Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, February 08, 2016

You asked, no. 10: children and books

Mary Bullington, "Creation," 2013
Mixed media collage of painted papers
on monotypes and painted paper
(acrylic, gesso, oil pastel, india ink)
25" x 22"
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other. This question is rather close to You asked, no. 1, but as that one is collecting a lot of readers, the yoking of motherhood and the arts is clearly a burning question for many. So here goes, though there will no doubt be a bit of overlap.

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Bullington: 
How on earth did you find time to write all those books while having and raising 3 children?

Youmans:
I wrote a book with my first baby on my lap. Once I had two children, that idea didn't work so well. At times I have dispensed with sleep, though I don't recommend this as a way of proceeding. It probably impairs baseline health and will make the books more wild. I drafted The Wolf Pit on very little sleep because for several years prior, any spare time had been taken up by general over-busyness, two long-distance moves, and a problem pregnancy. My lively youngest child wasn't yet in school. Nor was he particularly sleepy. A little more sleepiness would have been helpful and obliging of him, but it wasn't in his nature, and so that was fine.

The questions of finding time and whether to have children are important to any artist who is a woman. It is essential to remember that children have no need for a writer (or other sort of artist) in their lives. It is essential to recall that they have a deep need for a mother. Not infrequently, children present syndromes or issues that turn out to be quite time-consuming. Of course, many of our great, now-historic women writers were childless--Woolf, Austen, Dickinson, Wharton, Emily and Anne Brontë, George Eliot, etc. On the internet, one can still learn that young women sometimes mourn that their children stop their writing, or diminish their ability to write. We live in an era of falling birthrates in the West, particularly in Europe, where many people are choosing to have no children and to enjoy the subsequent leisure time and increased wealth that comes with living without them. Having children is a decision, one with a cost.

For me, having children meant having a bigger life, a more challenging and profound and beautiful and even more painful life. After all, without life, there is no art. The question was whether I was willing to patch together scraps of time and quilt together books in them, whether I had the mental concentration to write books in that scattered way, and the discipline to write late at night. And yes, it turned out that I did. I should add that three of my books were impelled by the obsessions of my children. Also, fragments here and there ought to have footnotes to their credit. But even if those things were not true, the simple yielding to a larger life was transformative to me.

A final tribute: I would not have thirteen books and a batch of nigh-finished manuscripts if my husband did not cook dinner most of the time. He took over much of the cooking when my middle child was two, and life became busier than before, and he never quit. He's a stellar cook and baker. Am I properly grateful? Yes, I am.

8 comments:

  1. You've lived a large life, I think, and it's still growing.

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    1. It was definitely challenging to have three children, especially since most of my childhood was "only child" status. I had no idea about sibling behavior!

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  2. "The simple yielding to a larger life." What a lovely way to put it. Good lesson for people who assume that life is necessarily a distraction from writing.

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    1. I've known a lot of people who seemed to feel that way, though it shouldn't be so.

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  3. No, it is not the same situation, so do not think I am minimizing your challenges, but men with careers and families are similarly challenged when they also want to write. I have been reading about men and women among Emerson's circle in the mid-1800s, and I marvel at their ability to accomplish so much in a world without conveniences and technology; when we complain about the complications of life in the 21st century, perhaps we should take a breath and time-travel in our imaginations back to earlier eras so that our current challenges seem less overwhelming. Now, with that out of my system, I have to go out back to feed the stock, chop some firewood, visit the privy, and go hunting for dinner (and then I will write a chapter or two in my new novel). Keep smiling.

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    1. I'm very grateful for the good things that come from our time. I would have died in childbirth in another age, if I did not die in childhood from the German measles or some other childhood illness.

      And I never would set myself up as any kind of an example, so feel free to minimize! It wouldn't bother me a bit. The people I admire most in the realm of art are the people I know who have terrible deficits in health and yet are creative and cheerful and loving to others.

      Yes, older times meant greater work--I know that very well from my paternal grandparents, who lived a harsher, more ancient kind of life as sharecroppers. Even now, many people have far more difficult lives than I do, and they still manage to make art. Others fall away from the pursuit when they are young, even though their lives do not display extra difficulties. Busy or less so, the burning desire to make something has to be there.

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  4. Great conversations here with Mary! How I identify with all this, Marly, as a mother of three including a late one coming during a major renovation of our home, and at a time when I was just getting back to a serious art practise! I envy your husband being a cook though mine was too busy with the building after a full day at work.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, anything that helps is good, isn't it? Yes, there are years that are especially hard in terms of getting works done--but not so bad if we can just yield to what's happening where we must and work where we can.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.