Column by Vanessa Shields

I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.

This past June, I attended the Canadian Writers’ Summit in Toronto. By myself. For four days. Just me and my self and I.

For me, the League of Canadian Poets’ AGM is something I look forward to attending every year. Last year, the League and TWUC held a joint conference in Winnipeg. The year before that, I ventured east to St. John’s for the TWUC AGM. Wherever the gathering happens, I want to go!

What does that do to my writing and parenting life, though? Not to mention my financial life? Well, it puts everything into upheaval. This was my third year of it, and it’s getting slightly easier…

Overall, my recommendation as parent who is a writer is to DEFINITELY travel. Give yourself the experience of attending a conference or escaping to a writer’s retreat. You need it. Your imagination and creative juices need it. Your body and soul need it. Your words need it. It might be hard on the finances (there are grants/free residencies that do exist to help with this!), but it’s so good for your spirit. It’s good to be away and feel how much you miss the ones you love. It’s amazing to come home and get barreled with embraces and smooches. And to slide back into the rituals of daily life.

A few very distinct things happen to me when I decide I’m taking a ‘me’ trip. This means that I’m traveling by myself, typically to embark on a writing-related adventure (another example of getaway is when I go to Pelee Island to lead a workshop and do a reading).

  • I think about all the pre-planning that has to happen in order for me to take a hike.
  • I think about all the writing I’m going to do in the hotel room when I get there.
  • I think about how to deal with missing my family.

travel 1Let’s break it down, shall we?

1. PRE-PLANNING: Not sure if I mentioned this yet, but mama’s got 15 years of experience working in the film and television industry as a producer. Pre-production is my thang. I learned that one of the things I’m very good at is organization. So, although it’s always harder for me to organize my ‘self’ and my family, I’m still pretty good at it, and really haven’t taught myself to not to (to quote Mater from ‘Cars’). Yes, I could just say to the hubby and kids, ‘I’m leaving on this day and coming home on this day. Have fun y’all!’…but that wouldn’t feel right or fair.

You see, the reality of being a family means that we all recognize what we’re each good at, and we use our skills to help each other on a daily basis. I’m good at organizing. I’m good at making lists and telling people where they need to be and when. Pre-production includes but is not limited to: hiring and taking care of payment for babysitters, listing ‘things-to-do’ on each day (ex. Extra-curriculars, chores, groceries, friend visits, dog feeding/walking, shower nights, etc.), making notes for teachers, leaving keys for family/sitter, etc. I sit and type out what typically gets sloppily hand-written in my daybook/daily list book (yes, I have both), print it, put colours and stickers on it, and leave it on the dining room table (our Grand Central station), and then email a copy to the hubby.

All of this keeps me quite distracted from the other pre-production work that also needs to be completed. This includes but is not limited to: preparing panel presentation(s), choosing workshops/panels to attend, finding travel and accommodations, having a minor fangirl/self-confidence breakdown after googling fellow panelists/conference attendees, paying attention to conference planning via emails from conference folks, figuring out what to eat (healthy choices), printing maps for travel, trying not to be afraid of driving into downtown Toronto during morning rush-hour, trying not to be afraid of being ‘alone’ in a new city, etc.. Oh, and of course, doing all the ‘regular’ stuff that always already needs to get done. There’s a lot of squeezing in and late-night pre-production shifts that happen. Sigh. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed just typing this all out!

2. WRITING IN HOTEL ROOMS: Hot dog, people. I love writing in hotel rooms. Why is that? Is it the silence? The constant cleanliness? The desk and chair? Even when I’m looking on-line to reserve hotels, I start to heat up with excitement at the idea of being alone in a space to write. I pack my laptop and load it with those ‘I’ll-get-to-you-when-I-have-more-time’ writing projects. I bring my journal, fancy pens, good music, and at least three books to read (different genres, always at least one book of poetry).

travel 2 - credit degen
Photo credit: John Degen

And then – reality sets in. When conferencing, my brain gets totally fried. I take in so much information that by the time I get back to the hotel, I’m lucky if I have the energy to get into my pajamas before falling into bed. My creative juices are flowing all day. I get revved up at workshops, panels and keynotes. I take notes and promise myself I’ll blog about this or write a poem about that ‘as soon as I get back to the hotel’. There was one night over the course of the 4-day summit that I was at my hotel before 10pm. You know what I did? I went to see a movie by myself! Took a nice jaunt down to Queen and Spadina, cozied up to a big bag of buttered popcorn and M&Ms (plain – mama’s a purist), and watched Sally Fields’ new film ‘Hello, My Name is Doris’.

There was no writing in my hotel room. Reading – yes. But no ‘work’ writing. I managed to squeeze out a few emails and one short blog in between workshops over the weekend…but that’s it.

I think the reality is that like my eyes are bigger than my belly when it’s hungry, my heart and brain are bigger than my love of writing in hotel rooms. I take in so much during the conference, that I’m pooped when I get back to the hotel. Exhaustion always wins.

On the other hand, when I’ve gone to Pelee Island and stayed in a bed & breakfast – I’ve had some of the most intensely productive writing experiences ever. I know I can write anywhere. I know I have romantic notions about writing in hotel rooms and while I travel, but my romanticism extends into pretty much the whole travel experience, so I fill up my days and sometimes tire myself out. Conferencing is a lot of work. Specifically heading somewhere to ‘write’ is another adventure altogether. I dream of writing at the Al Purdy A-Frame or in a villa in Tuscany. One day…

3. MISSING MY FAMILY: In the mornings and at night, it’s the hardest. The missing pulls my heart deeper into my chest when I lay alone in a hotel bed at night and think about how if I were at home, I would be joined by my kids, my hubby and our dog (he’s a Golden Retriever). We snuggle a lot. And it happens at night before we fall asleep and in the morning before we get out of bed. It’s a ritual that leaves a deep pain in my heart when it doesn’t happen. Yes, it does feel good to spread my limbs like a human star and take up the whole bed…but then I always gravitate back to my side of the bed and sleep in that spot all night. I miss the scent of sun dust in my dog’s fur. I miss the sweaty warmth of my daughter’s knee-pit on my leg. I don’t miss my hubby’s snoring, but I miss his everything else. And my son, I miss the way he pretends he’s still sleeping when I kiss his eyelids.

I remember watching a writer on a panel. A woman. A mother. She was on the last leg of a 3-week book tour. She was tired. She missed her family. She wanted to go home. As much as the rigmarole of daily life presses on my spine and shrinks me (I swear it does!), and as much as it’s stressfully exciting to pre-plan, attend and ‘be away’ from family and friends, traveling as a writer and a parent can be a struggle. Our hearts hold the passion and love for our words in the same chambers as they hold our passion and our love for our families. The ‘negotiating’ between parent and writer, friend and writer, conference attendee and writer…it all continues even though you’re away from your home-base.

I do love playing pretend and walking with an extra umph in my step like I’m the heroine in the next blockbuster film about a writer (wait, that doesn’t exist?!), but at the beginnings and ends of the days…I feel my ‘roles’ colliding again. And, as it happens, many, many times during the day I think to myself, ‘gee, the kids would love this place! I wish they were here’…or ‘my hubby would love this restaurant. I wish he was here’.

It is hard to leave, but this is part of the life of a writer, and dare I say it, the life of a parent too. It’s harder to leave the younger your child/ren are, but as they age and become more independent, you realize that you can reclaim bits of your independence as well. If you’re like me, and you can admit (even if it’s in a very mousey quiet kinda way) that there are days when you wish you could live alone in a log cabin in a forest and write, write, write…well then you know that your heart is due for a little getaway. And that’s okay.

Author photoVanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. A forthcoming book of poetry will launch this fall. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series calledMouth Piece Storytelling. For all things Vanessa, visit her website