Published on April 29th, 2021 | by Domenica Ruta0
“Figuring It Out As You Go Along”: Milda De Voe Talks To Domenica Ruta About BOOKS AND BABIES
I first met Milda De Voe at AWP in 2016. At the time I was a single mother with an infant son, trying to finish my first novel, co-editing an anthology of other solo mom writers, as well as juggling about sixteen different part-time jobs with little sleep, a lot of stress and very rare moments of grace. Whenever I told anyone these basic facts—that I was a solo mom and a working mom and a writer—I got a sonic blast of burdensome praise. “You’re amazing! I could never do that,” I heard over and over again, well-intentioned in a way, though it belied these women’s own fears—”I hope I never have to do that.”
I was neither the “rockstar” nor the “hero” that partnered mothers loved to tell me I was. Regardless of the intention, it always left me feeling isolated, alien and even more afraid to show my vulnerabilities, which were many.
Then I met Milda. Instead of saying, “I could never do that,” Milda said, “I’d love to know more about how you do that.” She was coming from a place of respect as a mother and writer herself, acknowledging how our circumstances were different but also seeking common ground so that we could use our collective experiences to help others. THIS is how to be an ally.
Milda’s allyship is what drives Pen Parentis, the non-profit organization she founded and runs to help parents who write find community, accountability and support. And now her newly released Book and Baby pools all the collective wisdom of her life and other Pen Parentis members in an honest, practical and refreshingly readable how-to guide for parents who write. – Domenica Ruta
MUTHA: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? When did you know you wanted to become a parent?
MILDA DE VOE: I did not know I wanted to become a writer. I just wrote things. I wrote a lot of letters when I was a kid. I wrote a lot of notes in school. I was deeply moved by Anne Frank’s diary, and started keeping my own diaries that I think I had some notion of publishing. (Of course my mother found those and probably burned them.)
I liked writing in grade school—I was frequently criticized by teachers for being a chatterbox, but on paper that same ceaseless enthusiasm for a subject was a good thing. In college I actually got myself out of debt by winning a national poetry contest! It came to me then, that writing might be a skill I owned. It took me another ten years to capitalize on that. After publishing two poems in college, I didn’t write again until I was applying to Columbia for grad school.
Likewise, I did not want to become a parent. I was surprised I even got married (the right guy suddenly showed up in the midst of a broad Open House interviewing process, ha-ha!) We were married ten years without kids. We had talked about it, but it wasn’t high on either of our priorities’ lists. Then, after my father unexpectedly died two weeks before my graduation from Columbia, I was distraught and frightened and angered by how suddenly he was taken from me, and I remember thinking how this had robbed my future kids of knowing their grandfather. I remember feeling guilty about this and thinking, “Am I going to wait until my kids have no grandparents left at all?” and then I said to my husband, “Why don’t we just see what happens.”
What happens is biology. I was pregnant within months. My second child also was a, “Let’s just see what….oh. Right. That.”
I tried to keep my life exactly as it was before I had kids, until my kids taught me otherwise. Pen Parentis evolved because I was unable to figure out how anyone can get anything done when they have kids. I wanted role models. What I discovered is that everyone in the world is figuring it out as they go along.
And that’s okay! In fact? That’s kind of brilliant of us. We think well on our feet, we humans.
MUTHA: One of the reasons Book & Baby is so powerful is because it is forged out of such REAL experiences—yours and other writers you have interviewed. What is an experience you’ve had that resonates most with other writer-parents you’ve worked with? What is an experience you’ve collected from another writer-parent that resonates most with you?
MILDA DE VOE: I think that people tend to respond well to the (awful) story of my fancy agent coming to town (she was from LA and I was living in Manhattan) and taking me to a glamorous high tea at Cipriani on Wall Street. And one hour before I was to meet her, the preschool called. My little boy had a fever and had to be picked up from school. I didn’t have a sitter to call, so I brought him in the stroller to the fancy restaurant. For ten minutes it was absolutely perfect. He slept. We ordered layers of tiny sandwiches and petite scones. Then he woke up screaming and did not stop until I took him downstairs and walked him in circles until he fell asleep again. It probably took half an hour. My silky agent was still there when I got back, all red-faced, sweating, and profusely apologetic, however, she never invited me to a glitzy luncheon again.
The experience that resonated with me was when I asked Jennifer Egan how her kids responded to her Pulitzer Prize announcement. She laughed and said the boys were completely indifferent and she had to create a soccer analogy (“It’s like I won the whole tournament”) before they got it. Then they congratulated her and after dinner, she still had to clean up. That seems….just about as true as it gets.
MUTHA: Something I adore about you and this book specifically is how supremely practical it/you are. People love to romanticize the rhapsodic inspiration of art, the swept away fugue state of creation, all that. That Proustian ideal is so not my reality and I know it’s not yours, nor that of many other parents who write, either. How do you personally navigate between states of inspiration and the cluttered kitchen table of writing a book with kids?
MILDA DE VOE: It’s funny you should say I’m pragmatic, because I don’t think of myself that way. Yet it is true that the book is absolutely about the practical aspects of writing. I guess, I just don’t feel the need to rhapsodize about creative inspiration, because really, isn’t that why we bother to call ourselves writers in the first place? It would be so much easier to just be delighted by clean dishes. You could…you know, clean your dishes and then go watch TV or something. Instead a writer will sit around aching for the exact right way to describe the way a pickle crunches. For hours sometimes, tormenting ourselves. Frog-green. Juicy. Slippery. Tangy. Cold. Vinegar. The smell. The sound….We wouldn’t do this to ourselves if there wasn’t some kind of heavens-opening-up aha moment when we nail the exact right flavor of sour wood.
Yeah. I think my secret might be that I live in the creative world at all times, so slipping back into it is easy for me. Emerging into the land of juice stains on the place mats and candy wrappers left on the bedroom floor; that’s the hard part. I just do not want to go there.
MUTHA: You wear so many hats to use an idiom that is…old hat. You write in many different genres at different lengths as well as run an organization and plan events for members of that organization. With only twenty-four hours in a day, how do you make decisions about which project to work on when? What process do you go through to determine which project gets priority?
MILDA DE VOE: I am very sensitive to wasted time. If something isn’t working, I move on immediately. If it is working, I find it hard to stop—I honestly follow the George Carlin mantra: “Always do whatever’s next.” Deadlines affect this; I hate to miss a deadline, but other than that, I just go wherever my brain goes so that I’m always doing something…and it is always something that needs doing! I set alarms and alerts on my phone to keep important things in mind (I used to have to set alarms to remember to pick up my kids from school). I do make a conscious choice that at all times, creative work gets to be done whenever possible—if I am inspired—because inspiration can be lost, while tax deadlines and vacuuming and dirty laundry are going nowhere.
MUTHA: I am so impressed and amazed by the way you write across genre. What does each genre have to teach you about other forms of writing? Did writing Book & Baby affect the way you approach your novel in any formal or creative ways?
MILDA DE VOE: Book & Baby was the first time I have ever successfully written from an outline. In grade school I would always write the report first and then create the outline after I was done to match what I had written! When the form suggested itself (organized by age of child from infant to grown-and-flown and then by energy, money, and time needs within that category) I leapt at it. I bought Scrivener for the first time, and once someone showed me how it worked and I had made the initial outline, then the writing just flew.
In fiction I usually start with no idea where the story is heading, and then I edit my way into a narrative arc—frequently rearranging huge swaths of the prose before I am happy with the final version. I do not make a decision before I start a new piece as to what genre it will be (within fiction)—I write to the end and then see what it has become. So a lot of my science-fiction actually was a regular short story and then weird things started happening. And vice versa too—the last story I published in Baltimore Review started off as a ghost story. But then the ghost only showed up for a nanosecond, and the story, it turns out, was about tradition and family and what we pass on and what gets lost over time.
That said, I always do so much better at everything when I bring the gifts of various genres together: when flash has the imagery of poetry. When poetry has the breadth of scope of a novel. When sci-fi has characters as real as literary fiction and when a short story has the narrative drive of genre. I think genre is really about setting expectations for buyers. The best writing in any genre exceeds those expectations.
MUTHA: Book & Baby provides so much hope to parents who write. It really IS possible, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Pen Parentis provides community to these same people who would otherwise have to take your word for it. How important is community to the writing life?
MILDA DE VOE: I think community—as we have learned during this pandemic—is vital to not only writing, but every form of creativity. All those brilliant creatives who entertained us on YouTube with parody songs while we were all on lock-down? Writing Community is so much more than just a collection of people who will happily look for your copyediting mistakes. Writing community are the people who are eagerly waiting for you to finish your next piece. They want you to succeed! It is so important to be surrounded by people who want to see you succeed. You can hire a copyeditor, but you can’t hire the person who thanks you for writing that story.
MUTHA: Another thing I love about the book is that it recognizes the unique challenges specific to ever-changing phases of our kids’ lives in terms of their impact on our writing routines, availability, etc. My kids are five and a half years old and almost one. I know your kids are tween and teen. Please tell me it gets better! (Just kidding.) But seriously, what is your favorite phase of kid development as a parent and as a writer?
MILDA DE VOE: My favorite phase is when you are accepting your Nobel Prize and your kids show up in Sweden to tell you how proud they are to have you for a mom.
In all seriousness, each phase has good things and terrible things. But if you did only one or the other (if you were not a parent or if you were not a writer) it is almost certain that the SAME things would be irritating you about the thing that was left. Your parenting would be interfering with some other career. Your writing would still be good some days and hard the next. Humans have taught themselves to see the negative in everything — social media asks us to judge every single aspect of every single moment and decide if it is worthy of sharing with others. How can we not be hypercritical of everything? All I can tell you is that I would like to look back and think that I did my best at being a mom and that I did my best at my writing.