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Work-life “balance” lately

WORK

“Mother Courage” by James Wood

In Offill’s original book: a young mother and ambitious writer, committed to her daughter and to her writing, tries to find energy and ambition for both; she must claim for writing the authority of necessity that usually attends parenthood. Art-making, unlike the great bourgeois panoply of family life, comes without society’s automatic sanction, and is in some ways hostile to it.

But her plan “was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.” … The “art monster” lament is a recurring theme. In a way, it is the novel’s true subject, and a steady source of pain: thwarted aspiration, a sense of life as a slow lapse from high ambition. The narrator was twenty-nine when she finished her first book, and now the head of the department where she teaches creative writing is asking her where the second one is.

I’m lucky to have part-time childcare, and every time I get to go to a café, or close my bedroom door, and sit down at my laptop to work, I have the highest of aspirations. But all too often, when those precious hours have ticked away, I have little more than half-starts and disjointed scraps to show for it.

It is difficult, and it feels unfair, and I worry about sounding like a broken record, when I talk about not having enough space for myself and my art now that I’m mother. It is not actually my intention to complain. I fully recognize and appreciate that I am in a better position than most. But still, this is my reality. That’s all I’m saying.

I should also clarify that even before motherhood, I was not the best at managing my time. Motherhood is not to blame for my lack of discipline. But it hasn’t helped, either.

Anyway, I am currently at work on a Young Adult novel about family secrets, architecture, and falling in love. I started this story just before becoming pregnant with IB. Who knows when I will finish. Last year I had a sort of crisis of faith, and so I took a break from the book, experimenting with other ideas in my queue, giving myself permission to write “just for fun,” partly to see if I even knew how to do that anymore. I did. I do. And reminding myself of it allowed me to see that there could be fun in this story too. My faith was renewed, and I recommitted to the manuscript.

LIFE

On nice days, we take IB to the zoo. That’s our thing now. We’re definitely getting our money’s worth out of our membership.

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She walks all over the zoo grounds like she owns the place. Not bossy, but confident, curious, exploring. Tireless. It makes me so happy.

She likes to people-watch, and I wonder what she thinks about everyone.

She also waves and says hi to the animals. It’s painfully cute.

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Though the weather started trending warmer in April, we still got a few random snow days, and on one of them, I made a tiny snowman for IB. She wasn’t sure what to think of it. But she really enjoyed tromping around in her boots.

Later, Andy made her this snow bunny. She kept saying, “Hop hop,” whenever she saw it. And then, after it melted and collapsed, “Uh oh!”

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Now spring is truly here, and while I’m not looking forward to the heat, I do love spending the afternoons and evenings outdoors with IB, picking wildflowers, splashing in water, and just generally kid-ding around.

BALANCE

“How Motherhood Affects Creativity” by Erika Hayasaki

The competition between raising children and creative output is real. It may be impossible to balance in the ways society expects us to. But I don’t believe that parenting is the enemy of the work.

“The Ambition Collision” by Lisa Miller

The lesson of The Feminine Mystique was not that every woman should quit the burbs and go to work, but that no woman should be expected to find all her happiness in one place — in kitchen appliances, for example. And the lesson for my discontented friends is not that they should ditch their professional responsibilities but that they should stop looking to work, as their mothers looked to husbands, as the answer to the big questions they have about their lives. “I think possibly work has replaced ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after,’ and that is a false promise,” says Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “Everyone needs to have more than one thing in their life. We find people who are dual-centric to be most satisfied. If people put an equivalent stress on their life outside of their job they get further ahead and are more satisfied at their job.”

“The Time It Costs to Write” by Natalia Sylvester

We forget that time is not just a ticking clock but a life constantly filling with experience that we bring, like gifts and offerings, to the page.

Relish the words, the story, the process. Be kind to yourself and your fellow writers. It costs so much to write, and for each of us it costs something different, but we keep doing it because we are proven, time and again, that it is worth it.

“Are Kids the Enemy of Writing?” by Michael Chabon

Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.

Before getting pregnant, I worried that motherhood would take away from me. Take away time, take away energy, take away ambition, take away creativity. Now, eighteen months in, I know that motherhood does indeed take a lot — but it gives a lot too.

I truly believe that motherhood can make my work deeper and richer. And on top of everything else, I want to make IB proud.

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Ingrid and Andrea

Last week, I posted “Shared Dreams, Shared Success: The Power and Value of Critique Partners” over at Writer Unboxed:

For almost 10 years now, Sarah Wedgbrow, Stephanie Mooney, and Ingrid Palmer have been my critique partners. Somewhere along the way, they also became some of my closest friends. When we all lived in the same city, we would meet every week at Barnes & Noble and mark up printed pages with comments and questions. Now we use Google Hangouts to span 3 time zones and 4,600 miles, emailing each other files to read and discuss.

I can say without a doubt that I would not be the writer (or the person) I am today without these women. We each bring our own strengths to the group, and then we use those strengths to build each other up. Sarah is a master of character, with impeccable story instincts. Stephanie’s imagination never fails to dazzle and delight me. Ingrid could rewrite the phone book into poetry.

The value of our group has been top of mind recently, because two weeks ago, Ingrid celebrated the launch of her debut novel, a tough but hopeful Young Adult contemporary called ALL OUT OF PRETTY.

It feels incredible and surreal to see this book out in the real world, to hold a finished copy in my own two hands, after spending years going over the pieces of it with Ingrid. This story may not be mine, but I feel love and pride for it all the same. And for Ingrid. And for her bright, beautiful, resilient protagonist Andrea.

Next week, Ingrid will return to Cincinnati for the Ohio launch of her book, hosted at our beloved indie bookstore Joseph-Beth. I can’t wait to see her again, to hug her, to scream and jump with excitement with her. This is a dream come true — hers and ours.

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Recently viewed: Hidden Figures and Gifted

“Recently” might be too generous of a term, in the case of Hidden Figures, which I watched several months ago. But I really enjoyed this movie and have been intending to post about it ever since.

Although I no longer watch Empire, I will always be drawn to Taraji P. Henson — and of course Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are rock solid too. Together, they play three black women who, in real life, were geniuses and pioneers within the NASA program. I loved how each woman had her own professional and personal storylines, but also intersected with one another in tender, humorous scenes of supportive friendship.

Though it is all presented in a relatively palatable way, the movie’s themes of feminism and racism are, unfortunately, still quite relevant.

Speaking of Octavia Spencer, she must be one of the busiest women in Hollywood, because it seems like she is in everything I watch! Or maybe she and I just have similar tastes in stories? That wouldn’t be such a bad coincidence.

Gifted tells the story of a family at odds with itself. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, Frank is raising his niece Mary (with some help from his neighbor, played by Octavia Spencer). When Frank’s mother discovers that Mary is a math genius, she swoops in and tries to take custody away from him. The ensuing battle brings up a compelling knot of love, ambition, sacrifice, and blame.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the theme of a mother’s ambition driving her relationship with her daughter is something that I plan to explore in the near future. As a mom myself now, I can see how easy it is to fall into the trap of projecting your hopes and dreams onto your children.

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2018 so far, and 2018 to come

I had intended to post this in January, as a way of looking forward. But time sneaks by, and here we are, knocking on March’s door.

Sometimes you wonder where the days and hours have gone. But in this case, I know exactly where. They’ve gone to Elmo, and flashcards, and Old MacDonald’s farm, and bubbles, and cutting up more fruit than I fathom.

I’m happy to give that time to my daughter, but it does mean less time for myself, for my own pursuits. Since I can’t make more time, I have to make more of the time that I do have. Which has never been my strong suit, but I’m trying.


“2017 Was the Year We Fought for Democracy — Now What?” by Lauren Duca

Democracy was always intended to be a dynamic process fueled by active civic engagement. Perhaps the one optimistic take on this godforsaken year is that we’ve begun to recall that the American project is not a historical accomplishment to be celebrated but instead an ongoing process of figuring out how we ought to live together.

Politics is not something separate that only certain people do, closed off in some room somewhere. It is not miraculously vacuum-sealed off from our day-to-day routines. “Politics” impacts everything… We must come to understand participatory democracy as something that is seamlessly integrated into our daily existence, rather than distinct from it. We have to figure out how to enjoy our lives and be invested in politics.

I’m still calling, still donating. I’ve spent so much time feeling sad and angry about the latest headlines, the latest horrors — but I refuse to feel hopeless. “Politics” is a process. It’s never over. We can always nudge things in a better direction. That’s what democracy is all about.

2017 was a year of shock and coping. I think 2018 will be a year of renewed strength, and of quiet but powerful progress.


Last week, Andy treated us to a vacation in Lisbon. (Thanks to the crazy miles he accrued from work travel!) As much as we missed IB, it was nice to travel like we used to, walking everywhere endlessly, unencumbered by snacks and diapers.

Lisbon is lovely. Quieter and easier-going than some of its flashier friends (Paris, London, Barcelona) but with similar grace, intelligence, and beauty. We lucked into the most perfect weather — sunny and 60s every day — and we especially enjoyed the street art, the tiles, the pata negra, and the pastel de nata.

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As I wrote in an email to my agent, 2017 was a letdown of my own making, from a writing standpoint. Despite having part-time childcare for much of the year, I didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped to. I’m not happy about that, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it either. Live and learn. Try and fail, and then try harder. Or smarter. Or both.

In reflecting upon last year, I’ve come to a few realizations. Much of these are not new, but I seem to need to learn them over and over again.

  • The more I write, the more I write. So it’s better to have a small momentum than none at all. And it’s better to work on something — anything — than nothing.
  • Sometimes I get this strange feeling, like if I write too fast, I won’t be in control. As if writing is a bicycle, and if I speed downhill, I’ll crash and fall off. I’ve never thought of myself as being afraid of success, but that’s sort of what this is. (“Success,” in this case, meaning to produce a lot of words.)
  • The real fear is that if I write too fast, what I’m writing won’t be any good. But objectively I know that going slow doesn’t guarantee quality anyway, especially not for something as large and unwieldy as a novel, which cannot be judged by individual lines or pages or even chapters, but rather must be evaluated as a whole. Which means that even the most beautiful day’s work might be “bad” in the context of the rest of the book.
  • That’s why my goal this year is to develop a habit of finishing. To push forward, rather than dawdling. To get to a point where I’m nurturing a whole forest, instead of obsessing over individual trees.
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Week in review (Jan 31, 2018)

Opening credits

Several months ago, I wrote a column for my dad’s newspapers about life as a new mother. Now I’m working on another one, about the part that technology played in our first year of parenting.

Recently I read my friend Jasmine Warga’s second book, HERE WE ARE NOW. On the surface, it’s about a daughter reconnecting with her long-lost father, who has become a rock star. But on a deeper level, it’s a love letter to music, to immigrants, to artistic ambitions, and to the messy ups and downs of relationships of all kinds. I adored it.

I also found a very pleasant surprise at the end: my name in the acknowledgments!

Feel-good funny

While This Is Us and The Good Place were on winter break, I needed some well-written, light-hearted TV. I decided to try Brooklyn 99, and it did not disappoint. Like Michael Schur’s other creations (Parks and Recreation, The Good Place), the show focuses on characters that are basically good people, who care about each other, their work, and the world at large. That’s not necessarily a great setup for comedy, but the characters are so quirky, and they play off each other perfectly.

Rosa is my favorite — for some reason I am often drawn to the “tough chick” — but even as I say that, a part of me wants to take it back and make a case for each of the other characters. I love them all, and can see pieces of myself in every one.

A voice for the voiceless

The Shape of Water is not a feel-good funny movie, but there were, to my surprise, several moments where I laughed. (“No, no, don’t play with the kitties.”)

I did not love The Shape of Water the way so many people seem to, but I did admire its beauty, its ambitions, and its themes. I find myself thinking about it a lot, which is just as significant as loving it, I think, but in a different way. It’s a story about outcasts, and how hungry we all are for love. Sally Hawkins was tremendous in the lead role, and Michael Stuhlbarg sneakily wormed his way into my heart as Dr. Hoffstetler.

Speaking of tough chicks…

I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan from the beginning, but I’m not against an artist evolving with the times. (I hope to be given that opportunity myself, after all.) Overall, I’ve enjoyed her progression over the years.

That said, I was pretty wary of her latest album, Reputation, after hearing the first couple of songs. It’s not that they were bad, but… The heavy-synth sound is not my thing, and the petty, repetitive lyrics did not impress me.

I’ve now had the chance to listen to the entire album on Spotify, and on the whole I’d say it’s fine. Not great, but fine. The Old Taylor is, contrary to reports, still alive and well (particularly in “Don’t Blame Me” and “Getaway Car”) and the New Taylor is, if not excellent, at least interesting.

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