Pen Parentis is running a transformative pilot program this school year (starting Fall 2017) to teach an innovative community-building creative writing workshop to the parents of middle school students in...
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“For all the time lost to parenthood and the difficulty carving out a chunk in which to write, the inspiration is more than worth it.”
-Jack Miller, Poet
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment (if applicable).
JM: After graduating college with a bachelor’s degree in literature and computer science, I spent about nine years working for a medical software company in various capacities and saving up money to finance my planned medium-term career as a stay-at-home dad. My last day at that company was three days before my daughter Anya was born; I spent the next seven years or so as a full-time hands-on father, while my wife earned the bulk of our income as a lawyer. I stretched my dad-savings with money I earned from writing, consulting, and freelance vegan baking.
Once the money finally ran out, I went back to work as the IT Manager at a small psychiatric firm nearby, where I still work to this day. It’s only four miles from home and the hours are very flexible, so it still lets me volunteer in my daughter’s classrooms, take days off to bake for Girl Scout meetings, and leave early twice a week to get Anya to ballet class on time.
Anya. She turned thirteen at the end of last April. I only ever really wanted one kid, in part because I honestly doubt that I ever had the energy to raise more than one with the degree of attention and care I’d want to devote. I never for an instant felt like I was missing having more. She’s all the awesome I’d ever hoped for, times a thousand.
I live in a house in the suburbs of Boston, in a quiet town with decent schools, a Trader Joe’s, and its own Poet Laureate. We live across the street from a small clump of forest preserves, and while it felt like the middle of nowhere when I first moved in (I’m a city boy at heart), it’s actually only about a fifteen-minute drive from the Boston city limits.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
JM: [My schedule is] probably more sane than a lot of people’s, but occasionally challenging. My wife and I separated a few years ago, but we’re still good friends and are rocking the co-parenting thing pretty well. She moved into an apartment just a few blocks away and Anya generally spends every other week at each residence. On weeks when Anya is with me, an average weekday is cooking meals, driving to and from school and ballet class, help with homework, and, of course, work. On weeks when she’s with her mom, I still do all the driving, and I usually have to be out and moving by 7:00 or so to get everything done and get her to school on time. In the evenings I’m cooking, writing, spending time with my girlfriend, and just generally not getting enough sleep.
“The big writing, when it comes, tends to happen late at night as a sacrifice to the gods of sleep deprivation”
I will say that I’m blessed to still get to spend so much time with my daughter, who isn’t yet enough of a teenager to have completely walled me out. We still have a lot in common, and sometimes I’ll take vacation time so we can spend a Daddy-Daughter Mad Science Week together, work on her costumes for comic conventions, and discuss each others’ creative projects. At any given time she’s usually working on making a video game or a song or a graphic novel.
While all of this is grist for the mill, the hard part is finding time to get that mill up and running.
These days I really don’t have [a writing routine]. Back when Anya was a baby and I was still cranking out 1500 words a day for a web site I ran, I used to write as much as I could while she napped, and did the rest in the wee hours of the night after she’d finally conk out. I never got much sleep. I remember finally hitting a wall of physical exhaustion so hard that I would think of the sentence to type, try to type it, read it back, and find I’d waking-sleep-typed a completely different sentence about alligators and avocados. It was more than a little scary just losing control of basic language skills like that.
Now I tend to write sporadically and in binges, occasionally working on little bits and pieces during the workday while waiting for progress bars to fill. The big writing, when it comes, tends to happen late at night as a sacrifice to the gods of sleep deprivation. I’ve never needed as much sleep as most people, and that helps a lot.
I will say that I did the National Poetry Writing Month challenge last April (thirty poems in thirty days), and somehow pulled it off; that’s a lot more writing than I usually do, and I lost a lot of sleep to make it happen, but it felt good to know that I could do it. That said, I’ve written precious little poetry since then.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
JM: I’m pretty insular, so writing circles and workshops aren’t really my thing, but my girlfriend Petaluma assembled a small group of friends a couple of years ago called the Back Burner Club. We meet about once a month and we eat good food and report our progress on projects that we’d always meant to tackle but always seemed to put off in favor of life’s more pressing demands. It’s been a great way to assign some external importance and deadline pressure to projects that otherwise would never find their way to the foreground. It’s because of the Back Burner Club that I finally did National Poetry Writing Month this year, for example, and it’s also prompted me to dust off a long-untouched unfinished novel, and to turn an old short story into a multimedia presentation.
“It’s the ‘life-life’ balance that’s trickier: trying to read enough, write enough, absorb enough, be the dad I want to be and the romantic partner I want to be, and manage all that while still staying on top of all the day-to-day mundanities like bills and meals and keeping a middle-aged body from completely falling apart.”
I’m not sure I’m very comfortable with the term “work-life balance,” or at least I suspect I don’t define it the same way others do. Does writing fall on the work side of that balance, or the life side? How about parenting, which I’ve always considered my real career? I’m lucky to have a job that doesn’t consume more than 40 hours a week (a rarity in the tech sector!), and I think I lump together everything not job-related on the “life” side of the equation, so the work-life balance isn’t too difficult to maintain.
It’s the “life-life” balance that’s trickier: trying to read enough, write enough, absorb enough, be the dad I want to be and the romantic partner I want to be, and manage all that while still staying on top of all the day-to-day mundanities like bills and meals and keeping a middle-aged body from completely falling apart. At some point I realized it’s all too much to hold in my head, and I offloaded a lot of it to software and services. These days I pretty much just do what my phone tells me to do and that takes care of a lot of the everyday stuff that would otherwise fall through the cracks.
I think [the most rewarding part of being a writing parent is] getting to share both the successes and failures with my daughter. When she was a baby and toddler and I would write articles for magazines, I’d often find a way to slip photos of her into screenshots for software reviews and that sort of thing, so I could show her when the magazines came out. When she was a little older I started letting her write my bios, and we’d get to celebrate together when a poem would get published. Similarly, she was always there with a sympathetic hug when I’d get a tough rejection letter.
“Being a parent (especially the primary caregiver of a baby) is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I literally used to have to repair computers used for brain surgery in the operating room while a neurosurgeon yelled at me.”
Also, for all the time lost to parenthood and the difficulty carving out a chunk in which to write, the inspiration is more than worth it. Not even just inspiration about parenthood- and child-related topics, either; I feel like I’ve just gotten generally more creative and inspired from being a father. Something about spending so much time around a young and developing mind makes an enormous difference. I’m sure that one of the biggest expanders of creative thought is gaining new perspective on seemingly mundane subjects, and being a hands-on parent offers up plenty of that.
In the seven or eight years before Anya was born, I probably only wrote perhaps a half-dozen poems and maybe two or three short stories. Right after she arrived I had an idea for a novel (which, due to the time factor, is still unfinished, but alive), and by the time she was two or three years old I was writing poetry again. Very little of that poetry is about being a father, but almost none of it would have existed had I not become one.
PP: What’s challenging about it?
JM: I struggle with overload, mostly. If you’re a primary caregiver and working a full-time job, and trying to maintain a romantic relationship, and trying to remember to pay the orthodontist bill, and needing to get the brakes fixed, and wondering where the small puddle on the floor is coming from every time you do a load of laundry, etc. etc. etc., unless you’re relying on it for a paycheck, at some point the writing will get crowded out to the back burner. There are only so many hours in the day, so many days one can go without sleep, and so many brain cells that can juggle the gazillion things splitting one’s attention every second. Couple that with a lousy work ethic and a superhuman ability to procrastinate, and it’s no wonder I tend to write shorter pieces. (Even without being a parent, back in college if I’d majored in a department that required a thesis, I would probably still be an undergraduate.)
“I feel like I’ve just gotten generally more creative and inspired from being a father.”
What do I need? Alone-time. I think maybe I need more than most people, and that becomes a problem, because I have to be alone to write, but I also need alone-time to recharge and keep from running amok. With only so many hours alone available, I have a tough time dividing those hours most efficiently between watching cartoons while eating Pringles and actually getting any writing done.
Also, understanding. I think if you’re seriously going to write as a parent, the too-many-things-and-not-enough-time factor means that, inevitably, you’re going to wind up letting someone down. Hopefully those people will be the forgiving type. If at all possible, try not to let down the kids. It’s one thing for the sake of finishing a story to tell the PTA you can’t bake four dozen cookies for the meeting on Wednesday; it’s another to miss your kid’s oboe recital.
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
JM: I feel like I thought I was prepared for my life to change drastically and forever, but I don’t think that’s really what happens. What I wish I’d known is that my whole life wouldn’t change, it would end—and be replaced by a different one, perhaps one that bore some surface resemblance to the previous one, but definitely a new animal altogether. There’s a subtle difference, or maybe it’s not so subtle.
If you’re trying to juggle writing with caring for a baby, learn to type with one hand! When Anya was a baby, she would only sleep while I held her; no matter how long I’d wait or how deeply she’d seem to be sleeping, as soon as I put her down, her eyes would snap open and she’d be completely awake and ready to play. Eventually I developed a routine where I’d set up my laptop at an angle in the middle of the couch, prop up a pillow against the left armrest, rock Anya to sleep in the bathroom (she’d only drop off if I rocked her with the faucet running), and then sit down with her cradled in my left arm so I could write for 45 minutes with my right hand. I did that every day for months. I can still type one-handed and occasionally it’s still a useful skill.
“Very little of [the poetry I wrote when she was a toddler] is about being a father, but almost none of it would have existed had I not become one.”
More generally, being a parent (especially the primary caregiver of a baby) is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I literally used to have to repair computers used for brain surgery in the operating room while a neurosurgeon yelled at me and the patient lay unconscious with his head cut open. Sometimes parenting is the epitome of frustration. Learn to walk away, learn to count to ten, learn to scream into a pillow, learn to be broken again and again, and learn to recognize how every break heals stronger. Take notes on it if you can. If you can weather the tough times, there’s joy for the taking. And plenty to write about.[As my daughter has grown,] things certainly got easier. Once Anya’s sleep became more regular and uninterrupted, I could write in the middle of the night for longer stretches and more frequently. Now that she’s a teenager, she spends loads of time alone working on her own stuff, so I can take advantage of that to work on mine.
That said, no matter how much time is freed up, there’s always that parenthood chunk of your brain whose attention is unwaveringly focused on what your kid is up to. If there’s a way to turn that off, I don’t know what it is, nor do I especially want to; but there’s a certain handicap, perhaps, for writers who become parents. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure I’ve sacrificed a portion of my attention permanently to my daughter, and that will never completely change back. No matter how old she gets, that part of me is still getting up every hour to check that my baby is still breathing.
PP: What else would you like us to know?
JM: Writing was always already hard for me. Having a kid boosted my creativity, but it also robbed me of sleep, splintered my already-traumatized attention span, and decimated my available time. As much as I didn’t need additional challenges, though, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
One last pro-tip for the newborn years: you can sleep at red lights. Just make sure you shift into park before you nod off, and the guy behind you will honk to wake you when the light turns green.
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