Posts Tagged ‘Louise DeSalvo’

[Editor’s note:  Yesterday, on her terrific blog about writing, writer/editor Lisa Romeo talked about Louise DeSalvo’s piece in this space and added some tips of her own.  Thanks, Lisa, for giving me permission to post them here as well.]lisa romeo blog

Just the other day I was passing along tips to some writing class students who have school-age children and were explaining (that is, complaining) how little time this leaves them to write. Then today I came across this tough-love post by Louise DeSalvo.  To her advice, I’ll just add a few of my own tips; some are different, and some amplify what she advises:

  • No (more) volunteering for school activities that take more than an hour or two a month. Or how about just: NO.
  • Accept that you will have a dirtier (or at least a messier) house than you probably would like – OR hire someone to clean it.
  • Write anywhere. A lot of my stuff has been rough-drafted on the bleachers at baseball games, in the car waiting for kids to finish up at an activity, on the patio while the kids (when little) were playing nearby, even in the ladies room at insufferably long school and family functions!
  • Decide what you can slice out of your parenting life in order to get a writing life. Five years ago, when my youngest was in first grade, I decided I could do without the daily chats with other moms while waiting for our kids at pick-up time after school. I still had to arrive 15 minutes before the bell rang to get a parking space, but I decided to sit in my car and write – bingo, an extra hour or so a week.
  • As DeSalvo says, ALWAYS call it “work.” I realized this important distinction when asking a non-writing relative to watch the kids; and get the kids used to that terminology too. Mom’s working. Period.
  • Break free of the idea that you always have to write…at the keyboard, in your office, seated in that great armchair, with your favorite pen.
  • Get a writing accountability buddy – another parent writer who will exchange daily emails consisting of just one line about how many words or pages you each wrote that day; no venting allowed.

Now – what are you still doing here?


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A celebrated memoirist calls the bluff of a parent who laments that he doesn’t have time to write:

DeSalvo, On MovingHe was across the street raking leaves, and I went over to say hello one a cool autumn day, to take a break from my work, writing about my father’s life during World War II.

“How did you write when you had kids?” he asked me.  “I have this book I want to write, and I can’t get anywhere.  All the housework and time with the kids leaves me no time for writing.”

Bob is a work-at-home dad.  He’s told me about the book he’s burning to write about raising kids with his partner, filled with unconventional wisdom, hard-earned.

Your kids are at school now.  What are you doing raking leaves?

Maybe I should have sweet-talked him about how, yes, it’s tough to get to your work, blah, blah, blah.  But I figured he wanted to know how I did it, so I told him how I kept at my writing when my kids were growing up, and I gave him my “rules” that made it possible.

Rule Number 1:  As soon as the kids are off to school, get to your desk. When they’re babies, as soon as they’re in their cribs, or in their rooms, for a quiet time or a nap, get to your desk.  Don’t do housework.  Don’t make telephone calls.  And for goodness sake, don’t do e-mail, go on Facebook, or look at Oprah.  Don’t waste the precious little time you have.  You can shop, run a household, cook, when the kids are around, and they can help you.  Bob’s kids love raking leaves – they’d raked mine for money.  But there he was, raking, pining for his work, which meant he was choosing to rake, not to write.

Rule Number 2: You don’t need “blocks of time.” Lots of biographies describe writers going to their studies for the entire day.  Nice, if you can do it. Most of us can’t, or wouldn’t want to.  Many writers who aren’t writing tell me they need “blocks of time.”  When I ask if they write in snippets of time, they say no.  When my kids were young, I could get in three hours of work a day, no matter what.  Everyone can get in three hours of work a day.  That’s all Virginia Woolf worked; that’s all the time she took to write. Sometimes, for me, it was an hour here, fifteen minutes there.  When they were babies, I used their nap time and two hours after they went to sleep to write. I took my work to wading pools, doctor’s offices, the park.  I didn’t push my kids on a swing.  They were there to play, not me.

Rule Number 3: You’re not a taxi cab driver. The suburbs are wonderful, sure, but also hellish places for parents, especially if you feel bound to ferry kids from one activity to another.  I tried it.  I died inside.  Each of my kids got one ride a week, no more.  Sure, they got angry.  But they figured out how to get places.  Like walking.  Or riding their bikes.  And I didn’t go to every one of their games.  That was their thing, not mine.  There’s nothing sadder than seeing talented, dying-to-express-themselves parents sitting around doing nothing while their not-so-talented kids dance, play soccer, or twirl around on gym equipment.  If you have to go, bring your work and do your work.  Ignore your child.  Wave occasionally.

Rule Number 4:  You have a right to do your work even though you’re not getting paid for it (yet). Writing, as Audre Lorde said, is not a luxury, surely not for the person yearning for self-expression.  The way I look at it, you can either write, or you can get angry, feel ripped off, or worthless.  Better that you write.  And when you get paid, even a pittance, invest the money into your growing business.  Think of yourself as a start-up company.  Keep ten percent of the profits for yourself.  Spend the rest to replace your labor to give you more time.  To write.

Rule Number 5: You’re the grown-up.  Your life is yours, not your child’s. This is the way Europeans run their households.  This is the way I ran mine.  My needs had to be met.  First.  Selfish?  Yes.  “She sacrificed her life for her children” is not something I want written on my tombstone.  A parent’s life is a terrible thing to waste.

Rule Number 6: Touch your work every day. Live by Anne Lamott’s father’s rule: Work every day, and finish things.

Rule Number 5: Call it work, not writing. No one I knows cares if you’re writing.  That’s why you have to call it work.  Because that’s what it is.  Your work.  Your life’s work.

Louise DeSalvo is the Jenny Hunter Distinguished Scholar for Literature and Creative Writing at Hunter College.  Her most recent book is On Moving.  Her other titles include the memoir Vertigo, which received the Gay Talese award; Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, which was named a Booksense Book of the Year; and Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. DeSalvo is also a renowned Virginia Woolf scholar.

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