Reviving My Writing Practice Post-Baby

Bundles of Journals

My daughter was almost one before I began writing again. Her early months were all-consuming, and I simply didn’t have the spare energy to either write or worry about not writing. It was late May when I decided it was time to jump back in and figure out where I had left off. Staring at the haphazard pile of drafts and notebooks in my closet, I swallowed a nervous lump in my throat.

Where do I start?

I want to share some of what I’ve learned as I’ve stepped back into a regular habit of writing. Please note: this is not a how-to. I read so many how-tos during the anxious months of pregnancy and early motherhood, I now recoil at the very sight of a how-to infographic. The last thing any of us needs, parent or not, is another way to feel anxious, or another list of things to do.

As a parent and as a writer, I like learning from others and feel grateful for the people and resources that have helped me along the way. Friends texted us when we were struggling with our daughter’s sleep. Eula Biss’s On Immunity and a big fat history of vaccines helped me grapple with all the fear out there about immunizations. The moms and babies in my breastfeeding support group have shared snacks and hugs and recipes and tips with me as we each made our own way through our little ones’ first year.

So what I want to share here is, like so much of my parenting style, a big collage of trial and error and learning from others. It’s what is working now, but I know I will need to stay attentive and active so that I can respond to the changes in my writing and my family. That’s probably the biggest take-home here:

For me, reviving my writing practice has meant tuning into what works today, and taking one step at a time. It has meant being fierce—I will find time to write today because it’s important. And flexible—I will accept the amount and quality of time I have today, even if it’s five minutes, and trust that both will grow and deepen with time.

My goal is to finish a collection of poems, and write prose for paying markets, while continuing to be the primary caregiver for our daughter. Here are five things that are helping me as I reach for those goals.

1) I’m reading more, especially about writing.

It’s really, really easy to collapse on the couch when my girl naps and zone out on the Internet. This is what Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, calls resistance. It’s easier to fritter away my time on Pinterest, in the name of researching dinner recipes or garden hacks, than it is to feel my fear about creating. That fear is currently tuned into my sense of time having accelerated since becoming a mom. I’m afraid I won’t ever have enough time to complete the projects I really care about, so I don’t even begin. You know what? It’s true. I don’t have enough time. I have slivers and bits and scribbled-on margins of time, littered all over the day. But I feel way more inspired and motivated when I use those margins of time purposefully. Now I try to sit down and write, or I read– especially about creativity and career. These are the books I’ve found most helpful so far:

Writer Mama, Christina Katz
Ordinary Genius, Kim Addonizio
The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing, Gigi Rosenberg
Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

Next step is learning how to be kind to myself when I choose Pinterest or Facebook or some stupid slide-show (Kid Stars of the 1980s! Where Are They Now?!) instead. Your tips requested!

2) I map out the weeks and months.
This spring, I signed up for an 8-week Fit4Mom class. Every Monday and Wednesday night for eight weeks, I worked out at 7:30. Period. When I finished those eight weeks, I felt great and saw a difference. I thought, Why not do this with writing?

Now I put writing time and deadlines into my schedule. To keep track, I use the free Monday Calendar app. I also have two whiteboard calendars: one on the fridge for family life, and one above my desk for writing deadlines.

3) I joyfully hitch my wagon to other wagons.
If you are a new parent, and especially what they (so unimaginatively) call a “stay at home mom,” you’re probably well-acquainted with loneliness. Writing can feel lonely, too. I love being able to connect with others about our writing goals and projects– sometimes while we push our kids in swings or pack them into the backpack for a hike.

From time to time, I connect over Skype with a couple of incredible women from my MFA program. We exchange work and critique via group video chat. The technology is hit-or-miss, so I am on the lookout for ways to improve that side of things. But I love the magic of suddenly being reunited with these powerful, compassionate writers. It still feels like sci-fi or Charlie’s Angels to me.

In the spring, a friend included me in a 40-day accountability email exchange. She had a goal and she just wanted a handful of people she was close to to “listen in” on her progress. I was so deeply impressed with her vulnerability and her courage. I read every one of her emails and rooted her on to success. What I learned was that it wasn’t about completing a task perfectly– it was about discovering more about herself and what she valued. So in August, I asked her to join me in a 30-day poetry challenge. I wanted to do something that scared me, like she had. It was scary. Some days I hated it. But I ended up with about ten poems I think I might actually be able to do something with– and that’s more than I’d written in the past two years combined. Holy sh**.

I’m super, duper excited about this next one: a monthly critique group that meets in the evenings. I just started this last month with a handful of friends. I really hope it becomes a long-term thing, because I love it. We plan to rotate houses, exchange work by email a week before each meeting, and keep the snack thing simple.

Last thing in terms of community: taking online courses. I tried one with Poetry Barn and wasn’t able to get through all of the assignments, but I did my best. This month I’m trying a class called Literary Boot Camp with Mothers Always Write and a Personal Essay Intensive course with Ariel Gore, in which we will somehow write the drafts of six essays in twelve days. Both of these just about scare the pants off me. But supposedly that’s how you know you should do something, right? Right…

4) I found a great babysitter, and I stay home and write.
There is no way–no way— I would take on the “6-essays-in-twelve-days” thing without a solid plan. That plan is called childcare. I feel like I struck gold with our babysitter. She works in early childhood education, lives in our neighborhood, and has a gentle personality that my daughter loves. My husband and I pay her well and give her presents because we want her to be our babysitter forever. In the past, I used the time to get out of the house or nap. Now I hunker down at my desk and write.

This automatically saves money on coffee and gas or lunch or whatever I used to do instead of staying home to write. It also has meant combing through our family budget to cut expenses and be able to afford childcare. I say “no” to a lot of small things so that I can say “yes” to one thing that matters a lot to me.  Which leads me to my last point…

5) I’ve let go of a lot of other things.
I’m an American mom in the 21st century, so there are oh, I don’t know, 82 things I think I need to perfect. Tell me I’m not alone when I say I have somehow got it into my head, as a woman in the United States, that after having a baby I need to focus on having a great body, stylish clothes, an amazing sex life, homemade homegrown vegan meals, a spotless and stylish house cleaned with homemade natural cleaners, and spend all of my time engineering crafty sensory-play activities for baby. Good grief.

Thankfully, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Thankfully, I believe in a God who loves me as I am and covers me with grace, because not only do I fall so very short of perfection, I also believe the lies of this culture and keep wandering down their hall-of-mirror detours. Writing is prayer for me, because I also really suck at praying. But when I write, I feel like I get in touch with who God made me to be, and everything else starts showing up the way it ought to. The important things look important again, and the silly things look really, really silly.

Caring for our daughter is in.
Writing is in.
Connecting with my family is in.
Basic self-care is in.
Everything else is bonus.

I am learning to simplify my exercise routine (… sometimes that means I don’t exercise, but progress not perfection, right?) and keep our weeknight meals really simple. This summer I got fed up with keeping house and kind of just quit. Turns out that isn’t sustainable for any of us, so last night my husband and I sat down over a glass or two of wine and made our very first chore chart. In five years of marriage and twelve years of living life together. I hope we survive this. (Just kidding– like everything I’ve written here, the chore chart is an experiment designed to help us figure out what works for us. I’ll let you know how it goes.)

The best part about writing again— writing even though I’m scared, writing instead of procrastinating, writing myself toward a career I have wanted since I was a little girl— the best part is that the more I write, the more I feel like… me.

I feel motivated to write. Ideas find me. I wake up with lines for a new poem or one in revision. I have more energy. I’m a lot happier and that means I am more focused when I’m with my daughter and family.

I don’t have this nagging sense of work left undone, of missing out on a life I want to live, because I’m living it.

Are you returning to a writing practice after becoming a parent? Please share your ideas in the comments. I’d love to learn from you.

Photo via Unsplash stock photos; Simson Petrol.

 

Thank you for your support!

I’d like to thank the people who sponsored my attendance at the Tupelo Press Perfect 10 workshop, which invites poets to bring twenty poems to the mountains for three days of intensive workshops in the company of other poets. With their support, I completed Split the World in Two, a collection of ten poems written or revised over the course of the weekend (October 31-Nov 2 in Truchas, New Mexico.) I also received invaluable one-on-one feedback on a chapbook-length manuscript. Many thanks to the following people, who sponsored me via Indiegogo in October 2014. You guys are awesome.

Cheryl Wallick
Amy Ridout
Bill Peters
Chris Warner
Mike Datz
Aaron Guest
Stephanie Langlais
Isabelle Ratane
Holly Ringland
Barbara Marsh
Robyn Steely
Sandy Parks
Evan Schneider
Julia Vanderham
Rachel Hammer
Celine Foucher
Megan Falcone
Patrick Poulin
Heather River
Nancy Poulin
Debra Conkey
Cathleen Greiner
Dave & Claudia Bennett
Tom Reeser
Cynthia Eggers
Bryce Poulin
Sharna Langlais
Bob & Kathy Crawford
Jim Renfro
Brett Poulin
Christa Easton
Autumn Reeser
Lonnie Handel

 

Writing Log # 3: Taking off

bXoAlw8gT66vBo1wcFoO_IMG_9181

It has been a big month!

The anthology I’ve been editing over the past year is finally finished, printed, and waiting in boxes in my living room for this week’s first mailing session and book launch party. It’s beautiful. I love it so much and I can’t wait to get it into the hands of many, many readers.

I launched my Indiegogo campaign and in a matter of weeks, my friends and family launched ME on the road to New Mexico. I leave next Friday morning for a weekend writing workshop with Tupelo Press, one big step toward finishing by first collection of poems. I’m amazed and so grateful.

And yesterday I found out that I was accepted into this year’s Teaching Artists Studio, run by Young Audiences of Oregon and SW Washington. I’m beyond excited for this series of intensive weekend professional development workshops for practicing artists who teach young people. It’s going to be incredible, and it starts in just a few weeks.

With all of this excitement (and more…), I’ve been sleeping less and thinking a lot about details. Wine cups for the event, mailers for book distribution, renting a mini-van in Albuquerque so I can carpool to the Truchas workshop with other poets. Emails and press releases and even an interview.

In between, I’ve managed a few naps, some hasty notes for poems, and sneaky bits of new reading (Mark Doty’s memoir Firebird, strange and beautiful; Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, because I still haven’t read it; Denise Levertov’s Light up the Cave, a favorite.) There’s a sinkful of dirty dishes in the kitchen, and a pile of rebar and pvc pipe in the garden, waiting to be turned back into a hoophouse for our winter bed. The ants are making inroads and the romaine lettuces are shivering, but they’ll have to wait.

I’ve been elbow deep in the pre-conference assigned writing, which is challenging and engaging– and hard to make time for during the week. I just find myself with so little energy left after commuting, teaching, prepping, commuting again, and catching up on the aforementioned details. But I’m trying.

I logged a pretty weak three hours this week. I had plans for some good writing time today, but insomnia last night and a power outage at the grocery store midday had other plans. So here I am, catching up and hoping to park myself at my desk after church tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I keep looking for moments to dip into this well of gratitude, and it brings me energy. I’m thankful for the support I feel all around me, including the community of writers I met in my MFA program. After a year apart from them, I was delighted when one plucky poet wrangled a few of us together for what I hope is a monthly Skype workshop, preceded by an exchange of our current poems in progress. That’s this Wednesday and I’m looking forward to seeing their sweet faces and connecting about our work.

 

Writing Log #2: Drafting

Leaves-page-001Last week was a tough one. I barely pulled myself upright on both feet, showered, and made it to work each day, so my morning writing time went out the window. I made up for it on Saturday, though, by clearing my schedule and sitting down at my desk for the morning and early afternoon. I logged a solid 6 hours in that writing chair.

The bulk of it was revising. I have about six or seven different folders stuffed with drafts in various phases of order and disorder. Every month, I try to get away from the house with my book, my typewriter, and my drafts. I dive back into the mess, picking up where I left off and usually finding some new angle on a piece or (less appetizing) realizing that the poem I thought was finished last month actually needs major work.

Then I take everything back home and make changes to the master document on my computer. I just find that I do more of the actual creative work if I separate myself from the computer, and spend time with the poems themselves.

I keep my current version of the book in a three-ring binder, so that I can easily reorder things when I’ve got a new piece or revisions for an older poem.

This month, I couldn’t get away from home, but I’m happy with what I accomplished– and delighted that I’ll be on a plane to New Mexico in a few weeks, for a real chance to get busy with this book. Thank you SO MUCH for your contributions to my Indiegogo campaign. I’ve booked my tickets and I’m starting to work on the pre-conference exercises, which are substantial.

Here’s a poem in progress, something about regret that I’ve been trying to write. Please leave some feedback.

Grass

Once we fell asleep
in the meadow
during a meteor shower,
wind licking our thoughts so
they knelt like blades.

Another night I lay staring
up from bare ground until
I saw one fall—Hello
and I knew I was going
out like that, and you were
an orange glow in the window
washing dishes, tinning
silver on ceramic and then
there, breaking the dark
like a yolk and saying
should I get a blanket?

Tuesday morning, I passed
a couple asleep
beneath a row of cypress
trees— new, and clear of words
they didn’t mean

and I remembered I told you
No, meaning blanket
meaning you in the grass
with me covered in stars,
but you were already gone.

 

 

Writing Log #1

Delicate by ChristineMonday I launched my first ever Indiegogo campaign, to fund my attendance at a weekend writing workshop and finish my first book of poems.

I was floored– absolutely floored– at the response from friends and family in the first few days. Even more than knowing that I am much closer to attending the workshop, I am simply struck by the reality of love as a motivating force. Knowing that you guys are rooting for me and that you believe in me enough to contribute– this is tremendous. It really does make a difference in getting to the desk every day, or at least just propping myself up on one elbow, bleary-eyed at 5 a.m., and reaching for my notebook to scribble something down. Instead of saying, nah, I’ll just sleep a little longer, I get up because I have made a commitment to myself and to all of you to finish this book.

So how did I do this week with writing?

I logged 3 hours and 40 minutes, and it felt good, if a little wobbly.

Beginning intensive work on a project or getting back to a regular writing practice has almost always been awkward for me. The work is either wooden or woozy– it’s like I haven’t quite find the right mix of hot and cold. How much control and how much freedom?

I think what I’ve been most excited about is cultivating creative energy for this book, feeling potential begin to circulate in my fingers, ideas gathering. And I’m hoping that this will also lead to more writing away from my desk, more moments– on the MAX, in class, driving, in the shower– when an idea or a question or a line comes to me.

I’ve also been digging through the desk drawer I keep with lost poems and lines– bits of drafts that never made it or rambling freewrites– and experimenting in crafting new work from them.