Menna Van Praag is the author of THE DRESS SHOP OF DREAMS, one of our Books of Winter. We love this honest look into what it really means to be an author and a mother.
Before my son was born I’d often write for ten hours a day. When I was deep in a book, it’d be more like fifteen. I would go to sleep thinking about my characters, dream about them, and wake in the morning and run back to my computer to be with them again. If that sounds a little obsessive, it was. Fortunately, my husband also worked very long hours, so he didn’t feel neglected and we always found brief moments of time to be together and reconnect.
My obsessive writing habits meant I was nervous about becoming a mother, scared that I’d be a neglectful mom who always had her head in imaginary worlds.
Happily, when I became a mom, not only were my worst fears not realized, but I also discovered something wonderful that I hadn’t expected at all. Admittedly, it wasn’t an easy transition at first. Oscar had chronic colic for the first four months and, for the first eighteen months, rarely for more than a few hours at a time. Fortunately, my husband was very supportive and did more than his fair share of pacing the floorboards with our crying baby.
Once Oscar began sleeping, life regained a more normal rhythm and I was able to write while he slept in my lap. As he grew, I still found pockets of time during the day to be with my new characters – for the book that would become The Dress Shop of Dreams – and, interestingly, I gradually found that I was becoming a different kind of writer. I no longer either needed to spend endless hours in my imaginary world. I began writing more efficiently. I didn’t procrastinate. I didn’t spend hours gazing out of the window or surfing the net. There’s nothing to focus the mind quite like a sleeping baby who might wake at any moment. And, curiously, I found that the quality of my writing was improving under these new circumstances. Hope Street went through twenty-six full edits. Dress Shop only needed half a dozen minor ones.
Nowadays, with my son in nursery, I not only write but also teach a few creative writing classes. Most of my students have full-time jobs and many of them wish they could have endless, uninterrupted days in which to write their novels. I tell them that I used to long for that myself (I waitressed for nearly a decade before first getting published) but then I give them the good news: that having a full life and only a little time to write could actually be better than having too much time. The mind tends to wander when it has no boundaries and many people find that they create nothing when they have limitless time to create everything. It’s too intimidating. Or they get lost in research or endless plot twists. I certainly used to. But having very little time focuses the mind and, surprisingly, often results in better writing and, certainly, a more balanced life.
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Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.
Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.