Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Striking a Balance

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I'm going home tomorrow, after an intense week-long writers' workshop in D.C. It was called "Building the Novel," and when it was my turn to be critiqued, eleven other emerging writers dissected my embryonic novel declared the funny parts "funny", the writing engaging and smart, but also pointed out that, three chapters deep, they still had no idea what the main conflict of the novel is.

I'm returning to my regularly scheduled life tomorrow, after seven days of learning the art and business of writing from Mat Johnson, a writer whose work I stumbled upon four years ago and who reigns among the contemporary black fiction literati...

After evenings spent discussing the mutilation of child soldiers in Africa with Chris Abani, the continent's up-and-coming It Writer, over sangria...

After getting a much-needed shot in the arm to my fiction-writing efforts at the Hurston-Wright Foundation's Summer Writers' Week, I'm going back home to talk to eight-year-old Taylor about Judy Blume books, and to three-year-old Peyton about why she shouldn't eat what she finds inside her nose.

I'm going home tomorrow to be Mommy once again, chauffeuring kids to summer camp for two weeks, remembering swimsuits on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and packing bag lunches every day. It's a bittersweet return; I've missed the girls, but I'm going to miss sharing literary gossip over Ethiopian food with my dozen or so new best friends. I'm going to miss days and nights which are completely my own.

I'm not looking forward to days fragmented by little people's need for three meals and three snacks a day, by their sibling squabbles, by my custom writing and freelance obligations. But fragmented days are part and parcel of the job description for a mama-writer. Lamenting them makes as much sense as lamenting what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts." They happen, but you have to keep writing anyway. In her memoir, Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, writer Rebecca Walker recalls a handmade sign her mother, Alice Walker, kept over her work desk when Rebecca was growing up. The sign reminded Walker that compared to the obstacles faced by her literary foremothers, her obstacle, young Rebecca, was "much more delightful and less distracting than any of [those] calamities."

However indelicate, Alice Walker's sentiment does strike a chord. I don't think of my children as "obstacles", but given a finite amount of time, parenting and writing are, on some level, in competition. It's my job to strike the right balance, and more often than not, I do (and when I don't, it is the writing that is neglected). What this requires is that I be ruthless about my time. With the deaths of three loved ones in the span of a year, I have a whole different outlook on my time--what it's worth, what's worthy of it, and how much of it I have to waste (none). And guilt--feeling guilty that I devote time to writing, which some people consider little more than a hobby, and certainly not a "real job"--guilt really is a big waste of time. This is a lesson I continue to learn, daily: that writing is not a guilty pleasure, because there's nothing to feel guilty about.

We all have our crosses to bear, but like Alice Walker, I have it relatively easy, especially compared to my literary forbearers, including Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, for whom the foundation sponsoring the writing workshop I attended is named. Hurston, Wright, Langston Hughes, and many others paved the way for writers like me to tell the stories we want to tell. It's my job to travel the road they have paved. What this requires is a measure of courage and commitment on my part, along with the willingness to do the balancing act that being a mama-writer demands.

To these ends, I have this column and a few published non-fiction articles to my credit. Fiction, which was my initial writing passion, has been harder for me. I already have two unfinished novels under my belt. The third time will be a charm, though, not because of luck or any guarantee of publishing success, but because this time is different. This novel is better, stronger, and so am I. This time, I will finish.

I know I will finish because I'm doing something I haven't done since about 1999: I'm dreaming again, imagining a future ripe with possibility. I'm thinking less of accolades and financial success (though I welcome them!), and more about the sense of accomplishment, of getting these stories and ideas and these people out of my head and into print.

I love writing and telling stories and I want it badly enough to find a way, make a way, to be the best writer I can be while being the best mother I can be. In my dreams, it is possible though not easy to be both. But nothing is easy.

I know where to start, though. By sitting down and finishing chapter three. Amidst the tent-pitching in the backyard in these last days of summer vacation, teaching Peyton to tie her shoes, and helping Taylor with her own book-in-progress (called "Oh, Sister!"), I will finish chapter three, and then four, and so on in the months to come, building the novel to The End. Easier said than done, but it will be done.


Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the co-author, with her ex-husband, of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, gender, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Family Circle, Brevity, The Cheat River Review, The Baltimore Review, dead housekeeping, Bitch, Apogee Journal, Slush Pile and other publications. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a native Floridian.


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Again you have touched such a nerve with the balance of the mother-writer-person that I grapple with being. I was just telling my husband (for the unteenth time) that I need some time to feed somethin gin my soul that is not about being his wife or the mother to my two girls (5 and 1) or the military officer who has to be on point because she is a woman and she is black. I just want a day or maybe a week-end to attend a writing workshop (hell I will take a afternoon at Barnes and Nobles!)-- but I digress. I really want to write (perhaps in my spare time :) so I need someone like to you to finish the book. It gives me hope that I too will be able to find the time, the words, the courage to complete the work inside of me. You must complete the book. If your colunms are any indication of the depth of your thoughts and imaginations I can't wait for the novel. Best of luck in your endeavors.
Antioch Writers' Workshop had a similar effect on me. I missed the stimulation, the commraderie, and the sense that I was on my own. I came home to grouchy husband, grandchildren moving to Utah, and sick dog. Reality bites. Along with MY new best friends, however, I have strengthened my practice and have entered into far-flung literary discussions on-line. I think it is a must-do for women writers to grab time for themselves among others similarly positioned.
I loved this column, it struck several chords in me. Including the part about writing for the sense of accomplishment and imagining a future ... for me of something other than "kids" (I have two girls, 8 and 2, and both have special needs, one has a speech disorder also). Thanks for sharing the feeling of being torn and the intricacies of both worlds - very interesting, and it made me laugh (in a good way). Kim
I, like many it seems these days, am a memeber of a book club. This particular book club, however, is compiled of only women. Women who are also mothers, daughters, homemakers, full-time employees...and the "list" could go on. Recently we read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, (intially written in 1955) which captures all of the many roles women play and how we all are searching for balance. After reading Striking a Balance I thought of how relative Gifts from the Sea is, even now, for the twenty-first century woman. In the final chapter, Lindbergh asks how one resists the onslaught of life's complications, how does one remain whole against the strains and the stresses. And to that question, this is how she responds: "...Simplicity of living, as much as possible, to retain a true awareness of life. Balance of physical, intellectual and spiritual life. Work without pressure. Space for significant beauty. Time for solitude and sharing. Closeness to nature to strenghten understanding and faith in the intermittency of life: life of the spirit, creative life and the life of human relationships...a few shells." In love/struggle...Leslie
You are not alone in this balancing act, this drive to write and write well while being the right kind of parent tugs and pulls you to a different end. If only the answers were as easy to find as all the questions this path, this choice, seems to raise. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this–great essay!
Can't wait to read the novel!! Rachel
Wow! What a lovely flood of comments. I'll be back later to soak them all in and respond. Thanks for reading! ~Deesha
Kristen…Thanks! Knowing that the balancing act is a communal mom-writer experience is simultaneously heartening…and a bummer! I can't really say "Woe is me" if it's really, "Woe is all of us"! :-) Leslie…that Lindbergh quote is EXCELLENT. And the ending, "…a few shells" made my smile. The more things change… Kim…Thanks for stopping by! I have to remind myself that dreaming and imagining my future is good for my girls too, for me to model this. I want them to be dreamers as well, and feel like the future is theirs for the taking. Mariann…I agree. I think the time away is like oxygen. Not really optional. I'm glad to hear that you and your friends are continuing the Antioch experience, building on it. Thanks for reading! Rashima…I'll make a deal with you: Before the first draft of my manuscript (my internal deadline is August 31, 2008) is completed, you will set and meet 3 writing-related goals. That's how I kick started my writing in earnest. A writer at a women's conference was procrastinating, afraid to send her mss to an agent. I mentioned having cold feet about writing to a local newspaper columnist that I admired, to ask him for advice. She made a deal with me: In thirty days, she would submit and I would contact the columnist. Fast forward 5 years, and that columnist is now my mentor and "big brother", and a big part of the reason I'm writing now. I'm going to email you. :-) Good to hear from you again!
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