Writing Like a Mother
August 16, 2017 § 37 Comments
By Shanon Lee
Sometime after having a baby, and making a fateful decision to ditch grad school to pursue a writing career, I had this notion that writing while mothering would be easy. I imagined working from home would be orderly, convenient and efficient. It was simple. I would write in the quiet moments before our hectic morning routine got underway, during the baby’s naptime and after everyone had gone to sleep at night.
I had to learn the truth the hard way.
That some day’s the muse doesn’t come, or if it does – I may not be prepared. That writing requires mental and emotional labor I am not always equipped to manage. That great writing rarely happens when you are sleep deprived. That writing while mothering is draining.
I am consumed with guilt when I choose writing over spending time with my children, and racked with anxiety when I ignore my impulse to write. By now I understand, as much as I adore my children, I need dedicated time and space to artfully compose the stories I am called to write. New challenges emerge while trying to accomplish this.
Reading Black, White and Jewish, was my first glimpse into a writing motherhood – albeit bad one. In the book, Rebecca Walker detailed the neglect she suffered while being raised by a writer for a mother. While literary icon Alice Walker attended writing residencies for long stretches, she left her daughter alone at home – prematurely forcing her to become independent.
In one heart-breaking passage, Walker described how her mother paid a neighbor to take her back-to-school shopping in her absence. Without parental guidance, she experimented with drugs, became sexually active at a young age and had an abortion at age 14. As raw as the stories in Walker’s memoir are, I know it will never be my children’s reality. My compulsion to write will never drive me to neglect them.
Yet, even though I could not identify with her mothers choices, I understood the impulse to retreat into isolation to create. I have often fantasized about what might happen if I could focus on writing without the demands of rearing children, working and managing a household.
Women like Alice Walker knew there were options for writers who did not forgo motherhood to pursue a writing career. They knew extended solitude was necessary to create their best work and set out to find it. They understood the benefits of immersing themselves in the world of writing, surrounded by their peers, if only for a moment in time.
They knew there was a space for us.
Alice Walker worked on her first novel during her residency at MacDowell. At some point, she attended Yaddo too. Susan Cheever, Mona Simpson and Susan Minot have children and are also among Yaddo alumni. Writing mothers including Jane Hamilton, Karyn Kusama, Dani Shapiro and Annette Gordon-Reed have all attended Hedgebrook. These women honored their passion by negotiating time to devote to their writing and other moms can too.
I am convinced that attending a writer’s residency does not have to disrupt our entire life, or permanently scar our children. Writer-in-residence programs now offer short stays and even virtual options for those who need it. Weekend writing seminars and workshops are an alternative for those who cannot commit to a full residency.
In November of 2016, I attended a weekend writing seminar in St. Petersburg, FL. It was the first time I travelled away from home alone to write. Their dad held down the fort and our kids had a blast while I was gone. At times, it felt as if I missed them more than they missed me. Most importantly, attending the seminar allowed me to bond with my peers and learn skills that took my writing in a new direction.
This year, I completed a summer writing residency that did not require travel, but offered one week of private accommodations to write in peace during the day. I will continue to submit applications to notable residency programs like Hedgebrook, in hopes of being able to completely break away from my daily obligations and just write for two weeks.
My definition of being a great mother has expanded to include being someone that protects her identity as a writer and satisfies her impulse to create. By carving out space in my schedule for dedicated writing time, I am honoring my purpose and the legacy of writing mothers that came before me.
Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One and the REELZ Channel’s SCANDAL MADE ME FAMOUS. Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Lily, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She is the writer, producer and director of Marital Rape Is Real. Learn more about her work at Mylove4Writing.com.