The idea of having babies terrifies me. I’d be a good mother, no doubt about it. When I’m on a mission, well—I’m on it! And if life were to entrust me with children, they’d grow up to be pretty decent. No, scratch that. For sure, they’d be best thing since sliced bread!
Eventually, I do want children. But I’ll be honest here: I’m not thrilled at the idea of having to give up on writing. How do parents manage their writing life? Particularly mothers, with their “Velcro babies constantly clinging to their boobs?” (A mother’s words, by the way—not mine.)
I decided to chat with five South Florida writers (yes, Joe Clifford, you’re still one of us!), hoping their answers would bring me some hope in regards to the future of my writing life.
“What writing life? The days with a baby are long, with little downtime, and when they’re over, I’m too wiped out mentally to want to do much more than eat and sleep.”
That’s Esther Martinez-Kenniff—bibliophile, francophile, logophile. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared inThe Daily Beast, Newsday, and the Columbia Observer, among others. She co-produces the storytelling series, Lip Service: True Stories Out Loud.
Esther’s daughter, Lilou, is 6 months old. The lesson Mommy learned? Discipline. Discipline. Discipline.
THE VALUE OF DISCIPLINE
Esther: Before Lilou, I had the luxury of writing whenever the whim or inspiration struck. I’ve never been a disciplined writer, which means without a deadline or assignment, most of my writing happened when I felt the urge to say something I thought mattered. Then I would write in a flurry, sometimes drafting a piece in a matter of days (though sometimes a page alone would take a whole day). Then I would spend way more time editing and revising than I ever spent drafting. Whatever the piece was, in the days after its inception, it always felt like a problem for me to solve. Like composing some high math equation. How do I get the reader/listener to feel as I feel about the thing? What does she need to know (and not know)? How do I orchestrate the telling for the desired effect? I’d do most of my writing in the shower (the white noise of the water clears my mind and lets me focus on the single problem at hand) and would often discover the entire heart of a story while shampooing my hair or soaping up a leg. […] My lack of discipline is probably working against me now that I’m a mom because I no longer have the luxury of just writing whenever. Now I work my showers in (when I can get them) around Lilou’s naps, shower like it’s a timed exam, and spend most of the short time in the shower straining to hear if she’s woken up and calling for me. She’s usually not. But being a mom is fraught with all kinds of paranoia.
“My lack of discipline is probably working against me now that I’m a mom because I no longer have the luxury of just writing whenever.” Esther Martinez-Kenniff
Esther is hoping she will figure out a new way to write, especially because she feels she has a whole new life to write about and a whole new perspective from which to write. But for now, it’s hard. The only things she’s managed to write since Lilou was born are Facebook posts.
Jenny Hearn-Louvet admits that discipline matters—baby or no baby. Jenny received her MFA at Florida International University. She currently teaches creative writing and literature at International Studies Charter High School, in Miami.
She empathizes with Esther, as she, too, writes in her head a lot. The words rarely make it to paper. In fact, Jenny says there are days when the bed never gets made.
Jenny: My writing process prior to Mia was very glacial. It would take me about two weeks to complete a poem. I usually spent several days reading and taking notes. I read from all time periods (I like that you can feel language transitioning). Then I spent several hours procrastinating (cleaning off my desk, organizing my closet, taking extra long showers). I guess I wasn’t really procrastinating since I had lines swimming around in my head the whole time. It was usually evening when I actually sat down and began to write. In the beginning, each line was agonizing and laborious. But if I stuck to it, it got easier. I obsessed over what line should come next, which kept me up at night and woke me up early. Obviously, I have to change my writing process if I want to write ever again—which I do.
Joe Clifford is the author of Choice Cuts and Junkie Love. As the producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA, he understands the value of planning. His writing career really took off after his son Holden was born.
Joe: Before he was born, the year leading up to Justine’s getting pregnant, I wasn’t writing shit. That was mostly because I was pissed that my novels weren’t getting taken, so I was pouting. My day consisted of working out (I was bigger), and then Justine at night (which would I guess explain how the pregnancy part happened).
Joe, who tends to write obsessively, in 3-month bursts around the clock, describes his life as atypical. He admits that if he’s somewhat disciplined today, it is due more to success than the kid or time management.
“I make writing one of my priorities.” Margaret Papillon
Time management, however, shouldn’t be underestimated. Miami writer Margaret Papillon points out that writers are always busy. The wife of famous artist Albert Desmangles, she’s a painter in her own right, and the mother of two children, Sidney-Albert and Agnès-Coralie. She found success in Port-au-Prince upon the publication of her first novel, La Marginale, in 1987. In 1995, she gave up her career as a P.E. teacher and closed down her fitness center (GYM-ÉLASTIC) to devote herself entirely to writing.
Margaret: It’s never been easy to find the time or serenity to write. I come from a family of seven children. As a young writer in Haiti, I had to work my schedule around the numerous games of colin-mayard and hide-and-seek. When I became a mother, writing could only happen around breastfeeding and diaper-changing sessions, kiddy parties, carnivals, and tennis and piano lessons.
Albert and Margaret devised a strict schedule that allowed them to run both Margaret’s fitness center and Albert’s art workshop, while they took turns caring for Sidney-Albert and Agnès-Coralie.
In Haiti, Margaret never stopped writing—stories continued to haunt her. The author compares stories to babies: from the first, “gestating” idea to the words being born on the paper.
In Miami, however, time seems to disappear out of thin air—there’s cooking, and there’s cleaning. Long hours at work. Margaret has trains to catch, and teenagers to drive around.
Margaret: In spite of a busy schedule, however, I make writing one of my priorities.
Esther says she has no idea how single parents do it. Joe, who grew up with his mother, agrees: “Heroes, really.”
But how much does a partner help? With the writing, I mean.
Esther: [My husband] Sean is back to practicing medicine. Full time for a doctor is like 100 hours a week. He is just now enjoying his first day off in twelve days. All those twelve days were 10-12 hours each. So I am alone with the baby a lot. When he’s here, Sean helps a ton. And even with that, I am about to lose my mind.
Jenny’s husband Christopher is a writer too. He hasn’t written as much since Amelia has been born, but he manages to work a little bit at night.
Jenny: I could do this too, but Amelia still nurses at night, and to be quite honest, I just don’t feel as sharp as I used to. I think writing at night when I am this exhausted would be a disaster. [Also,] I work part time, so I guess I could make time to write [during the day]. However, when I am home I want to spend time with Amelia.
Joe and his wife Justine worked out a system.
Joe: Justine and I are 50/50 with childcare, and my wife is great with giving me time to write (like now, every night is spent working on the new book).
It helps that Holden is in daycare and that Joe’s “paying gig” (30 hours a week) is from home.
Joe: I can work at two in the morning if I need to. Don’t hate me. Plus, and this makes a shitty father, I know, but after the first year, I’ve cheated with letting him watch TV. Frowned up, but can’t get shit done otherwise. I’d sit with him, let him watch Elmo, and work on my laptop.
Esther: Are you kidding me? I used to swear, “No TV until age two” (as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics). Now I’m like, “Please, watch Sponge Bob for five minutes so Mommy can pee,” or “Look, Lilou! Uncle Steve Harvey is on!” There are days when it’s hard to find time for showering or eating. I don’t know when I will be able to write again. The only time I write now is in the shower, in my head. I think of all the possibilities for writing about being a new mom—from the joys to the hemorrhoids—but then I’m too tired to sit and put any of it down on paper. When I’ve tried, the baby just wakes up and interrupts me.
Esther imagines a babysitter or a nanny would help, but writers can’t usually afford that.
“Writing isn’t even in the backseat. It’s locked up in the trunk. Or being dragged from the rear bumper like a pet that got tied up and forgotten. Like in the National Lampoon’s Vacation. Remember that? Yeah. Like that.” Esther Martinez-Kenniff
Esther: My day job is for student loans, not housekeepers. I feel guilty about her being in daycare those days [when I work part time]; when I am [back] with her, I want to spend every minute playing with her, engaging her. If I do anything just for me, I feel bad about it. Like I am ignoring her. Plus, I miss her. It’s part guilt, part biological attachment. Everything else takes a backseat to her. Writing isn’t even in the backseat. It’s locked up in the trunk. Or being dragged from the rear bumper like a pet that got tied up and forgotten. Like in the National Lampoon’s Vacation. Remember that? Yeah. Like that.
Being careful with both time and money is something Margaret, who self-publishes, certainly understands. When the children came along, she continued to write but stopped publishing for a while.
Margaret: I spent six years without releasing a new title. When you’re taking care of two small children, you can’t afford to spend money on publishing. It becomes about what the children need. Martin Toma came out in May 1991; La Saison du Pardon and Passion composée were not released until November 1997. I wrote La Mal-aimée in 1991 [but it was published a couple of years ago].
A BOLD DECISION
Children writer Mahalia Solages, whose ongoing projects include two women’s fiction novels and a young adult book, lives in Florida with her family and roommates, Misha and Mr. Nelson—the cats.
Before the birth of her daughter, writing for Mahalia was quite sporadic. She would work for a month—then not. Write to some agents. Wait. Then go back to it—a year later. When her little Naomie came along, she stopped writing altogether. Only when her daughter enrolled in preschool at age three did the writer give herself those hours (three days a week, 9 am – 12 pm) to work on writing.
Later, around the time Naomie started kindergarten, Mahalia made a bold decision: she devised a tight schedule and became a full-time writer.
Mahalia: After I’ve dropped her off at school, by 8:30 am there is a coffee mug in my hand. My headphones are on and I am zoned into the screen until 2:45. I have incorporated some gym time 2-3 days a week, but only for an hour.
Even though Mahalia is at home, she treats it like a job. The same way office workers can’t be chatting on the phone or running personal errands when they’re on the clock, neither can she.
Mahalia: If I happen to answer the phone it’s because that person caught me when I was refilling my mug. I rarely make exceptions. I find that this keeps me focused. Otherwise, I could spend hours checking and responding to emails, Facebooking or creating boards on Pinterest—none of which advance my plot.
The only time Mahalia adapts her schedule is during the summer, when he daughter is home with her.
Mahalia: I tried a few methods. Waking up at 5am, which is such a unique and wonderful experience to watch the sun come up while in mid chapter, and working until Naomie got up, or, working after she went to bed at night. She caught on to the 5am routine when she discovered the light in the office when she returned from the bathroom. Then she wanted to “read stories together” every morning after she got up, conveniently at 6am from then on. Needless to say, I work at night during the summer.
IT GETS BETTER
Esther hopes that, as Lilou gets older, she will manage to figure out a better way to make the writing work.
Esther: Maybe I’m doing something wrong. But if you’re a working mom and you’re nursing, it’s pretty much a full time gig, this mom/entertainment committee thing.
Joe: The first year is brutal.
Esther: It gets better? Please, say yes.
Joe: In terms of time for personal stuff (i.e., writing)? Yes. I’ve written two novels after Holden’s first birthday. Year One? Couple short stories.
Margaret: Time management requires endless efforts. Both my children are grown now, so my writing life is about to rekindle. I’m looking forward to 2014 and a new writing schedule. I want to start painting regularly again. I also want to turn some of my short stories into scripts and find a producer. So many projects!
THIS IS WHY I’M HERE
Prior to having Amelia, Jenny used to force herself to write even if she was not in the mood. She doesn’t agonize over it anymore, as her priorities have shifted.
Jenny: Joe, I think you wrote in a post about Holden a while ago, “This is why I am here.” I agree. I really think Mia is why I am here, so I am going to just focus on that for now. I really hope that I will get that sense of urgency back to write, however. I’m kind of just incubating right now. I read as much as I can and edit old poems.
The lesson here? When I have children, maybe I will find out that “this is why I am here” too. In the mean time, I will stop taking my time for granted. Off to writing!