Leave the Dishes: Making Art While Raising Children

Start Making Art Again
by Claudia F. Savage

Making art takes dreaming as well as time. But when I turned 38 and had my daughter, River, all writing methods fell away. I was frantic and exhausted. I owed it to myself, and to River, to find a way to continue my artistic life despite the challenge of raising her. She needed a mother who was her fullest self — and that woman had to figure out how to write.

“Leave the Dishes” is a column about how to create amidst the chaos, including advice from other artists who have made it happen and help from organizations that want to support that effort. I’ll be interviewing mother-writers, mother-visual artists, and organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. For now, let’s start with what began to work for me:

Deep Attention — in Quick Bursts
The poet Li-Young Lee once told me he came back to poetry after bathing his boys before bed, watching the light come through the trees in a window above them. He felt this attention, this noticing, was more important than any other work he was doing at the time. Sometimes, it is not about making work as a mother-artist, but just allowing yourself to experience unhurried sensation. Stopping the constant rush for just a moment. I often feel a poem begin when I look at my 2-year-old’s sunlit hair. Encourage your child to touch the petals of a daisy on walks. Touch them with her. Point out the birds rising from a neighbor’s rooftop. Watch how their dark wings contrast with the sky. And, to capture those thoughts …

Notebooks, Notebooks Everywhere
Don’t just carry a notebook with you, place notebooks everywhere you are during the day (in the stroller, the diaper bag, your purse, next to your bed, the car, and in the kitchen). Being a mother means that artistic ideas are quickly replaced by crying children. Don’t worry about the topic, just get it down. One day I wrote the following lines after nursing my daughter:

I thought your eyes would be blue.
Sliced sky over the breakfast table.

This reminds me of the most important shift that happened to me when I started to …

Work Smaller
You know you’re not going to write a 700-page novel or fill a gallery when you have an infant. But, maybe you were once prolific and your inability to write even one poem a month makes you feel like an utter failure. For me, I decided that I had to work smaller since the best time I could work was during my daughter’s naps. At the end of the day I was so tired I could hardly eat dinner. Nikki McClure’s beautiful book, Awake to Nap, was done specifically during her son’s naps. Many artists talk about this tactic. At first, River’s naps were so short I only got out one or two lines every other day. A poem took weeks for a first draft. Then, I realized that I could work smaller on multiple pieces at once, coming back to each one as I felt inspired. This was a departure for me, but it felt easier, especially once I started to …

Exile the Editor to Fiji
Sleep deprivation and stress can make the internal editor huge. It’s a good idea to exile her until confidence in your new art-making ways returns. I’m not talking about no longer critiquing your work. I’m talking about exiling that voice that doesn’t allow you to create in the first place. The one that tells you everything you make is terrible. For the first year of River’s life I made the decision to just focus on generating. I filled notebooks with two-line pieces, sketches, and non-fiction rants. Sometimes, the work was a reminder that I was having a hard time. Once I wrote:

I write in secret on the couch. Pretending to remember the garlic on the grocery list. Got that? Yeah. Milk? Yup. I am bloodless. A husk.

Once River started sleeping a bit more at night, I began to trust myself to edit some of the pieces I’d made. But, before that happens for you, let the editor have her pina coladas far, far away. And focus instead on a way to …

Develop Routine or Ritual
So, what do you do with all those jotted down sketches and lines from a given week? Try to develop a routine or ritual around some kind of completion. For me, my time was one hour on a Saturday morning. Often I was so exhausted I just stared at my notebooks, but, eventually, I started to crave that time when I could compile my disparate things from the previous week’s notebooks into something. It was a good time to assess how I was doing as a writer. Which strategies were working (that notebook in the bathroom got soaked from the duck toy) and what was surprising (did I actually write a line after a 3 a.m. feeding?). And, finally …

Forgiveness and More Forgiveness
If nothing gets done that week or that month, you will be fine. Forgive yourself. You will come back to it if you just focus on making space for yourself. Remember that whatever you make during this time of childrearing should be celebrated. There is nothing more powerful than rediscovering yourself on the page, for yourself and your children. However you make it work is good.


Claudia F. SavageClaudia F. Savage has been a chef for people recovering from illness, a book editor, and a teacher of poetry to young women in Appalachia, ranchers in Colorado, and urbanites in Portland. Her first book, The Limited Visibility of Bees, was named a finalist for the New Issues Press Poetry Prize. Her poetry and interview credits include CutBank, Nimrod, The Denver Quarterly, VoiceCatcher, Iron Horse, The Buddhist Poetry Review, and Bookslut. Her published chapbook is called The Last One Eaten: A Maligned Vegetable’s History. Savage is a member of the poetry/music duo, THrum, whose album is forthcoming in spring 2015.

3 thoughts on “Leave the Dishes: Making Art While Raising Children

  1. Great post Claudia! You are an inspiration – and as you know MY child is well grown – wish I’d had such sage advice when I was a newer mother (though in truth it is good advice for the rest of us, too!)

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