Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finding Time for (Creative) Work When You Have Kids

Last week, I published a BlogHer review for My Artist's Way Toolkit, a website designed as a companion to Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way.

As I mentioned in my review, I didn't find the system all that helpful for my particular writing style, and one of the reasons for that is time. Cameron's method stresses the importance of "morning pages," three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness writing churned out in the early moments of waking.

Don't get me wrong. I teach writing, and I am a huge proponent of free writing and writing every day. I  definitely see value in this habit, but I had the same problem that many, many of the commenters over at the BlogHer main post about morning pages have: mornings are hectic.

Commenter and commenter echoed some version of the same sentiment: "I have kids. I can't write three pages longhand in the morning." I've blogged before about just how precarious my morning routine is, and I only have one child. Plus, I'm not a morning person. I wasn't particularly adept at getting out the door in one piece before I had another human life added to my list of responsibilities.

Coffee Club
AND I don't drink coffee, so I can't even make cute quips about how
you can't mess with me until I've had my first cup. Life is hard. 
There is, of course, a well documented historical debate wrapped up in this conversation. Creative work is often seen as this very engaged activity that feeds the soul even as it risks consuming the artist. (I can't find the quote right now, but I'm thinking of a musician who said that he did drugs because there was nothing in real life that could match the high of making music.) Creating is consuming: of time, of self, of energy. 

But then, so is motherhood. 

Because so much of caregiving (and not just mothering, but also household maintenance) has traditionally fallen on their shoulders, women have not always had equal opportunities to enter into these kinds of creative endeavors. It is this inequality that Virginia Woolf tackled so deftly in A Room of  One's Own. Here she notes that a woman needed independent financial means and her own space in order to write.

What further complicates Woolf's understanding of gender inequalities and creative work, though, is motherhood. As Marina DelVecchio writes in this great blog post on the topic:
But this brings us to the third component Virginia Woolf does not mention that often stands in the way of female writers: motherhood. In thinking about women writers and motherhood, consider all the blogging mothers out there. There are hundreds of thousands of them, from all over the world, writing stories and poems and books between toddler naps and dinner preparations, carpool and play dates. Like Brontë, their writing is interrupted by reality’s necessities for women. Mother writers have to write the stories in their heads while shopping for food; they have to create visual outlines of story plots while compiling and checking off daily to-do-lists. They compose poetry in snippets and drips and drops of free time they find in a singular day. They write their books at night after their kids are safely tucked into their beds, or they wake up extra early like Sylvia Plath used to do, rushing out lines of poetry she had memorized and jotting them quickly on paper before the kids woke up. Mother writers abandon unfinished stories and poems and book ideas in hopes that the muse that brought them would return at some point; preferably when the kids are in school or asleep. 
Unlike Hemingway and other male writers, women writers write in between mothering. Supported by their husbands, they can find spaces well enough, but time is not theirs; not when motherhood and family predominate. Male writers continue to have this freedom, for even after they are fathers, they can still go to “work” to write; they can leave the household and the children to the care of their wives. But for women, the home and the children belong to them first, and they suffer the want of writing in silence, stealing time where they can get it just to write a line or two, or even a page that will make sense hours later, long after the muse has departed. 
I wonder what Virginia Woolf would say about this.
op shop quilt 

That's certainly how I write, patching together the pieces of an idea until there is some discernible whole. This very post was written that way, thinking about it while loading the car up before daycare drop off or running at the gym, writing part of it on lunch break at work. Some posts are in the works for days. Some never get finished at all. For the most part, this is the same process I use for my scholarly writing as well: I write what I can, when I can.

There are times, though, when that simply will not do. Sometimes, the writing has to come out. Maybe the topic has sparked some passion, maybe I'm working through some sort of mental block that won't come undone until I expend this energy.

And sometimes, not often, but sometimes, that can clash pretty hard with parenting.

I don't think that this particular clash is limited to motherhood and writing, though. In fact, I can think of a couple of instances where this topic comes up directly in song lyrics (penned by men) as they're performing them. 

On the intro to Wyclef Jean's Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, you can hear a pencil writing in the background of the song and then Wyclef speaks some of his lyrics to himself, but then he's interrupted by a child crying: "Come on chill out Angie/Let daddy finish writing" is the next line of the song. 

Ludacris' song "Tell it Like it Is" is framed with a conversation with his daughter. He's talking to her and then says "Now go in the other room. It's about to be some grown folk talk in here." At the end of the song, a child's voice says "Daddy are you finished with grown folk talk?" to which Ludacris replies "Yeah baby. You can come back in here. Come give daddy a kiss. You know I love you, right?" and then the child returns to say "And I love you always." 

In other words, I don't think that its just motherhood that is occasionally incompatible with creative expression, but parenting in general. The fact of the matter is, though, that someone has to be taking care of those children. When they are sent out of the room by those male speakers, it is presumably the mothers who are doing that caregiving. 

As long as mothers (perhaps forcefully, at times) claim that same right--to have a momentary break from the duties of parenting in order to create--then there's a chance for equitable navigation of the creative work and parenting outside of ascribed gender roles. If that negotiation isn't (or can't be) made, then where does that leave women who want/need to create? 

Which brings me back to The Artist's Way and morning pages. I completely believe that there are moments when creative work is absolutely all-consuming and needs undivided attention, but is it realistic to expect that to happen every morning? If we define creative work in that way, doesn't that essentially cut a whole lot of parents (mothers and fathers) out of the definition? It's one thing to need some uninterrupted time now and then to complete a pressing project, but I can't imagine a space in which I could demand that every morning, and it's not because I'm in an inequitable caregiving situation, but because that simply doesn't match the reality of the life that I live (I wouldn't be able to give that kind of request to my husband, either.) Does that mean that I cannot ever truly create? Are my words pieced together when time allows less valuable? 

Of course I'm biased, but I don't think that's true. Learning to write in the spaces of our lives is a skill, and I am happy to have the opportunity to both do creative work and to parent. Both of these roles are important to me as far as what I produce and as far as who I am and how I identify. Could I write "better" pieces if I were not a mother? Perhaps. They'd probably be more polished, less rushed, and more focused. But then I would also not be who I am, and so they would lack the perspective with which I approach my writing. I could, in short, not write what I write any other way. 

What do you think? Are "morning pages" realistic for parents? Do you notice a tension between your creative work and your parenting? 

Photo credits: anthony_p_cnixielinks


  1. I am a poet, but also a mother to a nine-year old, a two-month old and a step-mother to a five-year old. As an adjunct professor at two universities, I teach at least a 6/6 load as well as summer courses. Unfortunately, poetry lives in the margins of my life in the same way it does in those sentences: sparsely.

    Last week, I got my newborn down and my eldest child onto a game and I went out to water the garden. In those precious ten minutes of "freedom", a scant resource these days, I memorized the sketchings of a poem. I repeated the lines aloud over and over desperate to remember them. I felt relieved. See, I said to myself almost blissfully after a few minutes of self and silence, see, I can do this.

    I repeated the lines again, watered the remaining plants and walked in the house to a baby screaming. I dropped the fragments and guiltily swooped up the crying little one. What was left of those few lines was barely intact--some strange scribblings from someone too rushed to be coherent.

    It's a constant struggle for me as a poet to remain creative, nonetheless it's one of my most important identities. It's an endangered (virtually extinct)identity to which I cling. I am typing this now one-handed while breastfeeding. When someone suggests that the solution is that we must make time, I hear the wailing of my newborn. I do need time, but it's not there.

    1. I will say that I haven't written much poetry since becoming a mother. The outlines of blog posts and stories are easier to keep in my head than lines of poetry, which seem so much more delicate--they have a tendency to evaporate without a trace if I don't capture them then and there. And that's part of the frustration of that time paradox. It really wouldn't even take much time to get the stuff written down, but it's not like I know in advance when that moment is going to strike, and it's not like there's some magic childcare fairy that will swoop down if I tap my heels at the right moment.

      Maybe that's part of the allure of the "morning pages"--it gives a set time that is yours just for writing? But that still doesn't mean (for me, anyway) that the inspiration will be there just because the time is. It's a very difficult balance.

      All that to say, I feel you, and keep writing. Poems don't cry (at least not aloud), so they're easier to neglect, but children can be a little like poetry, too, I think.

  2. I'm a freelance musician (in large part, a composer) and an at-home dad with two kids (ages 2 and 4). And while the "morning pages" ideas would NEVER work with my lifestyle (I refuse to wake up before my kids, and I refuse to ignore my kids once they're awake), there are definitely ways to make it happen. Naptime pages. 9 PM pages. Just-before-bed pages. It's hard to carve out that time, but I've been able to successfully find creative time around my kids' sleep schedule. I actually have a piece of music on a concert next week that was written for my 1st daughter, entirely created in fits and starts during her nap times. It's possible! Keep the faith!

  3. I think maybe you're being too hard on the concept of "morning pages." Granted, I haven't read her project or book, but while "morning" may not work, scheduling does. As Scott says, maybe naptime, or evening, or 3 am might work better. But only writing "when you have time" isn't always going to happen. If you say "I'll write when I have time" that time may never come. Haven't we all said "I'll learn a new language when I get the time," or "I'd like to read that book when I have time," or "I'll write the great American novel when I get some free time." How much would we do "if we had the time?" Something will always fill your time and it is much easier to make sure it is filled wih the things you need/want to do if it is scheduled. So if it is easier for you to write during naptime, that's fine. Make sure you always write during naptime. If it is easier to write before you go to sleep. That's fine too, just make sure you do it instead of running off to dreamland early instead.
    The point (at least I hope The Artist's Way's point) isn't the time of day you do it, but that you *schedule* a time to do it at all.

    1. That's true, and a very good point, but it's not just the "morning" part that didn't work (for me--it sounds like it works very well for some people), but also the very strict three pages written out longhand part. If I was able to set aside some set time to write everyday, I wouldn't want it dictated that it HAVE to be three pages of hand-written stream-of-consciousness writing because chances are that most days, that's the ONLY time I'm going to really have to write, so when would I get anything else written then? Also, I really, really prefer typing to handwriting--easier to edit, easier to save, and faster.

    2. Your comment also prompted me to do a little research on what Julia Cameron has said about the flexibility of morning pages. In these online interviews, she says that they HAVE to be longhand, that you can't listen to music while doing them, and that theyhave to be in the morning because "Morning Pages and Evening Pages are two different things."

      Again, I'm not saying I see no value in that (because, like you pointed out, if you don't make time for writing (or whatever you love), you may never do it), but this feels more like a very codified method of "Writing" that I feel excludes a lot of people for who that particular kind of time is never going to be an option.

    3. Ah, ok, so I was wrong. The program doesn't sound very good to me. I don't like writing out long-hand because then I just retype it on the computer later. Why would I write it twice. Also, morning pages and eveng pages are two different things? Her lack of flexability and just stupid definitions really turn me off to this.

  4. I can't count the number of times Lauren and I have emailed each other to say "I'm writing a post about xyz in my head, but I'm not sure when I'll have time to put it up on the blog." For myself, I can say that the struggle to write is 3 fold: it's finding/making time, compounded by difficulty focusing/disciplining myself (this is mostly true in the evenings, when I could use those last few waking moments to write but instead get sucked into watching Pawn Stars), compounded by uncertainty that what I have to say is worthwhile enough to merit the time and discipline.
    I can see, theoretically, that morning pages could help with all of those, and yet, I can't muster up a lot of enthusiasm for them. Maybe there's something off-putting about trying to see myself as AN ARTIST?

    1. I am glad I'm not the only one who counts brain writing as writing! I do it all the time. Sometimes I go to bed early just to have peace and quiet to work things out before I write them down.