Out of the Mouths of Babes

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Noise and Space and the Creative Mama’s Juggle

A study reported in the Wall Street Journal reports that noise enhances writers’ creative process—hence all those writers clicking at the café are onto something. Immediately, I thought—well, hoped—the theory extends to the writer-ing plus mothering equation, too. I mean I have loads of noise and confusion and distraction working from my kitchen counter that serves as my “desk.” My satellite office is on my bed, ostensibly to get away from everyone (but this does not necessarily mean I succeed in getting away from everyone; that’s simply the intention).

And while I have become quite skilled at letting dishes sit in the sink when everyone is at school so that I can work, time and again, the tasks of family life push in and overtake precious writing hours. I guess the flip side is family offers fodder, both personally and as a writer. I guess life is all about the different sides of the same equation.

As my dear husband reminds me, I took time after babies were born and if I have to set aside time for parenting (at this moment, the responsibilities of being available for teens seem to be fairly consuming) I always come right back to it. I keep enough going so as not to lose the thread. I’m just beginning one of those step-back moments, somewhat reluctantly, but necessarily.

While I place more attentions away from the words, one thing I’m trying to do is extricate my “stuff” as in papers and trinkets and books and file folders from the former study that has morphed into a new identity as a teen’s bedroom. Getting my stuff out is a front burner project, because I want to get his stuff out of his former room so the nine year-old can have a space that’s truly his. Currently, he’s sleeping in the room that was his biggest brother’s. The periwinkle room holds the nine-year-old son’s pet rats Pip and Squeak and eldest son’s old books and treasures.

As I reorganize my stuff, I find myself thinking in new ways about my writer self. Unmoored from any expectation of reliable quiet (even though I haven’t worked in the room that was my study for a long time) or even much psychic space for a stretch, I am reassessing how necessary that really is. Why did I need all those books surrounding me, really? I didn’t actually pull them out regularly as reference. I can still find them, on different bookshelves in other rooms, now—save for the many boxes of books I’ve given away over the past few months.


Meantime, I have a small cubby that I’m filling with papers and stationary, and a mess of inspiration. I open it up to grab a postcard and it’s a me-snatch.

I’ve set my sights on getting the jumbled chaos we call home—magnet on the fridge sums it up: Excuse the Mess, But We Live Here—a bit less jumbled and chaotic, if not camera ready. Finding the amount of organization or disorganization that is tolerable or even preferable, it’s a process, as is figuring out how much effort and time I feel needs to go into the work part and how much into the family part. It’s always a work in progress, this work-life balance. Even 16 years in, my sense of how to juggle everything is constantly changing.

So, how much space do we need to be creative? I am hoping the answer is, as the WSJ implies, far less than we imagine. And how much time do we need to be creative? Again, I am hoping the answer is far less than I imagine.

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser plans to be an emerging writer for a very long time (because emerging is more interesting). Her work has appeared in various anthologies, most recently Shari MacDonald Strong’s The Maternal is Political. A frequent contributor to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, she’s also written for newspapers further afield such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Tennessean and USA Today. Essays and book reviews are posted on Mothers Movement Online and Literary Mama and mamazine and Brain, Child magazine. Her essays have appeared in the Southwest Review, the California Literary Review, Ars Medica, Earth Island Journal, and Trusteeship. She’s a regular contributor to Preview Massachusetts. She resides in Northampton, Massachusetts with her husband and four children (teen to toddler).

Check out Sarah’s blog, Standing in the Shadows.

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