By: Marie Holmes
As anyone who has experienced the seismic transition of becoming a parent can attest, it’s not so much that priorities shift as that the solid ground upon which you used to neatly arrange your life undergoes a tectonic upheaval. It’s a struggle to hold on to the pieces of your identity that mean the most to you, and maintaining a creative practice, even when it was once the thing that sustained you, can feel downright unimaginable.
It was the nagging doubt of How do I do this? that motivated writer M.M. DeVoe to dream up Pen Parentis back in 2009 when her own children were small.
After her second child was born, DeVoe found herself sitting with a writer friend who was also a new mom, wondering “how in the world did people have novels and babies? It just seemed impossible.” From this seed, the two women midwifed into being an after-work reading series.
They found that not only were many successful authors also parents, they were eager to come read their work for an audience of parents who write. DeVoe notes that she found many of these writers “surprising,” in that there was nothing particular about their work that marked them as parents. These were not people writing about raising kids, exclusively or even at all. They were writers who also had kids, and they were living proof that it was, indeed, possible to have a novel and a baby.
That first series of readings included bestselling, lauded writers such as Amy Sohn, Cara Hoffman, and Darin Strauss. After the readings, the authors themselves would ask how they could join, leading DeVoe to suspect she had stumbled onto “something people need.”
The next step was to take a thousand dollars—”hoping to get it back” says DeVoe—and inaugurate the Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents, which awarded the money to the winner of a short fiction contest. Fellows, who have at least one child aged ten or under, also participate in a public reading. That first year, Pen Parentis received more than enough entries to recoup the prize money, but what was remarkable, DeVoe remembers, was the letters that people sent in with their applications. Aspiring fellows wrote effusive messages of thanks, talking about how they were at the point of quitting and the fellowship had renewed their drive to write. At this point, it was clear that DeVoe had tapped into a well of longing.
Pen Parentis became a 501c3 organization in 2014, and the readings, now called literary salons, are going strong after more than a decade. Over three hundred authors have read at Pen Parentis, and the current series curator, Christina Chiu, received the Wai Look Award for Outstanding Service to the Arts from the Asian American Arts Alliance.
This year, DeVoe gave birth to her own tome, appropriately titled Book & Baby. It collects the wisdom she has gleaned over the years from the Pen Parentis community into an instruction manual for aspiring authors who parent.
Pen Parentis aids parent-writers by providing both inspiration and community. Literary salons are free and open to the general public, but parents can join the organization as members for access to informal meetups known as accountability groups, among other perks. In these gatherings, parent-writers come together for an hour to share writing goals and cheer each other on. Originally held in-person, these groups have now moved to Zoom, where the only thing impeding the participation of writers from any location is the inconvenience of a change in time zone. There are currently six accountability groups based in different parts of the country, and DeVoe says Pen Parentis would love to add a West Coast group.
Unlike writer’s workshops or classes, which involve critiquing each other’s work, accountability groups provide a different support structure. Joline Scott-Roller, who runs a Saturday morning group out of Ashland, Ohio, explains, “I’ll ask somebody, did you meet your goals for this week?
If not, then why?” Scott-Roller notes that the emphasis is on so-called SMART goals, which are realistically achievable and measurable, “something that you can either say yes, I did it or no, I didn’t.” For writers, this might involve producing a certain number of words or pages in a given week, for example. Group leaders keep track of both attendance and goals and maintain a tone that is supportive, not punitive.
“Several of my newer members say that having this group has helped them create a sense of having a writer’s life,“ adds Scott-Roller.
The practice produces results. Within a year of joining the Brooklyn-based group, one writer had published two pieces in a national magazine. Those pieces garnered the attention of an agent, who is currently representing his memoir-in-progress.
Carla Du Pree, a writer, parent, and grandparent who runs CityLit, a literary nonprofit in Maryland, attends a Tuesday evening Pen Parentis accountability group. From her outreach work in the literary community, she says, “it was very clear to me that one of the untapped groups was parents who are writers.” Du Pree notes that many artist residencies aren’t parent-friendly. Artists aren’t allowed to bring their children with them, and minimum stay requirements often require more time away from home than most writer-parents can manage.
Slowly, however, both Du Pree and DeVoe have been noticing positive changes. There are a growing number of residences, conferences, and festivals that offer some accommodations for writers with children. “Now people are starting to realize that we have to help writers who are parents,” says Du Pree.
Achieving that elusive work-life balance as a writer-parent can feel like an unreachable goal. DeVoe suggests that we re-define what we mean by “balance.” Upon hearing the word, most people picture the scales of justice, where when one side is lowered the other side rises. “They’re pitting life against work,” DeVoe explains. To her, the idea of balance is something more elaborate, like a Calder mobile with many differently-shaped parts. “You have to shift things around to maintain stability,” she says. “It’s your choice what you move around. You can usually rebalance things in eight different ways.”
In other words, being an artist-parent requires a renewal of the creativity, vision, and discipline that fueled your work in the first place. In this quest, many have found the camaraderie of folks facing similar obstacles to be instrumental.
Anyone interested in becoming a member of Pen Parentis can sign up on their website. Different levels of membership offer different perks. All title members have access to literary salons and accountability groups on Zoom, which are available to both aspiring and established parent-writers from all geographical areas. In addition, title members receive an author’s space on the Pen Parentis website to showcase their bio and links to their work, plus free submission to the fellowship program.
Marie Holmes website
Marie Holmes is New York City-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, the The Washington Post, and other publications.