A letter from our newest partner, One Lit Place, to ALL Pen Parentis Members: -------- Hello, this is Jenna Kalinsky, the Founder of One Lit Place: A Full-Service Writers’ Hub...
“Between 10 AM and 2:30 PM I’m literally like a high voltage super-conductive electric turbine on a consecutive output.”
-Vica Miller, Writer, Communications Executive, Literary Salon Founder[Learn more about the Pen Parentis Research Project.]
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment.
VM: While I’ve had many work paths in my life, I’ve been writing since the age of 15. I had a wonderful Russian Language & Literature high school teacher, Larisa Georgievna Tregubenko, and she set me off on the path of writing, made me love and appreciate the language and its nuances, musicality, rhythm.
Today I have a few things that keep me going: I’ve been running communications for DataArt, a global technology consulting firm, for the last ten years (it’s now 1,500 employees strong – in 15 offices, in 8 countries); I write fiction (my debut novel, Inga’s Zigzags, was published in May, 2014, and recently submitted my second novel, The Shadow of the Blue Doll. A few short stories appeared in different lit mags – LitroNY, Asymptote Journal, etc.).
I’m the founder and host of the Vica Miller Literary Salons, a chamber reading series started in 2006. They are one of a kind, and adored by alumni and fans alike for a number of reasons: I feature both published and unpublished authors – as long as it’s great writing, host them in private art galleries, and lead an inquisitive Q&A session after each reading (there are always four writers per night). Simon Van Booy called my Salons “a vital part of New York City literary scene,” Michael Cunningham said that he was a fan and that “all readings, and Q & A’s should be that much fun,” and Four Seasons magazine called me a “modern-day Gertrude Stein.” I invite the nice people reading these lines to attend one of my Salons. They’re completely free, and we serve white wine in abundance. Please see www.vicamillersalons.com/news for details.
Last year I launched Ladno Books, an indie press that features exclusively women writers, and it’s been the most thrilling ride since. For 2016, we’re working on a collection of short stories and essays entitled On Loving. The aim with the anthology is to showcase work by female writers on the subject of love and loving. I strongly believe that women writers are under-represented in the publishing world in general, and are limited in talking frankly about sexuality in particular. It’s always either a man’s world, or a lesbian world that gets the limelight (and I embrace both worlds, I just think that straight – or queer – women writers of color, for instance, deserve as much attention as straight white male writers.)
The anthology will feature a dozen writers who will share diverse stories – from kinky to platonic and from joyful to devastating – that really speak to being a woman, and what it is to navigate the world of love and heartbreak and ecstasy, without any boundaries. I want to include stories that are literary, well written, but also full of passion and intellectual insight. I aim to represent a broad range, so that women writers are given the stage that they deserve. All the authors are the alumni of the Salons, and have been confirmed: Courtney Maum, Melissa Febos, Amy Wolfe, Diana Bruk, Paula Bomer, Tre Miller-Rodriguez, Lara Vapnyar, Amy Shearn and myself among others. The publication date for On Loving is slotted for March 8, 2016 (International Women’s Day).
Last but not least, I have two adorable girls, aged nine and six, who keep me on my toes every hour of the day. It is unquestionably the most important and meaningful part of my life. I reached a point in my career where I can set my own schedules and compensation rates, so I’m only in the office Mon/Tue/Wed, work from home on Thursdays and I don’t work (corp. comm.) on Fridays at all. On Fridays I write, and work on the Salons and Ladno Books projects. Weekends are for writing and kids only.
PP: Offer a general idea of where you live (urban, rural, etc.).
VM: I live in my favorite part of NYC, on Riverside Drive at 115th Street. I call it my Paris in New York. As I write this, I see the white graduation tents set up on Columbia University Campus on my right, and on my left – tiny sailboats & enormous barges pushed by corky tugboats on the Hudson, everything framed in luscious green and sparkling after a recent rain.
When I was eight months pregnant with my first daughter, we bought a small house – with a lot of land in the Catskills – and that magic place has been our respite from the crazy city we adore and live in, and a wonderful place for the girls to roam around: there is a mountain with a stream and caves with stalagmites, a barn, a tree house, free tennis courts nearby and lots of lakes. And it’s my writing haven, too. If not for this house, my first novel would have never been finished. It only took eight years to write – because I could only do so during kids’ naps.
When I was six months pregnant with my second daughter, I started the Salons – on April 15, 2009.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
VM: I have a very specific and rather insane schedule, just like any other working mother. The key to getting anything done is always focus and discipline. And while it’s tough to always stay focused, I create routines to help me achieve my tasks.
My girls go to different schools, so that doesn’t help with logistics. My husband drops off the oldest by 8:15 AM, and I have the luxury of walking my youngest to her school by 8:30 AM – it’s just five blocks away. That school has a wonderful tradition of having the cafeteria open from 7:30 to 9:15 AM, which is a Godsend for moms like me – if we didn’t have time for breakfast (and we never do), we can have it at school.
On Mondays, I drop my youngest at school by 8:30 AM and hang out with some cool class moms in the cafeteria after, catching up on school news, then dash to midtown to see my chiropractor. From there I walk to DataArt office – on 31st and Park Avenue, and plug into the world of media opportunities, deadlines, analyst briefings, corporate identity, strategic planning, branding, messaging, industry events, bylined articles, press releases, syncing with PR managers across global offices, and everything else that constitutes corporate communications.
Between 10 AM and 2:30 PM I’m literally like a high voltage super-conductive electric turbine on a consecutive output. At 2:30 PM I leave the office and run back uptown to pick up my youngest at 3 PM, then back to midtown for my oldest by 3:30 pm. A walk to 72 & Columbus for the oldest’ art class at 4 PM, then to Riverside and 70th the youngest’ gymnastics class at 4:30. After that – to 72nd & Broadway for my weekly Physique 57 workout at 4:45 PM. Everything is literally timed by the minute. Then I have a night out – my own (you’d think I’d be dead by then, by chiro in the morning and the workout later bring me back to life). My husband picks up the kids, and I either go out to dinner with friends, or to readings, or theater performances. Sometimes I do nothing – I just sit in a bar with a glass of wine and read a book, or stare at a flower on my table. Not having to run anywhere or be in demand by anyone is the biggest bliss. Mothers know exactly how it is.
On Tuesday, everything repeats itself, except no cafeteria hangout and no chiro in the morning. It’s straight to work after school drop-off. After getting the girls from school I bring them to their swimming. After that, we go home and do home work/dinner, or my mother-in-law (she lives in Hoboken) picks up the girls and I go down to SoHo to a silent group meditation. That helps to refocus. My husband has his night out on Tuesday – usually training for another marathon, and a beer with fellow runners after.
Wednesdays after school drop off I go swimming – always – then everything goes on as the first two days of the week, only there is no after school, and I get to hang out with my girls or write. Yes. The first mention of writing, I know.
Thursdays and Fridays are my favorite days. When my youngest was born, I cut my hours and hired a PR agency to handle media pitching. I also negotiated one day a week working from home, and one day off all together (my compensation was halved accordingly).
On Thursdays I write in the morning, at least for three hours straight. Then I do most of strategic work for DataArt. Sometimes I go swimming in the afternoon, and have lunch with a fellow literary curator or writer. It replenishes me and gives me a better perspective on the world out there. My mother-in-law (who’s an angel) handles after school that day, and stays overnight: Thursday night is a date night with my husband. It’s either jazz or opera or film or a performance. Sometimes, just a quiet dinner and no thinking/planning allowed.
Friday mornings are heaven. I go straight to either swimming or writing. “Ass in the chair,” as Michael Cunningham shared the secret to getting any writing done. Swimming helps me write – some of my best ideas or Eureka moments came when I was swimming, especially during my first lap underwater. (I was a competitive swimmer throughout my youth and college). So, in a sense, I write when I swim, too. My fellow swimmer writers know exactly what I’m talking about. Peter Selgin (my writing mentor and author of Drowning Lessons – a fantastic collection of short stories, as well as Life Goes to the Movies and several other fiction and non-fiction books) told me that he does just that. I’ve been a competitive swimmer for a third of my life, so if I don’t swim at least once a week, I start to lose my marbles. Swimming for me is like breathing. I can’t do without it. I’m now training for a relay marathon in September, so in the summer I swim daily.
Friday night is a family night.
On Saturday mornings, the girls have Russian school. My husband takes them and goes running (he runs marathons for fun), while I try to write instead of cleaning the apartment or arranging the girls’ room.
After that we go upstate, and no work is allowed. Kids, writing and nature only. To recharge there, I get on the tractor and mow the lawns (it’s 15 acres, 6 of them flat lawn, the rest a mountain). The tractor rodeo gives me as much room for creative meandering as swimming does. We do some gardening – no vegetables, but mostly planting new trees and bushes along the road, as the deer eats everything each winter. We all play tennis, and there are great free courts in our town, so we try to get a game in. And if we have visitors for a weekend, it’s lots of eating, drinking, storytelling, singing and laughing. I’m lucky that I don’t need to cook – my husband loves to, but I do all the cleaning, which I love in turn. We’re also lucky that several of our good friends have houses nearby. Some are artists, some are paragliders (and I am both), so the Catskills is our sacred place for tuning into the cosmic harmony, if you will.
I do most of my writing upstate, for sure. Sunday mornings are mine. My husband makes breakfast, the girls roam around and I stay locked in the bedroom for hours, with my cup of coffee, the laptop and the view. Weekends are off limits for work and unwanted demands. We cultivate peace and good energy for a week ahead, and I don’t allow interruptions.
Perhaps it’s too much information, but I hope it helps other busy mom writers with figuring out how to carve out time for writing in their hectic lives. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to run like this without the help of my family and amazing friends. I know I have my people around me, they believe in me and give me space to create, and I’m forever grateful.
“[My] main resource is my own determination and perseverance.”
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
VM: The awesomeness of being a parent who writes is that your children grow up attuned to languages (we’re all bilingual) and their nuances, we get off on comparing conjugations and word genders (unlike the two in English, there’re three in Russian – He, She, and It – which some translators call Queer, but in Russian it’s called Middle gender. I love everything about that because, like sexuality, it allows the language to be fluid). Also, since the kids know that writing is the most important vocation for me, and I read whenever I have a chance, they apply the same inclinations to themselves. My oldest is a fantastic writer, and my youngest is a beautiful oral storyteller.
PP: What support and resources do you have?
VM: The main resource is my own determination and perseverance. The first thing I learned when I came to NYC, was that only air is free here. The second, nobody gives a shit about you but your parents. And my parents were an ocean away. That made me learn fast how to rely solely on myself and how to make friends who’d be my true champions.
My second resource is discipline, then a supportive husband, understanding kids, and friends who don’t get offended if I skip brunch. Finally, I have a very flexible work schedule, where as long as I deliver, no time tracking is needed. That means sometimes I work at dawn and don’t go to work during the day, and sometimes I stay up till 2 AM on a deadline, and the next day I can take it easy without any explanations. The best resource in terms of fueling my creativity is New York City itself, which is a wondrous place, full of unbelievable people with tremendous life stories, crazy looks and stupendous energy. Also, I’m a good listener and a careful observer. Sometimes it’s enough to take a ride on the subway or in a cab and find that needed bit for a scene you’ve been struggling with, or overhear a personal story over dinner, see an abandoned piece of furniture on a curb of a sidewalk and realize it perfectly fits into a storyline for one of the characters you’re currently developing (more like, living with), so “suddenly” your novel becomes richer and the stakes are raised, and there is a flow, and plenty of sensory details and all that other magic that turns a raw draft into a well-written narrative.
The other source is travel. We travel like mad – to three-four new countries every year. This year we went to Canada and Morocco (rode camels and spent a night in the Sahara, in the nomadic tents), then I traveled to London for work and to Costa Rica to finish my second novel, and in August it will be Turkey, Montenegro, Russia, Georgia and Armenia.
Travel has always been the most important thing for me in life. I grew up in the Soviet Union, where leaving the country was not an option until you had an invitation and a visa (it’s still like that for most of Eastern Europe). So, once I had the chance – and the means to travel – I’ve been taking advantage of it since. I’ve traveled to 40 countries, most of them alone, some of them multiple times. And I get a lot of writing done on those travels.
Most importantly, I soak up the new culture, the people, the facial expressions and the traditions. Latin Americans, like Russians, have huge hearts, kind souls and quick ways of either becoming your best friend or not wanting to do anything with you. Let’s just say I’ve been to Cuba four times.
My debut novel, Inga’s Zigzags, is loosely based on my two-year stint back in Russia in 1997, and the trip to Cuba has a cameo appearance at the end. My third novel is set in a prison cell in Havana, where an over-weight Cuban lesbian meets a kleptomaniac Russian-American expat.
On May 20th, the 25th anniversary of my arrival in NYC, I was invited to attend a friend’s graduation ceremony for Columbia’s School of the Arts (MFA Film) at the Miller Theater. Beau Willimon, the creator and show runner for House of Cards, gave an excellent commencement speech that started with “The deadline is the best inspiration.” I pocketed that phrase and carry it with me everywhere. Beau added, “Take risks. Embrace failure. Bravery is your only weapon.” I listened.
PP: What helps you achieve work-life balance?
VM: There is no such thing. It’s a myth, and I encourage everyone to accept this fact and instead of seeking the balance just to try and live your life. It also helps if you do what you love, so your work is your life and your life is your work. In Inga’s Zigzags, my first novel, I have the protagonist address that. It’s in the words of Alexandra Veil, the powerful magazine publisher for whom Inga Belova, the main character and a straight woman, falls upon her arrival from NYC to Moscow. Later Inga forms a business with Alexandra and her sexy girlfriend Emma. When Inga asks Alexandra the question about this much-desired balance, Alexandra shoots back, “There is no such thing as life balance. It was created by shrinks so that they can charge you buckets as you complain out loud about your life.”
So, really, you just try to do your best, one day at a time, at any given moment – one foot in front of the other, step by step. That’s how you walk a mile, a life. We put too much pressure on ourselves to “be” something or somewhere, to perform to be on a par with some society induced unrealistic metric. My best advice for mothers of young children – give yourself a break. Give yourself a permission to just be a mother, tired and disheveled, but oh so content that you gave a life to a little bundle, for whose dimples and health you would sell your soul.
It’s the same with writing. Michael Cunningham, who read at my Salon in November 2013, brought up this notion, which I live by every day – be it in writing, or work, or doing nothing. “Give yourself a permission to do (or not do) something. We always seek others’ permission, but all you have to do is give YOURSELF a permission,” – another brilliant man who crossed my path and inspired me, and all others in attendance.
That evening Michael Cunningham mentioned that when he was coming up as an author on his own, Raymond Carver and Joan Didion were the “it” writers of the day – sparse, minimalistic prose, and Michael felt that he was more of a “baroque” writer, but the style wasn’t in vogue. And then he realized that he just needed a permission to do what he wanted to do and HOW he wanted to do it. It was a breakthrough for his writing career (hello, the Pulitzer prize for The Hours), and it set him free to write in his own voice and style. I thank Michael every day for that one phrase: “Give yourself a permission…” You can end the phrase with anything – “to write erotica” or “to sit still and do nothing while kids sort out their own crap” or “skip brunch because I want to write” or “go away on my own because if I don’t I’ll evaporate from exhaustion.”
So, if you’re a writer with kids, you can have all these plans for revising your novel or attending business meetings, and then a call from school comes – your kid got a fever and has to go home, or, worse yet, got lice and needs to be picked right that moment. And you know that you can kiss goodbye whatever character development you had in mind for that afternoon, or forget about enhancing that one scene that didn’t work but now would – if only you changed a few lines. But no… You have to pick up your child from school and wash everything in the house and spray the rest, and give her a bath and comb her hair until you’re both delirious with the ridiculousness of it all.
And when it’s all over, she’s happy because there’s no homework from missed school, and she can watch cartoons, and you have a nagging feeling that you might have lost that scene enhancement opportunity, and would have to get back to it tomorrow, on the condition that they don’t find any nits in your beloved child’s hair when she gets to school. So you pour yourself a glass #3, tune into Netflix, and tell your husband upon his arrival from work that, in case he’s hungry, the fridge is empty, and to please not forget to re-park the car tonight.
It’s not hopeless though. Four key things will keep you energized and centered: enough sleep, nutritious food, purpose in life and exercise. I didn’t come with the list (Goop did via a PhD psychiatrist). Apparently, every mother goes through a 10-year-long “Post Partum Depletion,” so just think of that!
I can tell you though that if everything seems to be falling apart, I’d take a bath (Hello, Sylvia Plath Bell Jar), or go swimming, or just take a walk on Riverside Boulevard. Sex, of course, helps to relieve all the tensions (but I don’t think I know many parents of young children who have sex on a regular basis) as does traveling alone to Latin America but that might not gel well with your partner and kids.
PP: What’s challenging about it?
VM: I struggle with my own ADD and procrastination. I’m also rather fed up with people often misunderstanding my good intentions. I’m a very direct, no-nonsense person and I don’t allow and BS into my life. So I cut out quite a few people from my life, either because they betrayed me or thought I was crazy or had foul words to say about me or my true friends. More than anything, I can’t stand hypocrisy and being misunderstood. I often say too much too fast. But I’ve gotten better as I got older. I always tell folks my favorite phrase by Toulouse-Lautrec, the great French painter, “Do you think it’s easy being me?” The answer is no.
What I need is more hours in the day, and my kids to listen to me on the third try, not 17th. I also would like this country to shake off its prudishness and embrace flirting and to allow sexuality to be a fluid thing that it is, and to not judge people based on their sexual orientation (or age, or race, for that matter).
“I think I reached a point in my life where I lost all fear and found my writing voice. And it’s a blissful place to be.”
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
VM: My main advice is – explain to your children how important writing is to you. That it’s your way of being YOU, of keeping in touch with that person hidden behind the parenting duties – creative, daring, scared but willing and needing to take risks. Talk to them. They’ll understand. I literally say to my kids, “I’m going to my room, and you’re not to enter, because mommy is getting in touch with herself and wants to write a beautiful story.” They respect that. The same way, when they have a project in the works, I respect that they might need more time to finish it (I cap that at 30 min past the bedtime).
Also, set up a schedule. Mornings are the best for any kind of activity, writing included.
Read great books, fiction and not. Poetry is a must. Neruda, Brodsky, Dickinson, Bishop, Akhmatova, Whitman, Tsvetaeva.
Go to art openings. Talk to people. Travel. Walk in the direction of fear. Make love. Smile. Sing in the rain. Help others – always, out of the goodness of your heart. And don’t do anything because you think you “should” be doing it. There is no “should.” You could die tomorrow, and those “should’s” will be utterly useless. Also, say is at it is. Don’t be afraid to go into unknown territories; forget your ego. As Van Booy said, write for that one person you love, and remember that in 100 years you’ll be just a scull. So, don’t be afraid to flesh out that sex scene, or write about a subject you think might be taboo. Just do it. You’ll help others to sort out their lives with your courageous writing.
Collaborate with other artists. Don’t be greedy – share willingly. Find a really good first reader, and become one yourself.
Don’t rush. Make your book the best you can before submitting. Do your homework – on agents, reading series, awards and everything in between.
Live your life fully. It’s the only way to write something meaningful. Writing is a visceral experience, and becomes great only when you dive off that cliff, submerge deep under water with your characters, and don’t come back to the surface until you’re done. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald said something to that effect.
Also, have role models – living and not. I’m reading up on all the women that fascinate me – Zelda (by Nancy Milford), Cleopatra (by Stacy Schiff), autobiographies of Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Jeanette Winterson, The Dream Lover by Elisabeth Berg based on the life of George Sand). The plight of women who struggled and persevered give me strength to go on.
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Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, nobody will. And call your mother before it’s too late.
I can recommend a few books that were a tremendous help for me in both areas of discussion. On parenting: How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish; On writing: The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer, 179 Ways to Save a Novel by Peter Selgin, Art [Objects] by Jeanette Winterson, A Writers’ Chapbook by George Plimpton.
PP: How has parenting and writing changed as your children have grown?
VM: My kids are still young, but I want them to read my books starting around 15. It’s another beautiful way to communicate with your child, through your writing (I’m talking fiction, not letters to one another, though the latter is wonderful too and I highly recommend it).
My writing has changed not because my children have grown, but because I have grown, as an artist, mother, woman. My first book was rather daring. I think my second is even more so. But the tone and the voice have changed. Those who read both told me so too. I think I reached a point in my life where I lost all fear and found my writing voice. And it’s a blissful place to be.
* * *
Vica Miller is a native of St. Petersburg (Russia) and has been a New Yorker for over two decades. George Plimpton called her a writer, and she believed him. Her debit novel Inga’s Zigzags was published in May 2014, and her second novel, The Shadow of the Blue Doll, is being considered for representation.
Vica is the founder of the Vica Miller Literary Salons, a chamber reading series held at private NYC galleries. She’s written for Vogue Russia and Tennis Week magazines and her short stories have appeared in LitroNY, The Jet Fuel Review, Asymptote, The Linnet’s Wings and Thrice Fiction literary journals. In 2014, she launched an indie press, Ladno Books, which focuses on publishing female writers who have read at the Salons.
When not writing fiction, Vica runs communications for DataArt, a global technology company. She holds a Master’s degree from ITP - Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is proud to have launched and taught New Media and PR courses at Hunter College, CUNY.
Vica is an excellent swimmer, a beginner paraglider and a mother of two. She’s also a big fan of burlesque and has synesthesia, which makes her life full of color. She lives in on the upper west side with her family.
View a schedule of the Vica Miller Literary Salons or sign up to receive updates at vicamillersalons.com. Follow Vica @vica_miller and vicamiller.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.