Thursday, May 31, 2012

Single-Parent Writers

It’s not fucking fair.

That’s what Cara Hoffmann announced after listening to the rest of the Pen Parentis panel talking about how they so appreciated their spouse for taking the kids for four hours here and two hours there so the writer could finish a chapter of the latest book. She raised a son on her own as a writer – and it was hard and bloody work. Well, ok, maybe not terribly bloody…but if you’ve read Cara’s phenomenal breakout novel, So Much Pretty, you might wonder.

How did she do it? The same way Mahogany Brown raised her daughter alone – as a poet it might be even harder than as a fiction writer – she told her kid that this was her career and she taught her child to treat that career with respect. Really, it’s no different to tell your child “Daddy has to write this proposal so that his company will earn 5M in the next merger acquisitions deal, so please watch Dora on the TV for a little while and then I’ll read you a story.” What you are doing is prioritizing work. And that’s damned hard, but guess what, life isn’t fair. Only people can be fair: and what each of these women admitted was how grateful they were to the industry people who understood when they were told that the deadline would be missed by a hair because, as a single mom, there was nothing to be done about it. 

But here’s what’s gorgeous: both Hoffman and Brown instilled a real respect into their kids. Writing wasn’t a hobby. It wasn’t something done for fun and laughs. Writing was a career. And by incorporating their kids into their lives this fully, these single-moms raised kids who not only respected and admired their mothers, but the kids themselves grew up to be successful artists: Hoffman’s son is in a quite-popular band, and Brown’s daughter won a writing award.

We can do this for our kids. Single parents more than anyone with a double income, should also take advantage of all the grants and fellowships out there that want to fund great writing. Try for a Sustainable Arts Foundation Grant. A Jerome Foundation Grant. Even the NEA grants are not out of your reach, if you are serious. I went to a presentation they made at AWP in Chicago, and discovered that the judges for the NEA grant change every year – you can apply with the same material up to five years in a row without any penalty. In fact they want you to reapply! We all know that taste is subjective, why not keep trying? You can’t win the lottery without playing, and getting grants is a lot like winning the lottery. Find out how these things are run, follow the rules, and apply. Your hardship bio will likely turn a few heads that otherwise are stuck in academic clouds. 

I have absolutely no idea what I'll be writing about next week. I just had a birthday. Maybe that's the problem - saw time, slipping slowly through the glass...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Flee for the Weekend

At the AWP conference in Chicago, I was lucky to attend the panel on pregnancy called Writing Motherhood. I was surprised by a few things 1) how many of the people in the audience were not pregnant, and 2) how many of them were men. It was standing room only in a rather large room (more than a hundred attended) – and the Q&A ran so long the next panel was hovering impatiently at the door.

This is clearly an issue, people.

At the panel, one of the writers admitted that her means of securing real mental space to write is to leave her daughter with her husband for the weekend, every other weekend, while she was working on a book. In case of emergency, mommy was a phone call and a ten-minute drive away, but otherwise, someone else was cleaning, cooking, hugging, reading bedtime stories, curing boredom, shopping and schlepping, and mommy was working her fucking ass off. Again, the guilt-factor was at work. She knew she was 1) spending family money on a hotel. Parents don’t take large expenses lightly. 2) incurring spousal debt. Believe me all favors this big get paid off. 3) only allowed to do this if she really did produce great work.

The power of guilt. It’s astonishing. The writer, by the way, is Hope Edelman and she is the author of 5 books and two memoirs and has a lovely happy daughter.

She is not the only writer to check into a hotel for the weekend. There were lots of parents in the audience nodding in empathy as she discussed her method. Even more writers, particularly, those that are urban-based, pay to use a writing center. Easily 2/3 of the writers we have presented on the Pen Parentis stage are or have been members of an offsite office space. Some have chosen writing centers for the flexible hours, but others have signed up for rental workspace or even leased small offices away from the home.

I myself did the best writing I have ever done when I won a fellowship to the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg Russia. There's nothing like leaving all your responsibilities behind, immersing yourself in art and thoughtful seeing and just living a writer's life. I came back with a rewritten opening to a novel and a short story that will be published this coming March - after making the short list on three different contests. It's great writing - and it reminds me how high the bar has to be set...even if I have to pick up the kids after school in the middle of writing the best paragraph ever.

I hear all you single parents – I agree it’s not fair to hear solutions that require not only dual incomes but also free babysitting. Next time I’ll talk about what two successful single moms said at our Salons.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Family Friendly Residencies

You may have heard that some of us (Anna Solomon, Greg Olear, Caroline Grant, & Thomas Israel) submitted a panel proposal about parenting/writing for AWP in Boston 2013, I don't know if we will be selected but we intend, among other resources, to present a parent-conscious list of writer's getaways such as family-friendly residencies: writing colonies at which kids can either stay with their parent or there’s programming for them. This is like writer’s gold, and it's a trend we would love to see proliferate. For a start, here’s a list of a few current residency programs that parents are encouraged to apply for that allow kids to remain the whole time with the writer: 

Acadia National Park.

Right. There is exactly one. It’s in Maine. Here's the website

The easiest way to search for an appropriate residency is through the online search engine on the Alliance of Artists Communities Website.

But I’ve done the depressing work for you.

Besides the one writing residency program in the world that does not require membership that does allow children for the entire duration of the writer’s stay--Go Acadia!--there are additionally seven residencies in the world that currently allow children for the entire residency, but you have to be a member of the organization sponsoring the residency to apply. Six, luckily, are in the US--though most of them require membership. One is in China.

18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica
Elsewhere Studios, Colorado
Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown
Headlands Center for the Arts, San Fran
McColl Center for Visual Art, Charlotte
Red Gate Residency, China
Spiro Arts, Utah

This has got to change. Either residencies have to acknowledge the difficulties (as Yaddo does) of being away for extended periods without seeing family, and allow for family visits – or writing colonies need to take into account they are losing a vast clientele of great writers with incomes who would happily go away for four days to a week, just to have some mental space.  Why should the Santa Fe Doubletree Hotel gain money that deserves to be spent at StarryNights?

You tell me.  Next time, we talk about some published writers and how they carve out mental space.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Escape to Nirvana

Wow. Sorry that took so long - I didn't mean to leave you hanging in the middle of a blog post, but I was combing hair. Boy hair. Girl hair. My hair. And doing laundry. Some sixty-five dollars worth of it. It's insane how quickly time flies when your kid comes home with...lice.

Yes. Thanks to the vagaries of a boys-only sleepover. I was briefly transported to the middle ages. Horrific. And definitely on the top-ten things I never even briefly thought could keep me from writing until I had kids....ooh. That's for sure going to be a later post.

For now, here's the continuation of my thoughts on creating mental space.


Who among us hasn’t dreamed of six weeks as a resident in an artist colony, far away from real life, surrounded by genius writers who only want to inspire other writers?  Oh the bliss of waking naturally, refreshed and ready, having breakfast served to you as you sit quietly over coffee thinking about the work you will continue today. The characters are fresh in your mind, and last night, you dreamed of a new plot twist, one that will work admirably to get the Jamaican maid into the room where she will witness the downfall of the young man she must serve but secretly loves. You are excited. You leave the dishes on a sideboard and dash off to your private cabin, where your printout is plastered all over the floor. You snatch up chapter 12 and start to scribble in the margins. Before you know it, it’s lunch time, and someone has left you a basket of fruit, cheese and bread by the door. You go for a solitary walk along a winding forest path and the birds remind you that you haven’t put enough nature imagery into chapter 3. You return to your cabin, brew a fresh pot of coffee, and get back to work. You’re so into it, so inspired, that you skip the dinner as well as the lecture on first person vs. third person by a Nobel Prize winning poet, and you hunker down well past midnight, eating protein bars whenever your stomach growls. 

Sigh. It sounds amazing.

But the reality? It’s damned expensive and your kid's orthodontist just told you he'll need headgear as well as braces. Which means you better also save for therapy. And yes, there are many scholarships for worthy applicants, but let’s just say that you won a full residency with airfare. What parent can actually get away for that long? Six weeks? That’s like military rotation. (ok, military is longer and the consequences are more far-reaching, but give me the metaphor for just a minute).  Six weeks is enough time for a newborn to have a first tooth, take a first step, say a first word, and grow two clothing sizes. Tell me that’s something you'd like to hear about over email with a video attachment.

Nonetheless: people do it. For parents who want to go to residencies, timing is everything. Some residencies, like Yaddo, are good for parents who need to get away because they do pay allow for shorter stays and for brief family visits. And they pay for everything. That’s a serious bonus.

As a parent, you’re already super-focused and working in whatever time is allotted. A parent who takes two weeks away from his kids is going to damn straight get to work. There won’t be any navel-gazing at all, because the minute his mind strays from his novel, he will be faced with a wall of guilt. And believe me, guilt is a fantastic motivator to keep you on track. Parents who attend colonies feel they have to make the time away worthwhile—so let me tell you—that time is productive. There are pages to show for it. It’s not just a resume booster. It’s real working time.

It's definitely worth it, if you can get away. But can you?

Next week: Family Friendly Residencies.