Parents Who Write: April Halprin Wayland

In my family, writing is essential. Growing up, my love for writing was inspired in large parts by the women I grew up around: my mother Lyra Halprin, whose background as a journalist led to a successful career as a public information specialist for UC Davis, while she simultaneously produced stories for television, radio and print, and my aunt April Halprin Wayland, who for as long as I knew her, was a walking, talking whirlwind of poems and stories, songs and books. From both of these women I inherited a deep respect and awe for writers and artists; to be a Halprin woman was in large parts to be an artist. I still feel that way, which is why my daughter's middle name is Halprin.

My aunt April's career as a children's book author, poet and activist kicked into high gear when I was a small child, so I got to witness the joy of her booksignings, school lectures and public events. For years she would come to my school to talk to kids about the writing process. (I'll never forget the way she compared writing to cooking, telling us to let things "Simmer, boil and cook.") She's garnered critical acclaim for her books, which include To Rabbittown, Nighthorse, It's Not My Turn to Look for Grandma, Girl Coming in For a Landing, New Year at the Pier, and most recently, More Than Enough. She's traveled the world meeting writers and writing students and founded Authors and Illustrators for Children, an organization which unites writers around political causes that benefit kids. 

I called my aunt on a Sunday afternoon shortly after my daughter's first birthday, happy but also exhausted from juggling chores, full-time work, volunteer work, and the day-to-day joys and challenges of living with a small person with a big personality. I'll never forget the relief I felt just hearing about April's experiences as a young writer and parent. 

Thanks to April for answering my questions for today's installment of Parents Who Write.

 

 April Halprin Wayland

April Halprin Wayland

· Name:

April Halprin Wayland

· How many children do you have? How old are they?

I have one; he’s twenty-frickin'-eight.

· How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?

My jobs:

write a poem every day,
teach writing,
blog about writing on TeachingAuthors.com,
take care of my books (PR, conferences, etc),
make our home a place of peace and comfort,
move our country in a positive direction,
be kind. 

Also walk the dog.

My husband's jobs (according to him):
feed the fish
make money.

When our son was growing up, one of my jobs was to make sure he ate healthy. He did.

· How long have you been a writer?

My first published book, To Rabbittown (Scholastic) came out in 1989, but I wrote and illustrated (in pencil) my very first book in second grade. Clothing Through the Ages began with cave people wearing furry coats; next you see women in colonial gowns, then flappers with shorter skirts, then mini-skirts. In the final spread, everyone is naked. I wrote a sequel, Hair Through the Ages. 

· Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.

In the last stages of my corporate life, I was a round peg in square hole; I was very unhappy. I looked around the company for a role model. I asked a colleague what she did to stay happy; she said she took lots of classes. So I took a class in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program on writing for children. As soon as I started taking that class—BAM!—men at construction sites who never noticed me before whistled as I walked past, though nothing else had changed. I was alive—I was soaring!

When I quit my corporate job, I committed to being a full-time writer. I was 30. I joined a group of artists, musicians, architects, dancers, actors, etc. who met to talk about doing our art. That was the first time I said aloud, "I’m a children’s book writer." I wore pinafores (!) thinking that was probably the uniform children's book writers wore.

I was determined, passionate and ambitious. I was a learner. I went to conferences. I took a master class in writing poetry for children from a brilliant teacher for 12 years. I joined three critique groups (Yikes. That would make my head spin today).

I was thrilled to get up each day to write. Somewhere along the way, though (after my son went to college) that joy morphed into a grayness. It was a hard job. It was a lonely profession. Something had to change.

So in 2010, I began writing a poem every day, no matter what. I sent it (and still do) to my best friend, who is also a children's author and poet. He, in turn, sends me a poem every day. I felt alive again.

I loved (and still love) the people in my field. I loved saying that I’m a children’s book writer; it gets a nice response at a cocktail party. I saw that that as part of my paycheck. Still do.

· How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it?

We didn't expect parenthood to impact us at all. We thought you could just put your kid on your back and do everything you usually did. I hadn't a clue how things would change.

When I was pregnant, my poetry teacher commented that every poem I wrote was about a blooming flower, a fruiting tree. I didn’t see how wrapped up I was in creating a child.

My son was born in 1989, and that’s when my first book was published. I was 9 months pregnant and—OMG!—I was autographing a book!

I didn't write much as a new mother. A writer who worked at our local bookstore brought me to my senses. “If I were you, I'd hire a babysitter a few hours a week; my writing is worth that.”

I loved my writing time when I did finally hire a regular babysitter. And yet...there was an inner tug-of-war when I had to leave to speak or teach and the sitter got to stay home and take our son to the park. Why couldn't I pay her to go speak so I could stay home?

· Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?


Yes. When my son was in elementary school, I would ask him to read some rough drafts. Does this ending work? He’d say, not really, or what if…? Both he and my husband were brutally honest with me. I can't always tell if my stories are delightfully off-the-wall or completely incomprehensible.

· What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? 

I am crazy about audiobooks. Now I’m listening to My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I just finished Girl on the Train. I loved Each Little Bird That Sings, a middle grade novel by Deborah Wiles and a library-full of others.
 

·  Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?

Harold and the Purple Crayon, written and illustrated by Crocket Johnson, hands down. Although I have many favorite teen, middle-grade and picture books, Harold and the Purple Crayon is my all-time favorite. Why? When Harold falls into the ocean and is drowning, he comes up thinking fast—and draws a boat with his purple crayon. It's a story about being resourceful. Whatever you need is already inside you.

 

Learn more about April at aprilwayland.com.

If you are a parent who writes and would like to share your experience with me, please reach out. I'd love to hear from you. 

 

 

Parents Who Write: Melissa Yancy

There are some characters, some voices, that stick with you, even years later. I'll never forget Boris, the unlikable-yet-somehow-affable character in a story by Melissa Yancy, a writer I met in 2015 at Lit Camp, a writing workshop in Calistoga. The story connected the dots between organ donors in a long chain--itself a fascinating premise--and revealed a wry, poignant and fresh voice. It didn't surprise me to see Boris appear a year later in her debut story collection, Dog Years. To say that 2016 was a big year for Melissa would be to diminish her accomplishments: In addition to winning the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the book was a finalist for the California Book Award and longlisted for The Story Prize. And she won an NEA Fellowship. That--and she had her first son. While working full-time. No big deal.

I truly admire Melissa's work ethic and killer voice--and am grateful she found time to answer my questions about writing and parenthood.

 Melissa Yancy, author of  Dog Years

Melissa Yancy, author of Dog Years

•Name: Melissa Yancy

•How many children do you have? How old are they?

A son who recently turned one.

We also have two pugs, and when those two get going, they can feel like children. (Except I can leave them at home unsupervised all day.)

•How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?

I have a full-time senior level job as a fundraiser with an unfortunate 2 ½ hour round-trip commute. Then there’s writing, of course, and currently, book promotion, too. When I get home I try to have some playtime with bebé and then do the nighttime routine—dinner, bath, book, etc. with him. We are also a little obsessive in our household about tidiness, and we live in a modern, too-white house, so there is a lot of cleaning. Writers and new mothers are often given the same advice about letting the house go, but I might as well have a Mr. Clean magic eraser on a lanyard around my neck. I have a fantasy we’re going to move to a rustic, worn-in house and that’s going to allow us to be less particular. One hat I’m not wearing much right now is cook. My wife’s been doing the grocery shopping and cooking, so I’m happy about that.

•How long have you been a writer?

Since grade school. I’ve been in workshops and whatnot for 22 years.

•Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.

I recently found an old to-do list in the 1999 O’Henry Awards. Like every to-do list I have ever made, it was basically me berating myself to wake up earlier! write more! and exercise more! This list also commanded I “fix the stove,” which I’m guessing is the only thing I accomplished. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my own (perceived) lack of discipline. I have a beef with myself about not writing enough, even now, when I have virtually no time. But on the other hand, I’ve come to realize how dogged I am, how persistent. I may not be the workhorse I’ve always wanted to be, but I also don’t know to quit. I’m finally coming to a place where I at least respect myself for that.

•How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it?

I expected it could make me a better writer in the long-term (that remains to be seen!) but I suppose I also had the small fear that being fulfilled creatively in this other way would make me lose interest in writing, even temporarily. I’ve seen a lot of people lose interest in writing when they’ve become more fulfilled in some other aspect of their lives. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps having a lot going on in my writing life during the first year of parenting has made the parenting even more joyful. I miss my son terribly when I’m away, but I may have avoided the terror about loss of self that parenting can bring. I’ve been forced, through travel and interviews, to maintain that old self. One challenge for me lately is that I’ll contemplate another child, but it’s taken me twenty years to get my writing “career” to where it is now, and this is the time I should capitalize on that. There are practical considerations—I have a residency I can use next spring, and I really need that time for this novel. But can I really take a month? That seems insane. Two weeks, maybe. I’m constantly angling for some kind of solution . . . if I consult instead of working full-time, if I teach, if I buy some income property (ha!). My brain never stops imagining some alternate universe where I fit all the pieces together more artfully.

I’m curious to see if being a parent changes my writing about parenthood. There’s a lot about parenting in Dog Years, pre-parent.

•Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?

Right now, sharing it with him would mean allowing him to eat the paper. I should be so lucky to have a kid who has any interest in reading anything I write. If I ever get to that point, yippee. I’ll be delighted if he likes to read, period.

•Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?

There are so many—here are a few:

Lorrie Moore – “You’re Ugly, Too”

Melanie Rae Thon – “First, Body”

Mary Gordon – “City Life”

Nam Le – “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”

Rebecca Lee – “Bobcat”

Stuart Dybek – “Paper Lantern”

Marisa Silver – “Pond”

Mary Gaitskill – Don’t Cry and Veronica

Michael Cunningham, The Hours

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

J.D. Salinger, Franny & Zooey

There are also those writers I go to as tuning for different moods: Kazuo Ishiguro, Banana Yoshimoto, Junot Díaz, George Saunders. But I risk bad imitations if I’m not careful.

•How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)

I’d like to think I had already given up being precious about it long before (I can and do write in twenty minutes stretches) but now I have to be even less precious, if that’s possible. One downside of having little time (which pre-dates baby) is that I’ve become focused on efficiency. I don’t like to waste time on projects that won’t work out, and so I don’t give myself permission to fail. It’s especially a challenge for novels. Failure is so important. But failure takes time.

•What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? (i.e. music, film, book, podcast, etc.)

God, with all this binge-watching now available, my obsessions are so sadly short-lived. (Westworld feels like a lifetime ago). I’m excited for Jon Ronson’s new podcast The Butterfly Effect. I’m obsessed with the way Jon Ronson is obsessed with everything, and his voice is just so . . . funny to me. I’m also eagerly awaiting the Bladerunner sequel. Bladerunner is my favorite movie, so if they screw this up, god help them. One show that’s not that hyped but that I’m finding consistently good is Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly novels. I wish they’d bring The Knick back. I wish Luther hadn’t had so few episodes. I was pretty obsessed with the Leah Remini Scientology show. And I do read books now and again. I read all the Neapolitan novels on maternity leave, and now have Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T., on my nightstand, which is supposed to be a Ferrante influence. I went through a phase where I was looking for “lost hits” or one-hit wonders after I read Julie Hayden’s Lists of the Pasts (which I discovered through Lorrie Moore’s New Yorker podcast reading of “Day-Old Baby Rats.”) I read Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore then Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (still in progress, perhaps forever) then A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I guess that means Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins should be up next.

•Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?

My goal is to not self-sabotage the next novel. To try, against all my instincts, to keep it simple.

 Melissa and her son

Melissa and her son

Thanks for answering my questions, Melissa! Congratulations on being an overall badass.

Parents Who Write: Melanie Unruh

You know those writers you meet at a young age whose work you follow for years? Melanie Unruh is a writer I met in 2005, when we were both undergraduates studying abroad in Granada, Spain. I've always felt a certain kinship with artists that I meet while traveling: When we gravitate beyond what is comfortable, when we take in the world in all its glory and messiness, there's usually room for a great story. Melanie's work is vibrant and raw, real and well-crafted. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico and has a young son. I'm inspired by her work and her clear ability to juggle. Thanks for being game to answer my questions, Melanie! And now, our latest conversation about parents who write:

 Melanie Unruh is a writer in New Mexico.

Melanie Unruh is a writer in New Mexico.

Name (or pen name): Melanie Unruh

How many children do you have? How old are they? I have one son, who is 2.5 years old.

How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have? 

I’m an adjunct writing instructor at a community college; I’m enrolled in school part-time; I’m the primary caregiver for my son; I do a lot of the household duties because my husband works long hours; and a friend and I have been dabbling with starting our own business. In my free time, I try to write and work out and, you know, be a person. Maybe that’s a lot? I think most of us wear numerous hats!

How long have you been a writer?

It’s hard to pin down a date, so let’s say forever? My first real memory of considering myself a writer was after I wrote a short story for a class in 8th grade. My teacher and the student teacher working with her had me convinced I was going to write novels. I’m glad they said this because it motivated me to pursue writing fairly early, but looking back the story was terrible (The main character was a young girl who rode around on a horse named Rocket… in the 1800s…).

Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.

I don’t want to say that I took writing for granted before I had my son, but in a way, I did. I had a dedicated home office, and when I wasn’t working, I could pick and choose when to write. Although it’s hard to find as much time now, I do think I appreciate those moments I can dedicate to myself and to my writing more. 

How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it? 

I knew things would change; however, it’s easy to idealize in your head, “Oh, I’ll write while the baby sleeps on me” and then you’re so exhausted and one of your arms is pinned down by his head, so you just end up on your phone pinning recipes you’ll never make. Now that my son is older and a good sleeper, finding time (and arms!) is a little easier. 

Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?

I haven’t yet. I wonder if he’ll have an interest or if he’ll just think it’s weird (especially the sex scenes…). But I’ll be open to sharing anything he wants to read when he's older.

Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?

When I get stuck, I often re-read the beginning of Janet Fitch’s novel White Oleander. It’s the perfect marriage of plot and prose. Her writing style is gorgeous and it always compels me to try harder.

How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)

I tend to let things sit longer. Before I would be actively juggling multiple projects, but now I might have one or two pieces I’m working on, while the others stay dormant for months, if not years, at a time.

What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? 

The Handmaid’s Tale has me on the edge of my seat! I finally read the book right before the show came out and I loved it. The show is taking liberties with the source material and expanding upon it, but I’m on board for what they’re doing so far. Movie/TV adaptations of books can be fraught with so many issues, and yet I’m addicted to them (Others I love include Game of ThronesGone GirlThe Girl on the Train, and Me Before You). I love seeing the way someone interprets a piece of writing for the screen. 

 Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?

I recently had a short story published in Sixfold.

I have one YA novel that I’m submitting and another that I’m revising. Ideally, in the next year or so I’d like to get the second book to a place where I wouldn’t want to hide under a rock for five years if someone read it. 

I’ve also gotten more into nonfiction this year, so I’m working on a couple of essays.

 Melanie and I in Granada, spring 2005.

Melanie and I in Granada, spring 2005.

Parents Who Write: Allison Landa

I am a writer and mother to a 10-month-old girl.
Sometimes I feel like these two identities are in conflict. Other times, they are one and the same. Who are we without our words, without our family? I write every day for work: profiles, interviews, emails, ad copy. And yet, since having my daughter, when I write, my heart is lying awake in the next room. My heart is a bird that flies above her head, an invisible kite that she has tied to her hand. In a recent conversation with my boss, who is also a writer, I realized that I am indeed missing something: my voice. Where did it go?

While I grapple with that question, I decided to turn to a community of writers I know who have children and ask them how they feel. I want to know if becoming a parent impacts the way people write--if it rewires the way we think. The first of my friends to respond is Allison Landa, a wonderful Bay Area writer who I first met in early 2016, when Play On Words performed an excerpt of Not the Madonna. A piece which, interestingly enough, described how she discovered that she was pregnant with her son Baz. 

 Allison Landa with her husband Adam and son Baz.

Allison Landa with her husband Adam and son Baz.

How many children do you have? How old are they?
One – Baz Franklin Sandler (AKA Poppy, Bazzy-Ola, D.J. B. Frank). 18 months in age. Eternal in personality. Fleeting in being shorter than me.

How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?
Oh, my. I range from sports cap to fedora. I’m the bad dishwasher, the reluctant diaper-changer, the dog-wrangler, the husband-lover. Mostly I’m the couch warmer.

How long have you been a writer?
Forever and a day, my friend. Always.

Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.
Oh, we were tight. Not necessarily monogamous since I also enjoyed the company of sushi, but writing was always my main man. My bottom bitch. I would rather write than just about anything else. Always.

How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it? 
Oh yes. Fantastically. For the better than best. I am smarter and sharper in words, more economical with my time, somewhat more disciplined. Honestly, it really has only improved things.

Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?
Yes and oh my yes. I’m putting this kid to work. He’s going to be a beta reader if I have to sit on his head to do it. In all seriousness, I want to involve him. I want to hand him a page and say: “Bazzy, what do you think of this?” I don’t want to close off my creativity to him. I want him to be part of it, to understand what Mom does for love and money and questionable morality. And I truly believe he is and will continue to be that part.

Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?
 I like quotes. One of my favorites is from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Another is Miles Davis: “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Another still is Yogi Berra: “I never said most of the things I said.” Or maybe that was Yogi Bear. I forget.

How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)
I’m better able to slow down and take in the meaning of a moment. I’m more confident in remaining in that moment and pulling out its significance, rather than rushing through. I’m also (at least a little) more comfortable with being critiqued, criticized, pulled apart, unjustly disparaged…yeah, I’m still sensitive. Duh.

What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now?
I’m loving Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier–-it’s SO worth checking out. It’s a gorgeous meditation on so many things, including parenthood, Alaska, and the futility of driving an RV. I want to be this book.

Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?
Right now I’m struggling with the revise of BEARDED LADY, a memoir-turned-Young Adult novel that has gone through what feels like every possible incarnation over the last decade. Wait. It hasn’t yet been sci-fi. Or anime. Those are both good ideas.

Thank you Allison for sharing your wisdom.
Are you a writer who is also a parent? I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to contact me and I'll follow up with some interview questions.