Ideas

Writers who are also mothers

ON MARCH 29, at the Cambridge Public Library, PEN New England hosted a conversation on “Mothers & Writing,” about the challenges and pleasures of writing while raising children. The discussion, moderated by novelist Heidi Pitlor, and featuring writers Lily King, Kim McLarin, Megan Marshall, and Claire Messud, was frank and wide-ranging, addressing everything from ambivalence about parenthood to tricks for getting work done, and the unheralded advantages of writing as a mother.

What follows is a selection of highlights from the conversation, as observed by a note-taking audience member.

*    *    *

claire messud

CLAIRE: One thing I “knew” growing up was that one mustn’t have children if one wanted to write. My husband wanted six children; I wanted none. Then a gynecologist told me I might have trouble because I had an oddly shaped uterus.

Tell me, “No” . . . then I immediately want to get pregnant . . .

lily king

LILY: My experience was like yours. I remember how anxiety-filled I was about trying to become a writer. I did want children — but way in the future.

Then a doctor told me I had a lot of endometriosis. I think I was probably pregnant within 24 hours.

drafts

CLAIRE: Sometimes it felt impossible with small kids.

I would think about writers who didn’t have children — how much they must be reading, the number of drafts they must be able to write . . . the amount of sleep they had!

math in the margins

LILY: It was a struggle figuring out how much time to spend with the children. In my drafts from that period, you can see all these equations I was doing in the margins: if they’re awake for 86 hours can I do 15 hours of writing? Is it OK for me to be away from them that long?

kim mclarin

KIM: Stephen King has said that to get his writing done, he has to “just close the door.” Easy for him to say . . . If I close the door, someone’s calling child services on me.

megan marshall

MEGAN: I had one friend who, while her kids were very young, just got no work done at all. She considered each of them a book she might otherwise have written.

Another friend didn’t celebrate holidays. She’d let her husband take the kids away, and she’d get her work done then.

writing study

CLAIRE: Somebody said, just keep writing enough to keep your foot in the door — so that when the kids start going to school full time, you’ll still be in the habit of it. That was incredibly useful to hear.

KIM: It goes fast. It doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the middle of it. But it’s fast. Children grow up and and get older, and you do have time.

penelope fitzgerald

CLAIRE: A writer like Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t publish her first book until her late 50s. And she had a lot of struggle. At one point she lived in a houseboat that sank — twice. She might not have been the writer she became if she hadn’t been through all of that.

MEGAN: Once my kids got into things like sports and orchestra, I did a lot of writing in waiting rooms. It helped my writing because I had to maintain narrative across interruptions.

CLAIRE: I’d stay in the car and write. car KIM: Did you get dirty looks doing that? CLAIRE: Yes! They think you’re negligent.

anne tyler books

MEGAN: I read an article by Anne Tyler called “Still. Just. Writing.” Whenever she showed up at school, the other moms would say, “So, are you still just writing?” To have Ann Tyler, who’s such a prolific writer, talk about all this was inspiring.

KIM: I remember that article. I was dismayed by it, though. She didn’t have any resentment. I had a lot.

christopher hitchens

CLAIRE: It’s hard to know how things would go without the constraints. Before moving to Boston, we lived in the same building in D.C. as Christopher Hitchens. He would write his pieces — drunk — between certain hours. My husband and I used to wonder, If he stayed sober, would his work be a lot better? A little bit better? ... Or maybe not better at all?

hourglass

LILY: Looking back at when I was single and childless, there was a lot of wasted time. It helped me to have a concentrated amount of time that I knew was going to expire. My first novel took eight years — much longer than my novels since then.

KIM: Before I had children, I was a journalist, working on my fiction at night. I found it more challenging to be home writing than to come home from work and write. My second and third novels took much longer.

1984 2004

MEGAN: My first book came out in 1984. It took 18 months. That same year, I dreamed up the idea to write The Peabody Sisters. I thought it would take three years . . . It took 20.

I kind of gave up ambition. I couldn’t be sure how long the book would take to write. I just got focused on getting it done. I didn’t want my kids to grow up and think I’d wasted all that time.

But I wouldn’t have written the book the way I did if it weren’t for the experiences I had with my family, and with my children. I learned patience from the Peabody sisters and from my kids.

KIM: When I had my first child, I had just moved here, and I wasn’t working. Boston’s a tough town to move to, especially if you’re black.

playground

In some ways, being a mother saved me from the isolation of being a writer: I made “mommy friends” — preschool friends. People I would otherwise have had nothing in common with if it weren’t for our kids.

writers group

LILY: I formed a writer’s group when we moved to Maine. We were all mothers of young children. It was sustaining.

MEGAN: When I started The Peabody Sisters, in the first year of my child’s life, I organized a group of women biographers who would meet once a month. We’ve been meeting now for 30 years.

LILY: I barely remember the newborn period. I was terrified of being a bad mother. I started writing The English Teacher, about the worst mother I could possibly imagine. I’d write about her, and then I’d go down and see my kids, and I’d feel like the best mother in the world.

editor call

MEGAN: Before my first daughter was born, I worked up some ideas for the New York Times “Hers” column. I figured I’d get them written before I gave birth. But I didn’t hear back from them until the day I got home from the hospital with my daughter, when the editor got in touch and said, “We’d like to have you write for the column.”

A few months later, I tried, but the way I was thinking had changed so much that I had to let it go. It was heartbreaking.

KIM: Friends used to ask me, “What are you going to do when your children can start reading your books?”

mother daughter

I can’t write with that ghost on my shoulder. It would be incapacitating.

Last year, when she was 17, my daughter did read my book of essays. It addresses motherhood, depression, divorce . . . I talked with her about it, and it sparked a really good conversation. It made us closer.

I think my children are strengthened by knowing that I’m a person, and that I’ve had struggles.

motherhood vs. writing

LILY: Once I had kids, my sense of self was no longer completely defined by my success or failure as a writer. It’s given me confidence as a writer to try things, and worry less about failing.

CLAIRE: Before I had kids, I used to always be thinking, like a character in a Russian novel, “When is my real life going to begin?” Since my daughter was born, I haven’t felt that way.

Being a mother . . . what you can write changes in light of that experience.

author

MEGAN: One thing I have a problem with. When a book comes out, writers — men especially — are always saying, “It’s like giving birth.”

It’s very different. Anyone who says writing a book is like having a baby . . . It’s not.

 

ON MARCH 29, at the Cambridge Public Library, PEN New England hosted a conversation on “Mothers & Writing,” about the challenges and pleasures of writing while raising children. The discussion, moderated by novelist Heidi Pitlor, and featuring writers Lily King, Kim McLarin, Megan Marshall, and Claire Messud, was frank and wide-ranging, addressing everything from ambivalence about parenthood to tricks for getting work done, and the unheralded advantages of writing as a mother.

What follows is a selection of highlights from the conversation, as observed by a note-taking audience member.

*    *    *

claire messud

CLAIRE: One thing I “knew” growing up was that one mustn’t have children if one wanted to write. My husband wanted six children; I wanted none. Then a gynecologist told me I might have trouble because I had an oddly shaped uterus.

Tell me, “No” . . . then I immediately want to get pregnant . . .

lily king

LILY: My experience was like yours. I remember how anxiety-filled I was about trying to become a writer. I did want children — but way in the future.

Then a doctor told me I had a lot of endometriosis. I think I was probably pregnant within 24 hours.

drafts

CLAIRE: Sometimes it felt impossible with small kids.

I would think about writers who didn’t have children — how much they must be reading, the number of drafts they must be able to write . . . the amount of sleep they had!

math in the margins

LILY: It was a struggle figuring out how much time to spend with the children. In my drafts from that period, you can see all these equations I was doing in the margins: if they’re awake for 86 hours can I do 15 hours of writing? Is it OK for me to be away from them that long?

kim mclarin

KIM: Stephen King has said that to get his writing done, he has to “just close the door.” Easy for him to say . . . If I close the door, someone’s calling child services on me.

megan marshall

MEGAN: I had one friend who, while her kids were very young, just got no work done at all. She considered each of them a book she might otherwise have written.

Another friend didn’t celebrate holidays. She’d let her husband take the kids away, and she’d get her work done then.

writing study

CLAIRE: Somebody said, just keep writing enough to keep your foot in the door — so that when the kids start going to school full time, you’ll still be in the habit of it. That was incredibly useful to hear.

KIM: It goes fast. It doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the middle of it. But it’s fast. Children grow up and and get older, and you do have time.

penelope fitzgerald

CLAIRE: A writer like Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t publish her first book until her late 50s. And she had a lot of struggle. At one point she lived in a houseboat that sank — twice. She might not have been the writer she became if she hadn’t been through all of that.

MEGAN: Once my kids got into things like sports and orchestra, I did a lot of writing in waiting rooms. It helped my writing because I had to maintain narrative across interruptions.

car
CLAIRE2: I’d stay in the car and write. KIM: Did you get dirty looks doing that? CLAIRE: Yes! They think you’re negligent.

anne tyler books

MEGAN: I read an article by Anne Tyler called “Still. Just. Writing.” Whenever she showed up at school, the other moms would say, “So, are you still just writing?” To have Ann Tyler, who’s such a prolific writer, talk about all this was inspiring.

KIM: I remember that article. I was dismayed by it, though. She didn’t have any resentment. I had a lot.

christopher hitchens

CLAIRE: It’s hard to know how things would go without the constraints. Before moving to Boston, we lived in the same building in D.C. as Christopher Hitchens. He would write his pieces — drunk — between certain hours. My husband and I used to wonder, If he stayed sober, would his work be a lot better? A little bit better? ... Or maybe not better at all?

hourglass

LILY: Looking back at when I was single and childless, there was a lot of wasted time. It helped me to have a concentrated amount of time that I knew was going to expire. My first novel took eight years — much longer than my novels since then.

KIM: Before I had children, I was a journalist, working on my fiction at night. I found it more challenging to be home writing than to come home from work and write. My second and third novels took much longer.

1984 2004

MEGAN: My first book came out in 1984. It took 18 months. That same year, I dreamed up the idea to write The Peabody Sisters. I thought it would take three years . . . It took 20.

I kind of gave up ambition. I couldn’t be sure how long the book would take to write. I just got focused on getting it done. I didn’t want my kids to grow up and think I’d wasted all that time.

But I wouldn’t have written the book the way I did if it weren’t for the experiences I had with my family, and with my children. I learned patience from the Peabody sisters and from my kids.

KIM: When I had my first child, I had just moved here, and I wasn’t working. Boston’s a tough town to move to, especially if you’re black.

playground

In some ways, being a mother saved me from the isolation of being a writer: I made “mommy friends” — preschool friends. People I would otherwise have had nothing in common with if it weren’t for our kids.

writers group

LILY: I formed a writer’s group when we moved to Maine. We were all mothers of young children. It was sustaining.

MEGAN: When I started The Peabody Sisters, in the first year of my child’s life, I organized a group of women biographers who would meet once a month. We’ve been meeting now for 30 years.

LILY: I barely remember the newborn period. I was terrified of being a bad mother. I started writing The English Teacher, about the worst mother I could possibly imagine. I’d write about her, and then I’d go down and see my kids, and I’d feel like the best mother in the world.

editor call

MEGAN: Before my first daughter was born, I worked up some ideas for the New York Times “Hers” column. I figured I’d get them written before I gave birth. But I didn’t hear back from them until the day I got home from the hospital with my daughter, when the editor got in touch and said, “We’d like to have you write for the column.”

A few months later, I tried, but the way I was thinking had changed so much that I had to let it go. It was heartbreaking.

KIM: Friends used to ask me, “What are you going to do when your children can start reading your books?”

mother daughter

I can’t write with that ghost on my shoulder. It would be incapacitating.

Last year, when she was 17, my daughter did read my book of essays. It addresses motherhood, depression, divorce . . . I talked with her about it, and it sparked a really good conversation. It made us closer.

I think my children are strengthened by knowing that I’m a person, and that I’ve had struggles.

motherhood vs. writing

LILY: Once I had kids, my sense of self was no longer completely defined by my success or failure as a writer. It’s given me confidence as a writer to try things, and worry less about failing.

CLAIRE: Before I had kids, I used to always be thinking, like a character in a Russian novel, “When is my real life going to begin?” Since my daughter was born, I haven’t felt that way.

Being a mother . . . what you can write changes in light of that experience.

author

MEGAN: One thing I have a problem with. When a book comes out, writers — men especially — are always saying, “It’s like giving birth.”

It’s very different. Anyone who says writing a book is like having a baby . . . It’s not.

 

Related:

The Word: What ‘mom’ really means in America

How ‘deadbeats’ can still be good dads

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2013: How self-editing became the first commandment of literature

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