Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Vintage International)

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A Guide to Making Art as a Parent

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How does a parent maintain a creative hobby? This was the question posed in a recent Care and Feeding column at Slate by an artist and first-time mother. She sketched the arc of her creative life: before motherhood, she supported herself through commissions and sales of her art; now, she was the mostly-solo parent of a toddler, with a husband “who works on remote sites for months at a time,” living in a northern climate that keeps her indoors and isolated with her child until late spring each year. She described trying to sit down at the end of the day to create, but finding her brain “mush,” what with the unrelenting demands of cleaning, meal prep, and other housework lapping at her conscience and executive function. “Even just being able to work on a project in stolen moments would be a relief,” she wrote, “but I give everything I have to keeping our life together and it’s still not enough.”

The response from Care and Feeding guest columnist Doyin Richards, framed as “tough love,” scolded, “All I’m hearing is a bunch of excuses.” Richards proceeded to rattle off a litany of suggestions (Have you tried sleeping less? Not doing housework? Hiring a nanny, or having a friend or family member babysit?). “Any successful person with young children… will share similar stories of the sacrifices they made to make it to where they are now,” he said. “If they can do it, why can’t you?”

“It truly comes down to how badly you want it,” he concluded. As if the burdens and resources of childcare are evenly distributed in our country, as if the artist-mother had simply dismissed the possibility of hiring a nanny due to a lack of desire. This is a familiar, Calvinist idea about who succeeds in making art, and a wrong one, based on a deep misunderstanding—common among not only the general public but also artists and many of those who teach them—about what it takes to sustain an artistic career through a lifetime that includes caregiving. It’s the artistic corollary to the myth of the American dream: that those who succeed in artistic careers are those who wanted, and thus deserved, it most.

But who writes to an advice column at their wit’s end because they have lukewarm desire? Wanting is not the issue here; the issue is resources—material, certainly, but also educational. The artist-mother had asked: “How does a parent maintain a creative hobby?” “How” is a question we ask when we want to learn something. What she wanted was to learn how to establish and maintain a creative practice in motherhood. That Richards did not know how to teach her this does not mean that it’s unteachable; it means he wasn’t equipped to do this kind of teaching.

Richards is far from alone in his lack of understanding of how mothers can be taught to make, and persist in making, art. In the U.S., both art-making and motherhood are largely viewed as solo endeavors, with success in either viewed as a confluence of talent and determination. The most prestigious writing program in the country reinforces this view, declaring on their program philosophy website, “We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged”—a bold claim for a program offering a graduate degree.

This belief in the primacy of talent in an artist’s success is predicated on a narrow understanding of what it means—and what is required—to support an artist’s growth. Contrast Iowa’s statement with James Baldwin’s take on the role of talent in an artist’s development. Asked by the Paris Review if he could “discern talent in someone,” he answered: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

Baldwin’s valuing of discipline, love, and endurance over talent—and even Iowa’s acknowledgement of the importance of encouragement—highlights the importance of what’s known as the affective domain of learning. The focus of much teaching and learning is often on the cognitive domain—that is, knowledge and the development of intellectual skills. But the affective domain is how we process and respond emotionally to new experiences, information, and challenges. It’s made up of beliefs and mindsets that are hard to quantify but often constitute the most important learning of our lifetimes: how you came to believe something about the world, or about yourself; how you shed old assumptions; how you learned to navigate a new challenge or system. The vast majority of American education focuses on the cognitive domain—on facts and skills, the stuff that’s measured on state tests—unless we’re teaching character traits like “grit” to marginalized middle-schoolers.

But in nearly two decades of teaching writing to undergraduate, graduate, and adult writers, I’ve come to understand that the education of writers has to attend as much to the affective domain of learning as it does to the cognitive. This might sound suspiciously woo-woo. I was once a skeptic; my earliest teacher training was all about outcomes and data-driven significant gains and no excuses. I have since shed or significantly modified almost all of those beliefs, but retained a core tenet: that effective teaching really can do something like magic, more than anyone expects it to; that it’s our responsibility as teachers to leverage any and all tools to help our students succeed. Besides, artists spend much of our time trying to portray, describe, analyze the ineffable—why would we doubt its importance in our learning?

It’s often said that writing is a career of attrition, and there are few more consistent drop-off points in a woman’s career than the birth of a child. When we discuss how to teach writers—especially those who are in some way marginal or vulnerable—we can talk about analyzing and emulating elements of craft, reading and responding to students’ work. But if we are not also tending to teaching them how to keep going—if we are not helping them cultivate the practices and mindsets that help them sustain their work, when everything else in the world makes not-writing the rational choice—we are failing them in one of the most vital domains of their education.

Academia might be starting to catch on. The recent success of books on creative writing pedagogy such as Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, and the subsequent implementation of many of the practices recommended therein, in writing classes across the country, points not only to understanding of the vital need to interrupt and reverse the effects of white supremacy on the teaching of literary craft, but more broadly, acknowledgement of the need for closer attention to the affective domain of any program purporting to teach writers.

Quite plainly, the affective domain is the subject of the letter that that artist-mother wrote to Slate. Not: how do I apply paint to canvas? How do I shape a scene on a page? But: How do I keep going when I feel so alone? Perhaps Richards’ response left her fired up and determined, which I’m guessing was his intent. But I’m more inclined to imagine her feeling blamed and dispirited, crying in an April snowstorm.
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I am a writer, a mother, and a teacher. This fall marks my twentieth heading a classroom or writing program, and my sixth teaching a graduate seminar in creative writing pedagogy in Columbia University’s MFA writing program. This past summer, I led the eighth cohort of a course called “Writing Through Motherhood,” an independent workshop I developed when I was pregnant with my second child, in a determined attempt to avoid winding up exactly where the Care and Feeding’s artist-mother is—which is to say, exactly where I was with my first child.

When that first child was born, three years after I graduated with my MFA in fiction, I was in my third year of a demanding job leading a writing center at a public university. I was supervising a staff of 32, pumping breast milk twice a day, bolting out the door at 5pm sharp for a one-hour commute so I could spend what time I could with this new child who I loved more than anything in the world before he fell asleep at 7:30, then waking up multiple times a night to feed him. I did not have a single night of uninterrupted sleep for 18 months.

I did my job reasonably well, I parented reasonably well, but I did not write. When a new-mother friend in the neighborhood mentioned the au pair she’d hired for their newborn so that her husband could work on his first novel, I knew this to be so far from my material reality that I didn’t even mention that I wrote, or that I’d written. To call myself a writer would have made me feel like a failure and a fraud.

But then, magically, aided by a three-hour time change on a trip to visit friends, my son learned how to sleep through the night. He stopped nursing. A month later, my writer brain came back online, along with a voice that urged: If you want to write, you’re going to have to learn how to do it, now. I reached out to a friend from my MFA program who also had a baby, and we established a weekly check-in; I set a weekly writing goal of 3,000 words, an intentionally high-for-me number that would require me to shine a flashlight through the tattered sheet of my schedule to find every possible pinhole of light. I wrote during my lunch break, on my phone on the subway, in those last 15 minutes before I passed out in bed. I started writing regularly, more regularly than I had ever managed before children, or even in my MFA program. The novel that I’d begun in my graduate program began to grow.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I vowed: never again would I lose connection with my writing, with myself. And as I spoke to writers who were pregnant or had small children and who shared the same anxieties, I understood that I could guide others on the same path. I hoped that doing so would guide me, too. Based on teaching experience and instinct, I knew some things would help: creating a community; combatting loneliness; establishing purpose and setting goals; connecting to the literary tradition of writing through motherhood; talking honestly about the simultaneous restrictions of time and brain function and the extraordinary blooming of sensitivity and creativity that often accompanies the period of early parenthood.

It wasn’t until years later that I encountered a study by the New England Learner Persistence Project, which provided a framework for many of the practices I had intuited and assembled through my teaching. The 2009 NELP project engaged 18 New England-based adult education programs to ask: What drives persistence? What, in other words, makes adult learners—often low-income and/or immigrants, with multiple jobs and families to support—decide to keep showing up to learn, even when so much else in life makes it profoundly difficult?

So I’d like to offer an adaptation of this framework now—to the writer of the letter to Care and Feeding, to teachers of writers and other artists, and to anyone out there trying to piece together an artistic practice amid motherhood. To generously interpret the intent of Richards’s response, it is likely true that the writer of the letter is the only one in her life at this moment who is going to decide that this her work is important, and who is able to make it happen. But she doesn’t have to start from scratch, and she doesn’t have to do it alone.
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Sense of belonging and community is the first driver of persistence that the NELP report identifies. “It is human nature that when we feel welcomed, respected, and develop a sense of belonging, we are more apt to return to the setting or task then when those factors are not present,” the report claims. “Building community calls for fostering connections among people. Activities and processes that help students get to know one another build trust and camaraderie.”

So: the first thing that any parent-artist can do to support their artistic practices is to find at least one other person doing the same. Reach out to someone you know (or knew) in a setting where you made art together in the past, if that exists for you, or seek out others who have similar interests and circumstances. Fates forgive me, but Twitter is actually great for this. A buddy may be all you need to get started.

If you wish to take it further, look for the many existing communities established by parent-artists—such as Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood, Pen Parentis, Writing Through Motherhood alum’s Catherine Mueller’s PAMAs/MAMAs workshops, Nancy Reddy and Emily Perez’s Writing Through the Confetti Time of Caregiving, or the Here to Save You podcast hosted by Annie Hartnett, Tessa Fontaine, and Ellen O’Connell Whittet, among many, many others. Spend a morning Googling; find a community or class that fits your vibe, your budget, your schedule, and connect. The one thing I want to underscore is that you’re not just looking for another artist or writer; you’re looking for another artist-parent, ideally one in a similar stage of parenting as you. (Being the sole parent in a writing workshop can be more isolating than writing solo, in some ways.)

Once you have your partner or community, get talking about your lives and your work. Nearly instantly, you will feel less alone, and more capable of going forward. You will watch someone you know and respect struggle and adapt to extraordinary circumstances. You’ll watch them feel like failures, and you’ll give them pep talks when they do, because you can clearly see the truth: that the work they’re making is valuable, and their circumstances are challenging. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll be on the receiving end of that same pep talk. There will be times you won’t believe them. But eventually, you will. And that will help.
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I’d like to interrupt NELP’s recommendations with one of my own, specific to artists: Creative exposure and connection. In addition to connecting with other artist-mothers, it’s vital to also connect to art.

The artist-mother who wrote to Care and Feeding lamented, “I’ve tried to sit down and make something after my daughter goes to bed, but after a full day with a baby (under stimulating but somehow still exhausting) my brain is mush, and I just want to be passively entertained by the TV or a podcast.” For anyone looking for a toe-hold in creative practice, infusing small amounts of art into your day can help you re-enter the imaginative life of a practicing artist.

There are a few ways to achieve this. When you take a drive or a walk with the stroller, or when you’re meal prepping or doing dishes, you might choose a podcast or audiobook (many libraries offer these for free download) or podcast connected to your discipline. At night, if you’re exhausted, by all means wrap those episodes of Ted Lasso or Schitt’s Creek around you like a down comforter. But at least once a week, choose a book or show or film that’s somehow in conversation with your project or creative discipline. Feed your brain and your imagination, and they’ll begin to talk back.

It can be particularly powerful to seek out art by mothers in your creative tradition. Often, I ask students in my Writing Through Motherhood workshops to research and read from one artist-mother whose work they admire. When did the writer have children, and when did and how did they make their work? What resources and challenges were present in their lives? How did motherhood show up in or affect their creative work? We are, hallelujah, in a moment of Rachel Yoder and Jacqueline Woodson and Jessamine Chan, of Julia Fine and Lisa Ko and Elena Ferrante, a moment where motherhood is being recognized as the subject of ambitious, creative, intellectually rigorous work. If you’ve absorbed the beliefs that making art about motherhood is sentimental, lightweight, lesser-than, shoring yourself up with work such as these can be empowering.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron calls for weekly “Artist Dates”—solo excursions to immerse oneself in art or the stuff that inspires it. The idea of a solo excursion, let alone something so formal and regular, may feel like a luxury beyond reach for many caretakers of small children. But these can be modified, and often can be done with children. If there are any close by, by all means, take a field trip to a museum or gallery or library or bookshop, or take in a concert or performance. But you can also, simply, read together, draw together, tell stories, write, listen to music, make music. A solo outing to see a play can be a wonderful artist date, but so can that walk with an audiobook while your child naps in their stroller. Crank up the art in your life every way you can, to both feed your imagination and learn from the examples of those who have worked in similar creative circumstances.
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Clarity of purpose is the next affective need named in the NELP project, and it refers to making clear the goals and dreams that drive our learning. “By hearing the goals and aspirations of others,” goes the report, “they often expand their notions of what is possible.” To accomplish this clarity of purpose, the NELP recommends establishing concrete goals and creating opportunities for adult learners to see they are making measurable progress.

It’s common to have big, lofty goals for our writing—I’m going to write that novel/finish this essay/publish this book. Goals like these, while true, can feel intimidatingly ambitious, distant, and beyond our control. But I was struck by how meager the goal of the advice-seeker in Care and Feeding was: “How do I maintain a creative hobby?” I just want to get back into it. 

What can help with both grand and modest goals is setting specific, weekly goals—and, if you’ve found a writing buddy or community, declaring these goals at the start of the week and reporting back at its end. One way to make writing goals more effective is to move away from product goals (I’m going to write X; I’m going to finish Y) and toward process and/or practice goals—because “I want to finish this novel” is huge and vague and unachievable in all except the very last writing session before it’s sent to print. Process goals name a specific next step in your writing or artistic process (I’m going to spend one hour researching this topic. I’m going to revise my conclusion. I’m going to revise the first chapter for imagery, or sound. I’m going to make an outline. I’m going to write three pages of a shitty first draft), while practice goals focus more on simply dedicating time focused on your work (I’m going to write three longhand pages first thing when I wake up, or after I drop my kid off at camp, or before I go to bed. I’m going to spend one 25-minute Pomodoro session writing. I’m going to write 1,000 words this week, or 100, or one sentence a day). 

Shifting into a different paradigm of goal-setting—one based in practice or process—can both give us something achievable and concrete to work towards, and help build self-efficacy when we do so. It can also help us make a concrete strategy: not I’ll sit down and see what happens, but I’ll sit down and free-write for 15 minutes. I’ll sit down and revise this scene to make the imagery resonate with the themes of my novel. I’ll sit down and highlight the dialogue between these two characters to make sure their building conflict makes sense. I’ll sit down and see what I have, and then make a note about what I might do next time.

The beauty of pairing goal-setting with buddy- or group-system is that we build an accountability structure: for ourselves and for someone else. When we meet our goal, we have someone cheering for us (and perhaps, as my writing buddy Clare Beams and I did in our early days of partnership, sending us prizes from the internet, like videos of otters holding hands, or the latest brilliance from the Awl). And when we don’t, we have someone supporting us anyway, keeping us from beating ourselves up, and making sure we plan for the week ahead.
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The next affective need, Agency, extends Clarity of purpose into action. NELP defines agency as “the capacity for human beings to make things happen through their actions.” In other words, deciding what one wants to do is clarity of purpose; finding a way to get it done is agency.

When your life shifts from one of relative independence to one that revolves around the feeding, sleep, and care of a tiny human seemingly hellbent on its own death, your agency can feel suddenly, profoundly limited. When the ability to feed yourself, or keep up with laundry, or print a return label, or schedule a doctor’s appointment seems beyond your grasp, carving out time to write, let alone establishing a regular schedule, may sound like a pipe dream. Forget self-actualization; I need to take a shower.

Writers can certainly experience a sense of agency from setting a goal, as discussed above, then meeting it. This is another reason that setting appropriately small-scaled goals can be so buoying for a writing practice in motherhood; few things boost a sense of agency like finishing something. A writer in early parenthood may want to try, then, experimenting with writing in crots and fragments. (There’s a reason so many writers who are mothers write in these forms). A crot a day, in your notes app or texted to yourself, can be small, flexible, and quickly add up. Creating something tiny and complete can provide a sense of accomplishment.

But alongside writing goals, you can bolster a sense of agency by taking a look at the structures and support around your writing practice. This might mean identifying small toeholds. Can you claim 15 minutes a day for your writing, whether those be stable (every morning when I first wake up) or flexible (the first 15 minutes of the first nap of the day, any 15 minute-stretch I can grab)? If you have a present partner, can you claim a similar stretch at the same time each day where the other person can be solely responsible for childcare? If it’s available, you might even dedicate a small area of your home to writing—a desk, a corner.

I often think of helping writers to develop agency in early parenthood as working through the serenity prayer: finding the courage to change what we can, the serenity to accept that we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. If you want to get started again, but feel hemmed in, try taking 10 minutes to write about what you need and what you want, what you have and what you don’t, what might be attainable and what feels beyond possibility, and why. Which parts are material reality, and which are based in the fear of imposing or self-aggrandizing? For one week’s goal, consider naming something you need and taking a step toward it. If you can spend money on these resources, such as childcare, by all means go for it; if not, promise yourself that you’ll find the tiniest ways that you can help support your writing, and commit to them.
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“All adults have a need to feel competent in key aspects of their lives,” the NELP declares in its next section, Competence. Is there anything that makes us feel more shockingly incompetent and also more astonishingly capable than parenting? The magic of a child calming quietly only in one’s arms, then the soul-sinking despair when they cannot feed or sleep or develop the way a chart or teacher says they should. Uncertainty paired with certainty, isn’t that the game?

The NELP report is passionate on this topic:
[A]dults’ beliefs about and realistic assessment of their competence can have a profound effect on their persistence and achievement. … Students with more self-efficacy are more willing to persist to reach their goals in the face of adversity. People who have high self-efficacy visualize success whereas those who doubt their efficacy typically visualize failure.
This, I believe, is where Richards’s response went most off-base: through his tone, in the syntax of asking why can’t you, he made the writer visualize and internalize failure. How, then, to visualize and internalize success? The practice of setting and meeting goals will go a long way towards this, as will the study of the works and lives of writer-mothers. But we can also focus on the writing itself, that source of greatest doubt.

Consistently, one of the most powerful experiences of Writing Through Motherhood is when students share a small passage of their writing, and receive appreciative feedback. Most of them begin tentative and apologetic; by the end of the process, they practically glow through the Zoom screen. If you’re trying to get back to your writing, consider sharing your work with a trusted partner or group. Critique, suggestions—these absolutely have a place in the writing process, but the point where you’re trying to get going, to generate new ideas, to find enough bravery just to come to the page: that ain’t it. Tell your readers explicitly what you need in response instead: to hear what resonates, what’s beautiful, what lingers in their memories, what sparks their imagination, what they want to keep reading, what they hope to see more of. This might feel self-indulgent at first, but if it helps to re-frame it: Isn’t encouragement, and the building of confidence, an essential part of parenting? What happens when we shine that light on ourselves? If you were your child, what would you say to you?

In a recent study, an experimental psychologist randomly sorted a group of ordinary rats into two cages—one labeled as containing particularly smart rats, the other labeled particularly unintelligent. Researchers were then tasked with running the rat through a maze over the period of a few weeks, and recording their progress. Consistently, the rats whose humans thought they were smarter performed better. I think about this a lot in terms of teaching, especially for learners who may have been told or convinced themselves that they’re the bad rats—not “good” or “real” writers or artists. I mentally run my finger on the soft fur between my students’ ears, and whisper, You are the best rat, and then let them run.
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The next driver of persistence is Relevance—the degree to which learning activities resonate and correlate with adult learners’ goals, interests and life experiences. For writers-mothers, this question quickly becomes existential: What on earth does writing have to do with my daily life? What do I possibly have to say? How could this matter? I note how the writer of the Care and Feeding letter described what was clearly a previous artistic “career,” but in her question, she demoted this work to “hobby.”

The question of relevance can feel particularly hard in a country where resources to support mothers are so scarce. It’s hard to defend art, the time and money that goes into it, the lack of observable productivity. Everyone loves art, but few people have the patience for what it takes to make it. And for most of us, the majority of choices in parenting are driven by economic necessity. It’s easy to say: This novel, this painting, this song—what does this have to do with our lives, what we need to survive?

For this reason, I’ll often ask my students to read writer-mothers talking on the importance—and, crucially, the necessity—of writing in their lives. We read Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Joan Didion’s “Why I Write,” Tillie Olsen’s “Silences.” Tillie’s a bummer in this piece, asking, “What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process,” during literary silences? The silences she speaks of “are unnatural; the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.” After tracing various causes of literary silence through history, she turns, finally, to mothers. “The circumstances for sustained creation…” she says, are “nearly impossible. The need cannot be first. It can have at best, only part self, part time…. More than any human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible… It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil.” She concludes that there is no reconciliation for “what is lost by unnatural silences.”

Modern parenthood is often framed as a series of competing priorities and ideas, but what can help create a sense of relevance is to consider art and life not as two competing forces, but as interwoven and complementary. This passage, from Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, summarizes it beautifully:
There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me… and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.

Once we’ve read the work above, I ask writer-mothers to draft their own “Why I Write” manifestos together in class. Then we read excerpts aloud, because it helps to know you’re doing work not only to convince yourself, but to convince others. What we learn every time: Why mothers write has everything to do with the world they are trying to create, with the person they are trying to become, and the people they are raising. What could be more relevant to parenting? With these words in front of them, a small voice is squashed—This is a luxury; it has nothing to do with my life. Writing supports parenting; parenting supports writing: they fortify and inform each other.
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The final driver of persistence is Stability. “Learning is difficult in an environment that is chaotic or unstable,” the report declares, and there are few more universal markers of the early days of parenthood than a lack of stability—a field of landmines of waking and sleeping, feeding, and diaper-changing and soothing.

So much of our culture’s mythos about who a writer is seems built around stability; the imperative to write every day, to start the morning with three pages, to build a routine. But if that schedule simply isn’t possible, what choices exist? Some of what has been covered already contributes to a sense of stability. Joining a class or a group or a collective, finding an accountability partner, setting goals: if you can find someone external to yourself to help you establish this environment, wonderful. But courses are often temporary, and the years are long.

What’s important to remember, I think, is that stability, as an affective need, should not be confused with consistency. That is, something does not need to be exactly the same in order to be permanently present. And that one of the most important things we can help stabilize is a writer’s sense of self-as-artist. One of the first things we often discuss in Writing Through Motherhood is what it means for someone to be a writer. This often surfaces in introductions—someone will feel it necessary to say that they’re not really a writer. I’ll raise the question: Who is?

“Someone who publishes a book,” is almost always the first answer.

“Ah, but we have another word for that—author,” I say.

“Someone who makes a living from writing.”

“But for this we have a modification—professional writer.” It’s easy, too, to rattle off a long list of writers who write as a side gig, working other full- and part-time jobs while they eke out words on the side.

I’ll ask: If someone tells you they’re a runner, do you immediately believe they are making claims about Olympic goals and Nike sponsorships? Is someone who calls themself a gardener clearly vying to design the Rose Garden? Why is it that, the closer we get to the arts, the more we feel we need to prove that we have earned our title with pay or even livelihood?

What if we trust the most essential meaning of the word writer? Usually someone in the group is a current or former K-12 teacher, and they will recite something they’ve told their students: A writer is someone who writes.

“Do you believe this when you tell it to your students?” I ask.

“Absolutely.”

“Do you believe it for yourself?”

They’ll shift in their seat.

Because what does it mean to claim and defend a label of our desires? The friction comes, I believe, from identifying ourselves both to ourselves and to others. To not want to mislead, to not put on airs or pretensions. But who does it hurt if you tell someone you’re a writer? Who does it hurt if you deny it? And if, in early parenthood, you have shown up to the page or to a writing workshop, in person or online, even having paid to be there, amid all the other obligations in your life, what further proof do you need of your own commitment?

Writer, painter, dancer, runner, gardener: these all take the -er suffix, which corresponds to the Latin -or, designating an actor or agent, or the Old English -ere “man who has to do with.” On its surface, the word mother looks like it might follow the same pattern, and a false etymology might likewise suggest the name comes from the performer of a verb. But mother, like father, and sister, and brother, takes its -er from a suffix that denotes not doing, but kinship.

What if we replace, as an imaginative act, the -er in writer with the -er of mother? What changes if we consider ourselves writers as those who are kin to writing? Let’s lean into the fullest, most positive possibilities. Kin can be something we hold close to us, that often defines us. Kin can be someone we love and who loves us back, one we tend to and who tends to us. Sometimes we don’t see kin for a long time. But the bond is still there.

What if, in those stretches where we struggle to make it to the page—when we’re most beating ourselves up for not showing up, for our lack of discipline, an inability to focus—we think of ourselves not as writers, but of writing as kin: a home outside ourselves that will always be there for us. Perhaps, then, we can better weather the dry stretches, the highs and lows, the days and weeks and months and years when the most stable element of writing seems to be the desire for it and the absence of the wherewithal to sit down and do it.

It does get better, and exponentially so when your kids start to have a more steady bedtime and wake-up, and when they enter some sort of predictable daily schedule that includes childcare or school. You and writing will be there for each other. And when you’re ready and able to return, you have steps you can take to reestablish that relationship. A grace note in the NELP discussion of relevance I think is worth sharing: “The degree of perceived relevance of the instructional program to the adult learners goals, interests, and life experience is a key factor in adults’ motivation to persist in their studies even if they need to stop out for a while.”
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One of the most vital skills we learn in parenthood is what advice to internalize and what to ignore. Motherhood forges our sense of our own authority and integrity, because bad advice isn’t only a threat to ourselves, it’s also a threat to our children. So I say to the writer of the Care and Feeding letter: Former writers of this column, like Nicole Chung and Nicole Cliffe, both writer-mothers themselves, probably would have hit this question out of the park for you. This respondent was simply a bad match, with bad advice that you should dismiss as easily as the insistence that your kid should be wearing another sweater.

Mothering is the hardest it’s been in a long time. The pandemic has brought us illness and the threat of illness, isolation, supply chain disruptions, and, more broadly, the stripping of formal and informal social supports, and the mounting awareness of how uniquely hung out to dry mothers are in the U.S.

I finished the first draft of a novel with my infant daughter curled on my chest (which, let’s be clear, tends to be a much easier stage than toddlerhood). I finished a full revision of that book while supervising remote schooling for two kids in the pandemic, and I continue today. The work is slower than I want, but it is always there, and I am always connected to it. I was only able to do it because of community, artistic exposure, clarity of purpose, and senses of agency, competence, relevance, and stability. I assembled these over many years, bit by bit, largely in conversation with other writers who are mothers.

To the letter-writing artist-mother, to any writer or artist wanting to create in parenthood: You are not alone. You are connected to community, a tradition, a legacy. You are a writer because writing is your kin. Nothing will take that away from you. You don’t have to prove it or defend it. But you want to connect with it—listen to that.

Surprise Me!

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