Mary Emma Allen, author of many articles, short stories and books for children and adults–such as Tales of Adventure & Discovery and Writing in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont–wrote throughout her daughter’s childhood and continues to write now while sharing her home with two grandchildren. “Learn to write anywhere and everywhere,” she says.
Allen tells of writing a solid blog while taking a family backpacking trip into the Rocky Mountains. Ten days later, she emerged from the wilds with a completed rough draft. Even a warm bath, where most of us hide from work, was used to Allen’s advantage. Her family still teases her about the stories she wrote in the bathtub–“after I got my daughter to bed and soaked some of the tiredness from my bones,” she says.
Often, learning to write in a home shared with children involves conditioning our children as much as it does retraining ourselves. Linda Sherwood, who edits Northern Michigan’s County Families Magazine and writes an award-winning column called I’m the Mommy while mothering four children (ages 4 to 8), has made sure the children understand her home office is off-limits. “We don’t allow invasion,” she says, “My kids are not allowed to use my computer or office.”
In my own house, though, I have less an office than a glorified closet (perhaps a tad bigger than King’s laundry room, though not much). I, too, try to keep the space sacred for my writing. It has meant teaching my own four children, ages 8 to 14, the difference between urgent concerns and actual emergencies. For example, the fact that there are four of them and only one package of peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers is not an emergency. (Nor is it truly an urgent concern, but sometimes it’s more energy-efficient to allow them the illusion than to try convincing them otherwise.)
Several years ago, my daughter unwittingly brought home a tool that we’ve put to good use in these situations. On the first day of first grade, her teacher announced to the class that when she was working with individual students, others were only allowed to interrupt for one of “The Three B’s”: bleeding, barfing and bathrooming. Perhaps not for the squeamish parent or the delicate child, this mandate has nevertheless been very helpful around my house.
THERE ARE DAYS, of course, when it’s less successful than others, and the Mom I want, Mom I need, Mom why can’t I’s are the soundtrack against which my day is played out. On those days, I try to take comfort in the advice Elizabeth Berg, author of award-winning and bestselling novels such as Talk Before Sleep and Open House, gives in her book on writing, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True. Berg, the mother of two daughters, says, “Children grow up so fast … In order not to cheat yourself, you have to make writing a high priority. But you have to live the rest of your life, too … In my mind, being more than a writer means you’re more of a writer.”
Berg points out that, to kids especially, writing and working seem to be two different things.
“There is, after all, a big difference between seeing your parent go off somewhere to work versus having them sit right in front of you and yet still be unavailable.”
How much our children truly understand about the profession, which for most of us is also our passion, seems to depend partly upon their ages, partly upon our own attitudes and–discouraging to say–partly upon our monetary success.
Pamela White, whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications as varied as Home Cooking and the online magazine Over My Dead Body, feels that the creative endeavors of her three children, ages 10 to 16, help them better understand her desire to write. “I applaud (and financially support) their creative efforts in dance, art, music and writing,” White says. “Perhaps that is why they can extend me the same mercy when I dive into a story or food article and am only partially in the present.”
Sherwood, whose oldest child is 8, says she’s not sure her children understand that Mom actually writes for a living. “My oldest daughter once told me that I ‘type.’ Another child thinks I ‘deliver magazines.'” Allen says she became a newspaper writer when her daughter was in junior high. Though she had written throughout her daughter’s early childhood, it seemed her family considered only this a “real” job.
When the Three B’s aren’t holding up as well as usual at my house, and I’m working against a tight deadline, self-imposed or otherwise, I’ll often clarify for my children that I’m working. Though they, too, often put the computer to legitimate use–homework and research–I’m always suspicious that they think I’m just playing games or auctioning off heirlooms on eBay during those hours I spend planted in front of the monitor. On my most defensive and desperate days, I’ve stooped so low as to tell them the exact payment I’m expecting for the piece I’m struggling with, perhaps as much to convince myself as them that the time I’m “stealing” from the family is worthwhile.
Payment does seem to validate our efforts, both to our families and to ourselves. Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time–among many other works for children and adults–writes in her memoir, A Circle of Quiet: A Crosswick Journal, that throughout the 1950s she was unable to sell anything. In the face of consistent rejection, the guilt she’d felt for years about spending time writing rather than being “the good New England housewife and mother” seemed overwhelming. Worse, “with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.”
Fortunately for fellow writers and fans alike, L’Engle’s decision to “stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie” didn’t last the afternoon. After covering her typewriter in a dramatic gesture, she found herself crying, pacing and plotting a novel about failure. She knew then that it would be impossible for her not to write.
It’s the feeling that writing is as much who we are as what we do that keeps us going on our darkest days. Sherwood says, “Some people wear their jobs like a coat they can take on and off. [Writing] is woven into who I am and is more like the blood running through my veins.”
Some days, though, the possibility that we’re hard-wired to be writers seems to carry little weight. When rejection arrives in the mail, a half-finished article flickers accusingly from the computer, dinner scorches on the stove, the baby squalls on one knee and a preschooler whines on the other, you can take comfort from the fact that even, maybe especially, the darkest days are great material.
ON THE OTHER HAND, how much use we can make of our private parenting lives and, by extension, the private lives of children, or spouses, is a thorny topic for writing parents. We want to protect our children from embarrassment and exposure, but we don’t want to let good “stuff” go to waste.
White, who often has harvested the bounty of parenting in her work, says her children are “marvelously understanding. Each overheard conversation is fodder. Every incidence of teenage angst opens up new opportunities for me as a writer.”
Far from being offended by being included in my work, my children often clamor to be quoted in my next humor piece. In fact, I have occasionally wondered if some of their more “entertaining” antics weren’t staged intentionally to help me flesh out something I was working on.
Though some children do seem to enjoy their foibles being immortalized, it’s best to proceed with caution. Allen advises that “writers need to have the approval of their families” before using them in their work. And Sherwood, whose column is based on incidents from her daily life, offers these insightful conditions for mining real-life material, “I have taken [my children’s] feelings into account … I am very careful what I say about my husband and my mother-in-law. I also make sure that the only person that I make look like an idiot in my writing is myself.”
Though E.B. White, essayist, poet and author of the classic children’s novels Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, had mostly good things to say about his young son in his essays, he took the additional precaution of never referring to his son by name. He is “the little boy,” “my boy,” “our son.”
Despite the anonymity, the essays in which White’s son are included, written in the ’30s and ’40s, are some of White’s most resonant–“Sabbath Morn,” “Education” and “Once More to the Lake” among them. This is no coincidence–we do our best writing when we’re writing about the things we feel most deeply about.
Because writing parents must sometimes put the demands of family before the desire (or need) to write, our files of published clips might grow more slowly than we’d wish. But being immersed in family life offers us a rich store of experience upon which to draw when we do find the time, energy and inspiration to write.