One fact I was never taught in creative writing class is that it’s impossible to gaze at your loved ones and be alone at the same time. Sure, we talked about Raymond Carver writing stories in his car while his children played nearby, but history suggests that artists must forgo attachments; the parenting failures of artists are legendary. I once sat on a panel next to a writer who, when asked if she had any advice for female writers, responded, “Don’t have children.” Then she passed the microphone to me, a mother of three.
I cleared my throat, then spoke the truest words I know about being a writer and a woman. “Be ambitious,” I said. “And when you can, book a motel room.”
There’s something transgressive about leaving your family to check into a motel, the seedier the better. Though I’ve dreamed of writing at the Hotel Saint Cecilia or the Mansion on Turtle Creek, typing by the pool while someone refreshes my icy lemonade, my recent residencies have included stays at Gaido’s Seaside Inn, in Galveston (where the view from my room—the navy sky meeting pale waves like a Rothko canvas, the Pleasure Pier’s flashing lights, the teens drinking beer in the parking lot directly below—could have been a novel in itself), the Candlewood Suites in Austin, and once, when inspiration struck me on my way home from Houston, the Katy Freeway Motel 6.
My packing list is short: strong coffee; cans of soup and boxes of Triscuits; a warm wrap given to me by an editor when I forgot to bring a coat to New York; index cards for organizing my plot structure; my laptop; and a box of scrawled notes, maps, menus, and various research materials. Upon checking in as early as possible, I change into my pajamas and spend a few hours watching TV. There’s something so wrong about a working mom bingeing Law & Order reruns in the middle of the day in a cheap motel that it’s got to be right.
I’ve been known to hit happy hour. For anyone who’s ever wondered what to do about writer’s block: spend an hour in a cheap motel bar during happy hour. Believe me, you’ll get stories beyond your wildest dreams alongside your nachos and half-price margaritas.
In the interest of waking up ready to dive into my work-in-progress, I try to end my motel evenings watching a movie or reading a book that reflects the themes I’m exploring. For my new novel, which examines motherhood and surrogacy, I watched the 1988 miniseries Baby M, eating cheese and crackers and marveling at JoBeth Williams’s portrayal of Marybeth Whitehead clutching her biological child and wailing, “She’s my baaaaaby!” I can only imagine what my neighbors at the Crowne Plaza on I-35 thought was going down in room 312.
And so far, it hasn’t failed. I type from morning till happy hour in a state of bliss, and when my time runs out (sometimes after 24 hours, sometimes after five days), I show up for school pickup ready to be a mom again. Those first few days back, I make warm honey milks upon request, spend extra time tucking in each child, do dishes without complaint. Living a dual life has even become a theme in some of my novels as I attempt to suss out what it means to try to be a mother and a wife and a writer at the same time. For me, right now, it means remembering to be thankful, being ambitious enough to fight for a motel room of my own, and having a seemingly endless supply of tiny bottles of cheap shampoo.
Austin writer Ward’s sixth novel, The Nearness of You, will be published on February 21.