Susan Woodring is the author of a novel, Goliath, and a short story collection, Springtime on Mars. Her short fiction has appeared in Isotope, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South, among other anthologies and literary magazines.
Age of kids: 9 and 5
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
In the fall of 2001, I had a pretty cushy situation. I wasn’t working, didn’t yet have children, and I was writing seriously for the first time in my life. I remember waking early to write for two hours, going for a walk, then returning to the writing desk for another two hours. I don’t remember what I did with my afternoons. I think I read a little. I probably watched a fair amount of television. That November, two lines appeared on the pregnancy test stick, and for the next nine months I needed time to put my feet up and focus on incubating a tiny human. I still wrote a lot.
I entered an MFA program in January. In July, my little girl was born. Of course, everything in my life changed at that point from the size of my breasts to my sleeping patterns (or lack thereof) to my relationship with the outside world (or lack thereof) to my diminished ability to focus on a single thought long enough to complete it. My baby girl was precious, but she cried a lot. I had breasts like a porn star, but they hurt all the time. I had loads of time to sit around nursing my baby and thinking, but I couldn’t do it. A combination of lack of sleep, hormone fluctuation, and a debilitating rush of adrenaline gummed up the works.
And yet, I have always been a huge nerd, deeply committed to the completion of any desk-task. I gave myself two weeks of maternity leave and then returned to my computer. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the writing life for any parent is how unpredictable your time for writing becomes. It took months to get Abby on any kind of a nap schedule and even then, I lived in fear of her waking early. I was constantly adapting to the situation. If she fell asleep in the stroller, I parked it just inside the front door and went straight to my writing desk. I did my assigned MFA reading while nursing, and occasionally, I even propped her little head up on a Boppy to feed while I typed away on my laptop.
I learned to forgo the initial reluctance one usually encounters when sitting down to write. When I had time to write, I wrote. I worked through my MFA and delayed graduating for one semester to work on my thesis, which became my first novel. Blessedly, my then Abby was napping more predictably. My in-laws (bless them) stepped in to watch her one full day every week. My husband took over babycare in the evenings, and I plowed ahead.
Now, that little baby is approaching ten, and my son will be six soon. I homeschool both of them, and time for anything—housecleaning, sleep—is at a premium. I rise early to write most mornings. I hire a babysitter for one morning a week, and my kids and I spend two afternoons a week at my in-laws’ house. There, I hole up in a spare bedroom with my laptop while everyone else plays. On Saturday afternoons, I leave the kids with my husband and hit Starbucks. I’m so blessed to have this kind of support.
Also, I’m grateful for what I call my Boppy-lesson. Skip the reluctance. When it’s time to write, write.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deeply into a current project?
I have found that my children are not shy about demanding what they need from me. They don’t mind if I zone out a little, lost in my own make-believe world, as long as I come back to earth long enough to marvel over the Death Star my son has just constructed out of Legos or my daughter’s new invention: a movable, multiple-entry photo frame.
Plus, and especially with my situation, since I do not work outside the home, I think it’s good for my kids to see that while meeting their needs and a number of their wants is the focus of our household, it’s not everything. Mommy has her own interests, and there are pursuits outside of her children that are important to her. Also, they are learning that a family works together to support each other. Sometimes, supporting another member of the family means we put our own wants on the back burner for the moment or even an entire afternoon. I can’t imagine a more useful lesson to teach my kids.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
I find my life experiences take a while to compost away and re-materialize in my fiction. My first novel, for example, is written from an eight-year-old’s point of view and incorporates a lot of what I remember from my own childhood. I wrote it in my late twenties. My most recent novel, Goliath, is inspired by my living and working in a furniture-factory town in the late 1990s. After being married for twelve years, I’ve just drafted a novel about marriage. I dreamed up a Russian character fifteen years after I lived there. Besides a few short pieces, I’m not sure my experiences as a mother have turned up in my fiction quite yet…or at least not in a way I recognize.
Yet, I will say that as a homeschooling parent, sometimes my home school’s subject matter will creep into the pages of my fiction right away. For example, last fall, we did a study of the Periodic Table and I ended up putting a chemistry teacher in the piece I was working on at the time.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Both mothering and writing permeate my life completely. There are no time-cards to punch; I am always on duty. And though I feel each is, in its way, the perfect cure for the other—the writing gives me escape from mothering while the mothering brings me back to reality from my own little la-la land—they are also almost always in direct opposition to each other. When I’m really focused on my kids, I feel like I should be writing, and vice-versa. It’s very difficult to live in this kind of limbo. I am always struggling to find a little peace—to let go of all the should-do’s that nag me—amid the chaos.
Any advice for other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
There’s no denying it; this is hard. Really hard. I mean, writing in and of itself takes so much of you, and of course, parenting takes everything you have. There are times when I honestly wonder if I really want to be doing this. Working so, so hard. Occasionally, I have a dark day where I decide I’m done writing. I just want to plant hydrangeas or something and take care of my kids. Actually get some sleep every now and again. Clip coupons and hang out on Pinterest and plan invigorating and educational outings for my children. Have regular date nights with my husband. Watch television.
And then, on really, really dark days, I wonder what I would do if I could rewind my life a decade or so. I started writing with real focus about the same time I became a mother. I don’t know what it would be like to write without kids. What if I hadn’t had children? How much more writing could I accomplish? How much better would my writing be if I could really focus my whole existence on it?
But then, I remember that writing really isn’t meant to bear that much weight—the weight of all my life’s energy. At least for me it’s not. Writing gives me a means to express, to dream, but my real life is what leans on my imagination, what provides the necessary pressure. The need to express.
Better than advice, let me tell other would-be parent-writers: It is possible.
But this dual-life doesn’t come without its costs. My house is a disaster. My yard is a mess; once upon a time, I gardened. I love to knit but rarely have time for it. It’s 4:47 a.m.; I’ve been up since 3, writing. I’ll try to catch a little nap before my kids wake up, but there’s no guarantee one of them won’t need me just when I’m finally getting a moment to rest. The kiddos and I are running off to an hour-away homeschooling practicum later this morning. They’ll need snacks and packed lunches. They’ll get bored in the car and start quibbling. I also have a few writing deadlines to deal with—real and self-imposed—and I have to prepare to give a reading this Saturday. There’s always something to do—and so many things I can’t quite get to.
And yet, of course, the truth is I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have chosen to pursue two really great things instead of a thousand small ones, and I’m proud of that. I don’t have hydrangeas in my yard, and I have no plans to create any kind of a great dinner this evening. But what I do have is a homemade robo-scarecrow costume for my son, a daughter who would spend her entire day learning the workings of ant colonies if I let her (and I do let her!), and a laptop with half-a-dozen unfinished but hopeful short stories and essays. A new novel taking shape—1930s America and a prodigal daughter—is composting somewhere in the churning glop of my subconscious. Hot coffee. Unmade bed. Granola bar for breakfast. I am one lucky woman.