Leave the Dishes: Making Art While Raising Children

It May Be Worth It: Four Mother-Writers Share What Has Worked for Them
by Claudia F. Savage

Before the birth of my daughter, I emailed three friends who were recent mothers to get advice and commiserate. Below is similar wisdom from four successful Portland mother-writers who have maintained and deepened their practice: fiction writer Polly Dugan, poet Annie Lighthart, fiction writer Margaret Malone, and poet Alicia Jo Rabins.

How has your practice changed in terms of producing art since having children?

Polly Dugan

Polly Dugan

PD: I started working on stories in my kitchen when my sons were three and one, while they napped or after they were in bed for the night. Since then I have made writing a priority on our family’s list of other priorities. When I returned to a full-time job I wrote during my lunch hour. “Legacies” was written almost entirely during my lunch hour. Now, when the boys are in school all day, I have uninterrupted hours during the week when I can work.

Annie Lighthart

Annie Lighthart

AL: Oh, wow, wild changes. I remember sitting for hours and writing. Now, I write at the kitchen counter when my husband takes the littlest boy to drop off our older boy at school. At 8:05, they start out the door and I sweep everything off the counter. At 8:10, I sit down to write until 8:40 when they arrive back home. I have a plain, generic notebook I keep on the counter that is only for morning writing. It is one of my favorite things. When I see it, my mind quiets down.

Margaret Malone

Margaret Malone

MM: Oh my god! My practice used to consist of waking up and writing in the morning before my day job. I had a whole ritual. I would light a candle, select a poetry book to read, check my email, and start where I left off the day before. Hilarious. Now, I jump right in. No candles, no contemplation. Sometimes I will only have 20 minutes (if one of the kids wakes up early from a nap or if the baby starts crying). I still do my first drafts pen to paper, second draft into the computer, then edit off the hard copy until it’s done.

Alicia Jo Rabins

Alicia Jo Rabins

AJR: I have always used deadlines to make myself work. [Now] I spend less time on social media. I have also learned to say no to things that don’t have the right balance of time/money/effort. It is a challenge because I love to perform, but I am learning to be very strategic – efficient projects, less collaboration, more solo stuff.

How do you create mental energy for yourself to create?

PD: These days I have to create mental energy to combat the inner critic and bring focus to the page. There are still arguments to help settle, homework, and school project crises, but by working during the day when I have time alone, I’m able to give my full attention to my family when they are home and weekends which are sacrosanct family time.

AL: By habit, pure daily routine. If it is a school morning and I have an empty house for a little while, I write. Many days there is not much mental energy there, but my body is sitting in front of the page nonetheless, just in case some words arrive.

MM: Honestly, I just do what I have to do. I used to cultivate creative energy so I would be inspired to work. Now, I just don’t have the physical energy or time. If I need to write, I sit down and write. I’m so totally exhausted all the time, there is nothing in the tank except enough to push out whatever needs to get done. Sometimes I’ll look back and think, how the hell did I do that? I don’t know. I guess a lot of creating moms feel the same way. It seems impossible and yet you just have to, so you do.

AJR: For me, creative work generates energy, so I feel much more tired on the playground with my kids than I do when I am actually working. I find that my natural creative energy is not really compromised by being a parent; it is more a matter of finding the time, and the logistical or formal container, for that energy.

Are your children involved in your art (directly or as inspiration), or is your artistic discipline your coveted “alone” space?

PD: My kids are proud of my being a published author. They are partners in my endeavor, the way we are with each other’s endeavors. There are times when I am on a deadline and what the boys want has to wait and I expect them to understand. In my forthcoming novel, The Sweetheart Deal, I write about a family with three boys and some of the ease of writing those characters and relationships comes from having sons. I joke that no one is ever safe around me; anything is fair game.

AL: My children have inspired more poems about sleep and sleeplessness than imaginable. I also keep a huge stack of scrap paper that the children use for crafts. One day my older son made an airplane out of old poem drafts. After its initial flight, I found myself chasing poems with him up and down the street. Looking at each page I chased down made me see them as strange and new.

MM: When my son was little his nursery was my office. One time I was editing with my right hand while my left hand rocked him in his bassinet. Having children completely shifts the way you see and understand the world around you. You are able to see a moment from multiple points of view simultaneously. It complicates everything in the best way.

AJR: I write a lot about childbirth and mothering, but I feel like it is an alone space. So much of parenting seems to be about going past my experience to provide for the needs of my children. Whereas art-making is the time when I am alone in that experience and think deeply about it.

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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 came forth in spring 2015. This article continues her series for VoiceCatcher, Leave the Dishes: Making Art While Raising Children.