“Don’t expect to feel balanced or sane. What helps is tenderness, for yourself, your partner, your children.”
-Diana Whitney, author of indie bestseller Wanting It (poetry, Harbor Mountain Press)
[Learn about the Pen Parentis Research Project.]
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and your responsibilities.
DW: I live with my family in an old yellow farmhouse in Brattleboro, Vermont, where my husband and I raise chickens, grow veggies, and free-range our two semi-wild daughters (aged 7 and 9). This is the idyllic, Facebook-friendly version of our life, which although full of beauty, often feels scattered, busy, and overwhelming.
I run a small yoga studio attached to our home, teaching group classes and private sessions during the day while my kids are at school and also on evenings and weekends. I’ve been teaching yoga for over 15 years and love how intuitive and physical the work is—a natural complement to writing and computer-time. I also love connecting with people through a meditative practice and sharing with others the quiet energy of breath and movement.
I love having flexible work I can do from home, but I frequently worry about how little income I generate and am always thinking about other possible careers (teaching writing being one of them). I try to carve out a few hours of writing time in-between teaching yoga and school pick-up at 2:50 pm. But I’ll be honest—some days this doesn’t happen, or I have an appointment or errands to run, or I squander the precious two hours on email and busy-work. But sometimes I’m lucky to have a whole day (5 or 6 hours) to focus on my writing—an incredible blessing.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
DW: In my ideal world, I wake early (before 6 a.m.) and write and read for an hour before anyone else is up. In the quiet house, with a cup of tea, I read poems I love (most recently: Jean Valentine, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone, Laura Kasischke) and drop into that still, anticipating space where writing is possible. But this happens at most once a week.
I am notoriously haphazard with my writing schedule. Lately, I’ve been trying to plan ahead, to look at my week and block out longer chunks of time where I can write without interruption, usually in the early afternoon. Three hours is blissful—then I can really relax into it and not feel I’m racing the clock. When it comes to writing poetry, I need to trick myself into a sensual expansiveness. I need to get rid of my inner taskmaster with her narrow little Puritan work ethic and give myself permission to stare out the window, walk in the garden, read a book in the sun, nap, doodle, eat chocolate…
The one routine I’ve cherished for the past six years is going to a local writing group on Tuesday nights. God how I love leaving the crazy-busy domestic world (School pick-up! Activities! Homework! Dinner! Clean up!) and entering a calm space dedicated purely to creativity. My novelist/editor friend Suzanne Kingsbury has created a wonderful method called Gateless Writing, and her weekly “salon” offers a sacred space for writers to generate and share new work.
I go at least every other week, and during the 40 to 60 minutes of concentrated writing time, I usually get a draft of a new poem or essay. Then we read our drafts aloud and respond only to what is positive in the new work. Being part of this group has helped me fall in love with writing again and given me a tribe of other writers (poets, novelists, playwrights, memoirists) who inspire and support each other.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
DW: I stopped writing poetry after my first baby was born. Motherhood rendered me mute, maybe because my dad had died suddenly the month before I gave birth, maybe because I got severe preeclampsia and almost died myself during labor.
“Having a [writing] deadline structured my writing life while my [kids] were little. The girls were a wonderful source of material.”
In hindsight, the grief, shock and trauma of those two experiences were enough to silence the muse. Then I got pregnant again and had my second baby less than two years later. Carmen had colic, and we lived in a state of near-crisis, in what I call The Baby Cave. Nursing round the clock and staying home with a baby and a toddler is enough to dull any woman’s creative powers, though I’m in awe of the incredible motherhood poems written some of my poet-heroes: Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Laura Kasischke, Beth Ann Fennelly…
Eventually I started sleeping a bit more and found I could channel my energy into prose—brief essays about life in The Baby Cave that turned into my parenting column, Spilt Milk. For four years I wrote Spilt Milk every two weeks, and the column was syndicated in several newspapers and ran as a public radio commentary series.
Having a deadline of 800 words structured my writing life while my children were little, and the girls were a wonderful source of material. I’m currently collecting Spilt Milk into a memoir-in-essays about the darker side of motherhood —an intimate look at the judgment, perfectionism and guilt inherent in our mothering culture.
I’m lucky to have an amazing, supportive partner who honors my writing life on both an emotional and practical level. I’m also grateful that my kids are curious about my work (even though they sometimes resent how it takes me away from them). Now that the girls are older, we talk more about writing, and I’ll sometimes read them poems or essays. Ava writes wonderful poems and stories and shares them with me, and I’m inspired by her wild imagination and facility with language—though to be honest I sometimes get jealous of how she can simply sit down and bust out a poem while I’m in the kitchen cooking dinner.
I adore reading aloud to my girls, delighting in Harry Potter or The Hobbit or other children’s classics. I recently wrote a book review for The Huffington Post about children’s novels with strong female characters, called “Best Summer Books to Read With Your Daughters.”
“I struggle with guilt in both directions— guilt at not writing, and guilt at not mothering well enough.”
The deadline was over school vacation, and the girls helped me chose our favorite books and take photos and even write some of the text. Usually I’m so protective of and grouchy about my writing time, but it was fun to integrate them into the process. I could never do this with poetry, though. For that I need solitude and absolute quiet.
PP: What’s challenging about being a writer who is also a parent?
DW: Sometimes I feel hopelessly torn between my identity as a writer and my role as mother and wife. There is always tension between the two, and I’ve had to accept it as part of my karma in this lifetime. I struggle with guilt in both directions— guilt at not writing, and guilt at not mothering well enough. In my darkest days, I lacerate myself with questions: Why aren’t I more fulfilled by family life? Why is there always this edge of agitation and discontent, even in the happiest moments?
In an essay called “Education of the Poet” (in her collection Proofs and Theories), Louise Gluck writes, “the desire to make art produces an ongoing experience of longing, a restlessness sometimes, but not inevitably, played out romantically, or sexually. Always there seems something ahead, the next poem or story, visible, at least, apprehensible, but unreachable. To perceive it at all is to be haunted by it; some sound, some tone, becomes a torment…” I hope to make peace with this restlessness, this haunting, and resolve to be kinder with myself as a writer and a mother.
I have a fierce desire for privacy and solitude, a need for space that is hard to find amidst the rhythms of family life. Now my daughters are older, I can leave once a year for a writing residency and immerse myself in my work in a supportive community of artists. It’s kind of like training camp for athletes, where you build stamina and lay a foundation for the seasons ahead.
I recently returned from 12 blissful days at the Vermont Studio Center where I wrote and revised poems and essays, read books, lived and ate and talked with other writers, focused only on writing for at least six hours each day. I’m so grateful for this gift. Having some kind of immersion on an annual basis is essential for me— freed from the domestic duties, lists and routines and able to follow an idea through to its conclusion.
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
- “Finding balance” is just an impossible cliché. Don’t expect to feel balanced or sane. What helps is tenderness, for yourself, your partner, your children. Acknowledge how difficult it is to be living a creative life as a 21st century householder, but also know you are choosing it and wouldn’t have it any other way. Have faith that as your children grow, you will have more and more time and space for your writing. I never could have written a book five years ago, when I was still deep in The Baby Cave.
- See if you can create a proverbial “room of one’s own” for your writing. Last year I reclaimed the kids’ playroom as my writing study and it was a powerful symbolic and practical act. I can now shut a door and have my own space. The girls still play in the room and do art projects and sometimes drive me crazy, but the space is there when I need it. Someday I dream of having a little writer’s cabin out back, self-contained, with just a desk and some books and a woodstove—visible, but a brief walk away from the house.
Diana Whitney‘s first book of poetry, Wanting It, was released in 2014 by Harbor Mountain Press and became an Indie bestseller. Wanting It was short-listed for the Julie Suk Award for best book of poetry published by an independent press, and Diana’s poem “Curiosity” (about fielding questions from her kids) was selected by Ellen Bass to win the National Women’s Book Association Poetry Prize. Diana’s essays and poems have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and many more. Her irreverent parenting column, Spilt Milk, was syndicated in several newspapers, ran as a public radio commentary series, and is currently being collected into a book. A yoga teacher by trade, Diana blogs about the darker side of motherhood for The Huffington Post and runs a yoga studio in Brattleboro, Vermont, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and fourteen chickens. Learn more at diana-whitney.com.
The Pen Parentis Research Project is a series of interviews with parent authors in order to learn how they mange time, publish, earn a living, nurture creative community, and care for their kids. Managed by Mary Harpin, the project will culminate in a book with stories, data, and helpful information that other parent writers can apply to their own busy lives. Support the project with a contribution to the Pen Parentis crowdfunding campaign.