Writer, with Kids: Yelizaveta P. Renfro


Yelizaveta P. Renfro, author of a short story collection, A Catalogue of Everything in the World (Black Lawrence Press), and a collection of essays forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press in 2014.

Ages of kids: 5 and 8.

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
Before I had kids, I wasted inordinate amounts of time. I now look back on those giant swaths of time that I just frittered away—drinking one more cup of coffee, checking my email one more time, baking impromptu batches of lemon bars—and I am appalled. I can’t say that I ever had much of a writing schedule. Right before I had kids, I spent three years in an MFA program (while also working), so my writing got done mostly as assignments for my classes. If something was due for a workshop, then I would write. If I the mood struck me, then I would write. I was not particularly disciplined. Besides, I was in my twenties, so it seemed that I had all the time in the world.

Then I became pregnant and simultaneously started a Ph.D. program—not exactly the recommended way of doing things. My daughter was born halfway through my second semester. For three years, I worked on completing coursework, teaching, taking exams—all the things I needed to do in order to become ABD—and I wrote very little. Actually, it wasn’t until my second child was born that I figured out how to be a parent and a writer at the same time. Being ABD at that point also helped. All I needed to do was care for my kids and write. So when my son was an infant and my daughter was three, I wrote the majority of the stories that make up my short story collection. I simply became determined to get it done. I wrote during every moment I could. I wrote while the kids napped during the day and after they went to bed at night. I wrote while my newborn slept beside me on the bed, and I wrote while breastfeeding. I learned how to be efficient with the time that I had.

That has been my writing approach ever since. I write when I can. Unfortunately, I still don’t have a regular writing schedule. Some days, I don’t write at all—or if I do write, it’s a matter of jotting down a sentence fragment or two in a notebook. Sometimes, I grade papers all day. Sometimes, I am with my kids all day. On other days, I get the luxury of devoting several hours to my writing. Having kids has certainly taught me one important lesson: I don’t have all the time in the world. “There is no perfect time to write,” says Barbara Kingsolver. “There’s only now.”

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deeply into a current project?
We live in a messy house. The only time our house is ever in order is when we are trying to sell it (and we’ve bought and sold more houses than I care to remember). Sometimes, I feel guilty about the disorder, but the guilt always passes. My own mother was never a great housekeeper and detested housework. In our household my parents were much more likely to be reading than cleaning. My mother was ready to read a book to me any time of the day or night, and the dishes could always wait until later. I probably took on many of her relaxed housekeeping habits, but I also learned from her that reading and writing are more important than anything else that we might be doing.

This is a roundabout way of approaching this question, I know, but the point is this—children learn more from your actions, day to day, than they do from so-called “quality time” or regular doses of advice. By seeing me living my life as a writer and a reader, my children are, I hope, learning about priorities, about what is important. At the same time, I want them to know that they are important. So I still do most of my writing when my children are asleep or at school. There are times, however, when they play or read while I am writing. They know to be quiet and to (mostly) leave me alone. There are other times when I help them with their own writing, or we take our nature journals out in the field to write and draw, or we work on photography or art, or I drop everything to read to them—and in these ways, I am present with them while still feeding, in small ways, my reading and writing life. And my husband and I have made other choices—for example, we don’t own a television—that encourage all of us to be present when we are together.

Are there times I am with my kids when my mind is on my current writing project? Of course. But I simply keep a notepad close at hand, and if something strikes me, I jot it down. The kids are used to this idiosyncrasy of mine. In fact, my daughter has begun to do the same thing. “I need to write down my idea before I forget it,” she’ll say, echoing word for word something she’s heard me say probably hundreds of times. They understand that this is the way I work. Just as they understand that we read and write before we do anything else.

So yes, the kitchen floor really needs mopping, and I’ll get to it eventually, but first, we’re going to read a good book.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
My experiences becoming and being a parent are a rich source of material. Yes, I write much more about having kids and about raising kids than I used to, simply because it is currently a central part of my life and because I have those experiences to draw from. I would not have written the majority of the stories in my short story collection or the majority of the essays in my essay collection if I had not had kids. I can’t even tell you what kinds of writing I’d be doing now if I hadn’t become a parent eight years ago, because having a first child is such a profound change—probably the most wrenching transformation that many of us will ever experience. Sometimes, I hardly recognize the person I used to be before having kids. And it isn’t a change that happens overnight—bam, the baby’s born, and you’re suddenly a full-blown parent with a wise, serene smile on your face. No, it’s more like a catastrophe, a disaster—a sudden maelstrom of sleep deprivation, crying, diapers, feeding, despair, insecurity, doubt, forgetfulness, exhaustion. You can’t do any of the normal things you’re used to doing at the normal times. In fact, it seems that you’re no longer in control of your own life—you can’t drink that leisurely cup of coffee or sleep in or watch an entire movie or even take a shower. You’re held captive by a squalling newborn—and at first you miss your old life, the person you used to be.

Like all transformations, it’s painful, and it lasts a lifetime—I have not yet emerged from the maelstrom. I do not yet have a serene smile on my face. But gradually, you get a little more sleep, and one day the child weans, and one day you change your last diaper, and you see that what has happened to you—what is still happening to you—has changed you for the better, has widened your perspective, has stretched you in ways that nothing else could, even while robbing you of sleep, time, energy. And the person that you missed, the person you clung to and desperately wanted back, is like a stranger to you now, and you’re grateful to be who you are. So this condition called parenthood that happened to me eight years ago necessarily infuses all of my writing in ways that I can’t even begin to express. I am a mother forever.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Time and money. Time, because sometimes it feels that every moment I’m writing is a moment stolen from my kids. And money, because most of the writing I do doesn’t pay the bills. These are neither new nor unique challenges. In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needs “a room of one’s own” in order to be successful. What this room stands for, besides the obvious physical space necessary for doing work, is the financial independence and uninterrupted time required to seriously pursue writing—or any other artistic endeavor. The room stands for space—physical, yes, but also psychological, emotional, financial. And children don’t give you a lot of space—of any type. So between the time I spend teaching and the time I spend parenting, there isn’t a lot of time left over for the writing. I am constantly working to make time, to carve it out of my day, a sliver here, a sliver there. It isn’t easy, and I don’t always succeed. But the need is always there, a persistent nagging feeling. You must write. You must write.

Do you have any advice for other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
I have heard variations on the same advice—something along the lines of, if you want to be a writer, don’t have kids, or sometimes, limit yourself to just one kid—more times than I can count. This is completely wrong. Virginia Woolf imagines an eighty-year-old woman, who, when asked about her life, remembers nothing: “For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children set to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie. All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded.” But these lives of mothers, of parents, need not be obscure, unrecorded. We need to hear these voices, these stories of parenthood. I mean, we are busy doing the most important work in the world—creating the future members of the human race. We are molding the future citizens of the world, and this deserves to be written about; this needs to be written about.

Even when your day is filled with play dates and tantrums and potty training and story time and breastfeeding and housework—write about it. It’s important. It really is. And don’t ever let anyone tell you the work you do isn’t important—the writing work or the parenting work. We need to stop belittling parenting as some mindless and meaningless labor, and we need to stop apologizing for our writing, stop calling it just a hobby, something that we just dabble in during our so-called “spare time” (as if such a thing existed). You might not ever earn a cent from being a parent or being a writer, but if you remind yourself, day in and day out, that what you are doing is the most important work in the world, you will never lose the very human impetus that drives us to these acts of extraordinary creativity.

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Writer, With Kids