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Downtown Writers Salon Helps Parents Balance Life and Art

By Julie Shapiro | April 18, 2011 7:49pm | Updated on April 19, 2011 6:19am

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

LOWER MANHATTAN — Milda De Voe is a juggler — not of plates or flaming knives, but of her two all-consuming, full-time jobs: writing and parenting.

"Both are 24/7," said De Voe, an award-winning short story writer and mother of two who lives in the Financial District. "What is most important? It changes at each moment."

To help other parents struggling with the same balancing act, De Voe and her friend Arlaina Tibensky founded an organization called Pen Parentis in lower Manhattan two years ago. The group started as a free monthly literary salon at Gild Hall, bringing in writers including Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jennifer Egan and Arthur Philips to read from their work and talk candidly about parenting.

"We wanted a place we could be writers first and parents second, and not feel guilty about it," said Tibensky, 38, a Washington Heights resident who in the past two years both sold her first novel and had a second child. "We had to create it."

In response to the salon's growing popularity, Pen Parentis just launched a national website where members can listen to recordings of past events and post questions on a private message board. Sample query: How can I find an agent who won't make me do a book tour right after I have a baby?

Pen Parentis is also giving out a $1,000 writing fellowship this year, which, unlike many other writing awards, allows the winner to use the money not just for supplies or office space, but for childcare.

"That's very, very rare," said De Voe, who writes under the name M.M. De Voe. "But that's so important — that's when we write."

The fellowship is open to any writer, published or not, who has a child under age 10. Submissions, which include an original short story, must be postmarked by April 20, and Pen Parentis will name the winner at a public reading in September.

Tibensky hopes that as Pen Parentis grows, parenting will become less of a taboo topic among writers.

"People are kind of in the closet about parenting and writing," Tibensky said. "There's a stigma, especially for women: You can't be a serious writer and a parent at the same time."

Tibensky, whose sons are Adam, 4, and Arthur, 18 months, said it has been hard for her to keep writing at the top of her priority list. She forced herself to focus more quickly whenever she snagged a few minutes to sit down and write, and that's how she finished "And Then Things Fall Apart," her young adult novel out this summer.

"If my kid is screaming and needs his diaper changed, I'm not going to write two more paragraphs," Tibensky said. "But I'm still a serious writer."

No matter how carefully they balance their conflicting priorities, writers who have children said there is always one moment where everything seems to come crashing down.

For De Voe, that moment came shortly after her son Erazmas was born eight years ago. De Voe's agent was visiting for Los Angeles and scheduled a meeting with De Voe at Cipriani for high tea. De Voe planned to go alone, but Erazmas got sick at the last minute and was sent home from daycare, so she showed up with him in her arms.

Erazmas wouldn't stop screaming, so De Voe wound up leaving her agent alone at the table for an hour and a half while she paced up and down outside the restaurant, trying to get Erazmas to sleep. Needless to say, she has a different agent now.

The purpose of Pen Parentis, De Voe said, is to encourage writers to get through those moments and keep going, even if they don't know when they'll finally see a paycheck for their hard work.

"You can stay true to yourself," De Voe said. "You can continue on the writing path you were on before you had kids. Just keep going. You don't have to write a mommy blog just because you had kids."

Cara Hoffman, author of the well-reviewed new literary thriller "So Much Pretty," said she was elated to discover the Pen Parentis community when she read an early passage from the novel there in 2009.

"Parenting can be an incredibly, incredibly isolating experience," said Hoffman, 40, who recently moved from upstate New York to the East Village. "To have contact with other people who are writers and parents is absolutely invaluable."

Hoffman said she has always seen her son Eli, now 19, as a fellow artist, whether he was playing with Legos under her desk or rehearsing with his punk band in the next room. While there were days when she was distracted to the point of being unable to write, there were other days where they worked alongside each other for hours and then broke for dinner, proudly sharing their day's accomplishments.

"If you have inherent respect for your child's creative life, then he'll respect your creative life," Hoffman said.

John Reed, another writer who has read at the Pen Parentis salon, said he never could have written his fourth book, "All the World's a Grave," without his 6-year-old daughter, Eliza, and 4-year-old son, Cassius.

The book, a mash-up of Shakespearean lines that creates an entirely new play, required him to fully understand Lady Macbeth's motivations as a parent, which he could not have done 10 years ago, Reed said.

Like Hoffman, Reed, 42, a Hell's Kitchen resident, said it was freeing to be among fellow parents and writers at Pen Parentis.

"Men face the same challenges," Reed said. "For men, there's even less of an outlet for writing about what they think about fatherhood. I don't know of any glossy fatherhood magazines."

Not all writers have found it difficult to balance their craft with parenting.

Julie Klam, a Washington Heights resident, said she chose to be a writer partly so she would have a flexible schedule after her daughter, Violet, was born seven years ago. Klam did not have any childcare help, so she crammed in her writing while her daughter was sleeping.

"Before I had her, I was working freelance, and I wasted a lot more time on Bluefly or wherever," Klam said. "After she was born, I knew I had two hours a day and that's it. I became more efficient. The priorities are very clear."

Klam, 44, who read at Pen Parentis in 2009 and recently released the dog-loving memoir "You Had Me At Woof," said she has been successful by choosing what she worries about and forgetting the rest.

"My basic tent of life is that you can't do everything perfectly," said Klam. "There's stuff I care about and stuff I don't care about. I wish my apartment were cleaner, but c'est la vie."

The next Pen Parentis literary salon, which will feature Hoffman, writing guru Ann Hood and author Marina Budhos, will be held May 10 at 7 p.m. at the Libertine Library at Gild Hall, 15 Gold St.