Writer, with Kids: Susan Choi

susan choi
Susan Choi, Pulitzer-Prize finalist, author of: The Foreign Student, American Woman, A Person of Interest, and a forthcoming novel the title of which is still under debate

Age of kids: Dexter will be 8 on July 9, 2012. Elliot will be 5 on October 9, 2012.

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

Before kids, I barely had a schedule – I’m not sure I knew what a schedule was. In the beginning I’d been working full-time, and I had to write around the edges of my job, in the evenings and on the weekends. After I published my first book I started teaching and freelancing to support myself, and my writing schedule got diffuse and lazy because the overwhelming demand of the job on my time was gone. Having a child reinstated that – and then some. The years immediately after the birth of my first child were possibly the most productive of my life. My writing schedule was whatever little bit of time someone else was taking care of my kid. After his earliest babyhood, and until he went to school, this was about 5 hours a day, 9ish to 2ish, 5 days a week. The babysitter would arrive, I’d grab my laptop and run out the door. Of course, in those 5 hours a day I also had to shop for groceries and pay bills and make calls and do every other household or personal errand because those were the only 5 hours I had.

Once the second kid came along, you would think my productivity would double, but the opposite happened. I’m still trying to adjust. My “schedule” remained roughly the same but the non-writing demands on me posed by our household just keep infringing on my free hours more and more. My second child is now four and in school 8:30-3pm, like my older child, so those are my hours to get everything done, including writing. Yet I seem to have an uninterrupted writing day only about twice a week, max.

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

I find it’s much harder to stay present for my current project. My family dominates me with ease. I don’t know how they do it, but they do. My focus lately is on winning back some brainspace for my work. Literal physical separation works best – I can’t write at home and do not even try. Right now I’m incredibly fortunate to be a part of a collective work space that’s just tailor-made for my needs; it’s peaceful and affordable and located almost exactly between my home and my kids’ school, and that’s where I go to shed the family/home/laundry/groceries/bills/summer-camp enrollment welter in my brain, even for just a few hours, and return to my work. I also pack up and leave every once in a while, to a colony – I just started doing this a year ago, when my younger child was three and a half. So far I’ve never gone away for more than two weeks, and never more than twice in one year, but boy do I get a lot done! And it’s actually great for my kids, too. Until I went on my first “retreat” a year ago they really didn’t think I did anything but put crackers on plates.

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

It’s only changed the work completely, down to the cellular level, though I’m sure it only seems that way to me. My whole orientation toward the world is different. The relationship between parent and child has always wormed its way into my work, but since I’ve had children myself, it’s done so differently and maybe more thoroughly. Also, babies have insisted on becoming characters. Babies are so pushy that way. When I was in my 20s, and a writing student, you couldn’t have paid me to believe I’d ever write about babies.

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

Maintaining continuity of thought. I just don’t ruminate over ideas, for long stretches of time, chewing them over and feeding other things into them and noting the changes, the way I used to. I have ideas all the time that just trundle in one ear and out the other and are gone forever, in the time it takes to get my kids on the subway. I try to make notes to myself but I lose the notebooks, or they get literally torn up by my children and used for drawing paper. Maybe those ideas will all come drifting back to me when my kids go to college.

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

My biggest piece of advice would be not to feel guilty about paying a caregiver to spend time with your child. Because writers often have more flexibility in their schedules than, say, surgeons or Kindergarten teachers, I think we feel uneasy handing our kids off to somebody else. We feel like we should do all the caregiving ourselves, and somehow fit the writing in around the edges. Take it from me: you can’t do it. You need that mental time to yourself, even if you’re just lying on your sofa reading. Rob yourself of that so-called “idle” rumination and you’ll find it very hard to make work. I “limited” myself to 25 hours a week of childcare when my children were little, and in retrospect I should have given myself more. Writing is a real job! At least that’s what I always tell my kids.

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One comment on “Writer, with Kids: Susan Choi
  1. Gina says:

    Thanks so much for this series! I love it. Makes me realize I am not alone in these crazy “how much childcare care SHOULD I use” brain games played by self-employed people. Important conversations that I wish were getting out to a wider world.

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Writer, With Kids