Mothers of Invention:
Inspiration, finding it between the pages

When I had my daughter seven years ago, I was so in love with her and being a mother that I hardly noticed how hard it was to write. Two years later, when my son was born and I was dealing with an infant who didn't like to sleep, as well as a toddler who'd just found her feet, I went searching for road maps. How did women do it? I didn't want to think about Sylvia Plath, even though there were many days when I could too easily empathize. I wanted, instead, a role model.

I quickly discovered Tillie Olsen's Silences, an angry book that is as apt today as it was in 1965 when it was published. Olsen was angry for the women's voices that had been silenced due to the difficulty of raising kids while making art. "Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished," she wrote, "makes blockage—at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be."

While I appreciated Olsen's ire and underlined passages in with deep red lines, I still needed something more akin to a happy ending to get me through the days (or as one woman in the grocery store put it, "The days go by fast, but there can be some very long moments.") The combination of kids and art, I found, takes will, a huge desire—a need, really—to create, and patience. Serendipity helps, too.

During a lecture, I asked the writer Marilynne Robinson how she'd completed her first novel, Housekeeping, at a time when her sons were small. She responded with a languorous smile, which said in itself: I was so lucky. She'd been on sabbatical in France for a year when the university went on strike, but she still got paid. The children were in school from early in the morning until nearly dinner. With her days relatively empty, she began assembling scraps of ideas that she'd been jotting down for months and forming them into a novel. An amazing novel.

France. Work strike. Paychecks. Sounded good to me. But I didn't see that equation on my horizon. What else worked?

Since becoming a mother seven years ago, I've slowly accumulated a collection of models, pulling ideas from different people and unexpected sources. Once I realized that no map would appear, I pulled a paragraph of experience here and a sentence there, compiling it all until I had some vague semblance of a "how-to."

For example, Chef Alice Waters' children's book, Fanny at Chez Panisse, told from the perspective of her young daughter who'd grown up in her mother's restaurant, provided a glimpse of how the talented and driven Waters had combined child rearing with her passion for food. There's baby Fanny in an empty soup pot, which doubles as a playpen, or an older Fanny picking herbs at a friends' garden for the evening's meal.

Actress Alfre Woodard, speaking in the documentary Searching for Debra Winger, teaches a lesson about priorities. When her son was still a baby, she was offered a role in a movie that was filming in South Africa. Could she leave him? She agonized over the decision, until she realized that her son would not only be well taken care of by her parents, but that he would never remember the time apart, while she would gain exceptional experience. A mother's needs, even creative ones, can and should sometimes come first. I watched that film late one night when I was paining over the decision of whether to put my kids in daycare; if offered an invaluable lesson.

I've also found considerable wisdom from less well-known women, much of which has arrived via serendipitous encounters. During a casual talk at the pool, I learned that an older woman I saw there often was a poet. When I complained, I'm embarrassed to admit, that I'd given up my study to make room for my daughter's nursery, she laughed. "Oh, I know hard that is. I had four kids in a Quonset hut behind Kinnick," she said, referring to the tin can shacks that the university put up behind the local football stadium after World War II to house the glut of young families on campus. "My desk was my ironing board!" I was incredulous, but she just seemed amused. I wondered how amused she'd felt about it back in 1950.

I also connected by chance with a landscape architect who I was interviewing. She sent me before and after photographs of her Northern California yard. The first set, taken more than a decade ago, showed her young children half naked climbing a mound of dirt in the midst of a weedy lawn strewn with stacks of lumber and rocks. It looked like fun, but also like utter chaos. The after shot, taken recently from roughly the same vantage point, could have come from the gardening section of House Beautiful. When I asked how she'd done it, she wrote back: "Slowly. I mainly kept thinking, 'If I only had time!' I never did, but little by little it got done."

When I told her that I was writing a book with a newborn and a toddler under the roof, she wrote me back quickly, as though her message was urgent. And it was. She sensed rightly that few other people were imparting this hard-won lesson: "You are in the tough phase. The hardest part is focusing. If you're trying to write, you're fractured. It feels like constant spinning and you are sure that if you could just stop long enough to focus, you could get something done. You feel like you are procrastinating, but really you are choosing the most important things to do and letting the others wait."

I taped her words above my desk. They're still there.

Some of you, in conversation and online, have shared your own inspirations—those stories, books, film clips, and other moments that keep you going. Here are a few. Treat yourself, perhaps, as a gift? And add more below in the comments.

The List

Watching art being made is always good for the soul. One painter, said she loved an interview with painter Elizabeth Murray, who describes working with her kids running around, from the PBS series 21/Art.

Life Among the Savages, in which author Shirley Jackson of the universal 7th grade horror read The Lottery gives a surprisingly sunny report of writing stories whilst pushing prams and wiping faces.

Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine. His works is always worth revisiting.

It never hurts to remember the most inspirational moment of all: birth. Hence several books on the subject, Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife and Spiritual Midwifery.

I met Maira Kalman a few years back while working on Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art, and she's as wonderful and kind and without pretense as you would hope. Her blog-turned-book The Principles of Uncertainty is a good reminder that seeing the small things, even when life is bursting, will help you retain your creative genes.

And check out Lynda Barry's newest, What It Is, a guide to helping you see that the ordinary always holds the extraordinary.

column added on 2009-01-04 :: ::

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Jennifer New

Jennifer New is a mama, writer, curator and yogi—in that order—who lives in Iowa City with her two kids, arthritic dog, and crazy cat. She heads the group Better Iowa School Food on its uphill trek to keep kids from eating two cupcakes, chocolate milk, M&Ms, and fried conventional chicken in a single school day. Jennifer's doppelganger maintains the blogs Au Revoir, So Long, Goodbye and Mothers of Invention.

Read more of Jennifer's Mothers of Invention column.

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