrote like my life or value or legacy depended on it. Like, if I had to stop writing to go to the bathroom, I’d get annoyed. I never took the take time to eat a good meal. I felt like the clock was always ticking. (I wasn’t even pregnant at the time, either.) Then we moved to Maine. I thought moving to Maine would magically and instantly change my attitude, but it didn’t change me instantly. Why? Because I still looked at Facebook and Twitter a lot, even when I was out hiking the woods with the intention of meditating or just looking at the trees. Then I got pregnant, and I had to reassess a lot of things. One of them being my relationship with writing, which led me to really explore the question of who and what matters to me versus what I can do to be valued by others, and how those things influence my actions.
Once I had Theo, I put a lot of pressure on myself to “do it all”—to continue to compose new things shortly after growing and birthing a human into the world. (Also, for the record, he was ten pounds when born.) I also put pressure on myself (why? Why? I’m smarter than this) to lose my baby weight rather than take the time to recover physically, (fuck you, Us Weekly). That sense of urgency was back, to be and do everything. To people please, to keep up on my reading, to sleep train Theo, to continue running Freerange and start up a new Freerange chapter in Maine, to sell my book, to write a new one, yada yada yada, blah blah blah. The pressure I had put on myself to show the world that I was a wonder woman (by American pop standards) was, in retrospect, quite insane and ridiculous, not to mention distracting me from the most fragile and urgent and important and mindblowing thing in the world: my son. What was I even thinking?
On top of this, my husband and I bought a house one month after Theo was born. And since we live far from family and on a small island that doesn’t have any U-haul stations, we had to move our belongings ourselves via wagons and carts and radio flyers. And then we also decided to renovate it ourselves, and started the demolition right when we moved in. So in-between breastfeeding, I’d be sanding and painting wood. On top of all this, about a month after that I went back to work on the mainland. I love my job, but my job is incredibly demanding of my time and energy and presence. By the time Theo was about four months old I think I’d skinned off about ten years of my own life, and I was a wreck. I’d teach a four-hour workshop and barely have the time or privacy to go pump without a student knocking on my office door asking if I could edit something of theirs, or giving me an excuse on why their work was late. I developed insomnia and anxiety and felt like a failure for not being able to “do everything.” About five months into this goat show, I nearly lost my shit. I hadn’t slept in two days. My book had just gotten turned down by all the publishers we’d submitted to, and in the middle of a workshop, I blew up at my students for whining about their workload. I was so angry: angry at the world because I couldn’t control it, angry at myself for not being confident or brave enough to set boundaries, or ask for help, or to keep it simple. I was intimidated by my son and felt guilty about stretching myself so thin rather than giving all of myself to him, or at least just protecting myself, which meant I was protecting him. It was all just this horrible fever dream. After several “come to Jesus” moments with my husband, I finally (finally) locked in the mindset that this shit had to change. That the only thing that really mattered were the living beings inside our home. That the only thing that immediately needed me (and I needed, too) was Theo. That being a mom was enough. More than enough. Everyone and everything else could wait. Around December, when Theo was about six months old, was when I finally turned the ship around. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to “have it all” as much as I just wanted some harmony in my life.
But making this lifestyle change takes time, I’m still working on it because simplicity, nowadays especially, requires work. To have a clear mind takes a conscious effort, daily. Put down my phone. Fuck Facebook and twitter. I am working on being present.
So to answer your question: my writing schedule has changed in the fact that I have put a majority of my writing efforts on the backburner. However. I believe self-composition is heavy part of the writing, because it’s where the ideas and insights and motives and the creativity comes from. And I want that engine to be healthy.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
Vijay Seshadri (winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, yeah boy!) told me that my beat is “the uterus and the American Dream.” I agree. So my beat (so vast!) has not changed. The specific story I’ve been writing, as well as the kind of energy and emotion that fuels my writing, has definitely changed. Pre-Theo, I’d been writing (and submitting) a memoir about loss and grief. I’d lost a baby when I was five months pregnant, and the narrative was a very raw one, and it dove deep into unpacking my experience and sorrow. I’m ready to move on from that focus, to write about something other than that experience. I’d like to infuse my writing with more joy and celebration of life. Perhaps more essays, perhaps profiles of seemingly ordinary people. I’m not sure. But I haven’t been ready to write anything because I’ve been working on my brain and my spirit so I can write with a more advanced yet humble perspective—purer in how I view the world, and purer in my reasons for writing in the first place.
One cool thing I’ve realized is that I can now write pretty fast. I used to be a very slow and careful writer; I was extraordinarily cautious in choosing every word I’d string together with the next carefully chosen word. I would spend hours constructing a paragraph until I thought it was perfect and celestial and pure poetry. It was kind of torturous. However. The last essay I wrote was composed right before I had Theo, and, perhaps because I was so swollen and tired and pregnant, I wrote it very quickly—albeit honestly and from my heart—in a matter of two days. I was uber-pregnant and just wanted to do nothing but eat ice cream and stare at a wall. Anyways, the essay went on to be published in a great magazine (Slice Literary Magazine) and then just last week it won the Maine Literary Award. It made me realize that I can write quickly because I spent so much time learning and practicing the craft carefully. I like to think of it like a pianist practicing every-and-all kinds of scales again and again and again, slowly and patiently until they become muscle memory, and then at a certain point she’s ready to improvise. Make some sophisticated, soulful funky music. Thelonious Monk-style. Or maybe more like Bill Evans. So what does this have to do with parenting and writing? Because you get so little time to yourself when you’re a parent (unless you have help with your kid), so being able to write in spurts, or write a lot in a short amount of time, is a good thing. And now that I know I can write pretty quickly (compared to how long it used to take me), and that my heart and motives are both much more mature than they used to be, I’m ready to move on to the next big project.
One very vital part of my most recent “stage” in my writing process is the act of hiking and being outside. It’s very important for me to spend time in the woods behind our house or down by the ocean shore (with Theo strapped to my chest) so I can kind of purify my mind with what is real and natural. Rilke put it so perfectly:
If you trust in Nature, in the same Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge…if you can have this love for what is humble and try very simply…to win the confidence of what seems poor, then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.
I think being outdoors and sitting simply in nature is just. so. good. It helps me not only to be a better momma, but also a better writer, and human.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
My husband helps me tremendously (sometimes sweetly, sometimes annoyed) by simply reminding me. We eat dinner together every night. We take lots of walks. Other times, I just look at Theo (he’s pure joy!). It helps to have a set writing schedule. To meditate. Carry a notebook. Forgive myself. Forgive myself for not being able to stop thinking when I’m supposed to be meditating. Put my phone down. Pet the dogs. Ask my husband about his day. Remind myself that Theo is my legacy.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
Embrace love. Dirt builds immunity. Have no regrets. Take your time. Trust yourself. Be genuine. Sit quietly in nature often. Don’t spend more time on social media than you do with your kids—they’re hilarious and creative and brilliant and great muses. Linger in moments rather than trying to do it all. Just be present and grateful. Sleep when the baby sleeps. Also, there’s a lot to learn about the world outside at 3 a.m. when your baby doesn’t want to sleep. Protect yourself and do what works for you, what feels right, even if what feels right is hard. Start looking for a reliable and trustworthy babysitter now. Nap now. Take care of yourself always. And when the baby comes, don’t spend so much time so soon worrying about how much you are writing or being frustrated that you can’t. If you are a real writer, everything you do is part of the craft, even if it’s as simple as sitting outside doing nothing but staring at a river.