Writer, with Kids: Rosemary McLaughlin

rosemary
Rosemary McLaughlin, Playwright: Paterson Falls; A More Opportune Time; The Chair; Standing in the Shadows; Voices Carry, Motherless Child

Age of kids: 7 & 8

As I write this, nose pressed up against the deadline, I just finished wrestling the kids to bed in the cabin we’ve rented in the woods of Wellfleet, MA. I meant to start writing earlier, but the fire pit looked so inviting and I was the one, after all, who surprised the kids (and my wife) with the Dove bars, marshmallows and graham crackers for making S’mores. Before that, there was the Pilgrim Monument to explore and a blow-up right whale at the Center for Coastal Studies big enough to climb into, and in between a picnic overlooking the boats in Provincetown Bay.

We have two weeks left of this vacation and already we’ve danced at a wedding, salvaged a row boat, gone swimming and shell collecting, and painted miniature canvasses. We haven’t made a movie yet but I’m sure that’s coming soon because John, 8, and Lucy, 7, and I have made a few of them already this summer, like Dramatic Human Bear and How to Make Simple Angry Bird Jelly Beans. They’re starting to take over the camera work so mostly I hand them props, suggest better lighting, and upload them to YouTube.

I had several big writing projects in mind for this summer, as I have done the previous summers, but somehow getting the kids to tennis lessons and art class and swimming most days at the pool has seemed much more compelling. I got them hooked up with music lessons (cello for him, guitar for her), have arranged some rocking play dates (even bringing pals to the pool!) and, along with my wife, have baked and biked and travelled with them. Meanwhile, my writing projects keep tapping their feet. One has taken up smoking.

It wasn’t this way last year. A semester-long sabbatical wasn’t enough to get my new play into shape (A More Opportune Time, a wild comedy about American politics and religion) so I wrote like mad all through the summer, knowing that in September I’d be resuming teaching, gearing up for production, and taking my turn as chair of the Theatre and Dance Department of Drew University, where I head the playwriting program. I’d swim with the kids, I’d take them to movies, but even when I was with them (with anyone) the life of the play filled my imagination, it got my heart racing . (That and knowing the director was waiting for my final draft.) It kept me preoccupied for much, if not all of the year, straight through until this past March and the play’s triumphant premiere. (Small venue, big splash.)

One of the many things I love about working in theatre, as well as teaching at a university, is that to a large degree, I can share my work with my kids. This play was certainly not meant for children, but my kids have seen plays I’ve directed so I let them come to rehearsal, and check out the set in progress, all the trap doors and hiding places that people would be flying in and out of, so they could see what was taking up so much of my time. We talked about the plot, how it was a very modern spin on someone selling their soul to the devil, and they got into the theological implications of that. (My wife, Laurie Wurm, is an Episcopal priest, so it goes with the territory.) I brought them with me to the matinee, warning them ahead of time of scary parts and introducing them backstage to the actors and crew. I warned them that, for a comedy, a lot of people die in this play but as they could see, the actors remained alive and well.

I’ve been bringing them to Dance concerts since they were three; my plays and others’ musical since each of them was four. A bonus of this is that as much as they suspend disbelief when going to a show they understand that Johnny Depp can be Captain Jack Sparrow, Willie Wonka as well as the Mad Hatter. They can separate a person from the role they’re playing, a good skill to have in real life.

I do wince at some of the language they might be picking up in the theatre, which usually leads to a discussion with them about dialogue and setting, and what’s suitable depending on one’s audience, and whether you want to startle them or draw them to you. It makes me think, too, about levels of language when I write, and how ironic it is, as with this play, when some audience members mentioned being offended by the profanity (of one character) but didn’t seem bothered by the issue of government-sanctioned torture or the idea that a man could want the presidency so much he would sell his soul to obtain it.

My kids weren’t bothered by any of it. They said it was a pretty crazy play but they liked it. They bring up things from the play months later, much as they do things from Laurie’s church services. Between us, we have the sacred and the profane (or the sublime and the ridiculous) covered pretty well.

When my son was born an actor friend who’d just had a baby asked, “Isn’t this the greatest thing in your life? Isn’t this better than any show?” As over the moon as I was about my son, as much as I had longed to have him and then his sister, I felt really ticked off. It seemed, at that moment, so 1950’s.

I’ve since come to my senses and decided she was right. At least for me. There is no thrill quite like opening night, when everything you’ve worked for for all that time is coming together – except for those times when I catch John mastering a head stand on his own, or discovering, as he did yesterday, a baby horse shoe crab on the beach, and speaking to it tenderly, or Lucy nailing her part in a ballet or engaging in some word play so intricate I have to remind myself she’s a pipsqueak.

The thrill of watching these minds grow (and having something to do with that) raises the stakes for everything I write. I used to write a lot of plays which had to do, one way or another, with taking a stand about something. Now, that seems a given. Now there are bigger worlds to explore and bigger canvasses required. Since having kids I have no interest in writing small plays. I used to write poetry but even that doesn’t satisfy (though I do like the one I wrote about Lucy’s first word and seizing the power of language).

So much about having kids is so intense (6 trips to the emergency room in 5 years) that to take time away from them the writing has to be compelling. This is not to say I don’t sometimes want/need a break from being with them. There is much to be said about the value of adult conversation and companionship. But mostly I find them excellent company; a continuing adventure.

Even before having kids I found having or creating a deadline worked best for me. I’ve always loved it when I’ve been commissioned to write something. I’ve also dreaded it because I’d have to finish something and it better be good. Since having kids the deadlines matter even more because time has gotten more slippery. Prioritizing can be a problem for many writers. For a writer with kids, it’s doubly so. For a writer with kids and a full-time teaching gig, well…!

I’ve always liked to write late at night, right into the early morning. Like most theatre people, late hours suit me. Fortunately, I’m a morning person as well so even with little sleep I can usually help get the kids up and out and teach my morning classes, as long as I don’t make a habit of it. I’ve learned better, since having kids, how to compartmentalize. I can write between classes, if necessary, and I take notes often as I go through the day, carrying my characters around with me.

I know even when it’s hard to make the time to write that I’m a happier, more grounded person when I do. I feel it in my bones. I see it reflected, too, in my kids, in Lucy, who is rarely without a notebook in which to write her own stories or John, who creates graphic novels. They both love writing, drawing, creating things and I know seeing what I do feeds them. It’s reciprocal. It’s like Bach and his brood. It’s like all those Austens. Writing isn’t all we do but it’s one of those things, all four of us, that connects us in ways that are deeply pleasing, satisfying, exciting. I can’t wait to see what any of us will come up with next—out loud, in print, on stage or in a video.

As far as advice goes, for a writer contemplating becoming or already a parent: it helps to have flexible hours. It helps to be doing something that pays the rent/mortgage and somehow feeds the soul. It helps to have a wonderful spouse and/or support system. And it helps to know there’s a time for work, a time for play, and a time to engage, deeply, with others. But sometimes we forget. Or there’s simply too much to get done or we’re so in love with what we’re working on we can’t bear to stop. Even at the kids’ basketball game or with our peers, at a party, we’re still at work, in spite of ourselves.

James Thurber, who had a wonderful spouse, may have put it best:
I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’”

C 2012 Rosemary McLaughlin

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One comment on “Writer, with Kids: Rosemary McLaughlin
  1. What a lovely post. (And I think being both a night owl and a lark is a very good and useful thing.)

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