AWP 2012 – Writer Mother (Father) Writer

March 10, 2012 § 20 Comments


By Betsy Andrews Etchart

Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life

Panelists: Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Hope Edelman, Jill McCorkle, Kate Hopper, Katy Read

Chicago of course turned out to be not so scary after all. In spite of myself, I made some friends.

And I did many things as a writer that I couldn’t also do as a practicing mother with Bots in tow. I posted several reports for Brevity’s blog, which meant I stayed up Friday night writing ’til after midnight.

Saturday night I slept for eleven hours. I can’t remember the last time I slept for eleven hours uninterrupted.

Sunday morning, I sat down to drink my coffee. Coffee, like wine, is best when taken while seated, but most necessary when there is no time to sit.

I ate whole meals while seated. I sat for more than thirty-two seconds without shooting out of my chair to get something. I sat and I ate and I wrote, all at once.

From the number of Weebots crawling and toddling at the carpeted margins of the book fair or hanging out in chest carriers at their parents’ readings, it was apparent that many writers at the conference balance parenthood with their literary vocations/avocations.

So it wasn’t a surprise that during a panel called “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life,” the Wiliford C room at the Hilton was filled near to capacity.

Two panelists were Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of Lost and Found: a Memoir of Mothers, and Hope Edelman, both NYT best-selling authors; Jill McCorkle, a prolific novelist and short story author, Kate Hopper, author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and  Katy Read, journalist and author of  the Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom on salon.com, where she brings Jane Austen searingly up to date: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.”

These women are funny and successful and all, aside from Katy Read, who laments her decision to quit writing temporarily during her sons’ youth, fiercely protect (or protected, in the case of empty-nester McCorkle), both their identity and productivity as writers, and the time they spend mothering their children.

As she was pushing to make a copyediting deadline on her recent book, Kate Hopper told her post meltdown eight year-old, “You know I love you more than anything in the world.”

“’Do you love us more than your book?’” asked her daughter.

“’If I had to choose, I would choose you girls,” replied Hopper. Before quickly adding, “But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.”

Most of us feel that way. And it seems the only thing we love more than writing and parenting is talking about how to mix the two without blowing something up.

Their strategies included combine and schedule. Edelman combined her professional obligations in Chicago with a long-desired museum visit. Employing similar tactics in daily life, Jill takes longer to food shop than strictly necessary. “No one ever argued with my saying, ‘I need to go to the grocery store…I have great ideas while I’m standing in produce.’”

Also make a dedicated space: Hopper has a dedicated writing space off her kitchen. It’s four feet square, but it is her space. Another panelist left out the front door when the babysitter arrived and then sneaked up the back stairs for two hours of solitude. Edelman has written three books by “binge-writing,” every third weekend in a motel room close enough to home in the event of emergency but far enough away to discourage visitors.

A man–one of at least thirty in an audience of over two hundred people, raised his hand. When called on during the brief question-and-answer period, seconds before the session’s end, he introduced himself as a writer and a full-time dad. “How,” he asked, “do you cope with the pure exhaustion?”

“Sleep when they sleep,” was the panelists’ answer.

The answer was like a basketball tossed from deep in the opponent’s free-throw zone as the bell goes off. It seemed as empty and inadequate here as it had out of the mouth of my mother-in-law three years ago when I was writing and teaching a college course in Mbot’s first months of life. Sleeping when he slept would have been completely impractical. Would the dish fairy appear to clean my kitchen while I slept? Or better, the book fairy come to polish the next chapter of my novel? Peter Dish-Pan Hands? Peter Pen? I raised my hand to join the conversation, but time was up.

I fought through the crowd to this man. He was no more than thirty-one or -two. I told him the only helpful thing I could think of: that I’d bought a Netbook, so I could work in the car, while I drove Mbot—and then both Mbot and Gbot—through the streets of Litchfield Park, willing him to sleep. I would pull over the minute his eyes closed. Sometimes, parked under an orange tree for shade, I could write for ninety minutes. If needed to email a manuscript, I pulled up in front of the Starbucks or the Burger King, pirating their wifi. Making use of the Bots’ daytime sleep in this way, I could allow myself to (kind of) sleep that night when they (kind of) slept.

Having generously dispensed my wisdom to the poor tired man, I saw that he was not impressed, although he allowed that a Netbook was a good idea. In fact, he had one.

“How many children do you have?” I asked.

“Five,” he replied. Ranging from eight to two.

“I don’t have any more suggestions,” I said.

But I think my answer, completely unqualified, should have been: “Wait.”

In her memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that she and her husband referred to their thirties, during which they raised their young family and worked and participated in their community, “the tired years.”

The Newbery-winning author penned the novels she is known for after her children were in school. This isn’t to say she didn’t write during the tired years. She just didn’t push to the deadlines of others. She was, of course, fortunate that her husband had a steady paycheck that kept her kids in Cap’n Crunch.

Hope Edelman, along with reciting a list of things she can do, now that she is a mother as well as a writer—including budget time, and experience “a whole range of emotions that have enhanced my writing”—also recited a long list of things she can’t do because she is a mother as well as a writer.

Here is an overview: “Spend three months at a writer’s colony….Stay at literary events past 9:15 on a weeknight…Shower every day….Be a foreign correspondent.”

On Sunday morning, I added one more thing to the list.

As I pulled up the hood of my down parka and turned my back to the wind on the platform of the L train to Midway Airport, I was joined by a mother and two little girls about five years old. I stuffed my gloved hands into the pockets of my parka and hunkered down.

The other mother was laughing and chatting with the girls, gripping one of their mittened hands in each of hers.

There’s another thing mothers can’t do, without thinking about it, without the world thinking about it, even if they aren’t also writers: No matter how cold it is, they can’t put their hands in their pockets.

You pays your money and you makes your choice. But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.

Betsy Andrews Etchart received her MFA in CNF from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyAndrewsEtc or at superherounderpants.com, where she blogs about motherhood and writing

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§ 20 Responses to AWP 2012 – Writer Mother (Father) Writer

  • Pat Bean says:

    I now have time to sit and drink coffee and eat my meals. But your life fits many of my memories to a T. Enjoy it, as I did and as I’m now enjoying my old-broad days.

  • Katy Read says:

    Nice essay, Betsy! I would like to make one small correction, though, to this paragraph:

    “These women are funny and successful and all, aside from Katy Read, who laments her decision to quit writing temporarily during her sons’ youth, fiercely protect (or protected, in the case of empty-nester McCorkle), both their identity and productivity as writers, and the time they spend mothering their children.”

    (Ha ha — at first I read this as saying, “these women are funny and successful and all, aside from Katy Read” as in, I’m not funny or successful. Then I realized what you were saying.)

    Anyway, I actually did not quit writing during my sons’ youth — I just quit my decently paying newspaper reporting job in exchange for so-so paying freelance writing, and, later, next-to-nothing-paying essay writing. For example, some years back I published a piece in Brevity. I’m very proud of that publication, but it didn’t involve any money changing hands. Neither did my essays in River Teeth, Literal Latte or Chautauqua Literary Review. I published a bunch of things on Salon, which pays in the low three figures. And in Brain, Child, which pays in the mid-three figures. I love writing personal essays, but they’re a tough way to make a living.

    Still, being able to write creatively while also caring for my sons was actually a great gift But when I got divorced I suddenly needed a steady paycheck and health insurance and found that getting hired (especially during the recession) was very difficult and I lacked the employability and raises and 401(k) contributions, etc., that my ex had accumulated while I stayed home. My 2011 Salon piece was about our country’s lack of economic and workplace support for parents.

    By the way, I now have a part-time newspaper reporting job and still freelance and write essays in my spare time but am also a single mother of two high-maintenance sons with college looming, so things are better, but it’s a struggle.

    Two more things. I heard one panelist at AWP (can’t remember which who, or which panel) asked for advice about being successful as a writer. He shot back: “Don’t have kids.” He was joking, kind of, but children really do complicate things, especially if you’re not in a position to make money from your writing alone..

    Also, I need a Netbook.

    Katy

    • Katy, thank you for the corrections. It’s so important to distinguish between writing that scratches the itch to write while bringing in a small paycheck here and there, and the business of writing to support a family.
      And thank you for the very informative panel.
      And geeky Netbook tip: I got the Toshiba NB305 a couple of years ago, and love it for its keyboard (raised keys!), battery life (8 hours if I’m “just writing), and price tag ($400+software). I wouldn’t hesitate getting the updated version when the time comes to replace it. Windows7 doesn’t seem to like Firefox very much, but all the other browsers seem to work just fine.

      • Katy Read says:

        Thanks for the tip, Betsy. It was actually the experience of lugging my bulky HP laptop through two airports for AWP that made me decide I need something more portable.

        And thanks for attending our panel! It was a great experience.

  • A Netbook sure beats trying to write your latest idea with an eyeliner on a napkin, which I know Elizabeth Berg has done! Need to suck every moment dry that you can as a mom, especially in those tired years.

    Thanks, Betsy, for this write-up – it was an honor to be able to bring together two NYT bestselling authors like Hope and Jill (who else has had five of her eight books named as NYT notable books of the year like Jill has? –– I’m in my third printing by not quite on the big list yet:) Loved all of Katy and Kate’s insights and experiences, too. For those in the Twin Cities, Katy and Kate and Julie Schumacher and I will be presenting similar panels on Motherhood and Writing at area libraries, where we’ll allow more time for questions – and in the meantime, hope we all get caught up on sleep! (This daylight savings time doesn’t help!)

    • Kate, congrats on the third printing of “Lost and Found”–next stop, Amazon, for a copy. Lucky Minnesotans to have you there to do panels locally–makes me think about the possibility of putting together something here in Phoenix. Do you know of anyone locally who might be good panelist material?

      • Betsy, I unfortunately don’t know anyone in that area offhand. Oregon or California or Georgia or North Carolina I could help you with, but I don’t know Phoenix! Checking with my other panelists to see if they know anyone…

  • Jean Coco says:

    About nineteen years ago when my first child was born, my very southern mother came to help after I arrived home from the hospital. Surprised that I had not purchased a changing table, she strode into my writing room, cleared the desk of the piles of files and drafts, picked up my typewriter, set it on the floor (the floor!) and moved the desk into the baby’s room. “This,” she exclaimed, “is perfect for changing her diapers.”

    Well, needless to say, that became a metaphor for my writing life after having two kids, although I have reclaimed it through the years. Now the first baby is a freshman in college and just completed a seminar in women writing autobiographies. My other daughter writes for her school newspaper, so maybe that changing table was the beginning of the writing life for them, even though at the time it seemed like the end for me.

  • […] I also had a blast on the panel “Barefoot, Pregnant and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life,” which was pulled together by the lovely Kate St. Vincent Vogl. What an honor to sit on a panel with Kate, Hope Edelman, Jill McCorkle, and Katy Read. The room was packed, which, after spending years promoting and teaching motherhood literature, was so incredibly gratifying for me. You can read a recap of our panel by Betsy Andrews Etchart on Brevity’s blog. […]

  • avachin says:

    Thanks for the excellent recap, Betsy. I wanted to attend this session, but unfortunately, I’m over 8 months pregnant and between my own two panels wasn’t able to waddle over there in time on my very swollen feet. Your post made me feel like I was there and for that I am VERY grateful.

    I’m due to deliver a memoir to my editor at Simon & Schuster right before the baby is due (next month), but am afraid that I may not make it (my editor is fine with this). Any practical advice for a soon-to-be mom on how to juggle this if worse comes to worse? Newborn plus finishing the last 100 pages?

    Yipes.

    • Ava, WOW. You are a rock star–three days of AWP are almost too much even for those who aren’t 32+ weeks pregnant!
      As far as advice….I guess I’d suggest first, get that extension from your editor really firmed up.
      Second, have a firm plan worked out with your husband/partner that gives you a couple of hours of writing time each day (or every other day)–not cooking time, or laundry time, or pumping time, or sleeping time–time in addition to all that.
      Third–I can’t stress enough how much a Netbook made a difference–so small and light I could stick it in the diaper bag and carry it around the house with me.
      Fourth: a front chest carrier while you’re writing might really help in the first few months when the little dude/dudette just wants to be with you and moving (even if the movement is just your breathing).
      Fourth, and I am not kidding you here: I fantasized about a one-handed keyboard. I was nursing/pumping over eight hours a day with my first, and did most of my typing one-handed. I searched for one on the net, but probably because I was so sleep-deprived, couldn’t find one. They’re out there–I looked again a few weeks ago and found several for about $100. I know there would be a learning curve, but it couldn’t be any more difficult than learning to use a 10-key.
      Good luck!
      Does your memoir have a title yet?

      • avachin says:

        Betsy, Thank you for the tips. You’re awesome. I have a Mac Air which is pretty portable and a Moby wrap to have my hands free while the baby is sleeping/drooling/just wants to be on my chest. And I’ll firm all those things up with my fiance and editor. I’d never heard of a one-handed keyboard before you’d mentioned it, but I love the idea of ANYTHING that aids the writing process while having to multi-task.

        The memoir is about foraging for wild edibles in the city, and how that changed my life (I write about the subject for the NY Times) and is tentatively titled “Eating Wildly.” But you know how editors/p.r. people are always changing titles, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to go with something else.

        I keep a blog (www.AvaChin.com) which was strictly about foraging, but now that I’m about to become a mother it’ll address wild plants and motherhood, esp. post-partum as I’m readying myself for that too. I look forward to checking out Superherounderpants!

  • maria polonchek says:

    lovely post. thank you. i was at awp 2009 (also chicago), pregnant with my third, with my best friend, also a non-fiction writer, who was pregnant with her first. i’d love to share this post on our co-blog.

    http://www.writingbetweenfriends.com

  • Thank you Maria–I’ll check out your post! Post-Chicago, I left immediately for a trip from Phoenix to Idaho with the two weeBots…I’ll check out your blog when I return home–very much looking forward to it.

  • DovBer says:

    Hi Betsy,

    I was the dad from the event (five kids, but 9 years to 7 months. That’s my fault, though, 8 to 2 was my rote answer for a while, and as a dad i’m not so good with ages). It was weirdly pleasant to find this article and see myself referenced. Probably the closest i’ll get to the pages of Brevity since I mostly write fiction. I was appreciative of our conversation. The NetBook is in fact a parent’s best friend when it comes to writing. Even with my oversized hands I use this thing pretty much for everything I write. I’ve taken it everywhere and even started a few stories in bed with it. Unfortunately, only my first kid was a car sleeper, which might explain my lack of enthusiasm for your suggestion. I really like that quote though, from L’Engle, about the “tired years.” Sounds about right.

    I think I agree that the answers i got to my question weren’t as thought-out as i’d have liked. My fault, again, for asking such a loaded question so near the end. But all in all, the Motherhood panel was the most enjoyable and useful panel I attended at the event. It really cemented for me the idea that getting away for a while is key. I’ve tried too often to write while the kids watch Dora in the other room. It inevitably ends with my two-year-old daughter squeezed into the seat behind me, choking me out with her tiny tiny hands and asking for a piggyback ride. It’s too easy to get irritated at what really is an adorable gesture on her part.

    I’m also pretty sure now that sound of clicking keys triggers a Pavlovian poop reflex in the two youngest.

    • Thanks so much for joining the conversation and for correcting the ages of your wee ones. You are truly a busy man. (And I think this conversation has illustrated the importance of fact checking, at least in AWP reports!) The Pavlovian poop reflex–I laughed out loud. (Easy for ME to laugh….)
      One of my biggest ongoing challenges is training myself not to attempt too much in the presence of the weeBots. Because it leads to irritation, and the last thing I want is to be irritated with them. I am happiest when I divide my time very clearly into writing time and Bot time. When I am with them, I am really with them (well, maybe sometimes I’m thinking about the problem with that essay I’m trying to finish….). But that also means I have time when I am just with my computer. These days, I do much of my work (which still doesn’t feel like that much) at a nearby coffee shop when my husband or a sitter is with the Bots. I consider the cost of a large decaf my 2 1/2-hour table rental fee.

  • DovBer says:

    Yeah. Actually we booked my ticket home for the Tuesday morning after AWP. I spent Sunday and Monday in the Skokie Public Library writing up a storm, and when i got home i was able to focus on my kids. Less guilt both ways. It was very productive.

    It’s been tough since, though. My wife’s a nurse and her hours are crazy. Finding a day here and there is a bit of a struggle. But we’re working on it.

    Thanks again for the shout out and the advice. It’s always a bit of a struggle to find one’s community in the writerly world. It’s nice to know i have a place in the writing moms’ bloc.

  • […] writer Hope Edelman acknowledged her realities as a writer and mother in a blog post on Brevity, sharing a list of what she can and cannot do as a wearer of multiple hats. The advantages? She is […]

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