The annual Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Writers was founded in 2010 to encourage writers to produce new works of quality fiction at the very busiest point in their parenting...
[Learn more about the Pen Parentis Research Project.]
“Parenthood forces you to take life more seriously—but also less seriously, which helps your writing.”
-Jess deCourcy Hinds, Pen Parentis Writing Fellow
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting, and other employment.
JDH: I’m a writer, academic librarian, mother of Stella, who is almost 3, and wife of an architect named Stefan. My novel is a comedic exploration of female executives’ lives. Recently, I shared a snapshot of my life with an old M.F.A. classmate from Brooklyn College. “Sounds like you have a nice writing/day job/motherhood balance!” she wrote.
I laughed at that. Balance isn’t a word in my vocabulary. Joyful exhaustion is more like it.
Of course, I hear this from most working parents.
The pieces of my life might not be balanced, but they’re definitely interconnected. I exchange writing with faculty members at the early college where I work, so work is also a creative home for me. Without my colleagues’ support, I’m not sure where I’d be. As a librarian, I’m working to create a vibrant space where books and writing are sacred, and where creative exploration is embraced. I’m lucky to spend a lot of my working hours thinking about fiction, and I’m pretty serious about the children’s book library at home too. So I like to think that work and home enrich each other. Being a librarian certainly fuels my writing, and gives me more free time to write than when I was a college teacher.
Writing and motherhood go hand in hand for me. Actually, I have no idea what I wrote about before becoming a parent! Motherhood has opened up my whole world and made it richer, more dazzling…I’m trying to write about this, but failing miserably. Each time I try, tears fill my eyes…Basically, Stella is the most awesome person I know, and being Stella’s mom makes everything else in my world fantastic. Who was I before I had her? I have no idea! Maybe I was a boring person and didn’t have quite enough fun in college and my twenties or something, but this stretch of motherhood in my mid-thirties is the best time I’ve ever had in my life. Period.
I don’t write about Stella specifically, but knowing about mother-child bond from this side—the mom side—is powerful. I can imagine writing about nothing but parent-child relationships for the rest of my life, and never running out of material.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities? What’s your writing routine like?
JDH: Right now, I weave writing through my weekdays, and rarely write on weekends (that is family time, laundry time, and when I cook and freeze meals for the whole week. Don’t be impressed at all. I only cook recipe-less concoctions requiring obscene amounts of tomato sauce and cheese, with the protein and vegetables baked in so there are fewer dishes. We call this “brick o’ food” in my house). But back to writing: I write on the commuter train to work, during some lunch breaks (when I’m not in meetings), and on the train home. I also find more time to write during July and August and our numerous vacations—one of the perks of academia. This is my schedule at the moment, but flexibility is key.
We’re planning to move closer to Manhattan, so I’ll have to shift things around (it’s harder to write on the subway than the railroad). I might try weekend writing at a coffee shop after we move. Sundays, 3-7pm is a good time slot, which I’ve discovered from some limited experimentation. It gives me enough weekend time to recuperate and catch up with my family so that I don’t feel deprived. End-of-weekend writing also helps me beat the Sunday night blues.
“This experience can’t help but infuse your fiction with new humor, new reckless abandon.”
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
JDH: Parenthood forces you to take life more seriously—but also less seriously, which helps your writing. I write wackier, more oddball things now. My daily life now includes jumping on a trampoline, drawing chalk monsters, and, at my daughter’s request, trying to imagine what a lizard’s voice would sound like.
There’s terror (I’m responsible for a human being who depends on me utterly!) and so much beauty. You learn about humanity when you can look at it up close: seeing someone the day they are born, watching them learn to walk, talk, fear and love. This experience can’t help but infuse your fiction with new humor, new reckless abandon.
At the risk of sounding like a sponsored Pen Parentis infomercial, I’ll also say that Pen Parentis is among the most awesome things about being a writing parent. There’s honesty, humility, and openness in these salons because we are all parents. I’ve made deeper connections here than in any other literary gathering. The electronic community is strong too, so even if you can’t attend salons, you can connect.
PP: What do you need as a parent who writes?
JDH: Can I please order up a subsidized maternity leave of an appropriate length, and some affordable, high quality childcare? And for dessert, how about an hour of housekeeping/cooking help every weeknight? (That’s fantasy-land, folks!) I’m leaning in just like Sheryl Sandberg told me to, but I’m also just barely hanging in. If our society values children and families as much as they say they do, they’ll create societal structures that help families who aren’t rich.
Parents who lack support often go to online communities for help, as I have numerous times. I wrote about this in my Pen Parentis Fellowship-winning story, “Dear All.”
But I do have two things that I really, really need, and which I can’t take for granted for a single second: a supportive, involved partner and a job where my supervisors and colleagues care very much about parents.
“Parents are forced to become experts in time management. We simply need to manage our own writing schedules with the same dedication that we devote to our children’s regular meals, snacks, nap-times and bed-times.”
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
JDH: I don’t know if it’s concrete advice, but I want to encourage parents to have confidence in themselves that they can make time for writing—no matter what is going on with their kids. Parents are forced to become experts in time management. We simply need to manage our own writing schedules with the same dedication that we devote to our children’s regular meals, snacks, nap-times and bed-times.
Life with small children forces structure upon you. Let’s look at this at a good thing! We need to as vigilant about our writing schedules as we are about getting to Mommy and Me class (not that I am…!).
And along the lines of Mommy and Me, I think we need to recognize that our kids need enrichment, but we parents need it too. Parents shouldn’t be culturally deprived. Keep that 500-page novel by your bedside (as the Goldfinch is by mine), and don’t feel guilty about how slowly you read it. Reading slowly is one of the best ways to read. Just keep at it.
And keep at the writing! When I’m too frazzled for the sustained dedication of novel-writing, I work on flash fiction, personal essays, grant proposals, or articles requiring research, interviewing, and getting out in the world. I can always find a type of writing to match a high or low level of creative energy; switching genres can help.
My advice to parents living in cities with Pen Parentis events: Go to them, even if you’re tired from a long day! And if you live too far away, follow Pen Parentis authors on Twitter, read their books! Every time I go to a Pen Parentis event, my writing flows effortlessly for at least a week (really!), and my daughter and I jump higher on the trampoline together.
* * *
Jess deCourcy Hinds is the 2014-2015 Pen Parentis Fiction Writing Fellow. She was also a finalist in the Barbara Deming/Money for Women fiction contest this year. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Ms. magazine, Reuters.com, Seventeen and Brain, Child. She received an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, lives in NY and directs the library at Bard H.S. Early College Queens. Learn more at jessdecourcyhinds.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.