As a newspaper writer, Pumpkin sees me on the computer a lot. Sometimes I think (worry) about the fact that she doesn’t understand what I’m doing and why I’m ignoring her. Maybe she thinks I just like to spend time typing instead of playing blocks. So, when she toddles over and says “Up,” I take a break, pull her on my lap and open up iPhoto to look at pictures of goats, cows, dogs and squirrels.
When I started thinking about how I plan to blend my career as a writer and my life as a mother, I decided to find out how a “real” writer (a novelist) does it, and also get some tips all parents can use about sharing a love of words and books with our kids. So, today’s Questions & Parents feature, Q&P for short, is with Julia Rust, a Tarrytown mother of three and a writer. Julia’s short stories have been published by the The Cortland Review and Blue Moon Review, and she has written a novel, “Crossing Lines,” that has yet to find a publisher. Julia is also active in the The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow. With the center’s former executive director, Dare Thompson, and a fiction teacher and writer, David Surface, Julia helped create a writing program for schools called the WriteMind Workshop. The program, which is used in Tarrytown and Ossining schools, is designed for teachers and students in grades 4 to 12. Julia is sharing her insight into how she blends writing and mothering her children, Peter, 17, Katy, 15, and Tim, 12.
Q: What’s it like being a mom and a novelist? How does one affect the other?
P: Writing is an incredibly solitary business, and parenting is not. Both occupations can be extremely rewarding, satisfying and sometimes insanely frustrating. I like to be available to my kids. So when theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re home I try not to disappear into my office to write, although the muse hits at odd times (for example, when I should be making dinner!). Writing is a very self-centric activity, a gift I give myself. I try to do it when the kids are at school, but housework, graphic design and all the demands on my life frequently squeeze writing out. I feel like two completely different people, one social and into her family, and one desperate to hole up in a cabin and write for six months. And the irony is IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure I could hole up for only a few days before homesickness set in, before I missed my guys terribly. And there are times when IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m watching a movie with them, or playing a game, and the characters in my stories start talking to me, tempting me away. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a very divided life.
Q: Do you keep a journal? What advice do you have for parents who want to record the memories of their family lives through the written word?
P: I journal very sporadically, usually as a tool to get around writersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ block. I think memoir is a very lovely thing and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve read many fine examples, but I find it hard to do myself. As far as family memory keeping, I applaud anyone who can find the time and keep it organized. I wish IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d kept better track of all the amazing things my kids have said. We started three notebooks, one for each, specifically with this in mind, and then forgot about them, so they sit gathering dust and full of empty pages.
Q: How has being a writer affected your everyday activities with your family? Is everything fodder?
P: The only thing different I can see about being a writer from any other occupation is that writing makes you a keen observer. Everything you see you try to translate into language, hopefully beautiful language. So the answer to your second question is yes, everything that comes in can be used, but not entirely in the way I think you mean. Fodder as in emotionally connected events, things that give me a base to write from, possibly a neat turn of phrase. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not comfortable writing directly from current experience. I like to move events to the future or present them in the past, change genders, ages.
Q: How have you shared your love for books with your kids? What tips do you have for other moms and dads?
P: That love is pretty hard to miss when your momÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nose is always buried in a book. I read to them all the time and that is the best advice I have. Read to your kids. Talk about the stories, tell your own and encourage them to tell theirs. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m planning on re-instituting reading aloud in my house. I miss it! I started a mother-daughter book club and we met for a few years. It was a wonderful way to encourage reading and get to know the mothers of my daughterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s friends. I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t recommend this strongly enough. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a wonderful way to share books.
Q: What ideas do you have for parents of really young children, like toddlers or preschoolers, to get their kids interested in telling stories?
P: I think kids are natural storytellers. Often the point of language is to express something the other party canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see, so very young kids are practicing this all the time. My advice to parents would be to listen closely, even when, as so frequently happens, it doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make sense, listen with respect and ask questions. Encourage them to elaborate. Never talk down to them. Use all your vocabulary. Young children are sponges, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s amazing how quickly they can incorporate new words.
Q: What are some strategies for parents to get their children excited about language and words as they enter the grade school and middle school years?
P: You donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to get kids excited about language. They start out that way, from their first gurglings and eye-blinks right on into school. Kids are so amazingly and easily excited by so many things, the challenge isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t to engender the good feeling but to cultivate and not stifle it. In the Tarrytown public schools, kids are given tons of opportunities in language and creative writing until seventh grade. By middle school, the creative portion takes a back seat to report writing and essays and reading becomes more about analyzing content than enjoyment. I think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s our job at this stage to encourage them to read and write for themselves in their spare time. The WritersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Center has wonderful writing workshops for kids in several age ranges. The schools, YMCA and JCC frequently have afterschool programs with creative writing classes.
Q: What have been some of your favorite books that you read at home with your kids?
P: When they were little, “Winnie the Pooh,” KiplingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s “Just So Stories” Ã¢â‚¬â€ which are just delightful aloud with all the repetitions, poetry really Ã¢â‚¬â€ Sandra Boynton, Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. I can still recite “Go Dog Go” and “Green Eggs and Ham”! As they grew older the Fairy Books with the colors in the title, Pink, Yellow, Green, Violet, Red, Blue, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve forgotten how many there are. Jack LondonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s “Call of the Wild” is wonderful to read aloud. Harry Potter. As I said before, I miss it.
Thanks very much to Julia for sharing her knowledge by doing a Q&P! Check back next week for another Q&P. If you know any parents who you think would be great to feature, please comment here on the blog or send me an e-mail at email@example.com.