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.