“Baby Steps: How to Nurture a Great Writing Career after Having a Child”
“Motherhood is a great gift to a writer,” Amy Bloom has said. Parenthood provides rich experiences, but can impact writing practice, subject matter, and publication. How can a parent find time to write, let alone publish? Will serious journals publish work about parenting? What are parent-centric publications interested in? Is it possible to manage readings or a book tour? The panel, leaders of organizations that support parent writers, discusses strategies for creative and professional growth.
What are some stereotypes of parents as writers, external and internalized, and how can writers counter them?
J.P. Howard: Stereotypes about parents as writers often come from those who may not be parents themselves. People may assume we are not as dedicated to our writing, since we are busy raising our children. Folks may view us primarily in our caretaking roles, more so than in our role as writers. It may even affect opportunities depending on our schedules. Of course, the truth is parent writers are simultaneously dedicated to both our children and our writing. The two things are not mutually exclusive.
An internalized issue that writer parents sometimes experience is guilt; here, I’m definitely speaking from my own experience. We may struggle to find a “balance” in our lives, as parents and as writers. The constant struggle between being dedicated parents and dedicated writers can leave us questioning ourselves. Am I a good enough writer? Shouldn’t I be spending more time on my writing and art? We may compare ourselves to writers who don’t have families and can be too hard on ourselves when we do that. Of course, the flipside can occur when we put in extra time on our craft. Doubt can creep in and we may ask ourselves, am I spending enough time with my family? I find that collaborating with parent/writer friends and colleagues is incredibly helpful. Many times that extra support is crucial and can help us realize we are not alone in our struggles. Writing circles, literary salons, online writing groups, and writing residencies are all ways we can move beyond those stereotypes (internalized and externalized) and ensure we are part of a larger writing community.
M.M. DeVoe: It seems to me that it is less the stereotype of a writing parent than the stereotype of a “great artist” that is dangerous. If there is a common negative stereotype of parent-writers, I would say it’s that of the “mommy blogger” writing exclusively about the ups and downs of parenting and considering their blog the equal of someone else’s novel. At Pen Parentis, we don’t judge the writing produced by a writing parent, we celebrate that anyone can write anything, frankly! It’s terribly hard to balance the demands of children with the demands of a creative career.But to get back to the question at hand: the stereotype of the writer who is a “great artist” is always portrayed as a solitary creature typing late into the night, surrounded by cigarette butts and whiskey bottles—never by permission slips for field trips, toys, or pacifiers. Pen Parentis tries to change that stereotype by telling the world which writers have kids. It’s heartening to know that many recent award-winners have kids instead of drug addictions! Honestly, the dedication it takes to maintain a creative career while also parenting is a dedication that should be celebrated and admired.
Julianne Palumbo: Perhaps one of the most common stereotypes about parents as writers is that parenting writing is often sappy. Some readers might think that there will be nothing interesting to read when someone is simply writing about their own child. Another expectation is that this type of writing can be judgmental and preachy. Because parenting produces experience, the impulse is to pass on that experience through parenting advice in order to save new parents the trouble of figuring things out for themselves. The prevalence of these ideas can have the effect of making parenting writing self-conscious.
Writers can counter these stereotypes by not focusing so much on teaching from their experiences or providing judgment through them as on just relaying their stories in a way that speaks to their audience. Strong writers of parenting material tell us their personal story but then take the important step of universalizing that story so that all of their readers can relate. The stories should show us how parenting simply is, not tell us how anyone might think it should be. Told well, readers will relate to the experience itself and will pull from the writing whatever message might speak to them.
Marjorie Tesser: In an ideal world, the profound, diverse experience of mothering would be believed to be of the highest importance for literary consideration. Unfortunately, it seems some publications are happy to have women write about sex but less so about childbirth and other gritty realities, and there are those that give work about war, politics, etc., precedence over the domestic. Some employ a double standard—writing by a man about parenthood is praiseworthy, but by a woman, clichéd. But there are many publications, both general and mother or women-centric, that are interested in your fine work about aspects of motherhood. When submitting for publication, seek out venues where you find work that harmonizes with your own writing esthetics and style. And do keep sending those mother poems to less friendly venues—the literary landscape is evolving, and changes are occurring in even the most hidebound journals.
In a recent VIDA blog, writer Rachel Richardson relates the experience of an academic colleague cautioning her against being pigeonholed as “one of those mommy poets” (Report from the Field: To Go To Sea: Making a Place in a Male Literary Landscape). I believe no one can dictate what you should be writing, nor what your concerns as an artist should be. As for being pigeonholed, you are the curator of your own bio; you might decide to tweak a particular bio to list prior publications that are in the same “club” as the place you’re submitting. Others feel that the only way we’ll change things is to let our mother flag fly. Any decision you make is fine—mothers who have chosen either path enjoy healthy writing careers.
M.M. DeVoe: Here’s a thought: instead of dropping the kids off the bio as soon as the first major literary prize is attained, we wish that writers would acknowledge their families. One of the things we have discovered is how rare it is for writers to be able to talk about their families, because they think it somehow makes them seem like a less “serious” writer. Why would a writer seem less serious if they are fighting the urge to go play ball with their kid rather than fighting the urge to give it all up, burn their manuscript, and hide under a blanket for the rest of the day? Unknown. But somehow depression is entwined with our stereotype of a working artist, and that, I think, more than anything is damaging to the expectation that we can continue to be great writers if we are also parents.
What actions can parents take to support their own writing? What are some practices to sustain vibrant creative work while actively parenting?
M.M. DeVoe: Obviously, keep writing. That goes without saying. It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you’re battling the guilt of needing to be away from the kids in order to do your best work—though many parent-writers learn to work, even with their kids nearby.
Other, more specific suggestions? Find a community. Even if it’s just three or four other writers, and only one of them has kids, you need someone who understands what you’re going through. Writers who are part of a community are more successful than those who try to go it alone. Make your own workshop, go to a colony for two weeks if you can, treat your writing as you would any day job that earned money. Put it first, make it a priority—for as much time as you are able to devote to it. Then put it away and enjoy your family. Learn to schedule, learn to multitask, and learn to use time wisely. Love the time you’re able to write. Cherish it. Use it.
Julianne Palumbo: One of the most important actions a parent writer can take is to make time to write daily. Often, when the children are young, writing time and sleep come out of the same pile. But writing is learned only by writing, and spending time on writing is integral to improving one’s craft. Write every day, even if it’s just a sentence.
Another important practice is to keep a notebook or journal handy to write down the fabulous things that children do and say. We parents think we will remember them, but in the craziness that can be parenting, they are soon forgotten. As a young mother, I kept a notebook beside my bed and before I went to sleep each night I would write the fantastic happenings of the day. Now, with my children in their teens and twenties, the notebook is full of gems I would never have remembered. Some of these gems have turned themselves into poems and stories.
J.P. Howard: Parents can make attempts to carve out time for our own writing; often this is successfully done when we partner with other parent-writer friends who understand our time constraints and limitations without judgment. This can play out in multiple ways. I find it most helpful being proactive and seeking out other writing communities, made up of both parents and non-parents. I think we each have something valuable to offer the other. Parents can be great at prioritizing, because we know that raising our children and tight time management is something that is automatically built into our schedules. Writer friends without children can learn from our own successful structures and time management. Collaborating in writing salons and virtual online communities makes sure our work stays vibrant and relevant, while keeping us connected to writers and artists beyond our own immediate circles. Parents have to make sure to practice self-love and self-care. This is sometimes our biggest challenge, but I think it is truly life saving when we make those efforts. We can select specific times during the week, month or year to just do something for ourselves (no children included)! This includes attending local writing workshops, writing retreats and residencies away from our “home-base.” When I go away to these spaces, usually without my children, it’s invigorating and often allows me to come back home more focused. Parents, especially women, have to give ourselves permission to put our needs as writers, women, and vibrant beings first. This kind of self-love/self-care also helps us ultimately become a better parent.
Marjorie Tesser: If you want to write and you’re not, or if you’re not writing or publishing as much as you wish you were, you basically have three choices.
- Feel frustrated and guilty—Not the best choice!
- Write! The best advice is making a habit of it (novelist Lore Segal defines a habit as something it’s easier to do than to not do). Segal wrote mornings. Poet Marie Ponsot wrote without fail for ten minutes each night after putting her seven children to bed; no matter how exhausted she was, she made herself write for those ten minutes, and it often ended up stretching to more. Use the time not only to write seriously but also to play—write personal stuff, make lists, play with ideas.
- Relax! As with motherhood, you’ll get disparate advice from random sources about writing. But ultimately, you’re the judge of your own situation; your own mothering – work seesaw finds its own balance on the fulcrum. Each family has its own challenges and requirements; each muse has her own strength, conviction, urgency, and vision. Whatever balance you work out now is not permanent, nor is it binding on the future. I only wrote in fits and starts, privately, when my kids were small, but developed a more steady writing and publishing practice later in life. Do what works for you.
How do our organizations support women’s and parents’ creative work and validate their experiences? Which other publications, presses, retreats, and organizations support and develop the skills and creativity of parent writers?
M.M. DeVoe: At Pen Parentis, our mission is to provide resources to writers to keep them on creative track after they start a family. We offer free monthly literary salons that celebrate the creative diversity of writers that are also parents by bringing three or more such authors into a room and hearing their new works, then discussing the many ways they balance an active family life with a creative career. We offer an annual merit-based fellowship to a writer parenting a child ten or younger. We offer occasional classes to develop particular skills in NYC and we are working hard to develop online communities of writers who are also parents that we hope can turn into in-person communities as we reach a critical mass of participants. We value inclusiveness, professionalism, community—we strive in every way to inspire writers who are parents to dedicate themselves to their writing careers.
Other than those represented here on this panel, we hope all writing parents know about the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Based in San Francisco, they give generous individual grants to writers and visual artists that are also parents. They also keep a list of writing colonies and residencies that they fund to make them more accessible for writing parents, in researching what is available, that’s a great place to begin. Magazines that are excellent for creative, thinking parents are Brain, Child and Mutha Magazine, as well as Brain, Teen. Also, Marble House Project has a writing residency that you can bring spouse and kids to (this is what writing-parent communities are best at: sharing vital information like this!)
J.P. Howard: Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) supports women’s and parents’ creative work by bringing primarily women of color and LGBTQ communities together each month for a free potluck poetry workshop, featured author reading, Q & A session with our feature and a multi-genre open mic. Our salons meet once monthly over the weekend, often in someone’s home or donated community space. People bring delicious home-made dishes and the wine flows freely. These literary salons last between 4 ½ to 5 hours minimum. We write, we collaborate, we laugh, and often we cry as we use writing to explore so many personal and political issues. Our Salons literally and figuratively nurture us. A number of us are parents and having time to share our experiences as writers is empowering and helps to validate our experiences in the world.
Mom Egg Review is a huge supporter of parent writers, creating a space for us both in print and online. I have been a part of writing communities and retreats at Cave Canem, Lambda Literary and VONA. Each of these spaces includes many writers who happen to be parents, though that is not what brought us to the retreats. These safe and supportive spaces allow us to speak freely about missing our children when we are in residency, while simultaneously celebrating our roles as writers in collaborative and supportive environments. Ultimately these organizations help us develop our skills and remain creative by creating and providing these welcoming spaces.
Julianne Palumbo: Mothers Always Write supports the mission of motherhood by offering poetry, essays, book reviews, and columns intended to speak to parents and parent writers. We support our writers in a number of ways. We created and maintain a contributor’s FB group where writers can expand the readership of their pieces, find writing partners and friendships as well as read other great writing and learn of publication opportunities. We promote our writers by sharing their pieces written both for MAW and for other publications on our social media. We afford our writers the opportunity to participate in critique groups, pairing our writers with others with similar writing interests. We also provide an opportunity for our writers to publicize their relevant works on our site through book reviews and column writing. Finally, our editorial staff often selects at least one new writer for each issue who is then given the opportunity to work with us to bring an often very rough piece of writing to publication quality.
Marjorie Tesser: Mom Egg Review is a literary journal about motherhood. We support mother writers and foster motherhood literature through publication and through live and online community engagement.
We publish an annual print journal of fine, sharp literary work centered on motherhood (in its 15th year) and we recently started a quarterly web-based journal that additionally focuses on general women’s issues. Our website, http://www.momeggreview.com, contains literature and art, craft tips, interviews with established mother writers, reviews of books by mother writers, and relevant news. We sponsor our own readings and workshops, and participate in festivals and panels to help connect in person to mother writers.
In addition to the Mom Egg Review Group, in which contributors and readers can share their own news and concerns, we sponsor genre-based Facebook groups #takepoetry and #febflash. We actively collaborate with other groups interested in mothers’ and women’s experiences, including the Museum of Motherhood, ProCreate Project (a UK-based artists collective that recently sponsored Mother House, an art residency for mothers with children), and others, and we do our best to disseminate information about publications and opportunities friendly to mother artists. We celebrate and value the work of our co-panelists, Pen Parentis, Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, and Mothers Always Write in nurturing mother writers, and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, in supporting writers and mother-friendly small presses and litmags.
M.M. DeVoe is the founding director of Pen Parentis, a 501c3 nonprofit that provides resources to writers to help them stay on creative track after starting a family. She has an MFA from Columbia and is an award-winning writer of short fiction (with two kids). M.M. co-hosts a series of monthly literary salons in lower Manhattan featuring small groups of diverse writers who are also parents. Pen Parentis also runs a fellowship for parent writers.
J.P. Howard is the author of SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), which was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She is the recipient of a 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, VONA and Lambda Literary. JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon.
Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published many literary journals. She is the author of Into Your Light and Announcing the Thaw, poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She is the Founder/Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.
Marjorie Tesser is the author of poetry chapbooks THE IMPORTANT THING IS (Firewheel Chapbook Award Winner) and The Magic Feather. She co-edited the anthologies Bowery Women and Estamos Aquí (Bowery Books) and Travellin’ Mama: Mothers, Motherhood and Travel (forthcoming from Demeter Press). She is the editor in chief of the literary journal Mom Egg Review.