Author Joni Cole Offers Advice for Aspiring Single Mom Writers
Living the “write life”
“Someday, I’ll write a book about this.” Maybe this is a sincere promise you keep making to yourself, or maybe it’s just a phrase that falls out of your mouth, half-jokingly, in the rush and flow of Solo Mom life. Either way, if you’ve ever uttered that sentence, Solo Mom Joni Cole would ask you, “What are you waiting for?”
Named among Poets & Writers’ “Best Books for Writers,” Cole’s most recent book, Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier (University Press of New England, 2017), may be exactly the catapult you need to launch you into action.
A Solo Mom to two daughters, Cole has authored six books while also teaching in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Dartmouth College; serving on the creative writing faculty of the New Hampshire Institute of Art; founding the Writer’s Center of White River Junction, Vermont; and leading expressive writing workshops for a diversity of social service programs.
Recently, ESME connected with Cole to ask how Solo Moms can thrive while living the “write life.”
Q: Welcome to the ESME tribe, Joni! Will you share with us how you became a Solo Mom?
A: I got divorced about four years ago, when my daughters were young teenagers. Truly, one of the biggest reliefs of my life was when my ex and I figured out how to create two households that each felt like home for the girls. Ultimately, their dad stayed in our house, and I found a condo nearby, but it took two years after we decided to divorce to actually make this happen. In the meantime, we remained living in the same house while we organized our finances, got psychologically acclimated to this new reality, and worked together to sort it all out. Sometimes I still can’t believe it, how it turned out OK. Actually, it turned out better than OK. My ex and I still have each other’s backs.
Q: Congratulations on the publication of Good Naked. How could Solo Moms who are writers, or who want to be writers, benefit from reading your book?
A: I’m going to borrow from a recent review of the book in Poets & Writers magazine: “With engaging honesty and humor, Cole shares anecdotes, examples, and exercises designed to jumpstart the discovery of happiness and inspiration throughout the entire writing process.” For most writers, but maybe Solo Moms in particular, we don’t have a lot of time to waste on self-doubt, procrastination, or writer’s block, so I like that word jumpstart. I really do think Good Naked offers practical insights into how to make the writing process more inviting and inspiring. I also like that almost everyone who reviews the book cites its humor because Solo Moms could always use a good laugh.
Q: As a writer and writing instructor, you have made a career out of encouraging people’s creativity and following your own. How did you start out on this path?
A: I can’t track back exactly how I started on the path to becoming a writer and writing teacher, but I can list an amalgam of personality traits and life events that now seem to have predicted this course.
Starting when I was young, I got positive feedback on my writing, which fed my ego and gave me the courage to envision myself as a writer. I’ve also gotten toxic feedback on my writing, which almost made me give up but ultimately helped me understand how and why it is so important to nurture each other throughout the creative process. I have little tolerance for naysayers, curmudgeons, snobs, gatekeepers—all those voices outside (and inside) our heads that discourage us from trying something meaningful, like expressing ourselves through writing and sharing our stories.
Another trait that has fed my career path is that I’m practical. I don’t like getting in my own way, and I don’t like seeing other writers get in the way of achieving their goals. I think this practicality is the foundation of my quest to share real-world, proven practices that can help people write more, write better, and be a lot happier throughout the creative process.
Q: At any point did taking this career path feel like a risk? For example, as a Solo Mom, did you ever feel a pull to do something more “practical”? How did you navigate that sense of risk?
A: I still feel my career path is a risk. What if I don’t string together enough teaching gigs and talks and freelance jobs to pay the mortgage, my health insurance, my car payment, my . . . ? Ack! What if I get a book contract, which doesn’t necessarily mean I can give up any of my other paying work? It just means I have work on top of work, a worry only offset by the reality and excitement of, OMG, I landed a book contract! What if one day I wake up to the realization that, yes, it would have been a good idea to plan for retirement? All this to say, often I feel a pull to do something more “practical” career-wise. Thankfully, however, those moments are squashed by my deep-seated fear of being stuck in one full-time job, even one with benefits, that I don’t like. Been there, done that. I’m determined to stay my “impractical” course.
Q: How has being a Solo Mom influenced your writing? Have you faced any challenges unique to being a Solo Mom? If so, how did you overcome them?
A: While time, or rather a lack of time, is always a challenge for Solo Moms, it has taught me the value of short intervals of writing. You can achieve good work in half-hour increments, and they add up. Having limited windows of time also stops me from second-guessing myself so much when confronting a blank page. I’ve had to let go of the “preciousness” of writing, and that is a good thing. A writing life does not require the perfect room of one’s own, the unbroken afternoon, the candle and herbal tea in your favorite mug. You can write at 4:30 in the morning, in a cramped waiting room, or on the sidelines of your kid’s field hockey practice. You can write when you’re exhausted and resentful, and—lo and behold—sometimes the very act of writing alleviates the exhaustion and resentment.
One additional point: being a Solo Mom also has made me more determined to see this through, this goal of making a living as a writer and a cheerleader for other writers. I want to be a model for my daughters; I want to be someone who finds a way to achieve her dreams despite the obstacles of life.
Q: How do you balance parenting, writing, and teaching writers?
A: I guess I don’t think of it as balancing. It’s more like, OK, I’m doing this now, and now I’ve got to be here, and now and I need to stop thinking about this so I can switch my focus to that. Just yesterday I wrote a proposal to do an author event at a fundraiser, then I did a radio interview, then I met with one of my MFA students to go over her latest work, and then I chatted long distance with my daughter in college who wanted to brainstorm about one of her term papers. Somewhere in there I also squeezed in a little work (very little) on an essay I’m writing about working-woman Barbie; tweeted and e-blasted info about my upcoming workshops and readings; and caught up with my second daughter, who is a high school senior, about her prom, her physical-therapy appointment for her knee injury, and what kind of smoothies she and her friend wanted me to pick up for them after I ran to the bank. (Oh, and I did my last revisions on a fun magazine assignment, which was due over a week ago. Damn!)
Would I want to give up any part of this balancing act? None of it (well, except for the time it takes to promote my classes and book events, but better that than arriving to a lot of empty chairs). Fortunately, I don’t think I’m the kind of person who needs much downtime—that is, until I do, and then I can barely move. I guess I have two speeds: all or nothing. I’ve been wanting to work on that for years.
Q: Let’s say a Solo Mom tells you she’s been wanting to write a book, but she just can’t seem to get started. What would you tell her?
A: Where to start? Where to start? What if you begin here when you should begin there? What if you write down this idea, not that idea, but then another idea comes along that might be even better? What if, what if, what if? If those tortured thought bubbles sound at all familiar, my best advice is simple but often seen as radical: start anywhere. Put down whatever idea, memory, scene, or thing draws your attention at that moment. Let go of linearity. Trust that an opening and a structure will reveal itself later in the creative process because it will. In Good Naked, I address this question of how to get started because it is an issue that has plagued more aspiring authors, and killed more writing dreams, than one could ever imagine. Thankfully, there are practical, freeing, and even fun ways around this potentially devastating dilemma.
Q: Imagine you’re packing a survival kit for a Solo Mom writer. What would you put in it?
A: Coffee. A cat. A supportive writing group. Books that teach and feed your confidence. And for moms with little ones, I would include a tick-free park with lots of safe, super-cool playground equipment, and roving, responsible nannies. That way they could write without guilt while their kids are well cared for and having a blast.
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
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