Parenting & Playwriting
While I was Gone
This post is the seventeenth column of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The rhythm of my life as a writer has been fairly consistent the past five years. I usually incubate with a new project for a season, which means staying home and writing in between childrearing, housekeeping and wandering the grocery aisles with a make-up bag full of coupons in the middle of the night. This phase requires a decent knack for multi-tasking, but incubation is nevertheless a pretty serene time for our household. My favorite part of playwriting is writing in a room alone, as this is when I am most often surprise myself: summoning forgotten words, a repressed point of view, a turn of phrase I couldn't have wrought with my conscious mind. I try not to judge myself.
It's a great time of forgetting, both in writing and in family life. We watch the leaves fall off an old oak in our backyard that only appears aged, because we live on the high plains where the wind steals so many saplings. I write in the morning. In the afternoon, we gather leaves and press them into the pages of the Professor's dictionary collection. At night, I drink tea.
The hatching of a play, which occurs in a rehearsal room, has its own joys, but they aren't particularly serene ones. All of a sudden I'm surrounded by other voices, voices not so enamored by my clever turns of phrase and who challenge the sense of things at every corner. This is all necessary and good and part of making a play better than I could have ever imagined alone, but it's tough on my sense of equilibrium. Sometimes actors make text suggestions because they can see into a character better than I can, and sometimes they make them because they want more lines.
I have to believe that there's a time and a place for playmaking, for spiritual retreat, for building a museum on a distant shore, indeed, for Bosnian basket-weaving, because whether good, great or mediocre, the act of creation is important.
Sometimes I immediately have a terrific solution for a scene, and sometimes the director has to buy me coffee and insist I read a scene aloud in order to make clear that it is not her problem; it is mine. The theater tends to attract mercurial, volatile people who seem perfectly rational one day and in desperate need of meds the next. During the hatching period, I do not watch leaves fall from the trees. I do not drink tea. I battle insomnia. I thank God every night that my dramaturg believes the best place to crack a scene is at the bar, where we drink vodka.
What has become increasingly clear as the children have grown older is how the discombobulation I feel in the rehearsal room is reflected back home, when I am away. The Professor is heroic in his attempts to keep hearth and home, but when the gentle rhythms of our family life are disrupted, the children rattle their cages. During my recent trip to open a play in Denver, one child hid in a corner of the library and cut off her hair. The other became completely neurotic about her potty training and started stashing the dirty underpants behind her dresser. The smell lingers still. One child called me everyday; the other refused to talk to me on the phone at all. One cried every afternoon when the babysitter picked her up from school. The other refused to go bed at night but wandered the house until midnight, finally falling asleep on the stairs, the sofa, the kitchen floor. The Professor had to carry her into daycare every morning, asleep on his shoulder.
Part of me feels terribly guilty, of course. I hate that everyone struggles while I am away. There's nothing more heart wrenching than hearing a plaintive voice on the telephone asking me to come home. I'm scared that when they are older, my girls will spend hours complaining to their therapists about how their mother abandoned them for her art, which, let's be honest, is not world-changing, particularly lucrative, or great. I'm not re-inventing the form. It's just what I have chosen to do with my particular gifts at this point in history when a middle-class woman with a willing partner has the privilege of doing so.
Another part of me, however, doesn't feel guilty at all. This part hopes that when they're all grown up, my girls will do the same. I hope they create art, grow cities, make scientific discoveries or religious ones. I hope they leave their kids with their partners or with their parents in order to travel to Bosnia, because they want to apprentice with a Bosnian basket weaver for a spell, and I hope they have partners who understand and appreciate the importance of Bosnian basket weaving. And yes, I hope they aren't shitty parents who lose all perspective over Bosnian basket weaving and ignore their kids. I mean, God forbid they turn out to be little narcissists who follow every whim to the ends of the earth. But I have to believe that there's a time and a place for playmaking, for spiritual retreat, for building a museum on a distant shore, indeed, for Bosnian basket-weaving, because whether good, great or mediocre, the act of creation is important.
What about you? How do you balance working away from home with providing consistency for your kids? How do you feel about it?