Empty Nest Projects

Picture of nestFrances McDormand, speaking recently at City Arts and Lectures about Olive Kitteredge, referred to the HBO miniseries she stars in and produced as her empty nest project. Already mourning her son’s not-quite-imminent departure when he was 14, McDormand cast about for something to take his place. She bought the rights to Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, shaped it with screenwriter Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko­­­, and insisted that Richard Jenkins be cast as Olive’s “tyrannically cheerful” husband. When McDormand’s son left for college, she left for Gloucester for three months of filming.

I, too, dreaded my kids’ departure long before they left home. My empty nest project was writing. I had dabbled in words before, but aside from churning out a clever holiday letter every year, my oeuvre was pretty non-existent. Writing was the one thing I looked forward to, not just to fill the void, but as something just for me after years of tending to others–my consolation prize for the planned obsolescence of motherhood.

It was also good therapy, as writing usually is. I poured my anxiety and grief onto the page. “Soon we’ll be leaving the emerald hills and spring-soft skies of the Bay Area to visit faraway New England colleges, icy sirens that entice my baby away from home,” I began. This turned into my first Perspectives piece. Like most things that well up from the heart, the words came spontaneously, easily. They struck a chord for many listeners, though one felt compelled to write that my daughter was lucky to escape my neurotic clutches!

Olive Kitteredge was accused of much worse. But where would be without our neurotic clutches? They are the wellspring of creativity. Equanimity does not hold one’s interest for long. Nor does it provide good copy. The bulk of my personal essays are about the empty nest—anxiously awaiting it, grieving it, then enjoying it. I knew I was through the mourning process when I began to tire of writing about it.

On to new things. Now that Emma has moved back home after being gone for so long, perhaps my next endeavor will be the Boomerang Project. And looking forward to seeing what comes next for Frances McDormand.


How have you transformed your struggles with creativity?

2 thoughts on “Empty Nest Projects

  1. What a timely post for me to read. I’ve been thinking about how I have expressed myself in my writing and how it doesn’t always line up with what is really in my heart. I feel it is an on going project/process for me: how much to reveal about myself while preserving my family’s privacy. And of course the age old favorite: if I truly reveal myself will I be welcomed our rejected.

    As for the our empty nest phase, we got out of town. My husband and I sent to Australia and New Zealand for 5 months as he was due his sabbatical (a great perk of the academic life!). It was wonderful to rediscover ourselves while in another environment.

    • Heidi, thanks for writing. I, too, grapple with what’s on the page versus what’s in my heart, and the effects on others (and, as you say, acceptance or rejection by others). But I guess that’s why there are Morning Pages–for the raw stuff to remain private, or perhaps metabolized later into something more fit for public consumption. Also, I like your empty nest plan! For all my anticipatory grief, it was surprisingly easy to get used to!

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