Monday, April 5, 2010

Writing ... Or Not ... With Children

Warning: This is a longer-than-usual post. Busy readers with limited time beware.

I recently read a blog post by Marie Mutsuki Mockett about writing with a new baby, and it reminded me of my own days struggling to carve out a little creative time while nursing, changing diapers, etc. Today, that baby of mine is getting ready to head to college, and I have enough time to write novels!

The following post is something I wrote when I was in the "thick" of it:

I had an idea for an essay the other day. It came to me in the usual way: while I was vacuuming.

In the vacuum world mine would be an “antique” Hoover. It first belonged to Lucile Cade Watterson, went to graduate school with her son (my then-boyfriend-future-spouse), assumed a position of prominence in our newlywed apartment, and currently skirts Legos, marbles and pennies in our childrens’ bedrooms. When my mother-in-law bought the Hoover it was the latest thing: one of those circular models, yellow-ochre-hued, requiring size H replacement bags which nowadays are difficult to find. It scarcely works anymore: you have to go over a scrap of yarn or pencil shaving several times before the vacuum eats it. But for invoking the muse, there’s nothing like it.

Because this baby can roar. It transcends mere “white noise,” creating a din which blocks out any competing sound, from the telephone, to a crying child to an air raid siren. It belches burnt dust mites as its aluminum maw sucks viciously at pine needles, playmobiles, and curtains. My children run when I wheel it from the hallway closet; my husband leaves the house. And as long as I vacuum, no one, absolutely no one, disturbs my train of thought.

Uninterrupted, logically sequenced thought has been, for me, a casualty of parenthood. As a writer I absolutely require, even crave, retreat to that quiet place in my head where I record and reexperience the world in words. As a parent, finding that space has proved a creative challenge in itself. My children have a way of insinuating their needs and their presence into my quiet thoughts. Never mind the requests for snacks, the shrieks and wails and the bathroom debacles when we’re together; even in their absence I fall prey to interruption, as I suddenly remember the overdue library book, the holiday cookie party, the field trip permission slip.

This dilemma - of how to balance real life with The Writing Life - is not uniquely mine, or unique to writers. I see parents all around me struggling to balance the demands of their jobs with the needs of their children, their professional ambitions with their relationships. But for a writer the challenge gets to something fundamental, and a little scary. Writing isn't simply what I do: it's who I am.

When my children were babies, those dark days of sleep deprivation and diapers, I looked to other mother-writers for inspiration and advice, with mixed results. Louise Erdrich, who managed mothering five as well as composing wonderful novels, was nonetheless a true friend. I thought she was reading my mind when she wrote in The Blue Jay’s Dance, “Until I’ve satisfied our baby’s need, my brain is a white blur, I lose track of what I’ve been doing, who I am.” And later: “Our baby hates the playpen. She hates her car seat. Help. Help. Help.”

Toni Morrison, on the other hand, was no friend. I’ve heard it said that the meanest thing mothers do is clean up before other mothers arrive, and I suspect that a visit to Morrison’s kitchen would reveal sparkling counters and a freshly scoured sink. When she described in an interview how she composed Nobel-prize winning novels while her children played at her feet, I was sick at heart. How could anyone create the language of Beloved and Sula amidst appeals for juice and the insistent demands of a ripe diaper? It also begged a larger question: who would want to?

Three months into my first pregnancy I was waiting tables as part of a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The writer Nancy Willard had been assigned to review my manuscript, and I was thrilled. Not only was she one of my favorite essayists, but she was a mother. Her accomplishments included a faculty position teaching creative writing, a host of childrens’ books, novels, essays, and a grown son. I was dying to ask her how she pulled it off. As I refilled her coffee cup at breakfast one morning I slid into the chair next to hers and asked, point blank, how she balanced the demands of writing with parenting. I cozily shared with her my own impending motherhood, then settled back for some heartfelt advice.

She stared at me, aghast. Whether it was the question itself, or my bumptious interruption of her breakfast, clearly she was at a loss for words. Finally, she replied.

“In life, you make time for what’s important to you.” That was it. She bent her head over the bowl and tucked into her oatmeal, ending the audience.

It took me a few years to get over being dissed and dismissed by Nancy Willard, but following the births of my two children I realized that her advice, albeit abrupt, was right on. The trick has been forgiving myself for the long periods I go without writing.

Because life happens. Friends get sick and need casseroles, brothers become new fathers and hold christenings in Connecticut, Halloween costumes must be sewn and two-year-olds must spend every possible moment of their summers combing the beaches for sandollars. Children, if nothing else, are life at its most insistent and ephemeral. And I find that time and again it's more important for me to roll in the autumn leaves with them, than pay a babysitter so I can spend hours at my computer reworking the syntax of falling leaves for a magazine article.

Parenting young children has forced me to make cuts, to decide what's important right now and what can wait. And while writing is very important to me, my children can't wait. My creative time is brief, compartmentalized literally and imaginatively from the daily hurricane. When I do write I have to be efficient and the finished products are short: essays for radio, bits and pieces for the paper, pithy journal entries. For now, this is o.k.

I figure I play tennis and I play the piano: but never simultaneously. I'm a mother and a writer but I don't -- and I can't -- parent and write at the same time. One occupation has to yield to the other, each alternately insistent and "important." Depending on who's sick, or breastfeeding, or occupied elsewhere for a few hours, each day offers up a different range of the possible. And I simply take what's given, no angst allowed.

For the present, however, we're still Hoovering.

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