Writer Ann Patchett says it all in this quote about the creation of art and the importance of forgiveness. It’s from her article, “The Getaway Car,” reprinted in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book … that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time.
Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.
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During this last spring break, I took my three children to visit my mother and aunt in Tucson, Arizona. It was a bright, loud, active, social time. We yakked on about everything from politics to the names of my daughter’s new dolls. We went swimming. Drank smoothies. Ate dinner in the warm shade. Broke up arguments about who’d done the right or wrong thing. Walked around the desert. Watched birds. Avoided touching cactuses. Shopped. Cleaned. Laughed. And all else interactive and external.
Kids Are Interactive and External
While I enjoyed myself and my family, I realized the interactive and external are vibrant experiences but not conducive to creating art. Creating art requires silence, focus, imagination, the inner voice. Children, by their nature, annihilate these qualities. Their presence is what is present: not you, not your characters, not the dialogue you heard upon waking. Just the innocent banging of a stick on a rock, the random piping of a recorder, whatever their experience is at the moment.
A New Mother Earning Her M.F.A.
I think about how my external and internal experiences clashed when we first adopted our children. I was in a low-residency graduate program and living in Poland with the kids in a tiny apartment. (My husband was working to pay for it all back in Seattle.) Every night, I’d put the children to bed, get out my laptop, and work on my thesis, which was a novel. I had to. There was no other choice. The blur of activity that began in the gray dim of morning and lasted until seven-thirty at night was the kids’ time. It was “Let’s make leaf imprints” and “Get scolded for cutting our own hair” and “Take a bath in a shower stall” time. It was new for me but I was happy. I was happy to be a mother.
But a writer yearns to tell the story she has to tell. And I yearned to tell my story. In fact, in graduate school, you’re on the hook for it. So I did the best I could when I could. I hired a babysitter, even there in Poland, and I went to the mall where I could get free wi-fi, and worked on my manuscript. When we came home from Poland, I hired another babysitter and went to the coffee shop and worked on my manuscript. It was well worth the money. On weekends, my husband took the kids to the playground and I worked on my manuscript. These were not ideal situations. They were difficult. They occurred in small chunks of two to three hours at most. But I finished my thesis and earned my M.F.A.
What I Learned About How to Be a Writer and Have Kids
Six years later, this is what I’ve come to learn from having kids and being a writer. Time is limited. It’s precious. It comes in small chunks (sometimes suddenly cut off by an unexpected event or accident but it comes). You can clear space for that time. And if you’re serious, you must. Because the idea that you’ll have as long as you need to render your inspiration on paper disappears. (As I write this, I hear the car pulling into the driveway, I hear the doors slamming, I hear annoyed voices. The quiet is about to be blasted into noise, the stillness of space broken by bodies and jagged talk.)
And so, I head for the door to our office and close it. I ignore the conversations swirling outside the room. Let go the guilt of knowing I should get out there and help my husband. I plod on, I keep working on the words. I block out the responsibilities I have of “elsewhere.” This pushing out while trying to stay in the creative moment is the paradox of what some call a “selfish” mother putting herself first. But it’s not selfish, it’s vital to my sanity. The creation of art gives me the blissful state I need to return to my children with fresh energy and love.
The Work Slows Down
Still, interruptions are inevitable. Sometimes the child bursts into that office, already in mid-sentence about a petty grievance. And so, I’ve learned to accept that my work will get done more slowly. What would take a childless writer three days to accomplish will take the mother writer three weeks. Just when you get into a daily routine of producing quality work, a child unexpectedly must be picked up from school with the flu, there’s a teacher work day, a dental appointment, a grandma visiting, and then, when all of that has ended, another weeklong school break around the corner.
But now, I’ve surpassed the feelings of frustration, of constant resentment. Yes, it is frustrating, but with each passing year, the child grows and matures. They want their own independence. My youngest can actually read to herself and give me an extra fifteen minutes (to finish even this). The siblings can play with each other or choose on their own to retreat to their bedrooms for drawing or microscope fun. And while my (currently well-deserved napping) husband is the true savior in this story, I have to say the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that we all make time to do what we truly want. If you want to write, whether you have multiple children or not, you will. You will drum up the gumption to be “selfish,” you will make time to write. And if you don’t, well raising kids is a darn good reason to put it aside.
What are your challenges in being a writer and having kids? Let me know in the comments below.
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