Mar 5, 2012

Motherhood and Writing: Thoughts from AWP

I just spent the weekend in Chicago at the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual convention, where 10,000 writers, teachers of writing, and students of writing packed into two Loop hotels listening to panels and readings for two and a half days.

It was fabulous fun.

The AWP conference is a once-a-year opportunity to reconnect with far-flung friends from graduate school and the writing and teaching worlds. It’s also the way to stay current on developments in the field and hear writers I admire read from and talk about their work. I usually sit on one or two panels each year and this year’s was a highlight. Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of the memoir Lost and Found, brought together five women writers—including Kate Hopper, Katy Read, and Jill McCorkle--to talk about motherhood and writing. Two hundred audience members filled the room, indicating this is a subject writers want, even need, to hear more about.

Several writers came up to me afterward to say how much they’d enjoyed what we each had to say, so I thought I’d post a slightly edited version of my eight-minute talk here for those who couldn’t make it. The title of the panel was “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk.” Try to imagine me at a podium in a cream sweater, a long black skirt, black boots, still battling slight jet-lag, as you read:

“Like some of my fellow panelists, I was already a working writer when my kids came along, and so instead of finding a way to fit writing into family life, my writing life needed to expand to include room for a child. At first, I’d thought it would be possible to step sideways and create a natural space for a family, and then we’d all happily coexist on the same plane. It didn’t take me long to discover the naivete of this plan. Two weeks with a colicky infant, to be exact.

Before motherhood, my days were largely unstructured. I ate when I was hungry, sped out the door to literary events on short notice, and wrote until late in the night. My subject matter was mainly mother-daughter relationships from the perspective of a daughter, specifically a daughter without a mother. After my own two daughters came along, I still wrote about mother-daughter relationships, only now mainly from the perspective of a mother.

Now my daughters are ages 14 and 10, and on a day-to-day basis I have very little separation between my life as a writer and my life as a mother. I write about family life, in the midst of family life, not at a critical remove from it. I have an office outside of the house to give me some physical distance from the constant flood of requests that would otherwise fill my waking hours, but I try to fit my writing hours, which are usually flexible, into the family schedule, which is not always so flexible, given school schedules, babysitter availability, and my husband’s work and travel. In an ideal world, my writing hours would be my daughters’ school hours, from 8:30 to 3. With the help of a babysitter twice a week I have a thirty-six hour work week, which certainly sounds reasonable for a writer.

It’s just too bad I can hardly craft a usable paragraph during daylight hours.

If you’re a born and raised New Yorker like me, it’s always easier to focus on what you don’t have than what you do, so I’ll share that list first.

Because I’m a mother and a writer, usually in that order, here is the list of things I absolutely cannot do:

1. Spend three months, or two, or even one, at a writer’s colony starting, working on, or finishing a book. (Thirty whole days? Seriously?)

2. Shower every day.

3. Take a visiting professor job, or any teaching job, anywhere but in our hometown.

4. Be a travel writer. Unless it’s possible to make a living off one assignment per year that just happens to fall over Christmas or Spring Break.

5. Be a foreign correspondent. Unless Pasadena counts.

6. Be a mom who can volunteer in the classroom on the same day and time every week and still hope to get work done by deadline. Instead, I’m the mom who goes on random field trips and takes over at the last minute when others can’t make their shifts.

7. Stay at literary events past 9 p.m. on a weeknight (not with a chronic 6:15 a.m. wake-up call to get the kids to school).

8. Write every day during my peak creative hours, which are between 5 p.m. and midnight.

9. Be the kind of wife who feels nothing but gratitude when my husband spontaneously says, “I’ll take the kids for the next half-hour, honey, so you can sit down and write.”

10. Expect with any semblance of reason that when I wake up on any given morning, my work day won’t be interrupted by a forgotten lunchbox; an urgent need for violin rosin; a book report left on the kitchen table; a half-day of school I forgot about; an emergency trip to Michael’s Art Supply store to buy numerous tiny, expensive items to build a California mission; a headache; a stomach ache; a broken retainer; or a case of head lice. Again. And all I can say about that is -- if you’ve never been pulled away from a crushing book deadline, the kind where the editor is tugging on your pages all the way from New York, by a call from the elementary school nurse at 10 a.m. saying that ¼ of your daughter’s fourth-grade class has lice, including her, and that every member of your family needs to be checked since you probably all have it, and every piece of bedding in the house needs to be washed in hot water, and all the stuffed animals quarantined in garbage bags, and all the mattresses vacuumed, today, then … you weren’t living in my house last month.

Now, having gotten all that out of the way -- here's the list of things I can do precisely because I’m a writer and a mother:

1. Fully appreciate the importance of detail. As in, “What exactly did Mr. Cott say when you were sent to his office? I need to know the exact dialogue before I call the school.”

2. Budget my time very efficiently. Because my writing time is so pre-circumscribed, I have to get as much done in six hours as I possibly can. This is where setting realistic expectations is essential. Thinking I can accomplish ten hours of work in six only sets me up for disappointment. Most of us simply can’t produce as much work after children as we could before them, except for the select and enviable few who find motherhood jumpstarts their creative writing energies and inspires them to produce.

3. Write from first-hand knowledge about pre-natal tests, complicated deliveries, home birth, the Tooth Fairy, and the week my 11-year-old daughter had to bring a flour-sack baby to school and pretend to be its mother.

4. Help my kids ace their spelling tests and edit ninth-grade English essays. Algebra II, however, is a lost cause.

5. Bring a nineteen-month-old on a book tour, which was a whole lot more fun than I thought it would be.

6. Write a comic essay with my teenage daughter and perform it together (Look for us on stage March 12 at Spark Off Rose in Pacific Palisades!)

7. Take my kids to see where Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Anne Frank once lived, as well as drag them to all the former log homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

8. Discover a whole new list of vocabulary words and idioms I can now use in essays and stories. Like “Chill,” “Bro,” “and “Epic Fail.”

9. Recognize the ironies, the metaphors, the character arcs, the turning points, and the dramatic high points of everyday life as they occur.

10. Discover a whole range of emotions I never knew existed, and wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.

I’ve long thought that as a mother writer (or a writing mother) – it’s a very good thing that I’m creative. Because creativity, flexibility, and adaptability are the three main prerequisites for this job. My biggest challenge in the workplace has been finding a way to carve out enough consecutive hours, on a regular basis, to produce quality work. The gift of a quiet, solitary half-hour, while greatly appreciated, is only long enough to start clearing the mind of clutter and barely starting to sink into the work. On a good day for me, a half-hour’s worth of writing can produce one decent paragraph.

Long before I was married, when I was still in graduate school and working on my first book, I discovered that my natural Cicadian rhythm makes me most creative between five and midnight. After my first daughter was born I tried to shift my writing hours to daytime, with very mixed results. Daylight and I do very well together for administrative tasks and teaching, but my creative hat won’t stay on my head until 5 p.m., no matter how hard I try to make it stick. And for parents, those key hours between five and midnight mean dinner, dishes, homework, bath time, bedtime, and first feedings – events that can’t be skipped over or ignored in favor of crafting a perfect page.

My solution, when I’m on deadline, is to function as a binge writer. That means every third or fourth weekend my husband takes the kids from a Friday school pick-up through Sunday night and I check into a hotel up in Ventura, California – strategically chosen because it’s an hour and fifteen minute drive from our house, close enough to get home quickly in an emergency but far enough away that I won’t get any surprise dinner guests.

I stay in the hotel room for three days straight, leaving only for meals – and sometimes not even then – and crank out as many pages as I can. The immersion in the work, without interruption, allows me to write better and faster than I can during a regular day. I produce more pages in that one weekend than I normally do in two weeks of weekday writing. It’s not an ideal situation, and it sometimes extends my deadlines, but it’s worked moderately well so far: I’ve written three books this way since 2004. Not a book a year like some writers can produce, not even close, but it’s a pace that allows me to be both mother and writer and – at least some of the time – allows me to feel that I’m doing both pretty well.

And so for me, writing and motherhood are neither a balancing act nor a juggle, but more of a pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other. I’m either working very hard on a book (some of the time) and making that my primary focus, or deliberately reducing my work load (as often as I can afford to) to spend time exclusively with my husband and kids. It makes for a feast-or-famine family life to be sure, and I’ve often wondered if or how it adversely affects my kids to have me so fully present much of the time but so lightly available some of the time. It’s all they’ve ever known, since I’ve been writing for as long as they’ve existed, and I imagine that to them while it’s not always preferable it’s a certain kind of normal. I’ll have to wait until they’re older and can tell me, to know for sure.

I once read an interview with the Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht, in which she said that every child a woman has is a book she doesn’t write. And although that sounded awfully harsh to me the first time I heard it, I thought about it a great deal and would say that for me, it’s been pretty true. The first two years of each of my daughter’s lives—about the time it takes me to write a book—were years when newborn care and sleep deprivation and the awe of having an infant and toddler in the house made it impossible for me to work full time. I did sell a book proposal when my second daughter was six months old, but it took four years for me to finish it. So while it’s true that I probably would have been more prolific if I didn’t have two children to care for, that equation begs the question: would I rather have eight books and no children, or six books and two children? As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t any question there."

For a series of postings about the AWP Conference, check out the Minneapolis StarTribune blog. Here's a link to the final installment by writer and teacher Barrie Jean Borich.


Dorothy at Shockinglydelicious said...

Excellent speech! I read this with particular interest. I'm sure you can imagine why:
"1. Fully appreciate the importance of detail. As in, “What exactly did the principal say when you were sent to his office? I need to know the exact dialogue before I call the school.” "

Carrie Wilson Link said...

I'm sorry I missed it! I think binge writing AWAY from home is the way to go, too, for a number of reasons. If it's any consolation, I think you do the best job of any woman/writer/mother/wife/friend/etc. I know, of making it all work.

Kristina Cowan said...

Thank you, Hope, for this inspiring message.

As a mother of a toddler and an infant, I relate to much of your message. My writing career as a journalist was well-established when my first baby arrived three years ago. Chasing and telling stories defined me. Exchanging most of my writing for mothering was a shock. But as you said, there's no question; motherhood is an invaluable experience.

I too am a motherless daughter, since age 15. My son and my daughter, by merely existing, have done much to heal me from mother loss. More than anything, really. It's been a pleasant surprise, because I thought the hole would always gape wide.

What an excellent concept you've devised in binge writing. I plan to put that in play just as soon as my daughter's done nursing later this year.

Keep up the great work! You've been one of my favorite writers since I found Motherless Daughters, back when I was an undergrad at Northwestern.

Catherine Eade said...

hello Hope - binge writing! what a brilliant plan. I wrote most of my novel while away for 6 days without my kids, husband or any friends so i can vouch for its effectiveness. I'm interested to know if your documentary The Club is still underway, and also am wondering if you would be interested in reading my book which is about a motherless mother struggling to make sense of her life. It's called Significant Mothers and will be available soon. If not no worries, but I'd be very happy to send you one if you think it might be of interest. Best wishes, Catherine Eade (UK journalist and mother of three)