11 January 2009

How She Did It: Carol Shields

When I asked Carol Shields how she managed to write her early books with five young children at home, she said that she wrote for one hour a day, between eleven and noon. She remarked on the necessity of clearing that little patch in the midst of 'domestic order/disorder' so that work can be done. She wrote, 'I suppose this is why I love the tidy intricacy of desk drawers, little sections for stamps and paper clips and envelopes and my thesaurus and dictionary handy on their stand. It makes it feel like real work, legitimately taken on.' There is a measure of classic Shields' irony here. No need to defend the 'real' work of raising children, but tidy paper clips are the necessary defence against doubting the legitimacy of writing. Legitimacy is acheived when one writes the truth.
This is from Kim Echlin's remarkable Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity (more on this book later). I've been interested in the writing life of Carol Shields not because I'm a huge fan of hers (I've only read Unless and The Stone Diaries), but because she seems to have lived a happy, successful life: five children, many books, some awards. No whispers of alcoholism, adultery, or any other abuses; no dirty secrets that have biographers desperate to reveal. A boringly content life. This appeals to me.

She had been
quoted to have said, "I don't think I would have been a writer if I hadn't been a mother." We know that she was 37 when her first collection of poetry Others was published and 41 when her first novel Small Ceremonies was published. In today's youth-obsessed culture, she would have seemed almost old to be publishing her first books at those ages. I'm sure she didn't feel old at all. I know I don't and I'm closing in on those numbers myself. The other difference between Shields' generation and my own is many of my peers aren't starting families until their mid-to-late-thirties, perhaps a topic best to be explored another time.

What I would like to know is how old Shields' children were when she began her one-hour-a-day ritual. Were they even all born yet? Or had she passed the infant and toddler stages of her family? Personally, as a mother of two boys under three and as a mother who does not feel like she's done having children, this information feels vital to me. I know it shouldn't as everyone's life has its own trajectory, but I still need to know. If any of you do, please pass it on.


Libby said...

I found this here (http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/shi1int-5):

I didn't write when the children were very small at all. I hardly had time to read a book, never mind write one. But when they all got into school, I thought maybe I could try, and I used to try and catch that hour just before they came home for lunch, between 11:00 and 12:00. I was not terribly disciplined, but I was disciplined enough to ask myself to write two pages. And in those days, I could write two pages in an hour. I can't do it today. And later in the day I could, perhaps, get back to that for a few minutes. And it was a surprise to me. I mean, if you write two pages a day, you have ten pages at the end of the week. At the end of a year, you have a novel, and I did have a novel. All of this surprised me that these writings, these little segments, added up to something larger.

Good luck with your own writing! And wish me luck on mine... ;)

m said...

Oh this is so great, Libby. Thank you for finding it and posting it here. It makes so much more sense to me that she was able to carve that time for her writing once her children were in school.

And of course, the best of luck with your own writing!

Donald said...

The question: "What I would like to know is how old Shields' children were when she began her one-hour-a-day ritual. Were they even all born yet? Or had she passed the infant and toddler stages of her family?" The answer: "All five children were indeed born. The youngest, Sara, was born in 1968. Carol started her writing the one-hour-a-day when Sara went off to pre-school at age 4/5. Carol would have been about 37/38." Good luck.
Don Shields

m said...


Thank you so much for stopping by and answering these questions for me! I really appreciate it and it does help put things in perspective. Your wife was a very inspirational woman. I am so glad that she was able to share her gift with the world.