Our Children, Our Books Part III

Our Mother’s Day Special Concludes. Thanks to participants Eowyn Ivey, Cinthia Ritchie, Marybeth Holleman and Deb Vanasse; full bios are available at the end of Thursday’s Part I post.

Having children has given me such a wealth of ideas and emotions to write about. What motherhood has taught me is that there is no perfect place or time to write. Sometimes that white noise is the grit in the oyster. …the experience of raising a child has made me more fearless.

Marybeth: How has being a mother affected or informed your writing–both what you write about (content), and how you write about it (form)? How has that changed over time, as your children grow?

As to content – Many moons ago, I had the great pleasure of teaching a class called “Writing and Motherhood” through UAA’s Women’s Studies Program. This class arose from conversations with Carol Hult, one of my models for mothering and writing. A group of nine women, all mothers or future mothers, read a list of books–fiction, nonfiction, poetry–by mother-writers. We discusssed, among other things, how mothers were portrayed in these books, as compared with how they had been portrayed in the not-too-distant past, when the only widely-published books with mothers as characters were written by men. I also wonder how our children’s ages/developmental stages might affect what we choose to write about.

As to form, I’m remembering talking with Rosellen Brown when she was a visiting writer at UAA. I had just become a mother, and was wondering how to get any significant amount of writing done. She said that when her kids were very young, she wrote poetry – because you could actually get somewhere in the 30 minutes of nap time. One of the students in that class was a poet, who wrote poems while sitting in her car, waiting to pick up her kids from school and various activities. And she’s written some damn fine poetry.

Andromeda: Without kids, I would have done more book-length journalism and travel writing – the kind of books that require major solo travel and long spans interviewing other people or having certain experiences, without family disruption. Instead, I wrote books that required research, but the kind of research I could do with kids along, whether it was a sailboat expedition in Baja or a backpacking research trip to Spain. I’m happy things turned out that way, and our family trips matter as much to me as the resulting books.

As for form or perhaps “writing lifestyle,” the main thing I notice is that I can’t immerse myself as deeply in my fictional world as I’d like to. I notice when I have a few days (or even one long day) by myself how much mental work I get done – I can go from shower to cooking or eating and still be mentally writing, playing invented conversations in my head, letting scenes flicker on m y mental screen. It becomes almost a dream state, and I’ll realize I’m not sure if I rinsed the conditioner out of my hair or ate the food that was just sitting in front of me (maybe); Ill find myself wandering into a room and forget why I went there, because in my head, I’m somewhere else entirely. Family members may not mean to interrupt, but just the white noise of normal life does interrupt to some extent, and I’m sure that weakens my writing. But on the other hand, sometimes that white noise is the grit in the oyster. My attention is disrupted (incessantly!), I come back to a problem, and over weeks and months somehow this push-and-pull process creates a story. If I were completely alone in a cabin, I might not manage to conjure an imaginary world at all.

Eowyn: I remember being in a college creative writing class and really struggling with what to write about; what could I possibly have to say that would matter to anyone? It may also be just getting older in general and having more life experience, but it seems that having children has given me such a wealth of ideas and emotions to write about. We had a difficult time getting pregnant with our first daughter and we thought we might not be able to have children. Then, when I was pregnant with my second daughter, we had a scare with some blood tests that showed she wouldn’t live to be born. It ended up being a false alarm, but through these experiences I learned a lot about how much I feared not being able to have children or have them be still born or otherwise have health problems, and a lot of this eventually went into aspects of my main character in The Snow Child. I’d like to think that motherhood has deepened my emotional capacity as a writer.

As for form, as I mentioned earlier I think having children forced me to really think about who I wanted to be as a writer. For nearly 10 years, I had worked as a newspaper reporter, but when pushed to the wall — staying up all night with a cranky infant, spending days alone at home changing diapers and wiping up spit, having little or no time to pursue my own interests and passions — somehow in the face of all this, I realized that what I really wanted to do was write novels.

Cinthia: When my son was younger I used to write in Chuck E. Cheese. I’d set him loose with a friend or two, strap on my headphones and sit in the corner and write. I was perfectly happy sitting there among those screaming kids and greasy pizza smells. What motherhood has taught me is that there is no perfect place or time to write. Yeah, some writers might have the wonderful desk in the wonderful room with the wonderful view but I’ve done some of my best stuff while “Barney” and the “Reading Rainbow” blared in the background. I used to think, no, I can only write when it’s quiet and the mood is right. Now I write when I have time: A few minutes here, a half hour there. I find that once I begin, I can easily sink down to the right place and mood, no matter where I am.What has changed, though, is how I write. I’m now more fragmented, I write pieces here and tidbits there and then face the agonizing process of trying to smooth it together. Am I a better writer because of this? I don’t know. I do know that it’s forced me to break down many barriers, and I write no matter if I’m tired or the house is a mess. Mostly, though, the experience of raising a child has made me more fearless. It’s forced me to open up and make myself more vulnerable, to see the beauty and hope in situations I might have turned my back on before, and this naturally carries over in my work. I find that when I’m in a bookstore, I flip open a book and read the author bio. If she’s a mother, I’m more likely to buy that book.

it’s always a good thing, a fine and wonderful gift, when parents model useful, meaningful work. I’ve worried a little about our feast-and-famine lifestyle. I feel guilty about that… whenever I see his face–and I know this will sound sappy and silly–but always, always I feel joy.

Cinthia: How has your writing or your being a writer negatively affected your child(ren)?

Andromeda: Overall, I’d say there has been no negative effect, but if pushed, I guess I’ve worried a little about our feast-and-famine lifestyle. We’ve had some years of unexpected reward and comfort, and also some years of involuntary simplicity and extreme financial anxiety. When the kids were very young, they didn’t notice the time – for example – that I had to scrounge dimes and nickels to buy tomato paste to host a very barebones pasta birthday dinner-party for my son. We could talk about bounced checks and the subject itself would bounce over their heads.

But I’m aware that they are old enough now, and even when things are going well, they must hear my husband and me talk all too frequently about how many months of living expenses are in the bank, what we’ll do during the next lean patch, how many more years the broken-down Subaru must last, the perils of having no health insurance, how much we owe the IRS, and so on. If the lesson they learn is that it’s always worth it in the name of love and art, great. If they become financially conservative or timid in any way as a backlash, I’ll regret that a little. But what can you do? I wouldn’t change a single thing, honestly, and I think my children have had a very lucky upbringing, with an emphasis not only on creative self-employment, but also on family time.

Eowyn: I agree with Andromeda about the money. I could be helping to create a more financially stable situation if I had chosen a different occupation. I’m lucky that my husband has a so-far reliable career as a fishery biologist and he has been the main breadwinner in recent years, but we definitely skate a thin line financially. I haven’t done anything for college accounts for the girls, and I feel guilty about that. The only other aspect of writing that could maybe be considered negative is that it’s a struggle to get time to write and I am sometimes irritable about that. When it’s 9:30 p.m. and the girls are resisting going to bed and I’m thinking “this is eating into my few night hours of writing” I have been known to be kind of grouchy. But then I think most parents, regardless of their careers or hobbies, get irritable at times.

Marybeth: Wow. This has always been one of my Big Questions. My choice to be a writer was, in large part, because I wanted to be a Mom. (This choice was made before I could imagine being a wife, which I always thought was goofy, but in retrospect, knowing all the happy, successful, vibrant single mothers that I do, may not be so goofy after all.) I wanted to have a passionate, engaging work life and I wanted to be a stay-at-home Mom. Writing seemed like the perfect solution. That’s not exactly how it worked out, but writing–and the other jobs that I’ve been able to choose as a result–have given me much more flexibility to be there for my son as he’s grown.

Some remnant worries: Did I ever put writing before parenting? (Oh those harsh deadlines, that total immersion good writing requires.) Did I ever expose him to too much at too young of an age? (When you work out of the home, at odd hours, there’s much more transparency than the parent-off-to-the-office-every-morning model. You can’t hide much.) And finally, because for most of the recent years, I haven’t been the primary breadwinner, and because I don’t go off to an office outside the home every morning, I have worried about that old traditional model of husbands and wives: man goes off to make money, woman stays home and bakes bread. (There were a few times I almost took full-time non-writing jobs because of this very worry.) But (thank goddess) there are many ways to model equality in relationships. And now, seeing him at 17, I think we’re good. Now, as he heads off to college to pursue photography, I know that I was right all along: it’s always a good thing, a fine and wonderful gift, when parents model useful, meaningful work.

Cinthia: I’ve never worried that I put writing in front of my son’s needs, for I always, always, always dropped whatever I was writing when he hauled out the Monopoly game or wanted to go for a walk on the beach. What I worry about, however, is the impact of his having grown up in so much silence. I am a solitary type, I can happily spend the whole weekend holed up in the house writing, stopping only to run or swim or drive my son wherever he needs to go, and because I am a single parent, well, there is often not much talking going on inside our house. I used to read those studies of how conversation around the dinner table was essential to raising well-adjusted kids and I’d think: Huh? Our table was covered with books and stacks of poems and pieces of essays and doggie bones and god knows what else. We didn’t have tradition meals or family time. What we had was a strange type of togetherness that didn’t seem to require a lot of speech.

Yet I think I gave him one of the most important gifts: The ability to enjoy his own company. How many people have that?When he started applying for colleges, he did the same thing I do when I send out my poems and essays: He went straight for the top. Forget the fact that the acceptance chances were slim. He believed in himself, the way I believe in my writing, and he wasn’t afraid to face rejection. We used to have a joke back when most submissions were sent through the mail, not email. Every day when he checked the mail he would hand me the white envelopes from various literary magazines and count them out: “One rejection, two rejections, three rejections …” He found this hilarous. Now I wonder how much of it sank in. It’s so hard to know. I made so many mistakes as a mother and as a writer, yet whenever I see his face–and I know this will sound sappy and silly–but always, always I feel joy.

1 thought on “Our Children, Our Books Part III”

  1. Thank you for this little series on writing moms. I am a mom of 2 small children, and I haven’t really written much of anything for 4 years, since my older child was born. I know I will return to writing, and I appreciate hearing about how other women are navigating two consuming roles. Keep up the great posts!

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