The first in a series of articles on how we must write in the middle of life. Today, we focus on the challenges writer-moms face.
I settled sideways in a black, plastic chair to sit across from a new client. Two decades ago, I was developing my freelance corporate writing career simultaneous to incubating my first baby. My client, a land developer, stared doubtfully at the tent-like awning—er, maternity blouse—brushing the edge of the table. I tried tucking my “bump” under the table, but that didn’t work. That’s why I ended up sitting sideways to take notes.
“Are you sure you’ll be able to finish this job?” he asked, gesturing to my bump. “I mean, will you finish it before…uh…in time?”
“Of course!” I chirped in reply. “The baby is due next month—plenty of time to complete your information packets. Let’s get started.”
After my meeting, I drove home wondering if he was right. Would I be able to finish his project? Even broader than that, would I be able to launch this part-time career and deal with a new baby? Could I be the mother I want to be and become the writer I want to be? Could I do both well?
I wasn’t sure.
I was devouring one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books at the time. In it, she wrote:
During the long drag of years before our youngest child went to school, my love for my family and my need to write were in acute conflict. The problem was really that I put two things first. My husband and children came first. So did my writing. Bump. (p. 19)
Bump. How interesting that she chose that word.
Somehow, knowing that Madeleine L’Engle developed her writing life in the context of motherhood gave me hope. If Madeleine figured it out, maybe I could, too.
Meeting Madeleine L’Engle
My baby was born, and my computer keyboard regularly bumped against the umbrella stroller; that is, I was in the thick of the conflict. In that very season of life, having copied out that quote to cling to, I discovered Madeleine L’Engle herself was scheduled to speak at a college about two hours away from my house. My friend Julia and I eagerly secured tickets. She and I left our young kids with our spouses and made the road trip east to the school.
As expected, Madeleine’s talk inspired my writing-mind with her musings on time and space and creativity.
After her message, she signed books. To get her autograph, we stood for a long time, maybe an hour, in a line that snaked down a hallway. Madeleine’s health wasn’t good at the time, so they streamlined the process to minimize her stress and strain by having us open our books and file through the room in a certain way. It was orchestrated smoothly. To maximize the number of people who would get an autograph, the organizers wouldn’t tolerate a bottleneck, so…no pauses, no slow-down, no chit-chat.
As we inched closer to the table where she sat signing book after book, I kept thinking, This is my chance to get some nugget to hold onto, some hope that somehow I’ll be able to write in the midst of motherhood.
I wanted to ask, “How, Madeleine? How did you do it?”
Maybe as much as knowing how, I just wanted some encouragement. Maybe I wanted to hear her say, “You can do it. You’ll make it.”
Maybe a knowing smile and a slight nod would be enough.
I’m sure I was a maddening companion for my friend Julia during our long wait. I waffled. Should I ask, or should I just say thank-you and move on? If I asked her my question, what would she have time to say in the instant we were face-to-face?
I would have about five seconds. We moved closer until I was one person away. I watched Madeleine sign that person’s book, then she turned to me.
I handed her Walking on Water. She asked for my name and scrawled a note on one of its front pages. She looked up and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said.
Then I blurted it out: “When your kids were young…how did you do it? How did you manage to write?”
She looked up at me. Eye contact. One beat. Two beats. I’m sure my eyes were bugged out a little from the desperation I felt inside. I needed to know.
Three beats. Four beats.
“It was hard,” she said.
And that was all she said. Then she looked past me, hand outstretched for the next book, to scrawl another name, another message, to get the line back in motion and make up for my bottleneck.
It was hard?
I already know that. I was living that. I was struggling. I was dealing with the bump—the conflict, the struggle—every day.
I shuffled out of the room with Julia. What did I expect? It was a book signing, and I deserved no more time, wisdom or insight than anyone else in that long line of fans.
But boy did I need it.
I needed hope from some author-mom on the other side, with kids all grown, who could look back and assure me that I’d make it through—someone who could offer a few principles for how to handle that Bump. Madeleine couldn’t offer that. Deep down, I knew it even before I asked.
Meeting Holly Miller
A bit later I found myself in a writing workshop. Holly Miller was teaching. She used to work for the Saturday Evening Post. She’s written books and countless magazine articles. She frequently teaches writing workshops and seminars. Unlike my limited, five-second exchange with Madeleine, I had time to chat with Holly in the small, intimate setting of this workshop. I was the mother of three kids at the time. They were still very young.
After the official seminar finished, the room cleared out except for a few stragglers. I stood back and listened as she interacted with some friends of mine. Then she turned her attention to me. I was lugging my portfolio, which included a few feature articles I’d written for the newspaper. A magazine article or two. Some brochures.
I’m sure she was noting that same bug-eyed look of desperation that poor Madeleine had to face.
“Here’s some of my work,” I stammered. “My kids are all young. I want to write and develop myself more.” She was leafing through the pages. “But…you, Holly, you’ve arrived. You’ve done it! You’ve pulled it off—I dream of one day being where you are now. And you did it with kids. I just wonder how? How did you do it?”
She looked into my pleading, buggy eyes and said reassuringly, “You’re doing it. I mean, you’ve got some nice work here. You’re getting your name out there. You’re working at it. I think you should feel good about what’s shaping up here.”
Then I remember her eyes. There was a shift. She asked how old my kids were. I told her, and her eyes grew distant, almost melancholy. I don’t know if that’s what it was, but that’s what I felt.
“I’m where I am today because I worked long hours full-time when my kids were young,” she said. “And now they’re grown. You’ll still have time to develop your career later, but you only have now with your kids. Your kids are so little, and they’re little for such a short time. Right now, I suggest you focus on your children. You’ll never regret spending time with those kids.
“Keep your finger in the publishing world,” she continued. “Just keep your name out there. Publish locally with your paper, like you are. Submit to magazines. Keep it going on a small scale and your time will come.”
That wistful look has carried me for years. I did not want to live with regret that I gave too much to my career and not enough to my little children, so I let that reflective advice assure me—especially when others were building more impressive careers than mine—that my time will probably come. Eventually. I realized then, and several times throughout my career, that if I woke up at 50 realizing my time never came as a writer, at least I would have been the mom I wanted to be for my children.
I was never bug-eyed desperate after that.
5 Tips for How to Write in the Midst of Motherhood
Taking Holly’s advice, I’ve faithfully kept my finger out there in the publishing world: maintaining this blog; submitting to magazines; authoring books; writing for corporations, organizations and not-for-profits. It was slow going; I wasn’t a savvy money-making mom hitting the best seller lists. But I was writing in the midst of motherhood.
We have to figure out ways to write in the middle of life, regardless of what’s happening.
There were soccer games to support. Softball practices. Meals and birthdays. Doctor’s appointments and carpets to vacuum.
I stole time.
1. Steal Time
I wrote when the kids were napping. I wrote late at night. I wrote in my head when I took them for a walk to the park and scribbled down my ideas when they were eating a snack.
Sometimes I wrote well; but much of what I wrote served as compost, breaking down in my mind, heart, and spirit to feed new and potentially better ideas. Regardless of the quality of what I produced, I wrote; I practiced; I learned.
And I read.
2. Read in the Midst of Motherhood
With a book tucked in my diaper bag or purse, I could steal a moment now and then to consume some new thought written by authors I respected, whose information I craved, whose ideas would feed the glowing coals of creativity that glimmered softly inside of me as I changed diapers, swept Cheerios and scraped hunks of banana from the high chair tray.
3. Write on Whatever You Find
I kept the energy of writing alive during those hectic years, and when the flame flashed, I’d try to grab something on which to write, even if it meant borrowing a crayon and scribble pad that the kids were using for stick-people adventure stories.
This made for a spontaneous, messy writing life. Scraps of paper strewn on the kitchen table or nightstand represented that flash of insight I managed to scratch onto the back of an envelope. Life with newborns and toddlers required tremendous focus and energy, leaving little chance for a regular schedule. I grabbed opportunities when I could, leaving a trail of pens and paper throughout the house and shoved into cup holders in the car.
4. Find Your Own Muse
I identified with other writer-moms, such as Barbara Kingsolver. She would read about rituals of other authors who had seemingly endless time to create the writing mood—hours of photography or flower arranging before sitting at the desk to compose one word. She quoted one author who described his muse at length. Kingsolver, a busy mom with no time for flower-arranging, had to write with the time she was given. She described her own muse:
My muse wears a baseball cap, backward. The minute my daughter is on the school bus, he saunters up behind me with a bat slung over his shoulder and says oh so directly, “Okay, author lady, you’ve got six hours till that bus rolls back up the drive. You can sit down and write, now, or you can think about looking for a day job.” (p. 96, High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver)
Kingsolver understands the limitations of motherhood and the challenge of writing in the midst of it. She needs a coach-muse, to keep her on task. Every writer-mom needs to find her muse (or a coach).
In High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver quotes poet Lucille Clifton responding to the question “Why are your poems always short?” Ms. Clifton replied, “I have six children, and a memory that can hold about twenty lines until the end of the day.”
Clifton encouraged me to plan out my work mentally while I’m on-the-go, storing up thoughts until the end of the day, when the kids were in bed and the words could spill out.
5. Write Something, No Matter How Small
In The Right to Write, Julia Cameron says:
The “if-I-had-time” lie is a convenient way to ignore the fact that novels require being written and that writing happens a sentence at a time. Sentences can happen in a moment. Enough stolen moments, enough stolen sentences, and a novel is born–without the luxury of time…Yes, it is daunting to think of finding time to write an entire novel, but it is not so daunting to think of finding time to write a paragraph, even a sentence. And paragraphs, made of sentences, are what novels are really made of. (p. 14, 15, The Right to Write, Julia Cameron)
At a writing conference I attended, Parker Palmer said:
If you can’t write a book, write a bunch of essays. If you can’t write a bunch of essays, write a bunch of paragraphs. If you can’t write a bunch of paragraphs, write lines. If you can’t write lines, write some words. And if you can’t write some words, write your truth with your own life, which is far more important than any book. (Parker Palmer at the Festival of Faith & Writing 2010)
Write a book, essays, paragraphs, lines, or just write a few words; but for heaven’s sake, be sure to write with your life, in the midst of parenthood or whatever-hood.
No matter what complicates schedules, whether you have a full-time job or you’re a full-time caregiver, write what you can, when you can. Poets, bloggers, novelists, creative nonfiction writers, essayists, letter writers, journalists, composers: we must all get to work, right in the middle of life.
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For further reading:
- Write in the Middle: How to Write in the Midst of Motherhood
- Write in the Middle of Everyday Distractions: 7 Strategies for Getting Back on Track
- Write in the Middle: Yes, You Can Maximize Distraction-Free Writing
- Progress, Not Perfection: This podcast episode will remind you to celebrate any and all progress you make.
A Circle of Quiet book and snapshot of kids by the sea by Ann Kroeker. Article includes elements from several archived posts.
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—Rachael and Larry Crabb, authors and speakers