Shaindel Beers

Conversations with Successful Contemporary Women Writers… who are also Moms.

SHAINDEL BEERS

“The best advice I can give is don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself.”

Photo credit Jenny C. Reynolds Photography

Our second interview is with talented poet, editor & (tenured!) creative writing instructor Shaindel Beers, whom I met at a poetry conference at Cal State Fullerton when she was pregnant and my baby girl was a month old.

Besides chatting about mama issues, we traded copies of our poetry books, and I was as taken with her poetry as I was with her.

Online, she blogs about her experiences as a new mom navigating the worlds of writing, teaching, and mothering, and so often I find deep resonance in her evaluation of her experiences.

For example, one of Shaindel’s status updates on Facebook in June was, “*So* exhausted. A day with Liam = approximately 50,000,000 x more stress than going to work.” And while some responded that they can’t believe this because they LOVE being stay at home moms (SAHMs) and wouldn’t have it any other way, I responded that all the moms of small children in my poetry group, including me, still send our little ones to daycare/preschool during the summer (even on days we’re not teaching) in order to have some time… to write… to breathe… to think…

So, when I thought of starting a Mother Writers blog, I immediately thought of Shaindel, whose honesty and candor come as such a relief. She always has me laughing and thinking, “Someone else gets it!”

Below is her interview, which is at once hilarious, moving, and so helpful. And I’m sure most of you Mama Writers will be able to relate when she talks about her keyboard! I for one can never find my space bar! 🙂

A CONVERSATION WITH SHAINDEL BEERS:

1.   How do you find the balance between mothering and writing? Do you ever find the lines crossing in interesting ways?

After reading Julianna Baggott’s wonderful interview, I hardly feel qualified to answer. Compared to Julianna, I’m new to both mothering and writing; my first book came out in 2009, and Liam is only fifteen months old. I’m working on a poetry manuscript, which is due to my publisher in December and which should be out in March of 2013, and a fiction manuscript, which I need three or four more stories to round out.

It’s a juggling act. Today, I had a meeting an hour away for the planning committee of a literary festival, and I at first thought of taking Liam to the meeting with me, but I realized if I just made sure to leave at noon no matter what, I could be home in time for Jared to teach. I’m slowly learning to be realistic. No one wants a toddler at a meeting. Not the toddler, not the planning committee.

When I got home, Liam was asleep, but in order to answer your email about this interview, I had to use a fork to pry the space bar key of my keyboard up to get the Z key out from under it. So far, my computer is missing the A, Z, and down arrow keys. By then, Liam woke up with one of those diaper “gifts” which can only be cured with a bath, so I didn’t even get to start on this interview even though during his nap would have been the ideal time. Then, I nursed him, and started writing this. He repeatedly attacked me, rubbing peanut butter from his Ritz Crackerfuls in my hair. By the time I got to the sixth word, he had taken a headfirst dive off the fish tank stand. He was up there, learning to say, “Fish,” which so far is just Shhhh! Now, he and Jared are playing by bouncing a tennis ball around the living room so I can do this interview. Thank God someone had ordered one of my books, so I had money in my PayPal account and could order a new keyboard, too. You can’t imagine my panic when I started to email you, anditlookedlikethisbecauseIdidn’thaveaspacebar.

2.   Was being a mother always a goal/desire for you, and was being a writer always a goal/desire for you? How does the reality of being a mother-writer compare with your expectations?

I went through different phases of wanting kids or not. At the height of my pro-kids craziness, I wanted five. At the height of my anti-kids craziness, I wanted a tubal ligation, but my doctor wouldn’t perform one until I was thirty. One of my main reasons for not wanting kids is how expensive they are. Just knowing that statistically Liam will cost $242,760 from birth to age eighteen (not including college) is about enough to give me a panic attack. Yet people ask all the time, “Are you going to have another one?” Yikes! (I personally feel that, “Are you f—ing paying for it?” or tazing them is an appropriate response.) I’m also on the payment plan to be paying my student loans until I’m 55, and if Liam goes to college at eighteen, he’ll start when I’m 51. Apparently, I needed to be thirty-eight when he was born not to have that overlap. See? Kids are stressful.

Writing, though, that’s easy. It’s just making shit up. It’s the easiest job in the world.

As far as expectations, I’m working on not having any. It makes life easier, and it’s one of the best lessons we can take from Buddhism. (Yes, I’m aware I just advocated tazing people. I’m not perfect.) I’m just happy to survive each day whether it’s as a mother, a writer, or a mother-writer. A friend who attempted suicide at thirteen once told me his life philosophy after that incident became, “Any day above ground is a good day.” It seems like a good outlook to adopt.

3.   How does poetry bring or add meaning to your life?

Poetry helps me process the world around me. If there’s a story on the news, or if I read about an interesting historical figure, it’s likely to end up in a poem. As far as personal, autobiographical poems, I tend to take a long time to process things enough to write about them. I just wrote a poem about my second marriage during the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in June, and that marriage ended a few years ago. I’ve just now started writing “mother” and pregnancy poems. I guess my lag time for processing is about two to three years.

4.   Did you continue writing while you were pregnant? While your baby was newborn? Do you imagine that writing will be any easier when your child is school-age?

I remember doing a lot of writing-related work while I was pregnant, but I don’t remember anything specific that I wrote. I know that I did this interview. Pregnancy was a weird, tiring blur. In the beginning, I went on walks and took pictures of flowers that I saw and other sights that I thought I would show Liam someday as a sort of pregnancy journal. I don’t think I actually wrote much. I pretty much just wanted to sleep and gorge myself with food. It was the basest period of my life.

When he was a newborn, I had a few poems published. This one and this one.

Liam was four pounds, thirteen ounces, when he came home from the hospital, so I had to nurse him every hour. And I was high on Percocet because he was an emergency c-section. Actually, I should say I was “low on Percocet” because narcotics make me depressed. He would pretty much nurse, then sleep, then nurse, then sleep for the first several weeks, so I got a lot of reading done and listened to This American Life when I was too stoned to read. The Nora Evans poem was inspired by a This American Life episode about a tornado that hit during a Kansas prom, and I named the character Nora because a baby in my online “birth month club” was named Nora. I thought it would be fun to try to write poems using April babies’ names.

“I Saw the Man Who Makes the Coffins” is a borrowed line from a Camille Norton poem that was in Best American Poetry 2010. I think that was the first book I was able to read when I came home. I was stoned on Percocet, home alone with a new baby, and researching coffins online and posting pictures of beautiful coffins on Facebook. Let’s just say, I got a few messages in my inbox expressing concern. But I really like where this poem went. And I think I got to explore dark post-partum fantasy in a creepy but safe way by researching children’s coffins.    

5.   Do you consider yourself a mother-writer? Why or why not? (Or, what would it mean to you to be a mother-writer)?

Apple of My Eye Photography by Jamie Brown

I think I might if I felt like I “mothered” more. Jared is a SAHD, so I often say that I do about 10% of the parenting. He always jumps in and says it’s more like 5%. (He needs to learn to breastfeed if he wants that to be true.) My summer classes didn’t fill this year, so I’ve actually been home *gasp* with my own child, so I guess I could rightly call myself one now, but it still feels weird. I actually cried when I found out my classes didn’t fill because (1) that’s a few thousand extra dollars I could have used, (2) I’ve never taken a summer off, so it feels like a loss of identity a bit, and (3) I thought it would be overwhelming not to have a break from Liam. So far, I’ve survived about six weeks of summer break. You’ll have to check back in with me to see if I make it all the way to the end of September without a breakdown.

6.   Have you ever felt that your work might not have been taken seriously if it explored issues of motherhood?

I’ve always joked that I write “drinking and f—ing” poetry, and motherhood seems to be a next logical step. In all honesty, much of my work centers around working class issues and women’s issues, so I see it as part of the same trajectory. You really have to write for yourself, and if your work is good, it finds its audience. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bias against women’s issues, but you have to just keep going, and the system will eventually evolve. There will always be people who don’t get what you’re doing or don’t see its importance. I have a poem that is a pretty harsh critique of the adult entertainment industry called, “Why It Almost Never Ends With Stripping,” yet I’ve had male readers/writers ask me to “Please, write another stripping poem.” Clearly, they missed something that was going on there. My point is you just have to keep doing what you’re going to do and not sell-out, even if other people don’t get it or aren’t ready for it.

7.   Have you found that there are particular challenges facing mother-writers than those of other writers?

I probably addressed that already with the missing keys on my keyboard and the peanut butter in my hair (and on my jeans, and my shirt). I think more of the challenges have to do with having a career in academia. I waited until I had tenure to have a child, and when our department chair announced his retirement, and I was pregnant, I was told that I had “other things on my plate,” so maybe it wouldn’t be a good time for me to be considered for department chair. Academia still works that way. So, I think if someone is a writer in academia, there are additional challenges.

I think all mothers are judged in our society, so there’s that as well. I’m sure some people will be horrified by portions of what I wrote in this interview (Percocet, post-partum depression, baby coffins), but other people will realize I’m just being honest. I am having to reread this entire interview to myself with “Bob the Builder” going in the background, so that’s what’s going on if it makes no sense. By the way, Gripper of “Gripper and Grabber” sounds just like George W. Bush. Check it out if you don’t believe me.

The issue I have with a lot of labeling is that men don’t seem to have to worry about it. No one seems to talk about father-lawyers or father-writers, etc. We need to find a way to get society to evolve to the point that women don’t have to worry about it, either.

8.   How does keeping a blog fit in with your overall creative endeavors and your family life?

I haven’t been the best with keeping up my website, but I’m making a vow to work on that. On Facebook and Twitter (and dailymile, if you’re a runner), I’m just myself. Liam’s pictures are on there as well as links to publications or readings or whatever I have going on. It’s not like there’s “writer me” and “Mom me” and “me me.” Jared and I decided that if we had a child/children, we weren’t going to change our lives to the point that we would become unrecognizable to ourselves (plus or minus wearing a little peanut butter to a meeting). He’s a guitarist, I’m a writer, and we’re a songwriting team. We take Liam to everything that we can. He impressively closed down his first bar at ten weeks old (and was wearing an “I’m with the band” onesie while he did it). Liam hangs out in our recording studio at home (yet still oddly plays with the toy musical instruments at the children’s museum. So. Weird.) We try to do everything together that we can as a family.

The last reading I gave was at Powell’s in Portland, and it was around the time of Liam’s first birthday. We made sure that Liam got to have a “day” in Portland for his birthday, where we went to the zoo, and then the next day was my reading, and Jared got to play at a guitar store.

At AWP, several writers recognized Liam from his photos on Facebook. Jared was in an elevator with Liam and got stopped and asked, “Is that Liam?” and Millicent Accardi actually recognized me by spotting Liam. He also got a welcome message from Contrary Magazine when he was born. So, he seems to have quite the online presence himself already.

9.   Have you any advice to share with mother-writers who may be struggling to continue their craft or to find the path toward publication?

Liam and Shaindel in April.
Photo credit: Jared Pennington

The best advice I can give is don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself. I asked on an online moms’ board before I went if I should go to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. A lot of women said, “Sure! Your employer is paying for it! Go!” but many said things like, “A week away? I couldn’t do it!” I’m still breastfeeding, so it was a PITA (acronym for pain-in-the-ass, if you’re trying to figure it out) to pack a breast pump and pump three times a day for a week, but I was with other writers! On the country’s most beautiful college campus! And forced to write a poem a day! I needed it. It got me writing again. (And I got another hilarious “walked-in-on-while-pumping” story out of the deal for free.) The girl in the dorm room next door just couldn’t stop walking into my room for some reason, which led to much hilarity and awkwardness all week.

Also, physically take care of yourself. Eat right. Work out. I know that you might think these things aren’t related to writing, but they are. You really have to find balance within yourself in terms of mind, body, and spirituality (whatever that means to you) to write.

(I had typed “lastly” here, but this list might go on forever.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or even to take help if it’s offered, or if you can afford it, to pay for it. If you can afford for someone to come in and clean your house every other week or for someone to mow your lawn or for a mother’s helper to come in a few times a week so that you can be alone and write, do it. I know that this isn’t feasible for everyone, and I’m very fortunate for Jared to be a SAHD because I couldn’t do this without him. But, please, don’t try to do it all on your own. If you have other mom-writer friends, maybe even try some sort of “mommy-share” where you take your child to her house for a play-date and go home and write and trade off.

I’d also recommend reading Buddhism for Mothers and/or Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children, depending on the ages of your children. Before reading them, I was seriously considering trying Xanex or restarting therapy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Xanex, if you need it.) But those books are life-savers.

10.   What’s next for you?

I’m trying to make this my summer of reading, writing, and running. Since my classes didn’t fill, I’m also working on spending quality time with Liam. We take lots of walks to the pool and the children’s museum. We go out as a family to see live music, or we go to Jared’s band’s gigs. Mostly, I’m trying to be a better mother and appreciate the little things more. Once the school year starts again, I’m “Professor Mom” about 65-80 hours a week, so I’m trying to value this time off now.

My writing focus is finishing my second poetry collection since the manuscript is due to my publisher in December. Here are some of the poems from that project: THE CHILDREN’S WAR and THREE POEMS. And once that is done, I’ll focus on my fiction manuscript. I’m hoping to kick ass in the 10K I’m running August 25th. If you’re a runner, please “friend request” me on http://dailymile.com. And now that I read Julianna Baggott’s interview, I’m going to read PURE and THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS.

Thank you so much for interviewing me and congratulations on your own beautiful work and two amazing children!

-S

Thank you, Shaindel!

(Check out Shaindel’s book for more of her incisive and ironic (and gorgeous!) poetry.)

All my best,

Jenn

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Second Mother Writers interview up! Shaindel Beers… « Jennifer Givhan, Poet & Novelist

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