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Friday, April 27, 2012

Mental Space for Rent


Ever since you first picked up Dorothy Parker or Jack Kerouac and fell in love with the writer’s life, you’ve had an image in your head of what it means to be “a writer.” Probably that image includes some vice (sex, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, luxury yachts) that you deserve because of all the time you spend writing. Because almost without fail, the image that comes to mind when you think “writer” is someone all alone in a room somewhere. A quiet room. With only writerly stuff in it and a means of composition. Books. A nostalgic typewriter. Possibly a window, but if so, a window that opens onto a peaceful scene.

When was the last time a parent was alone in any room devoid of kid detritus?

You do not think of a writer as a person who has to make non-peanut snacks for fifteen kids and then a doctor’s appointment which will entail at least one shot before sitting down with her manuscript. You don’t think of a National Book Award winner setting an alarm to ensure he/she picks up Coraline or Jeremy from soccer camp no later than 3:25pm. Definitely not the image that comes to mind. But that’s what we do. Every damn day.

How the hell do we accomplish this?

Let’s just say there’s often a hero spouse in the picture. Let’s say someone is willing for YOUR career to do all that daily stuff, at least on occasion so a few sentences can be strung together and called a paragraph. Let’s say that’s true for about 40% of parent authors. (could be more/less depending on divorces, remarriages, business trips, and spousal reluctance) … it could also be a mom or paid nanny/sitter/day care that takes over the parenting for a while—

There is still the issue of mental space.

After all, writing a cohesive short story (not to mention a whole novel!) requires a certain amount of focus, wouldn’t you say? Focus that is not razor sharp when Coraline and Jeremy are fighting with the caregiver in the next room over whose turn it actually is to choose the TV show. Focus that can be ripped from you even with a stray thought; oh crap, tomorrow is Coraline’s share day at school and I promised to ask Joe to loan out his old fireman’s helmet and I totally forgot. Focus that is utterly destroyed when your cellphone buzzes and the caller ID says “Jeremy’s School.”

“We’re so sorry,” says an administrator when you pick up. “Jeremy threw up in the lunchroom today. He seems fine now, but our policy is to have the parents keep him home for 24 hours after an incident like this.”  Say goodbye to the next 24 hours, since your spouse has already told you she’s got a meeting at ten tomorrow with the CEO of her firm.

So that’s our lives. We know it. Why am I bothering to blog about it?

Because there are plenty of writers who have managed to put out amazing novels despite having kids at home. People who nonetheless pick up their kids from soccer and who sit with them when they have fevers.  People like Jennifer Egan, who, oh I dunno, wrote novels that were good enough to win Pulitzer Prizes.

When she wrote A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan was helping to put food on the table and pay for soccer classes for two boys. That prize came to her because the quality of her work was fantastic—not the other way around. We often laud writers’ work after they win prizes: but every last one of them was not a Pulitzer Prize winning author before they won that prize. (members of Pen Parentis can log onto the website and hear a podcast of her discussing the book BEFORE she won the prize... it's astonishing.)

It is vital to remember that the prize-winning authors that we so admire had to carve out time to slave over their writing, same as you. 

In the next blog, I’ll talk about some specific ways that published novelists who are also parents have carved out enough mental space to get some real writing done.

1 comment:

  1. I've been really working at this, trying to remember the J.K. Rowling's of the world who wrote novels on napkins while working and raising kids (or so the myth goes). But yes, people have done it, and they did it before knowing anything good would ever come of it. It's amazing how much time we have, if we use it really productively. I find I have to be SO vigilant now about any plans at all. When my 4 y/o is sleeping, I can't sit and talk to another mom. I can't. They want me to, it seems like a good time - but I have to use that time to write. If he's watching TV (yes I let him), I take that time. The minute he's asleep. Even while running I carry paper and a pen; amazing thoughts occur to you during runs. Capture them. Figuring out when I write best and trying to steal that time - like first thing in the morning. I can get an entire day's worth of writing done in an hour first thing, but if I miss that magical time, then the same amount of work might take 5 hours. It's almost exhausting to keep so on top of things. I like how Heather Sellers describes it as being in training. Someone training for the marathon wouldn't stay out late, wouldn't drink excessively, wouldn't say yes to social events. That kind of thing. We are in training. We are that committed.

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