Writer, with Kids: Pamela Erens

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Pamela Erens, author of The Virgins; The Understory

Age of kids: 16 and 17

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

I spent the first nine years after college working full-time as a magazine editor. I wrote on the weekends; three hours per day was my goal. At a certain point I wanted to put more time into my writing, and I made arrangements to cut back on my hours at my job. I went to the office from 12 to 6, four days a week, and rented space in a writers’ room where I could bring my computer in the mornings. The aim was a solid 10-plus hours a week. I’ve rarely, no matter what my life circumstances, been able to break the 15-hour-a-week barrier. I’m just not one of those sit-down-and-write-for-hours writers. Around the three-hour mark my brain starts to fog over.

About two years into part-timing, I had my first child, and while I was on maternity leave I decided I wasn’t going to return to my editing job. I just couldn’t see a way that I could work and spend the kind of time with my kids that I wanted to and write. My husband made a salary that could support us both. So I left editing, although I continued to do a very modest amount of freelancing.

I kept to pretty much the same 10-to-15 hours a week writing schedule after the kids arrived, initially through the use of babysitters. My writing time was much more structured when the kids were very young. If I didn’t sit down when the babysitter was there, the writing didn’t get done. Later, when my kids were in school from 8 to 3, it was easier to procrastinate, and sometimes by the time I got to work, my focus wasn’t very good. I’m trying to return to that “sit down first thing” approach again–to avoid Facebook and e-mail and everything else until I put my hours in. That helps the writing, but isn’t always possible. (It is theoretically possible to avoid Facebook, but not necessarily e-mailing and phone calling connected to “household management.”)

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?

The terrible truth is I never get that “sunk.” Along with not being able to write for long stretches, I’m most of the time not a writer who so fully immerses. My husband phones from the office, I check e-mail, I jump up to reheat my tea, I research something online, one of my teenagers texts with a question–I’m constantly in and out of my writing head. There are certainly times when I bark at my husband: “Writing now; is this important or can I call you back?” but usually I just drop the thread for a moment and then pick it back up. And once I put the writing aside for the day, I’m rarely distracted by it. I do continue to think about my work when I’m not in front of the computer, and I might jot a note or whatever, but it doesn’t keep me from focusing on whatever is at hand.

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

Until recently the effect was probably big picture: Being a parent made me more patient, less impulsive, more playful, kinder, and happier. It made me a more sentimental person, and my experience of love much richer. I like to think that these facts were enlarging in some hard-to-pin-down way, that they encouraged work that was more generous and empathic. My third novel, which I’m writing now, is the first that actually deals with parenting–specifically, with pregnancy and the anticipation of having a child. I doubt I would have written about the subject if I weren’t a mother myself.

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

It’s got to be money. I’ve noticed a push lately on the Internet to talk more honestly about writing and money. There’s a new magazine called Scratch, which is wholly devoted to this purpose, and an essay circulated a few months ago in which an author argued that those of us who have outside financial support should acknowledge it. (Unfortunately I can’t remember where the piece ran, and haven’t been able to find it again.) I haven’t always wanted to talk about the fact that my husband is the sole breadwinner in my family. What I’ve made through my writing, even this past year with a novel that got some nice attention, is a drop in the bucket. Being supported financially seems so . . . privileged. It is privileged! There aren’t that many artists who get to be in this situation.

If I’d had to contribute to keep our family financially afloat, I would never have published two novels. It’s just that simple. As much as I’m driven to write, as stubbornly as I’ve pursued this path over 25 years, I’m simply not someone who can make do on four hours of sleep. I would have been a horrible mother if I’d been sleeping four hours a night, and I didn’t want to be a horrible mother. Also, I don’t work well if there’s a lot of stress in my life, and a job plus kids would have equaled stress. I admire tremendously the writers who get it done no matter what, but we’re all wired differently, and the money issue would have defeated me. As it’s surely defeated other writers like me.

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

Every parent is different, so it’s hard to generalize. Maybe, building on what I said above, I’d suggest that you should try to know and be respectful of your psycho-biology (if that’s a term). Maybe you can’t do it all–for now. Family is important. Most people are not super-people. There’s no shame in not hitting certain accomplishment markers by the time you’re 33. Writing is not a career–at least, not to my mind. It’s a calling, and an art, and so nothing about it is predictable.

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Posted in Pamela Erens, parenting, with Kids, Writer, Writer with kids, writing
3 comments on “Writer, with Kids: Pamela Erens
  1. Jimin says:

    I love this: ” try to know and be respectful of your psycho-biology”

  2. Avital GC says:

    Bless you. All these: writing time, writing schedule and financial dependence are burning, rather sore issues, and you tackle them beautifully.

  3. Pamela Erens says:

    The estimable poet and fiction writer Claudia Putnam has located the article I couldn’t. Here it is, by Ann Bauer: http://beyondthemargins.com/2013/12/the-conversation-we-never-have/

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Writer, With Kids