Ruth McKee does a LOT. Like, a lot a lot. We are both members of the Playwrights Union as well as the Katselas Theatre Company’s Playlab. I had known her for about a year, but when she introduced herself to the Playlab and started mentioning all of the things she does… (writer, teacher, literary manager, producer) AND that she’s a parent… I was impressed. Recently, I’ve joined the ranks of parenthood, welcoming my first into the world. It’s thrown me… as life does from time to time… I have totally been thrown off my writing game, my rhythm. So, when I heard Ruth list all that she does… I had to ask her to write a guest blog. I had to get some thoughts on how to… well… be a writer AND a parent.
….I feel like I might owe her some money for her time.
ENJOY THE WRITING
by Ruth McKee
This is a line from my play STRAY, a play about motherhood that I wrote before having children. The play is about a woman who has adopted a traumatized child, and struggles with unexpectedly ambivalent feelings about being his parent. This pearl of wisdom is given to the mother by her more experienced therapist, and it’s the piece of the puzzle that helps her to step up and take control of her situation, to take ownership of her role as a mother.
I think of the line often, since becoming a mother myself two and a half years ago, and am constantly struck by how completely wrong I was. In my own experience, it turns out it is a completely fair exchange. It takes a lot of energy, energy that I am expected to keep producing long after my tanks are depleted, but if I give my children my full energy, I am repaid in giggles, compliments, and thank-yous all day long.
So when I look back at this line, crafted before I became a mother, I realize that what I’m really talking about here, what I was struggling with in this scene is not parenthood, but writing. When you give energy to your writing, you don’t automatically get compliments and gratitude. Just as often you get notes and shrug-offs, and more hoops to jump through. And maybe down the line the writing leads to a job that sustains for a little while, but soon enough that dries up and you’re right back to square one.
Writing is not a fair thing. It’s not, I give this energy, and the world gives back awards and money. It’s write write write. Enjoy the writing.
This was much easier to do when I didn’t have kids. When I didn’t have kids I could spend a Saturday morning exploring a new neighborhood, and writing a short story inspired by it. I could spend weeks reading books about the brain because I thought I might write a character who was a neurologist. I could fly out for a reading in the middle of Pennsylvania, and hole up a hotel room for eight days to churn out a pilot for a TV show that someone might maybe read.
And I’m not complaining that I “couldn’t” do these things now. My husband, the breadwinner in our family, would help me to find the time and space to do all of that if I really wanted to. The thing that’s stopping me is not the time, but the payoff. Spending time with my children gets me smiles and presents. Today. Writing gets me something, maybe, someday down the line.
So how do I justify the time I spend writing?
I’ve been struggling with this question for the past two and a half years. Parenthood is a huge transformation of a person’s life, no matter how you split up the burden with a co-parent. You move from a world where you are at the center to one where someone else is. You move into a world where every choice you make, every minute of your time, is measured. And it’s usually measured as a minute when you are making money, or a minute when you are caring for children. Every minute you take for yourself is a minute you are not spending on them. Time for yourself is, quite literally, money.
And yet I have written two new plays in the last two and a half years, and worked on three plays that have gone into production. And I have continued to produce theatre with my company, Chalk Rep, and to drive to all parts of Southern California to teach Creative Writing. So if this is just a really expensive hobby, if its rewards are so murky, why is it that I am still doing it? Why is it that I’m spending my precious time off writing a guest blog post for Larry Pontius, rather than going to the movies or on a hike with a friend?
Last night I watched the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics. Thousands of athletes from around the world, gathered together for a celebration of human excellence. A few of them are professional athletes, a few of them have sponsorship deals. But most of them are amateurs, practicing their craft because they love it. Because it focuses their thoughts, gives shape and meaning to their lives. Because they feel compelled to get up every day, and do the thing that they like to do best, whether or not anyone else cares.
And I realize, as I write this, that for the answer to my big existential question I don’t have to look any further than same scene from STRAY, written by my past, childless self.
RACHEL: Why do people do it? I mean, seriously, why would I want to spend my life living this way?
LUCIA: You don’t do it for a reward. You do it because you love him. You love your son.
That’s it. That’s why I’m doing this. Right there. Not for my son, I mean, my son would prefer a puppet show or a pillow fight. But I do it for the love of the act itself.
RUTH MCKEE’s work has been produced and developed by Abingdon Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Alliance Theatre, Black Dahlia Theatre, Center Theatre Group, Chalk Repertory Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, HB Playwrights Foundation, The Road Theatre, Six Figures Theatre Company, and SPFNYC among others. Originally from Canada, by way of Bangladesh and Kenya, Ruth has a BFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU and an MFA in Playwriting from UCSD. She lives in Los Angeles where she is a member of the L.A. Playwrights Union, Literary Manager for the Black Dahlia Theatre, teaches playwriting at Cypress College and is a founder and Artistic Circle member of Chalk Rep. RuthMckee.wordpress.com