On Writing

Published on November 20th, 2015 | by Kris Willcox


WAKING THE DEAD: How Parenting Brought KRIS WILLCOX’s Writing Back to Life

If you’d asked me at the age of thirty, when I finished repaying my student loans, what might bring me back to writing, I would not have said “lack of sleep” or “the inability to finish a sentence before being interrupted by a crying child.” Yet parenthood is how I arrived, late and disheveled, to the writing life.

In my twenties I dropped out of not one but two graduate writing programs, where I had such riches of time that I couldn’t seem to write anything. In the decade that followed, the only writing I did was in diaries where I excoriated myself for laziness and lack of talent. Through practice, I managed to turn that staple of writing workshops, the “free write,” into my own personal corn maze of defeatism and shame.

Then I had children. Hugely pregnant with my second child, I sat with my laptop balanced on what remained of my lap, tapping out tentative new stories and essays while my two year-old napped. Under the fickle deadlines of naptime and another birth, I found words again, when I could barely find time for a shower.


The cliché bothers me a bit—motherhood as the doorway to my true calling—but the fact is that my children called me a writer before I was willing to. We were reading a picture book called “Working Mummies” in which sprightly, female mummies emerge from their coffins to go to all sorts of interesting jobs: doctor, teacher, beautician. My son pointed at the writer mummy in the glow of her computer screen and said, “That’s like you.”

“Yes,” I said sheepishly, “it kind of is!”

As they got older, I realized that by working at my craft but refusing to call myself a writer, I might be setting a bad example. For years I saved my creative work in a file labeled “Scraps.” My inner Betty Friedan was livid: “You are telling them that a woman’s work doesn’t matter! And that striving is for losers!” I recently renamed the file “Work in Progress” and you would think, from the flush of accomplishment this produced, that I’d accepted a residency at Yaddo.

My Editting Process

Writing requires more of me now, and that means less time—less of me—for the kids. I’m still here to play catch and weave friendship bracelets and clean up the spectacular mess of “Kids Cook Night,” but I’ve acknowledged to myself and my family that writing with intent to publish requires more than dashing off the occasional draft, then waiting for alchemic magic to turn those scrambled pages into finished work. Having repaid to the Sallie Mae Corporation more than I wish to disclose for writing degrees I don’t have, I’m now enrolled in a writing school that is free, and highly exclusive. It’s called the Butt-In-Chair program. There’s one instructor and she alternates between slapping me in the face and giving me sage, caring advice. It’s hard, but I am now writing first drafts that are followed by second, even third drafts and sometimes, a polished piece of work.

Some writers reach this place at twenty. I’m forty, and have run out of time to be jealous of wunderkinds. My adoration is fixed on late bloomers like the novelist Tessa Hadley or the essayist Emily Fox Gordon, who arrived to their fully-formed writing selves in their forties. They give me hope that my waiting years were not wasted. As Hadley said in an interview, “When you do finally make your way into the writing personality that is your real one, it’s such a relief (however small that personality might be, however partial). It’s like wandering round for years in a writing wilderness and then letting yourself in at last to your own house with your own key.”

Reading this, I caught my breath: Your own house. Your own key. The sense of recognition was so sharp it hurt: to be locked out of one’s writing life—a place you long to return, yet have never fully inhabited

I am not in the house yet. Sometimes just reading an article about MFA programs, or the seeing the headliners for the next AWP conference brings back an old, twitchy sadness: fear of all I wanted, and all I might not have. Before I had kids, this place of uncertainty is where I turned back. When the going got tough, I simply returned to base camp and told funny stories about my ass-over-tea-kettle descent down the mountain.

Now I’ve got an even scarier—though healthier—motivation to write: striving is one of the skills I want to teach my son and daughter. I’ve told them that I write because it’s the best way that I know of to feel fully awake and alive. For this to become a useful demonstration, they’ll have to see me sitting down in the chair to write. Sure, I’d like to instruct them in how one properly curtsies to the Swedish royal family when accepting a Nobel Prize, but if I can’t manage that, tackling my own aspirations of being a writer with stamina and grace is not a bad life lesson either.

Brioche and Tannery at Work

Children are generous judges. Mine think that I’m a world-class baker, for example, simply because I made edible bread a couple of times. But they are highly skilled bullshit detectors, too. And they’re watching—not to find out if I publish or finish a book or become even moderately successful, but to see how seriously I go about the business of being alive. So I am giving it a go. It’s what you do, when you’re a working mummy and the moon is full—you climb out of the ground and get to work.

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About the Author

Kris Willcox lives in Arlington, Massachusetts with her family. When she is not attending to energetic children, she is a development writer and fundraiser for Boston-area nonprofits. She recently published a feature article in UU World magazine, and was a finalist in the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s 2016 Artist Fellowship awards. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Literary Mama, Cleaver Magazine, Beloit Fiction Journal, and Cimarron Review. She blogs at www.rhapsodyincool.com and is at work on far too many different projects.

8 Responses to WAKING THE DEAD: How Parenting Brought KRIS WILLCOX’s Writing Back to Life

  1. Yes! Thank you for capturing the complexity of the ways mothering calls you to writing – even though it also means less time with your children. A wonderful, funny, insightful read. Thank you!

  2. Allison Carr says:

    This is so timely. I recently sat my butt in the chair and began writing stories. I’m 41, with a 2 year old and contemplating trying to have another one before my clock expires. I have no clue what I’m doing, and I didn’t spend my 20s even considering being a writer, but this feels like something I have to do. Thanks for your words, they came at the perfect moment.

  3. Wendy Kennar says:

    Kris, what an eloquent essay! You’ve captured it all — what it means to be a writer (you simply stick the butt in the chair and write), what it means to value our own work, and the good examples we strive to demonstrate for our kids! Thank you for sharing. All the best to you!

  4. Thank you for this post. To hear another writer-mother be candid about the daily struggle as well as the very real existential motivation our kids give us is so inspiring. Knowing another writer-mother is making her own unique way on this complicated path is very motivating for me. Thanks!

  5. Kris says:

    Thanks, everyone, for reading. I’m glad the essay spoke to your experience, too!

  6. Jenna says:

    Thank you. THANK YOU.

    I love my day job, and am fitting in writing between class breaks. When I’m at home, I’m fitting in writing between naps and Legos. And the journey toward the light is my long-con. I will get there. And it’s okay if it’s at 40. Or 50. The waiting years. The thinking years. I want to enjoy the process of becoming that future me. This essay put so much in perspective.

  7. Nina says:

    Me too – I’m also part of this club! Thank you so much for this!

  8. Great essay, Kris. I hope your kids learn to love writing as much as you do.

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