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“I’d advise parent writers—or any writers—to remember what gives them joy, and to seek that out every time they sit down to write.”
-Scott Nadelson, Author of the novel Between You and Me
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment.
SN: I have one daughter, now five and a half years old, and I teach creative writing full-time at a small liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon, as well as in a low-residency MFA program. It’s really a dream job: I teach fiction and nonfiction workshops and craft classes, run the visiting writers series, and mentor a great bunch of students. But it keeps me very busy. I’m also currently chair of the English department, which has loaded me with additional administrative responsibilities.
Salem is a small capital city of about 150,000, an hour south of Portland. It’s the hub of Oregon’s government, prisons, and mental health system, surrounded by some of the best wine country in North America. We made the national news last year when a territorial owl attacked several people in one of our local parks. I live just down the road, in a 1925 Dutch colonial with a pair of enormous linden trees outside my office window.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
SN: I’m pretty lucky in that other than my teaching times, my schedule is fairly flexible, and I try to preserve time most weekday mornings for writing. Two hours if I’m lucky, though it’s usually closer to one.
“I’m so much more grateful for the time that I do have that even if I don’t get anywhere with the work, as long as I’m enjoying myself I never feel that I’ve squandered it.”
My days often look like this: I drop my daughter off at kindergarten, zip home to write for a little while, zip off to various meetings with students, teach my classes, pick up child, make dinner, bathe child, grade student work and prep for classes while spouse puts child to bed and child resists going to sleep, read for twenty minutes while nodding off in chair, drag myself to bed. On certain days add administrative meetings and ballet classes, and the writing time gets squeezed a bit further.
I try to always have a project in mid-stream, so I’m not starting from scratch every morning; sometimes I’ll even cut off what I’m working on mid-paragraph or mid-sentence, just to give myself momentum heading into the next day. Before I was a parent and had what now seems like an incredible amount of time to spare, it would take me half an hour or so to warm up and get into whatever I was working on. But now I don’t have that luxury, so I just sit down and jump straight in. Most important, I try not to force anything, just work on whatever is most compelling to me on any given day. I try to write something I’ll enjoy spending an hour with, whether it fits with the project at center-stage or not. I try to take pleasure in sentences and images and characters and remind myself that I do this thing because I love doing it and not because I have to.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
SN: My wife is also an academic and an artist, and so we work very hard to split domestic duties in a way that allows us both to do our work and to enjoy our family time. The great thing about working as educators is that we have some nice long breaks between semesters and during the summer, and because Salem is a fairly inexpensive place to live, our income has let us pay for full-time pre-school and child care when we need it. The college population also provides us with great babysitters (though not always the most reliable ones). We also have access to travel funds and research support, which is amazing—a grant through my university allowed me to put together a little book tour this fall, which is how I got to NYC to read as part of the Pen Parentis salon.
“Don’t waste a minute on anything you’re writing because you feel you should be writing it; write only because you want to, because you love to, because you need to.”
On the writing [and life management] side, I think it helps that I’m obsessive; if I don’t write for a week, I start to get a little crazy, and so I’m always making space for the writing routine, no matter how busy I am with other things. But family is what gives me a life. If I didn’t have my wife and daughter, I’d just work all the time, and I’d probably run out of things to write about pretty quickly. I no longer write on weekends and try to devote those days entirely to being a dad.
Last month, my daughter came to the launch for my new book. It was the first time she’d come to one of my readings, and she was so excited about it she kept nervously clearing her throat the whole time. Finally I had to pause, step out from behind the podium, and bring her my glass of water. It was such a great moment of humility: there I am up in front of the room, supposedly celebrating my achievement, but still her comfort is the only thing I really care about. It’s the most important thing for writers to remember: in the end, all that matters is the experience of the reader, the audience. Everything else is pointless ego-stroking.
PP: What’s challenging about it?
SN: Everything! But most of all, the mental strain of being constantly pulled in two different directions. When I’m with my daughter, I’m often thinking about the story I’m working on, or the classes I have to prep, or the bills I have to pay; and when I’m writing, I’m always distracted by practical matters that need to be dealt with. Did I remember to make my daughter’s dentist appointment? Did I remember to pack a fork in her lunch? I struggle with being in the moment, being present to my daughter, to my wife, to my characters.
“You can fail at writing, and nothing is really at stake. But being a parent gives you all sorts of practice with things you inevitably deal with in writing: constant surprises, emotional swings, incredible vulnerability. Everything you need to write well, you can probably learn by parenting.”
PP: What do you need?
SN: Yoga, probably. And family who live nearby, or some other on-call childcare service. The hardest thing for everyone is when my daughter gets sick, which happened every other week in pre-school. We don’t have any family here, so either my wife or I has to be home with her, and we trade off so we don’t have to miss classes; but then we’re behind on everything, and in order to keep up with class prep and housework and all the things that have no flex, I have to let the writing go for days, sometimes weeks.
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
SN: I wish I’d always known, even before I became a parent, that I could find a way to write no matter the circumstances. I used to think I needed at least three hours, absolute quiet, my coffee mug just so on the desk… After my daughter was born, it took me a few months to understand that I can always find time, and I can be far more efficient than I used to be. Now if I have fifteen minutes between meetings, in a crowded coffee shop, I can get something down on paper. And I’m so much more grateful for the time that I do have that even if I don’t get anywhere with the work, as long as I’m enjoying myself I never feel that I’ve squandered it.
“Everything you need to write well, you can probably learn by parenting.”
Mostly I’d advise parent writers—or any writers—to remember what gives them joy, and to seek that out every time they sit down to write. The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard came from Grace Paley, who knew something about balancing work and life; she told a teacher of mine, when he was whining about how badly his writing was going, “So quit if you don’t like doing it. No one cares whether you write or not.” Of course no one cares as much as we do about our own writing—so if we’re going to do it, we may as well have as much fun as possible. Don’t waste a minute on anything you’re writing because you feel you should be writing it; write only because you want to, because you love to, because you need to.
PP: How has parenting and writing changed as your child has grown?
SN: In the baby days I walked around in a fog of exhaustion so all-encompassing that it induced its own sort of dream state, which made for some interesting writing. Now that parenting demands have changed from purely physical to mostly emotional, I find myself having to work harder to get into that dream-state of story—it takes more effort to let go of the daily demands of work and family and feel free to play in the world of make-believe. But I’m also more amazed by the daily experience, watching my daughter coming into her own as a feisty little person, whose favorite band at the moment (a source of great pride for me) is The Talking Heads.
One last thing: what I’ve learned above all, is that while writing is hard, it’s a snap compared to parenting. You can fail at writing, and nothing is really at stake. But being a parent gives you all sorts of practice with things you inevitably deal with in writing: constant surprises, emotional swings, incredible vulnerability. Everything you need to write well, you can probably learn by parenting.
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Scott Nadelson is the author of five books, most recently the novel Between You and Me. Winner of the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award, and an Oregon Book Award, he teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University. He lives in Salem, Oregon, with his wife, the artist Alexandra Opie, and their young daughter.
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 lives.