hen I traded in my teacher’s license to stay home with my four children, I imagined I would have all kinds of time. I’d freelance for magazines, finally finish my novel, maybe even develop a website—all while taking my kids to parks and introducing them to great books and fun, new hobbies. I soon learned that for me, mixing writing and full-time motherhood was like trying to play the xylophone while leading seventeen show ponies through a circus performance—all blindfolded and on roller skates. An entire year passed, and I never even looked at my novel.
Year two, new commitment to self: Make time to work on that novel. I wrote during naptime—between loads of laundry. I wrote in the carpool line, while my youngest listened to Veggie Tales. I even tried (unsuccessfully) to write at the kitchen table next to homeworking children. I fell into bed each night emotionally and physically drained. Finally, I typed the words I’d been dreaming of: “The End.” But when I went back to read over what I’d created, my novel had all the depth of a toddler’s wading pool. My characters lurched schizophrenically through a mishmash of disjointed scenes. One early reader asked me if I’d been on any kind of medication while I wrote. She was being generous.
I stuck the novel in a drawer and updated my teaching résumé. Before I could send it out, fate conspired to give me one more chance: a freelance assignment about the poet, Adrienne Rich. I clicked the link to her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision,” and immediately felt as though Adrienne had ripped the roof off my home to write about my life. Although decades have passed since Adrienne asserted that writers must have periods of sustained silence in order to harness “the subversive function of the imagination,” her theory still rang true.
It diagnosed the reason my writing lacked connective tissue: Fifteen minutes here and there allowed me to write scene to scene but never allowed me to fall fully into my story, to hold the whole novel in my head, and see its texture and shape.
But how could I complain? Adrienne was talking about the 1970s, when societal pressures limited the creative options open to women. No one demanded that I spend every waking moment cooking, cleaning, and caring for others. Still, women haven’t exactly traded away those traditional roles. We just piled on more, aspiring to be that woman in the Enjoli ad who could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan.” By juggling too many roles, women have made it even harder to lay claim to sustained periods of silence.
Knowing the problem is only half the battle. For advice on how to conquer it, I turned to Susan K. Perry, PhD, a writer and social psychologist whose blog, Creating in Flow, is featured on Psychology Today’s website. For her book, Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity, Susan studied the creative flow, which she defines as “the sense of inspired freedom that comes when you lose yourself completely in an activity, allowing time, duty, and worry to melt away.”
Susan interviewed well-known authors and poets about their writing processes and found that the majority had “specific rituals to get their creative process started each day—simple things like checking their e-mail, bringing a second cup of coffee into the room, putting on specific pieces of music, and perhaps reading over what they’d done the day before. Most felt they were most productive when they could lose themselves in their work in this all-out way.”
I asked Susan her thoughts on Adrianne’s assertion that a woman’s multiple roles prohibit creativity. She says, “I think by now we women have stopped thinking that there’s one right way to be a female. We do have plenty of choices. I believe you can have a child or two, share the burdens of life with a mate, even help caretake your aging parents, and still allow your imagination free rein. Just not as fully as if you were untethered by family and human attachments. You just have to plan your time and make some compromises.”
“I think by now we women have stopped thinking that there’s one right way to be a female.”
(Photo: Susan K. Perry, PhD)
Children’s author Tara Lazar, whose debut picture book, The Monstore, was released in June 2013 from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, doesn’t feel creativity can always be scheduled. She says keeping to a rigid schedule paralyzes her creativity. “On the other hand,” she says, “I don’t wait for a muse to strike, for she may never come. I truly believe you have to find your own balance, what works for you. My schedule is to have no schedule.”
Tara goes on to explain that repetitive household tasks give her mind the freedom to wander. “Those times when I do have to fold the laundry, cook dinner, or drive my kids around, it’s an opportunity to think creatively about my stories. I think through problems in my manuscripts. I think about a character’s motivation. I think about the perfect twist ending.”
It isn’t just family obligations that keep women from getting the words on the page. Memoirist Nimbilasha Cushing, author of Come This Way, There Is an Exit, says that sometimes the social and spiritual needs of others seem more relevant than our own. When that happens, Nimbi reminds herself: “If I am to be true to my whole self, then it is imperative that I recognize the benefit of sketching out a set amount of time for my writing each week and being faithful to keep such commitments.”
Nimbi learned to achieve sustained silence when during an afternoon of total desperation, she retreated into her walk-in closet. “I decided to try writing from that small space. There is room enough for me to stretch my legs and lean my back against the small ottoman I keep against one wall. As it turned out, a walk-in closet became my safe place to write about those things that had been kept in the dark for so long. I could pull out the words and look at them by the glow of the computer screen. It was liberating.”
“A walk-in closet became my safe place to write about those things that had been kept in the dark for so long.”
(Photo: Nimbilasha Cushing)
Martine Leavitt certainly has a knack for getting words on the page. She has managed to craft eight novels for young adults—including My Book of Life by Angel, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Keturah and Lord Death, a finalist for the National Book Award; and Tom Finder, winner of the Mr. Christie Award—all while enjoying her seven children and thirteen grandchildren.
That was not the writer’s life Martine had envisioned as a child: “I was delighted to discover the trope of the aberrant artist. I never knew anything about a writer’s children. Surely, she would never have them. Or perhaps if she did have them, they died of neglect, and the writer became even more hallowed for her sorrow.”
Despite her desire to become that elusive artist, Martine confesses that she “without meaning to, grew up. I joined the ignorant blissful, as I filled my home with babies. Occasionally, I wore pink. I doubted my longed-for writing career would survive growing up and having babies and wearing pink.” Yet Martine feels that it is partly because of those babies that her career thrived. “Motherhood freed my imagination. Becoming a mother taught me that making art is not an act of running away from life, but an act of running to—mostly to wonder and to discovery—and there’s nothing like a child to show you how to do that.”
“Becoming a mother taught me that making art is not an act of running away from life, but an act of running to . . .”
(Photo: Martine Leavitt)
But was Martine’s childhood idea of a writer’s neglected offspring totally off base? Toni Morrison didn’t think so. In an interview with Carolyn Denard, Toni suggested, “Writers are not there. They’re likely to get vague when you need them. And while the vagueness may be good for the writer, if children need your complete attention, then it’s bad for them.”
“Children can survive a little vagueness,” Martine assures fellow writers. “It’s more likely your children will turn out just fine precisely because they have a vague, happy mother who is happy because she writes.”
Ruth McNally Barshaw, whose hilarious Ellie McDoodle series features a creative protagonist, admits she learned the hard way to manage her own tendency to be vague. “When my older kids came to me to discuss something important, I only half-listened. I even kept typing while they were talking and forgot to pick them up from school. I showed them my deadlines were more important than they were.” But Ruth says time has given her a wider view. “I am a different mother now. Today they get my full attention—when I’m in my studio and one wants to talk, I physically turn away from my work.”
“I am a different mother now. Today they get my full attention . . .”
(Photo: Ruth McNally Barshaw)
If being the child of a writer comes with some challenges, it also has its perks. “Creativity is a big part of our family,” acknowledges writer and clinical psychologist Margaret Jessop, whose website provides resources for parents navigating the emotional minefields of early childhood. “At home, the kids have access to art materials in a moving cart, and my husband has a workshop in the basement with an extra work table at the children’s level. They see us busy doing things all the time; and as good social learners, they seem to have built their own interest in using creativity.”
Additionally, creativity can turn mundane tasks into adventures. Margaret encouraged her four-year-old son to help with chores around the house by inventing a character called the Recycling Man. When his services were needed, Margaret would pick up a banana, because Recycling Man could only be reached by banana, and call for his help. “It may have been only a simple task, but it gave an opportunity to engage my son’s imagination while teaching him about how the house is run.”
Ruth shares that her children learned how to live creatively without much money. “We had picnics on the living room floor in winter. We kept a Christmas tree up year round and decorated it differently each month. I sent funny notes in their school lunches sometimes. I didn’t argue when my preschoolers wanted to dress mismatching.”
Engaging your child creatively can also serve to inform and inspire your writing. Martine developed her palate for good literature by reading aloud to her children. “Thirty-four years of reading aloud can train your ear for voice,” she says. “Certainly it revealed to me the subversive nature and the subtle artistry of literature for young people.”
“I don’t wait for a muse to strike, for she may never come.”
(Photo: Tara Lazar)
As for the other demands on a writers’ time, Susan counsels writers to focus on this: “Flow is about mindfulness, and you can practice that anywhere, anytime. But you can’t do everything. To be a good mother and a good imaginative writer, you can’t also watch a lot of TV, spend hours on the Internet, talk on the phone, or maybe have as clean a house as you might have liked. Prioritize!”
So now, I let Susan’s advice drown out the lyrics of the song that influenced an entire generation of overachievers. I don’t have to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan (although a good BLT sure helps fuel my creative spirit). By turning household tasks over to my children, I am teaching them to appreciate the work that goes into caring for a family. By asking my husband for help with errands and carpools, I am strengthening our relationship and allowing the kids to see him as an equal parent. I don’t have tons of extra writing time, but I do have a few hours each day. Right after I drop my children off at school, I head straight for the back table at Starbucks. It might not be as isolated as Nimbi’s closet, but it provides enough sustained silence background noise for me to harness the subversive power of my imagination. As for that novel, it’s in the hands of my critique group. I’m halfway through a draft of the sequel.
Kathy Higgs-Coulthard is founder and director of Michiana Writers’ Center in Indiana, a fun job that provides just enough income to support her addictions: caramel macchiatos and frenzied bursts of caffeinated fiction writing. Kathy's short story “Lifeboat Theory” is featured in the premiere issue of Cleaver Magazine. You can visit her online at https://www.writewithkathy.com/
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