Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was close to forty and I didn’t either. For me it wasn’t the Le Cordon Blue School, but a need to finally be heard. I found my voice after my fourth child was born. I stopped telling tales at the bus stop and started to write them down. And now here I am embracing the fifty mark and still wondering, Will I make it as a writer? But I have made it. I am a writer. I live in the world differently, listening and looking for stories. Writing saved me from the drudgery of the suburbs and the sometimes overwhelming loss of self that motherhood can bring.
Perhaps, you’re one of those people who cry on the first day of school. For those of you putting your eldest on the kindergarten bus for the first time, I’ll give you a pass. For the rest of you, get real! The first day of school should bring the same wonder and joy you experienced traipsing down the stairs in your feety pajamas to see what Santa left under the tree. The endeavor warrants nothing less than a small jig.
A word to the wise: Your exuberance must be internal, lest you be accused of not truly loving your brood. (Been there, done that!) Those of you that home school, I admire your dedication and question your sanity, but this is a joy you’ll never know. And I am sorry for that.
Each school year marks the passing of time—small-kid problems get bigger, life gets more complicated. For me there is also another clock. It began ticking when my daughter, Claire, was in third grade and lamented the fact that her parents weren’t cooler. “Finn Haney’s mom is an artist and his dad makes movies,” she said. Claire felt more than gypped.
In June, when I was running around from school picnics, to award ceremonies, graduations, lacrosse jamborees, school plays and concerts, I longed for the dog days of summer and no morning routine. But now summer is here and I can’t wait for school to start. Help.
If only the grass were greener.
I want it all, NOW! What do you have to say to that?
Your friend, Veruca Salt
You can stomp and jump up and down all you want—but the truth is, if you’re a writer with responsibilities, you’d best get down with the heavenly virtue of patience. I know, I groan every time I hear it mentioned, too. Job practiced patience and look what happened to him. It makes sense in theory, but why does it have to apply to me?
But I have proof for all you nonbelievers.
Witness, Megan Marshall, author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. This latest venture took her six years to complete. She started writing it from a large house in Newton and completed it from her two bedroom apartment in Belmont, all while coping with a difficult divorce. Margaret Fuller encouraged her to reinvent herself. Marshall says, “Patience is not a virtue, but a technique!”
I’m a single mother with four kids—everything from tweens to a would-be adult—and I just went back to work full-time. I tell people I’m a writer, but lately I’m a just a thinker, collecting details and perhaps inspiration but never transposing them to the page. I read your sage advice but I still feel like Dorothy when she tells the Wizard, “I don’t think you have anything in that bag for me.”
Need Some Ruby Slippers.
Dear Ruby Slippers,
Girl, you can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan! Don’t kid yourself, though: “writers with responsibilities” is not exactly as fun as “friends with benefits.” For those of us with living, breathing, wanting, crying, sneezing, vomiting dependants, there are always strings attached. When my kids were little, I was sure God was mocking me. In fits of boredom he’d throw obstacles my way: three kids, one on the way and a house renovation—can she do it now? Four kids and a dislocated shoulder—can she do it now? Four kids, one divorce, one thesis to write and a broken wrist (yes, of course my dominant hand)—can she do it now? I sometimes feel like a modern day Job. I quell the why me with the realization that God has a lot more on his plate than to taunt me.
So where does this rant get you? All I can say is that you’re not alone. Every day someone says to me, “I don’t know how you do it.” Me neither, but you do what you have to do. To be a writer, you have to believe you’re a writer. That must be your first practice. The reality is that if you’re a writer you are in the world in a different way than most. You are watching high school lacrosse games listening to the conversations of other moms on the sidelines, you are walking from the T to your office building in a winter vortex trying to internalize the way the snot freezes in your nose, or cleaning the kitty litter box noticing the acrid ammonia smell of cat pee.
There are only so many hours in a day. Sometimes your day to day has to be your prewriting. It is necessary to fill the tank. Are you reading? Then you are prewriting. Can you make sure you carry a pen and paper or write a note on your phone when you notice the ants marching counter clockwise in your kitchen? It’s all writing. Granted, all that living doesn’t accumulate pages, but its fodder. So perhaps that’s what I have in my bag for you.
Above all, don’t beat yourself up. If you’re living in the world with all five senses tuned into the universe, and collecting morsels of dialogue, and thinking about characters. and even sometimes making a list of those thoughts: you’re working.
I have three laundry baskets filled with unmatched socks.
Dear Enough Said,
C’mon, Pinterest is filled with hundreds of ideas for unmatched socks: puppets, wreaths, dog clothes… The possibilities are endless. The real quandary is why. Why do the socks run? Why can’t they stick it out? When it comes to writing don’t go the way of the sock. Instead, think of Pablo Neruda and his “Ode to My Socks.” There is inspiration to be found everywhere.
Matched socks are overrated anyway. The goal for each day should be two socks, I think the matching bit is over the top. Granted, I was the kid in gym class with one black knee sock and one white ankle sock but it comes back to what I’ve been saying all along. You must lower your expectations.
Here’s a thought. Why don’t you pitch those three baskets of socks and start new. A six-pack of Hanes is $8.99 at Target. Why let the unfinished business taunt you? Stop rooting through the baskets on a daily basis trying to make some semblance of order. It’s just another way to beat yourself up. Empty basket, empty page—full of hope and promise and no judgement.
Do you have the magic spell that can inspire me to write again? I have not written anything in so long. Whenever I write about parenting or families, I feel like “this has all been said before. Why write about it?” I also find that it’s been harder and harder to come up with clear thoughts because my brain is always multi-tasking.
How ’bout a taste of Writing Potion Number 9 (a.k.a. Amy Rodriguez)
Dear Writing Potion Number 9,
I hear you. Life can silence us, convincing us that the world we live in is comprised of only the minutia of the day-to-day. So I’m pulling out the big guns: the wise words of two of my favorite writing mothers, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Paley. (I would include Toni Morrison, but she was able to get up and write at 4:00 a.m., and with that I cannot identify.)
I found my voice relatively late in life—40—but once I started to write I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I took classes, joined writing groups, and wrote all the time. I published essays in my local paper and people stopped me in the grocery store to thank me for making them laugh. I felt complete. Before I got my MFA I wrote for the love it, whenever and wherever I could squeeze a sentence into my busy life.
When accepted into a program, I started to feel like a “real writer.” I went to school full-time, worked part-time, and managed a household of five, all as a nontraditional student (think old). I powered my way through doubt and thoughts of “Do I belong here?” towards relative successes. And that’s where the problem lay: after learning about craft and understanding what I did well and what innate skills I lacked as a writer, I silenced myself.
Do you really want to hear from me? My mind and sometimes my writing is a flurry of unrelated thoughts and concerns. Navel gazing is so overrated, but regardless I wonder what am I to do about my ex-husband who still leaves the seat up every time he comes to my house. Or what about when my four year old asks me,”Why is there war?” when I’ve only had one cup of coffee. And I heard tell that there is a dance at Breadloaf—really? Is it as awkward as it sounds?
Your friend Full of Questions, Scared to Ask
Dear Full of Questions, Scared to Ask,
Um… The title of my post is I Want to Hear from You. I can help. I am rich in life experience. Ask anyone who knows me: at every turn my life is an example of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up. If I put half of it in a story it would never pass muster in a workshop; I would be met with a bevy of “I’m not buying it.” So bring it on. I’ve got your back. And remember if you can dump some of the worries, you can get to the page. And that is always the goal.
PS. You can email me your questions at email@example.com.
In a new series for 2014, Sarah Banse will provide writers with advice for juggling their work with other responsibilities. If you have dilemmas and want Sarah’s advice, you can email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Writers With Responsibilities.” For today, she explains how she balances writing with her own responsibilities: her children. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor
We all have responsibilities, but there’s perhaps none so challenging to a writer as dependents—the ones that talk back and want you to feed them three or maybe ten times a day. (And no, cats don’t count. I have a cat and any creature you can leave for two or three days with a bowl of food, water and a clean kitty litter box does not count as a legitimate charge.)
Indeed, as a recent essay by Rebecca Mead makes clear, there is much debate amongst female writers about whether there is a “right” number of children to have while balancing a writing career. I agree with many of the participants in this fray who hold that there is not; that the number of children you have is irrelevant. I can tell you there were plenty of moments when I was more overwhelmed with my first than I ever was with my fourth. Granted, my brain was mush and very little phased me by number four, but that is a story for another day.
Still, the question remains: how do you write when your children prevent you from even going to the bathroom by yourself? The philosophical answer is that wanting to write is not enough: the desire to put pen to paper and accumulate word counts must become your intention; you mustn’t think of writing as a luxury, but rather a necessity. The practical answer is not to worry: at some point you will be able to lock the door, and there even comes a day when they stop banging on it with wants and emergencies. (As I write this it is noon and three of my four children are still asleep.)
For those of you with toddlers, I know it doesn’t help to tell you they will one day become teenagers. (And I know many of you with teenagers now wish you had little ones with simple needs and problems that we could control.) But I can tell you one thing: neither time nor the muse is your friend, if you are expecting either one to knock on your door and invite you to write. You must make time, and you must make inspiration, and often this means lowering your expectations. So here is my advice for writers with children:
- Write fifteen minutes a day, or maybe even just a sentence. (One sentence always leads to more—especially if I have fooled myself into believing one is all I need.)
- Carry a notebook and write wherever you can—no one needs to watch every swim lesson or soccer shot. (And I’d rather be the mom who wasn’t paying attention because she was writing rather than talking on my cell.)
- Strap little ones into a car seat, put on a movie, and write during Little League practice. You could almost write a novel in the time it takes to get through a third grade baseball game.
- Think about writing Flash. There is something very satisfying about writing a complete story in 700 words, and it’s much easier to publish a piece of flash fiction than a short story.
- Couple patience with pluck and stop beating yourself up. You must begin again every day, regardless of yesterday’s word count.
Sometimes strategies like this don’t help, of course. I can’t tell you how many people have told me lately, “Well, of course you aren’t writing, you have so much on your plate.” It is easy to tell myself they are right, but it’s not true. I could commit to daily practices like the ones I list above, and I confess I haven’t lately. My novel sits haphazardly on the page, sick of excuses and waiting for me to put my butt in the chair.
But that’s the one place where kids can actually help: my children tell me all the time to stop talking about it and just do it. That’s the beauty of kids—they don’t sugar coat it, and they’ll give you a good swift kick in the ass when others won’t. So stop telling yourself that your children are a barrier to your writing, and just do it.
Let’s talk about cover letters. I know, I know: exciting, right? But remember what mom said: first impressions matter. So here’s a piece of advice: keep your letter professional and succinct. A reader and editor wants to know who you are, your publishing credentials (if any), and the name of your submission. What we don’t want is a synopsis of your story. Or, “this is a true story, but I changed the name of my Aunt Sally so I’m submitting it as fiction.”
Why do we want to know about publishing credentials? Only for the screening process. Remember we receive approximately 11,000 submissions a year. Authors who have been published in Ploughshares—whether it was a year ago or forty—get sent right to an editor. Those with substantial publications under their belt get sent to a senior reader. What do we mean by substantial publications? A book or two, or publication in a number of top-tier literary journals. (Just so you know, pass-ons from slush go right to an editor just like pass-ons from notables.)