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We who are about to breed: Mary Biddinger.

September 22, 2011 \am\30 10:00 am
[In which WWAATD asks writers and other artist types about life as breeders/parents/kid-keepers.]
Name: Mary Biddinger

1.    What are your kids’ names, ages?

My daughter, Gabi, is nine years old, and my son, Raymond, is five. They have the same birthday of June 12th, exactly four years apart. We save a lot on cake and balloons.

2.    How do you balance your time between parenting and writing?

I need a fair amount of pressure to be motivated, so balancing time is no problem. Sure, there are nights when I stay up late to write because it’s quieter, but I’m rarely ever cramming, and I get to spend a lot of time with my kids. My trick has been to set boundaries between things, and to do my best to prevent overlap. If my kid is home vomiting, I won’t bring him to class with me while I teach. If my colleague needs non-emergency advice during my daughter’s softball game, it will have to wait. I designate work time, and home time. I do not answer my work email on the weekends. It took a while to establish these boundaries, but now they’re solid.

In terms of writing time, I’m lucky to be flexible and fairly quick. I like to carry ideas around with me for a while, so by the time I sit down to write, I’m ready. We are a two-poet-family, so the idea of writing is serious, and I can talk about poems while scrubbing tile grout, or cooking noodles, and it’s just another part of life.  I also write when I am “at work” in my office at the university. I may have written a poem or two during a committee meeting. Don’t tell.

3.    What is the best piece of advice about being a parent and a writer?

I’m not sure I ever received advice about being a parent and a writer. Gabi was born when I was in graduate school, and I was one of the first of my friends to have a kid, so there weren’t any real mentors for me in that respect. However, my advice would be to remind yourself, parent to be, that you are a creative person who sometimes (or often) doubts common advice and trends.

If you have a sprained ankle, you may need crutches for a little while, and maybe a temporary handicap parking pass. But you don’t need to build a ramp for your front porch, or construct an elevator to the basement. It’s temporary. And so is the littleness of your child, though the baby stuff industries will try to convince you that numerous large, plastic devices and a complete retrofitting are essential. Use common sense, and a bit of skepticism, when deciding what you really need.

Having a child opens up an entirely new phenomenon where strangers (and non-strangers who suddenly start acting like creeps) will give you all kinds of unsolicited wisdom. My advice is to learn to deflect this advice. Take the money you saved by not purchasing five types of baby swings and hire a sitter for a few afternoons. Spend that time writing, or sleeping, or both. Remember the especially outrageous comments for future stories, or poems, or stand-up comedy routines.

The one piece of writer-friendly baby equipment that I recommend is a sling or other front carrier. I did tons of writing while my kids slept in these. Sometimes my kids didn’t sleep anywhere else. I got a lot of writing done then.

Biddinger's newests.

4.    How has your writing changed since becoming a parent?

Now I treat writing like it’s something illicit, not another mundane item on my to-do list. This has been a huge help for my writing. Instead of putting it in the category that includes student recommendation letters and laundry, I let it be more like a secret addiction, or a hot, turbulent affair. I write when I’m not supposed to be writing. I do it on the sly. Sometimes it’s on the back of an envelope, or on a bill. I try to use my ingenuity to find time to write, recalling my days as an office worker who always had a poem brewing behind the spreadsheet. It takes a bit of shape-shifting and code-switching, and sometimes a bit of daring. (Ever tried writing on the back of a grocery list while pushing a cart filled with pickle jars and wine bottles?). It’s completely exhilarating. It’s no longer a chore at all. I also recommend a tiny notebook and endless supply of sticky notes.

5.    Tell us something we don’t know about you and being an artist- or writer-slash-parent.

I don’t think I was much of a writer until I became a parent. It’s not because I wasn’t tortured or worldly enough until then, but I didn’t have as much of a drive to keep writing. At a certain point I realized that I wanted to make writing (and teaching, and editing, and—to a lesser degree—creative writing program administration) my career, and to support a family on it, even when it seemed downright impossible. I could have continued in other fields that I tried, such as technology, but I decided to do this, and that was the ultimate motivation. I haven’t stopped writing since. There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned dose of urgency to get things moving.


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