Writer, with Kids: Nelly Reifler

Nelly Reifler, author of See Through (stories, 2003) and Elect H. Mouse State Judge (novel, 2013)

Age of kid: Beckett, 2.

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

I’ve always been an erratic worker. I became a much happier person and writer years ago when I accepted that I was not good at writing every day. In fact, if I try to write every day when I’m not totally obsessed, most of what I force out is such utter crap it’s a waste of time. When I am obsessed, I write a lot, in every free moment, anywhere. These conditions haven’t really changed now that I’m a mother. I still feel frustrated and kind of crazy if I haven’t written in a while, and if I am deeply involved with a piece of writing, I feel as excited and distracted by it as I used to feel.

I’ve been teaching writing at Sarah Lawrence for a dozen years, and because of the college’s educational system—you have biweekly conferences with all of your students and you have to read work that they’re doing outside of the class—it’s a demanding job. In a way, it’s been much harder for me to reconcile teaching and writing than in has been to fit parenting into the picture. On the other hand, my students have enriched my writing and my life in immeasurable ways, and I love them.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
I have to admit: I don’t think I am completely present for my family when I’m deeply involved with a project. Luckily, my husband, Jonathan Dixon, is also a writer so he understands and makes it possible for me to retreat into my imagination for a while. We’ve both done that for each other. It’s fortunate that Jonathan is both more flexible and more methodical than I am; he seems to be able to do a lot of writing even while he’s picking up the slack. On occasion I’ve walked into a room where Jonathan is writing standing up while listening to Norwegian black metal, and Beckett is happily playing with blocks at his feet.

During these times when I’m obsessed, I still play with Beckett, of course, and read to him and make him lunch and go for walks with him. But Jonathan somehow gives me space and permission to write a lot when I need to. We always eat dinner together as a family, and we always hang out on the grownups’ bed in the morning.

My father is a writer and my mother is a dancer. When I was little (though not as little as Beckett is now) and Dad was writing, I would also write or read or play make-believe games. Those afternoons I spent alone while my father wrote were some of the most dreamy and magical times of my childhood. I would also accompany my mother to dance classes and rehearsals. I would sit at the doorway to the studio, or sometimes on a little shelf where the dancers would tap me on the head when they were doing combinations across the floor. I recently asked my father how they got me to be patient, to understand that they needed time for their work. He didn’t have an answer at first. Then he called me a couple of days later and said that he realized it was because they took my projects very seriously. He said that even if I was just drawing outfits for princesses or writing stories about chipmunks (I still write stories about chipmunks) he and my mother gave me time and space to do it, and they treated the finished product with respect, the way they would with a grownup artist. So I understood early on that they needed the same thing from me. I do have memories of certain times—with both of my parents—when I felt as if their work was more important to them than I was. Was that a bad thing? How can Jonathan and I do our own writing and not have Beckett feel kind of pushed aside? These are questions I grapple with.

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

It has changed in a few ways. Even with the support and flexibility that comes with having a partner who’s also a writer, I do have to fit my writing into the patterns of our family life. Weirdly, this structure has resulted in my writing more in the last two years than I had in the five or so years before I became a mother. And maybe because I don’t have the vast expanses of time that I used to take for granted, I’ve become looser with my voice and my language. I don’t suffer over sentences the way I used to. It seems that perhaps there’s a tradeoff in the writing: I don’t think my sentences are as beautiful as they maybe used to be, but I do think that they’re conveying emotions a bit more directly. I hope my writing isn’t getting sloppy!

I’m also finding myself writing a bit less metaphorically. For many years, I had trouble writing about human beings in regular human-being situations. Now I’m finding myself getting drawn away from chipmunks and back to human subjects, and even beginning to write about my own life for the first time ever. I can’t attribute this shift directly to having a child; it’s possible that whatever changes made me finally ready-ish to become a mother were moving me toward writing about humans including myself.

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

Money. Lack thereof.

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

Oh, so much advice comes to mind! But I feel hesitant here because I think that both parenting advice and writing advice can be dangerous. I can say that there are a few things that worked for me: first, I had the opportunity to take assignments from a couple of fantastic editors in the first year of Beckett’s life, so I had deadlines for things I was really excited about and that I couldn’t blow off. And that was good for me. I also had a book come out when Beckett was a little over a year old, so I was immersed in that process from when I was pregnant until long after the publication date. And while it was all a bit intense, I think it was also positive. For me. One thing I learned early on was not to base my expectations of what I could or should do on anyone else’s experience. I have a couple of powerhouse friends who went back to teaching when they had practically newborn infants. It turned out that I was not that kind of powerhouse, and I ended up taking a belated maternity semester off when Beckett was six months old. But I have other friends who only wanted to nest and snuggle and immerse themselves in motherhood, which was also not what I needed.

I think it’s always unhelpful to beat yourself up for not writing, whether you’re a parent or not. I’ve never known anyone to write a single word because they felt like shit about not writing. You might not feel like making art for five years after you have a kid, and that’s okay. Everything that happens in your life is ultimately part of your writing, and I believe that you’re always writing—you’re in it—whether you’re at your keyboard or not.

So I guess the only real advice I would give is to be patient and kind to yourself, your partner (if you have one), and your child. If you want advice or support, ask other parents—they will be happy to give it—but remember how subjective experience is. Oh, and also: you’ll be incredibly forgetful after you have a baby, so carry a notebook with you and write down ideas when you have them, because they’ll just flutter away and disappear a second later.

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Writer, With Kids