Talking to Lynn Steger Strong, author of Want

Kicking off this newsletter is Lynn Steger Strong, most recently the author of the novel Want, which was released last month after months of buzz. I had high hopes for this book, about an adjunct with a lit PhD juggling motherhood and economic anxiety, and it did not disappoint. If you haven’t read it yet, get your hands on a copy. In addition to being a novelist, an essayist, and a teacher of writing, Lynn is a mother of two and she has some strong feelings about writing and parenting. I am thrilled that she was gracious enough to answer my obsessive questions about what her process looked like while writing her novel and what it looks like now, in the midst of a pandemic.

How did you do this? Like, how *exactly* did you write a novel while parenting two young children? I'm very interested in the mechanics of writing a novel while there are little people who need you very desperately most of the time. How long did it take? What did your process look like on a daily basis? What kind of childcare did you rely on? What was your partner’s role in making it happen?

I wrote most of this book at four in the morning. I usually have three or four jobs but for the period that I wrote the first full draft of this book I only had one and my kids were in school for a month and then they were in camp, and it was the first really solid stretch of time I’d had in a long time and I wrote pretty constantly and obsessively, integrating lots of runs and walks around the city throughout the day; I finished the first draft in about two months of that sort of non-stop intense rush. My husband did most of the evening heavy lifting during that time. He made the dinners and did a good amount of the baths. I pretty vehemently reject the idea that children are the end of your career as a writer, but that is in large part because I have a partner who believes in my work and works very hard to help me to prioritize it during these stretches when it feels imperative to me to get as much work done as I can. 

You were already a writer before you became a parent. How did having children impact your relationship to writing and your writing process? 

I think, in nearly every way, becoming a parent made me a better writer and reader and human being. This is not to say one has to be a parent for one’s life and work to get richer, but just to say, for me, it did. It raised the stakes of all of it. If I was going to spend an hour separate from my baby, sometimes leaking milk the whole time, sometimes hardly able to stop looking at pictures of her on my phone, I better make something I was proud of; I better make something they would be proud of later on. I have less time now, but I’m better at filling it, more interested in the weight and texture of how I fill it and to what end. 

You’ve probably read Motherhood by Sheila Heti, or some of the essays that have been written about the difficulties of being a parent and a writer, and I think a lot of writers are overwhelmed by the idea of trying to create while also being responsible for a whole other person or people. Did you ever consider *not* having children in order to try and pursue a writing career? Do you think that there is a certain degree of incompatibility between parenting and the kind of intense dedication artistic creation demands? I obviously don’t think it’s impossible to be a parent and also create art but I sometimes wonder if the kind of things I can create are limited, or changed, by the fact that I can’t immerse myself in writing for longer than, say, six hours at a time in even the best, non-pandemic environment.  

I think artistic work can be limited by all sorts of things. Often, I think inertia or a lack of a sense of urgency can be as limiting as a lack of time. I have no time right now. My husband is going to work every day and I’m mostly alone all day with our kids. And it’s frustrating and I’m not working, but there are plenty of people who don’t have kids whose work is limited right now too. I’m thinking about work a lot right now. I’m taking notes on my phone. I’m getting up really early and getting inside the draft of my new book and fiddling with it until the kids get up. I think, when I had kids, my relationship with my work shifted, but it didn’t get any less intense. If anything, it got more intense. But I had to learn to use time differently. I had to learn when and how I could “work” while pushing a stroller, nursing a baby, sitting at the playground and watching people run through sprinklers for the three thousandth time. I think children teach you not to be as precious about “process”. I think all artists at some point have to learn to mold their work around and into their lives and children are a sort of boot camp for that. 

So is there any writing at all happening right now?

Sort of. I’m working in the mornings, an hour or two if I’m lucky. I take notes sometimes in the afternoons when I give up and let the kids watch TV. I have a project that I think is about trying to raise kids and make art as the world burns. I think it’s also about collectivity. And I’m obsessing over it mostly, chewing on moments or scenes as I walk the kids to the park or make them lunch or breakfast. I email sentences to myself while I let them play in the bath and pretend it’s a pool.  

The physical realities of motherhood are very present in Want and I particularly enjoyed how the maternal body is portrayed as always being acted upon because that is often how it feels to me, my body constantly beset upon by other bodies who all want something from it. As I was reading, I realized that, at least in two important instances, motherhood itself is something that seems to happen to women, befall them, rather than being actively chosen, planned, desired. Why was it important to you to portray it in this way? 

The female body as a space of both objectness and subjectness is pretty endlessly interesting to me. Motherhood is an act of pretty extraordinary power, the human body is kind of incredible, but also, as you say, as mothers, we are at the mercy of our bodies, and then other people’s bodies, their wants and needs and foibles, in these constant, often overwhelming ways. It was important to me that Want be an incredibly physical book because my relationship to womanhood, and especially motherhood, is as much about the body as it is about the brain. I wanted to poke a little at the absurd idea that the two might be able to feel separate. Biology, hormones, blood and milk and sweat; these are as important and constant a part of the human experience, to me, as the things we think and feel. 

I am always thinking about the time I give to my own writing as, more often than not, time I am not spending with my children. And, especially in this current climate of anxiety pinned to a very real threat as opposed to the ones I usually dream up, I sometimes spiral into thinking about how, if I were to die of COVID, I would regret giving that time to this other thing; that the time I spend with them, helping them become people, is the real thing, the definite thing, and the writing is the vanity project that may or may not pan out. Did you ever feel that way when you were writing this book? Or did you have enough of a sense of purpose to override it? 

This is a tricky question to answer, if only because one of the things Right Now has affirmed for me is that all of us, I and my children, need to live in registers other than the ones we live in when we’re together all the time. My baby, who is six, for instance, is super needy when she’s with me. When she’s with other people she is incredibly confident and charming, but, when I’m around, she reverts to this younger, less extroverted version of herself. I think the quality of our time together matters as much as the quantity, and, right now, the amount of time we all spend being frustrated that I have to work and they don’t want me to, or I’m the only person they have to play with and I’m not as fun as their friends, it’s again a reminder that separateness is not always a negative. I also like that they know I have an identity outside of them, that, whatever they want or do, I will be okay with, because I also have had the extraordinary privilege of pursuing what I want to do and be. 

Something I think about more and more as my kids get older is the relationship they will have to my writing someday. It can be a little paralyzing. Do you worry about your children reading your essays and your books? Are there things you feel you can’t write about because your children exist in the world?

I guess I don’t think of my writing as having that much to do with my daily life or with the specific and intimate relationships I have with people that I love, which is to say, when I’m writing, I don’t think of it as writing about me, so much as trying to portray an experience that other people, readers, can feel connected to or touch or feel. That feels a little separate from my actual life and relationship with my kids, which is, inevitably, messier and more daily. I’m interested in the idea of their reading my work at some point if they want to, of our having conversations about that, but that feels so much less intimate than living together and trying every day to love one another; that latter thing feels so much more high stakes and complicated than their reading my books.