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“I find the experience of being a parent very creatively invigorating; my kids have given me many ideas for stories, and my next novel will be about motherhood.”
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment (if applicable).
HP: I am an assistant professor in the English Department at Brooklyn College, where I teach creative writing and composition. I’m also the author of four books: the short story collection Some Possible Solutions (forthcoming from Henry Holt, 2016), the novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt, 2015), the inter-genre collection And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011), and the children’s adventure novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (Delacorte Press, 2012). I have a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, and we live in Brooklyn.
“Before I became a parent, I averaged four hours a day; now it feels like a great accomplishment to carve out my one little hour.”
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
HP: Ever since my daughter was born in 2012, I have rigorously protected an hour a day for writing. Before I became a parent, I averaged four hours a day; now it feels like a great accomplishment to carve out my one little hour. But I do find that compressing four hours’ worth of creative energy into one hour has its own potency. I used to care a lot about my writing routine (where, when, what kind of tea, etc.), but now it’s wherever I can do it, whenever I can do it. I always set the timer for one hour and ignore all outside demands within that time frame.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
HP: I’m beyond fortunate that my job as a professor relates directly to my creative work; continuing to write and publish is a requirement of my position, so I have an outside reason to prioritize it (in addition to my many inner reasons). Through Brooklyn College, I recently received a one-year fellowship that released me from teaching duties to focus on my writing.
“Sometimes, amid all that busy-ness and exhaustion, I feel a lack of connection with my inner life and I crave solitude.”
The most essential day-to-day source of support for me is my husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson; we both work to protect each other’s creative space amid the many demands on our time and energy.
The most rewarding thing about being a writing parent is being a writing parent; I love my kids and I love writing. Also, I find the experience of being a parent very creatively invigorating; my kids have given me many ideas for stories, and my next novel will be about motherhood.
PP: What’s challenging about it?
HP: I think the hardest thing (aside from the ever-present anxiety about the possibility of something bad happening to my children) is the nonstop quality of my life. I’m pretty much in perpetual motion from the second I wake up until the second I go to sleep, between teaching and writing and taking care of the kids and trying to prevent the apartment from descending into chaos. Sometimes, amid all that busy-ness and exhaustion, I feel a lack of connection with my inner life and I crave solitude. Reading helps, a solo walk in the park helps, a dinner out with my husband helps. Every bit of time you take for yourself comes at a literal price, but at the same time it’s priceless to pay for a little extra childcare sometimes.
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
HP: When I was pregnant with my first child I wasted a lot of time worrying that I would stop writing once the baby was born. But in fact writing became more important to me than ever after I became a mother. It serves as the place where I can process all the complicated emotions that come with parenthood, and it is my way of staying in touch with myself amid the many responsibilities in my life.
My main tip (for parents and non-parents alike) is to set aside a realistic amount of time each day to write, be it fifteen minutes or four hours. Be strict about honoring that time and set a timer, but within that time frame, give yourself permission to do whatever you want. Maybe it’s writing down a nightmare you had or re-reading the beginning of a book you love or coming up with the stupidest first sentence you can think of—but something that keeps you connected to your creativity.
I’m still in the trenches with a baby and a toddler, but these past three years as a mother-writer have definitely given me confidence that I can continue to be a productive writer even under my new life circumstances. And the intensity of motherhood has brought a lot of urgency to my writing.
PP: What else would you like to add on this subject? Include anything else we should know about your life as a writing parent.
HP: A friend recently shared with me the dictum, “You lose a book for every child you have.” In other words, there’s an inverse relationship between the number of children you have and the number of books you write. I find this quote misleading. Yes, my children have taken a great deal of time away from my writing. But they’ve also raised the stakes I feel as a writer.
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Helen Phillips is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Italo Calvino Prize, among others. She is the author of the widely acclaimed novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (a New York Times Notable Book) and the collection And Yet They Were Happy (named a notable book by The Story Prize), as well as the children’s adventure novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. Her work has appeared on Selected Shorts, and in Tin House, Electric Literature, and The New York Times. An assistant professor of creative writing at Brooklyn College, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children. Her collection Some Possible Solutions is forthcoming in May 2016.
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.