2019-2020 Winner of the Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents: THE STORYTELLER by Anjali Vaidya! CONGRATULATIONS to ANJALI VAIDYA of San Diego, California for this excellent achievement! THE STORYTELLER...
“Do not try to do it all, all the time. Aim to do one thing well each day. Parents are under such pressure to do it all. With small children, and a creative itch to scratch, it simply isn’t possible.” ~Catherine Parker Edmonson, writer.
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment (if applicable).
CE: I write, teach and am raising two kids with my husband. Our son is 6 and our daughter is (almost!) 5. We live in a small town in Mississippi, close to the Gulf of Mexico.
I live in a state that regularly comes in last on every list. Volunteering, therefore, is important to me. I work with two local agencies, Family Affair and the Tiger Pack Book Club. Family Affair is a mentoring program for families, the majority of which are single-mothers. In my role, I work closely mentoring women on job training or navigating bureaucratic hurdles. The Tiger Pack Book Club serves students in a Title I high school. We connect disadvantaged kids with adult mentors through a love of reading. Founded on the principle that reading impacts all aspects of life, teens build community while discussing stories. On average, Americans spend two hours a day watching television and only seven minutes reading. The Tiger Pack aims to combat this statistic, nurturing critical thinking and analytical skills in a book-club environment.
I spent the last fifteen years living in major cities, most recently New York City. I worked for an auction house and traveled frequently. Moving to a small, southern college town was a transition. Here, my neighbor’s interwoven backstories are richer. To my surprise! The depth of relationships is different outside of a city. People’s roots run deep. Their grandparents went to kindergarten together.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
CE: My schedule is 25% writing, 30% teaching, 30% kids and house, 15% volunteer and miscellaneous. This fluctuates, based on the day and external factors, such as exams to grade, the roof springing a new leak, and the puppy chewing through a table leg and everything crashing to the floor. I teach two days a week, which are exclusively lecturing, grading and office hours. The remaining days, I aim to write before moving on to other tasks. (Reference the roof leak.)
I write best first thing in the morning. Before kids, I could write anytime. On a flight, or after work. Craving that creative flow motivated me, despite a tough day. Now, I primarily write while my kids are in school. Late night free time is for reading or sleep – which requires a higher priority every year.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
CE: The best thing about being a writing parent is that some days it feels like I’ve opened a time capsule. Reading A Wrinkle in Time, I’d forgotten how perfectly L’Engle captures Meg’s isolation and Charles Wallace’s certainty that their father will return. Revisiting these stories is sweeter for having read them before. I get to become my ten-year-old self again.
Some of my support comes as a surprise. The nearest grocery store is the Winn-Dixie. Only 0.4 miles away, I walked there one summer morning. We’d just arrived in Mississippi. I had unpacked just enough boxes to find the coffeemaker. But not enough to find coffee. While walking the half-mile, three cars stopped to ask if I was alright. Had my car broken down? Why was I pushing a stroller in this heat? I thanked them, rolled my eyes and kept trekking through the scratchy grass and Queen Anne’s Lace. I was determined to walk. Walking on a major road without a sidewalk was dangerous, it turned out. A fourth person stopped, a neighbor that I knew. “My wife loves this Queen Anne’s Lace. She decorated with it at our wedding. It’s our anniversary soon, and I’m fixing to make her real happy,” he said, his pride evident as he filled bright orange buckets. Hacking away at the white flowers, he explained the danger of walking on a low shoulder. He wanted to ensure that I made it home safely. Trailing me at 14 miles per hour (a punishing pace, as thunderclouds gathered over head and the humidity became oppressive). Our four-person parade carried on until we reached a side-street that took me home.
My husband is fantastic. He frequently takes the kids on a Saturday adventure. They return sticky and sleepy. Such bliss, to get a break during my most creative time of the day! A voracious reader, he can’t start a new book at bedtime or risks staying up until dawn. My plotter-in-chief, I rely on him when I hit a wall in my work.
There’s more support from: wonderful neighbors – a friend down the street has four kids under seven. Despite how busy she is, she’ll invite mine for dinner when she knows I’m swamped with grading. And then sends a doggy bag; delightful in-laws – who regularly offer to collect the kids from school, returning them fed and bathed and ready for bed; terrific parents – despite living halfway across the country, my parents travel to spend time my kids. They make it to recitals and birthday parties. Each summer, they watch them for an extended period; friends and colleagues- who understand the good, bad and ugly path of writing. Who check-in. Who ask to read another chapter. On days when I want to throw in the towel, they listen generously. On days when I’m enthusiastic, they encourage me; and from TV – let’s be honest. When life isn’t Pinterest worthy, the screen is an effective and available sitter. Not every day, not all day. But having a break, taking the pressure off deadlines, makes me a better parent.
PP: What’s most rewarding about being a writing parent?
CE: “Grown-ups don’t play pretend,” my son informed me. He paused, unsticking a particularly troublesome LEGO. “Not like you. Not good pretend.” Introducing my kids to the characters I loved. Ramona and her hutzpah! Meg and Charles Wallace, spinning through time! These characters became my friends. They populated my inner world, gave it texture. They sustained me when real people let me down. I’m hopeful that my kids will find the same solace with these characters. Remembering what I’ve forgotten is refreshing. Particularly as they’re beginning to choose their own friends. My six-year-old recently arranged a playdate. (He cornered his classmate’s mother and invited himself over.) No longer do I choose how he spends his time. If these new allegiances shift, or if he isn’t picked in a game, the characters in his imagination will be waiting.
PP: What’s challenging about it? What do you need?
CE: Making time to write is hard, with or without kids. Writing while they’re home does not work for me. They are only 6 and 5. I find that fully focusing on them when they’re home is better than half-writing and half-refereeing. Spending time percolating a story is not wasted. It is the best remedy for balancing child care with writing.
Now that both are in school, I have so much more time than I once did. However, I also have a teaching job and additional duties. Tuning out distractions is hard. There is always laundry to do, papers to grade. Then there are the surprises. Is that dripping sound a leak in the roof? Where are the buckets to catch the water? Flow is easiest to find, and maintain, when I’m out of the house.
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
CE: Do not try to do it all, all the time. Aim to do one thing well each day. Parents are under such pressure to do it all. With small children, and a creative itch to scratch, it simply isn’t possible.
Spending time with your child is wonderful. On the other hand, benevolent neglect has its place. Recently, my oldest child, grabbed a paperback and flipflops. He announced that he was going relax outside in the hammock. “Like you do, mommy.” That confirmed that while I make plenty of parenting mistakes, neglect isn’t one of them. The kids copy what I do. They see me giggling as I read, losing track of time on a story.
Now that I’ve finished the first draft of my novel (yay!) I’m editing. Quantifying progress is harder. No longer is it, huzzah, I wrote 2,000 words today! It might be that I edited that much – or double that. Or I might only edit half that. I must try not to be hard on myself for not making ‘enough’ progress, when in fact it is harder to quantify my progress.
Don’t edit immediately. At least grant yourself a few days. Don’t judge it yet. Finishing my first draft could not have happened had I been simultaneously editing. A boss once admonished me, ‘don’t let perfect stand in the way of done.’ She was right. I think of it when I (frequently!) get sidetracked.
PP: How to balance parenting and work and writing?
CE: Surely you mean ‘juggle’?
CE: Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” When a student asks an insightful question, I see how I can work that perspective into the story. When the roof leaks, and I can’t find a bucket, I can laugh. Then I can use it. (Recently, every bucket was full of seashells. Perfectly sorted by my youngest. Every. Single. Bucket.) Spending time writing lays the foundation for me to incorporate those.
My mother is a librarian. Car trips with her required tote bags brimming with books. When I got my license, she was delighted. More reading time! Visiting her office meant leaving with books, often stacked so high that I couldn’t see over them. (Checkout limits existed, but not for a librarian’s kid.) While working at an elementary school, Mom celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday like it was a national holiday. Each February she’d lug hot plates and green food coloring to her reading corner. My junior high self was mortified. So many eggs. So much ham! All piled precariously on a multi-purpose cart. That I wheeled into the library. With little more than a bright green breakfast and enthusiasm, she brought stories to life for her charges. Each April, she orchestrated a Children’s Book Week with character parades. Her entire elementary school dressed up.
My dad emphasized travel. We visited every presidential birthplace east of the Mississippi. The ‘brown sign swerve’ was a real, and fraught, maneuver. When Dad saw a brown sign indicating a location with historical interest, he was going to get there. Regardless of the traffic. As a parent now, it makes sense. They wanted to share their passion with us. Now I get it.
Catherine Parker Edmonson never outgrew her imaginary friends. Imagine her delight upon discovering that novelists called them characters! Currently writing about herself in the third person, you can often find her in her backyard hammock. After a decade working in the arts in New York City, she now lives in Mississippi with her family. An Art Historian, she’s studying interwar Paris’s role as a crucible for cross-genre creative work. The art market’s charming inefficacies are at the core of her first novel-in-progress.