Writing Motherhood

DSCI0158Last weekend was the Bay Area Book Fest (BABF) here in my adopted hometown, and amidst a sea of birthday parties and other end-of-year commitments, I managed to hit two sessions: Rebecca Solnit speaking with John Freeman on Sunday morning, and a panel called “Writers on Motherhood” on Saturday morning. Both the sessions I attended left me brimming with ideas and feeling like a part of a world that’s exciting, intellectually stimulating, and full—even though, you know, I have a kid.

Yes! At the “Writers on Motherhood” panel, there was a lot of honest talk about how the writers presenting (Rivka Galchen, Sarah Manguso, and Rachel Richardson) had, before they had children, thought of motherhood as something for other people. When they reluctantly decided to become mothers (only after each had at least one book out) they approached it with a certain degree of dread and the assumption that their lives would end. (Galchen admitted that she thought/hoped her daughter would be like a plant that you tend gently for a few years and that eventually grows into something that you can relate to.) The realities of motherhood—the sleeplessness, the sensation of springing milk at every moment, the unwelcome advice and comments from strangers, and the way, as Sarah Manguso said, one’s entire relationship to time and space shifts, was unexpected, and at first unwelcome. But ultimately, each of the writers realized that motherhood is, in fact, interesting. It’s not all diapers and laundry and feeding schedules; there’s something inherently stimulating and intellectually engaging about being so in the service of another human being.

And each of them began to write about it.

Perhaps it was this affirmation—that motherhood is in fact interesting and worthy of being written about—that most appealed to me about this panel. It’s no news that the word “domestic” has been thrown around as an insult for years, that writing about motherhood and marriage has been seen as less important than writing about, say, seafaring, conquering, and hunting. This is garden-variety sexism, sure, but it’s also somehow about privacy, and how what happens in the home has been seen as less significant than what happens in the outside world. But in recent years a lot of serious, talented writers have been writing about the private spaces of motherhood, reclaiming it as a subject worthy of literature. If you haven’t yet read Emma Donoghue’s Room, or Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, or Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, or Monica Wesolowska’s Holding Silvan, or any of the books by the three women who presented at BABF—then get thee to your local library post-haste.

And at the same time, more and more women have been speaking out about how questions about parenting and the domestic are frequently and unfairly lobbied at mothers who write but not at fathers who write. Just check out the recent New Yorker interview with novelist Lauren Groff, who says:

I’d made the decision before the boys were born that I was going to feel no guilt or shame about my parenting. I’m a good mother and want to spend as much time as possible with my kids, but I travel a lot, I shut myself away from my family to work every day, I do not do birthday parties, and I went to one play-date in my life and wanted to break the Perrier bottle on the floor and stab myself with it. We have intense conversations in my house about apportioning responsibility, because neither my husband nor I wants to assume roles based on messed-up collective assumptions about gender dynamics. I think that, in our society, the idea of motherhood is pathologically ill, and even well-meaning people assume martyrdom in a mother. Guilt and shame are the tools used to keep people in line; the questions I get most at readings or in interviews are about being a mother and writer…I think people are mostly kind and don’t know that, when they ask these questions of women, they are asking us to perform a kind of ceremonial subjection—that we’re not allowed our achievements without first denigrating ourselves or saying, with a sigh, “Yes, that’s correct, I’m a writer and a mother, and it’s so hard, and, no, I don’t do it well.” The truth is, doing these things is hard because being a good parent is always hard, but the difficulty of parenting is separate from the difficulty of work.

I think this is just brilliant, and more than that, it’s radical. When Groff says she doesn’t do birthday parties, and when Kim Brooks talks about cutting out the “white noise” of parenting, each is making a powerful statement about not succumbing to prescribed gender roles that assume that the mother in the family—assuming there is one, or only one—will handle all the extraneous bits and pieces of parenting, including those birthday parties and soccer practices and playdates and endless school commitments. Saying no is requesting, and requiring, a shift in all of our thinking.

And so, it seems to me, one of the most radical things a writer-mother can do in the 21st century? Write about being a mother, and be unflinching about it.

This is great news for me, because I’ve realized that motherhood is a subject I really can’t get away from. Mothering Leo creeps into everything I write: into the novel I’m writing about a woman who has no intention of being a mother becoming one anyway; into blog posts like this one; even into my Tweets (recent example):

Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.49.12And when a guy I hired to help me with some aspects of my writing life read all of my stuff, his first comment was that I write about motherhood.

“I do?” I asked. “But I have that one essay about dating the guy with schizophrenia. And a memoir about anxiety.”

“Sure,” he said, “there are outliers, but a mother has all kinds of other experiences besides parenting, right?”

Ah, right. We do.

It’s funny, when I came home from the “Writers on Motherhood” panel and tried to explain to B what was so wonderful about it, I faltered. It was something about what I’ve been writing about here, about being reminded that it’s okay to write about being a parent; good, even. But it was also about seeing three really smart women talking about the seriousness of their writing. It felt a little like being in graduate school again, when I carried around with me, for three years, this belief that writing was the most important thing on the planet. It was wonderful to feel that again for a minute, to get the references to books I’ve read, the references to craft, to forget for a minute that I had to go home and make lunch for a six-year-old. It seems a little ironic to have enjoyed the panel for that stark reminder, but there it was: our lives have changed since writing was the most important thing. Now, as mothers, our children have eked into first place.

So how do we reconcile that? In part, by writing about it.


Stay tuned for my brand-new website and blog More Than a Mother, coming soon!

I Will Not Waste My Life Part Two, OR: Inviting My Kid to A Friend’s House on a Sunday Morning in a Desperate Effort to Write

Long time.

The Kid and Me

The Kid and Me

It’s almost the end of National Poetry Month and I haven’t even posted one poem. This time of year is a killer: taxes, mid-terms, spring soccer, and a rash of birthday parties. Why were so many children born between February and April? And why do they all adore my son and want him to come for cake, ice cream, and super-fun activities that I’m sure I will never be able to measure up to come July, when L turns seven? (Though the climbing gym was pretty great.)

I’ve been remembering the post I wrote a year ago about Not Wasting My Life. I’m still fighting that good fight, but I’m also facing a lot of questions about what an unwasted life is supposed to look like. Should I be making lots of time to lie in the hammock, enjoy L, take long walks, and meditate—can you even imagine?!—or should I be working every spare minute on my writing, when I’m not being the best mother, teacher, and wife I can be?

I was sucked into this recent article in The Cut by Kim Brooks called “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom: Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?”, in which Brooks describes her slow-dawning realization that it’s impossible to be a great mother, a domestic Goddess, and a dedicated writer. As she says, “Surely, I thought, there was no reason in the 21st century that a person like myself couldn’t be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized…I was so confident in this conviction, in fact, that it took me almost a decade to admit to myself that I was wrong.”

And if that sounds like a crazy thing to think, well, welcome to my head.

Brooks goes on to detail many things, including the number of terrific contemporary novels that take up this theme; and, most poignantly for me, her decision to cut out what she calls “the white noise of parenthood,” e.g., playdates, birthday parties, dance lessons, soccer, PTA, and swim class, in order to create more space for her creative work.

I read this as I was sitting at L’s Friday afternoon soccer practice, as it happens, an experience that, while mildly pleasant because it’s been sunny, and there’s another mom I like to talk to, and I’m happy for L that he’s got a great coach and seems to be learning a lot of good skills, is also a bummer—a bummer because we used to have leisurely Friday afternoons together at home, L doing his thing and me doing mine, until soccer practice became Another Thing We Have to Do.

I was already feeling a bit like the weird parent on the sidelines because I was distracted, watching L run drills just occasionally, immersed in my three-inch thick novel, a notebook and pen furtively stashed in my bag, when I turned to Twitter to see what was up. When I found the link to this article, I absolutely sank in—I basically swallowed my phone. I’m sure I was nodding my head emphatically and groaning like a crazy person. Because to say I can relate to the dilemma Brooks describes is an understatement. I live it. I nearly shouted out loud when I got the part in the essay where she quotes her writer friend Zoe Zolbrod:

“The truth,” [Zolbrod] says, “is that I think I’m a better mom when I’m not writing. I’m not writing right now and I’m enjoying the kids more. I’m better at home when I’m writing less.” When she’s engrossed in her work, it’s different. “My eyes glaze over or something when I’m going off into that other place, and my daughter notices it and doesn’t like it. Like we’re sitting on the floor coloring together. And I’m getting in my zoned-out space and she’s always watching to see when I do that. ‘Don’t make your face like that,’ she says. She just watches me really closely, and she’s less satisfied with what I can’t give her. She senses that I’m keeping something to myself. It never feels like it’s enough.”

I have written before about this dilemma, about this constant feeling of distraction and how I would love, at the end of the day, to actually feel done. To not be off in another place—writing a scene in my novel, or absorbed in my anxiety about getting published—when, actually, I’m with my husband and kid. But I don’t think, crazy as this may sound, that I realized that in order to lessen this sensation I could just say no—to a birthday party, or soccer practice, or piano lessons, or any number of other (arguably optional) parental obligations, in favor of myself, in favor of the selfishness a writing career demands.

As the late Philip Seymour Hoffman says in The Big Lebowski: “That had not occurred to me, dude.”

Had it really not? I mean, of course it had, in that abstract, not-possible way we think of so many possible changes we could make in our lives. I’m not totally crazy; I haven’t volunteered for a PTA board position or anything. But nonetheless, I have always been a little too ambitious, in small and perhaps, let’s face it, probably gender-prescribed ways. When I was in grad school, living alone, I did not subsist on ramen noodles; I cooked myself intricate meals every night, because it brought me pleasure, of course, and because it quelled my anxiety to eat well. And now, with a kid, a husband, and a full-time teaching gig, I still cook those kinds of meals, almost every night. I make my own granola too, and bone broth a few times a month, and while we have a house cleaner, she only comes once every month or six weeks. And somehow I became the room partner in my kid’s class when the other parent decided to switch schools, and I not-so-mysteriously ended up on the aftercare committee, too.

Perhaps, because this force lives in me, this force that tells me to be all things to all people, I have transferred this force to L, too, insisting that he not only brush his teeth every morning and have a healthy packed lunch, but that he also do his homework and practice piano and make it to soccer every Friday afternoon and again on Saturday mornings. And who is the person who reminds him to do all these things, who prods and nags and enables? That would be me. I am much like Brooks was before she woke up, which is to say—I have, for all these years, thought that I could Do It All; and in many ways, I have.

But at whose expense? Does L like this life? Do I? Would we both feel happier if we just ate frozen pizza a couple times a week, if I’d graciously let another parent be room partner, if Friday afternoons were still ours? Even if I didn’t spend that time writing, mightn’t I spend it doing the other kind of things—paying bills, tidying, email—that free up my writing time during the week? Or, God forbid, sitting in my hammock just thinking, exaggeratedly not wasting my life?

***

That evening after soccer practice, I talked to B about the article. “I need to carve out more time to write,” I told him. “I want to spend every weekend with you and L, because I miss you during the week, but I’ve realized that I can’t. I need to start taking some time on the weekends to write, or maybe even a weekday evening, because with teaching and all the other obligations, I’m just not spending as much time writing during the week as I need to.”

Guilt, that old monster, rose up. B, with his nine-to-sixer, has less time during the week than I do, and despite everything I’ve said above, that must make it sound like I bustle about like a charwoman, taking care of all the housework for my man, he’s (almost) as engaged in the domestic sphere as I am: he does most of the laundry, cooks breakfast most days, bakes all our bread, maintains our garden, and is as involved with bedtimes and bath times and all the rest as I am. A tiny voice in my head whispered: selfish. 

“So can you take L to soccer on Saturday morning?” I asked, even though I had plans on Saturday afternoon, too.

And, of course, because he is a decent human being, he said yes, and I spent the time in my studio, writing.

At the end of Kim Brooks’s article, she seems to come to a place of acceptance that all of us moms who write must, obviously, come to. She maintains her resolve to cut out the “white noise,” and, brilliantly, if a little unrealistically, she swears she’ll do a yearly artist’s residency—a week away, every year, just to write. But she also accepts that doing both things well is doing both things poorly: you rob Peter to pay Paul. You neglect your parenting, or you neglect your writing. It’s this elusive idea of balance, and you just have to make it work.

In my mind’s eye, I can see the possibility of an artist’s residency every year, and of saying no more. This life beckons to me like low-hanging fruit, just barely in reach. I’m not quite there, yet, though. I will, undoubtedly, continue to take on too much for my child at the expense of my own work: I’ll still cook these great meals, and feel guilty when I don’t return phone calls, and volunteer for too many activities at L’s school.

But I’ll also, I’ve decided, hold a little more space for myself. I’ll say “no” more. And I’ll think, as a friend reminded me to, to realize what I am giving up when I say “yes.”

This weekend, B was away, up in Portland partying it up with his college friends. So I had to do soccer; in fact, I had volunteered to bring snack (old habits, old habits!). But on Sunday, I called some other parent friends and asked whether they could take L for the morning so I could work.

And because they are decent human beings, of course they said yes. 

And there I sat, writing, enormously relieved to have put this down.

——

Further (Great) Reading:

Curtis Sittenfeld on The Pool, in which she asks why it is only women novelists who are asked how they “balance” writing and parenthood:  “The Secret to Work-Life Balance? There Isn’t One”

Aya deLeon on her blog, in which she posits that writer moms of color have never assumed that there will be “balance”: “Portrait of the Writer Mom as a Member of the Working Class”

 

News and Upcoming Events!

Hi friends,

Ghazals for Foley, ed. Yago S. Cura, 2016 Hinchas Press

Ghazals for Foley, ed. Yago S. Cura, 2016 Hinchas Press

Yesterday I received my copy of Ghazals for Foley, a book of poems written to commemorate the life of writer and slain journalist Jim Foley, who was a classmate of mine at UMass Amherst. I have a poem in the collection, along with poems by Martin Espada, CS Carrier, Shauna Seliy, my buddy and writing partner Mike Dockins, and many more. There is also a short story by Jim that was previously published by Hinchas Press.

I hope you’ll pick up a copy here and spread the word. Ghazals for Foley is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful person, and I’m grateful to Yago Cura and Hinchas Press for including me in the project.

ALSO: I’m reading this Friday night at the Madness Radio Book Launch! Feb 26, 2016 w/ Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, Susie Meserve, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St 7pm Oakland California (make sure to park carefully and leave room on street). The essay I’ll be reading, called “A Little Crazy,” is forthcoming in an anthology by In Fact Books called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Overcoming Mental Illness. 

I would love to see you there, if you’re local!

Finally, mark your calendars! My friend Sandra Stringer and I will be teaching a three-hour writing and movement workshop called “Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story” at Flying Studios in Oakland on Saturday, March 19, from 1:00-3:45 p.m. Cost: $75. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please spread the word. I’ll post again about it here, closer, of course.

All done with shameless self-promotion, now.

xo

Susie

 

 

Who Am I, Anyway?

I’ve been ruminating on identity a lot lately.

Me.

Me.

At the San Francisco Writers Conference this past weekend, there were so many opportunities to tell someone who I was—in ten seconds or less. The first time someone asked “And what do you write?” I botched my answer, stumbling with some “Ums” and “wells” and “kind-ofs.” Then, I agonized over how I would introduce myself at my panel on revision on the second day, the one I was doing with two experienced editors in a room I suspected would be packed (it was). In my notebook I nervously jotted down phrases like “I write about the darkness in everyday experience” and “I write about the light and the dark of being a woman” and other horrendous, lofty mouthfuls I absolutely could not see myself pulling off in public.

Then one of the other editors from the panel, who is also a new friend and a lovely person with whom I’d just had a delicious lunch in Chinatown, said: “Just say it all—you’re a poet, you also write personal narrative, you write about your experiences with anxiety, motherhood, and infertility, and then mention your memoir.” Wow—that was easier. And when it came time to introduce myself at the panel, I said exactly that, switching the pronouns, and was amazed at how easily it rolled off the tongue and how comfortable I felt not stumbling with some catchy catch phrase. Later, two people came up to me to tell me they couldn’t wait for my memoir to get published, that it just sounded wonderful. Isn’t that nice?

And, perhaps because I wasn’t saddled to a catch phrase all weekend, I was able to let go and be a poet for a few days, too, speaking on a couple of poetry panels, workshopping, and reading at the Friday night poetry reading. A poem that’s been just sitting in my computer for two years was enthusiastically received—a poetry press editor insisted that I send her my manuscript, provided that poem is in it.

So I came away from the conference feeling pretty good.

At one stage, in the lobby of the hotel, a group of women somehow converged—we’re all mothers, and we all live relatively close to one another in the same town, and there was talk of us getting together to write or commiserate or workshop. A trading of email addresses and a “where do your kids go to school?”s. And somehow, in that moment, my identity shifted from “writer” to “mom who writes.”

“How old are your kids?” one asked another.

“Ten and eight. You?”

“Seven and five. You?”

Then it was my turn: “Six,” I said. “Just six.”

And while I felt a part of this, because we all know what it’s like to try to pull off a writing career when you’re also raising children, because we’ve all given birth and nursed and been up all night losing our minds with exhaustion, I felt again that other identity of which I’ve been so conscious in recent years: that I’m the mother of an only child. If you don’t have kids, you might think, what’s the difference? Either you’re a mom, or you’re not. But I tell you, it’s different, really; having one kid means when you have a playdate your house is still pretty manageably noisy, and your plane ticket bills are cheaper. And two bedrooms don’t feel cramped at all, and it’s not too hard to get a babysitter.

But it also means smarting when, at a babysitting co-op meeting, someone says casually, “Oh, it’s so crazy once you have your second!” and every woman in the room except you groans and nods in some kind of humble brag, lamenting and loving their full, full, and more full lives. This happened recently, and I sat there feeling utterly apart because I couldn’t say whether it’s crazy when you have two. Because I have not been able to have two. Because I may never know.

But while this was so hard for so many years, this feeling of wanting something I couldn’t have, lately I’ve been wondering if I really wanted it as badly as I thought I did. I’ve been wondering if maybe my life is just perfect as it is.

“God, it’s so nice to have adult conversations for a change,” one of the moms at the conference said, and I thought, but I have adult conversations all the time. My life is very manageable with one kid who’s in school or childcare 36 hours a week or more; I see friends, I work, and I spend many hours alone, writing. Besides, conversations with L have rarely been a chore. Maybe this is something about my kid, or my parenting, or something else, but I have realized lately how, when I’ve been so busy wanting something else, my nice life has been here all along with me.

And again, it’s kind of like writing. At a recent meeting of my Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour, my friend Ascha had us choose lines from a book of poetry and write them on an envelope. Then we shared the lines.

IMG_2811Mine—”like someone trying to walk through a fire,” “What I would do with the rest of my life,” and “your old soft body fallen against me”—all from The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds—seemed to speak to how you have this relationship with something and it lasts your whole life. My writing and I, we’re like old lovers; we fight, we make up, we get on with it, we fight, we make up. We walk through fire together, and we’ll be together forever. And this is a comforting thought, because when my writing and I are not connecting, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking up; it’s all just part of the journey.

And I guess that’s a bit like parenting, too, like me parenting my one beautiful child: his young soft body fallen against me, for the rest of my life.

Like walking through a fire.

—-

Sharon Olds’s poem “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood”

**Nota Bene! Susie will be reading on Friday, 2/26 at the Madness Radio Book Launch! With Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St, Oakland, California 7pm. Hope to see you!** 

Making a Big Mess of Things

This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.

Image046

Fall’s diagonal light

Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.

Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.

But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.

Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.

Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)

And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.

OCTOBER

It’s raining colored paper.

No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,

swooping, dipping towards the hard surface

of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields

have turned to paper, and a pumpkin

spills its guts on a front stoop.

A boy discovers it and starts to cry.

Who would do such a thing,

bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?

Something in him falters.

He imagines his house on fire: water boiling

in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.

He thinks about God and Judas

and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,

wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails

to splinters. He stares out at the fields,

counts minutes till schooltime, his breath

a neat circle on the window,

because it’s cold this October, already—

and there in the road is the flock of leaves,

swooping, dipping into the hard surface,

then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.

The cornfields have turned to paper,

and behind them the sky.

© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001

A Room of One’s Own: My Very Own Writing Studio

First there was this.

IMG_1990

Before.

Just this junky old room with moldy brown carpet and three flavors of paint (one puke green, one puke pink, one puke indeterminate). This was the studio adjacent to our apartment, which had sat empty for years and years on end, except as a dumping ground for various items of hardware that had been used in the renovation of our place. When we moved in next door, the landlord told us he was planning to renovate the studio for Maya, the eccentric and kind older woman who gardens here every Tuesday. Of course neither B nor I particularly wanted anyone to move in next door, but what could we do? Maya is very nice. Our landlord said he would begin fixing it up in January. Then it was February. Then March. As May arrived, we realized he had no intention of ever getting to it—or at least, not any time soon.

And then one day Maya announced to B that she had found a different place to live, and it occurred to me that without the incentive of fixing it up for Maya, George really might not get to it for a while. In other words, right next to my house was a small sunny room with its own bathroom that was….

Empty.

Available.

Unoccupied.

And perfect to become a writing studio. 

I emailed George and asked whether he would consider letting me rent it. I can’t pay you much, I said, but it’s more than you’re getting now, and I’ll do all the work. And after an agonizing two weeks, he wrote to say he thought that would be fine. (!!!) Then he agreed to let me paint, pull out the carpet, and generally make it mine. And so, a few weekends ago, I got up early and went to work. I sanded the walls and painted them a soft, soft gray. We hauled the nasty carpet out to the driveway. I scrubbed the floors, cleaned the bathroom, put up a shelf, washed the cover on the dusty old futon that lives here. I moved in a lamp, a chair, some throw pillows, a rug, and finally, a desk.

And here I sit, writing this blog post.

And after.

And after.

I have wanted my own writing space for—well, forever. In grad school, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I had a pretty great two-room apartment with large windows and high ceilings and lots of space, and I had an office there, though it was one half of the room I used as my bedroom, so not totally ideal. Since then, though, we’ve never had the extra space, and I’ve worked in coffee shops and at the library or, occasionally, at the kitchen table. The trouble with any of these places, of course, is that they’re noisy and you can’t pace around reading things out loud or debating the finer points of a sentence or shouting “why is this so f%^&*#g hard?!” You can’t hang up on the wall all the bits and baubles of paper and notes and whatnots that have come to you in brilliant moments or procrastinating moments. You can’t casually leave your laptop and go make a cup of tea, because someone might steal your last five years of work.

And at the kitchen table, it’s far too easy to feel guilty about the dirty dishes or the bills that just came shooting through the mail slot and get distracted.

In short, none of those places are yours and yours alone, your place to write, to think, to procrastinate, to mess up, to be. 

But this place is. Mine.

You’ll see, on the wall to the left of the desk, a series of pieces of paper. To christen my new writing studio, I hosted the Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour here last week, and we did an exercise: we used a couple of one-word prompts and responded to them using paper and pens and crayons and markers, scissors and collage and glue.

The Lion Prompt

The Lion Prompt

The first prompt, given to me by a certain five-year-old, was “lion.” I loved the way these all looked next to each other when we hung them up, like they all spoke to each other somehow. I could feel the space warming up with color and words and intention.

We went on to do more; we riffed on “illness,” on “middle.” We worked independently but all together, and eventually, we filled the whole space with paper.

It reminds me of a poem from a mentor I miss, the terrific late poet Agha Shahid Ali: 

Stationery

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

© Agha Shahid Ali

 

Yes, the world is full of paper.

Interview with, well, Me

Me.

Me.

Earlier this spring, a young woman named Terra Ojeda, from Whitworth University, contacted me. She’d read my poem in Rock & Sling and, as a part of a class assignment, wanted to interview me. I of course said sure. I liked the questions Terra asked, and I thought I’d post her interview here.

Thank you, Terra!

Terra: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like? (I’m sure in the midst of life, it is difficult to find and time and place every day to simply sit down and write).

Susie: I do have a writing routine—of sorts. My mantra is, “write first, before everything else.” If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it). I can’t write every day, since I’m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I’m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I’ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date—this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.

T: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?

S: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar’s lyrics here and there, the truth is I’m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn’t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn’t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks—things that have been hard for me, historically. I’m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.

T: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. How do these play into your creative process?

S: I love teaching, but it doesn’t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems—not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I’ve been writing for ten years, so that’s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in….

T: If you could be any animal, what animal would it be? Why? Is this the same animal that you identify with now?

S: My son is crazy about animals, and he asks me every day what my favorite animal is. I always says cheetah, but that’s not entirely true, though I would love to experience that furious running somehow. I would be interested in being a bear or another kind of powerful predator; a powerful bird; or….I’m not sure what else. I’d actually be fascinated to be a male human for an afternoon, too!

T: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poem, “Postcard from a Sailor.” You mention a fragmented mess of thoughts: “as if the parking tickets were scattered everywhere.” You compare this also with “all the marriages torn asunder — the children unborn.” Then you close the poem with “all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –” The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?

S: I see “Postcard from a Sailor” as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a “mess of thoughts” (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that “pensive” didn’t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly). The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don’t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest. [Note: You can read “Postcards from a Sailor” below.] Something else is going on in there that you didn’t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you’ll notice that this phrase “as if” is totally overused. It’s like all of us poets can’t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one “as if” but the next five lines all have an implied “as if.” I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I’m just another poet overusing the phrase “as if.”

T: Who do you write for? Does the audience change for every subject, or do you lean toward one type of audience?

S: This is a tough one. With the stuff I’ve been writing lately—personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff—I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my “target audience” and my “brand.” (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she’s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don’t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.

T: On writing for yourself: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Do you write for yourself? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?

S: Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me. I’m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That’s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, or in a different language entirely.

T: I’ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir “Quiver.” How has traveling with your husband Ben (before you were married) shaped your life?

S: That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I’m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I’ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else…whatever I am now.

T: When you contemplate taking “next steps” in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from “Quiver” on your webpage read:

He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.

Except go with him.”

The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, “Why not?” Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?

S: I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I’m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from “Quiver” ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I’m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh well.

T: Thank you so much Susie, I have enjoyed reading your work. You have already influenced me to download a meditation app on my phone (which I gladly used earlier this morning). Sometimes I forget that all I need to do is sit down, come as I am, accept myself for all that I am, and breathe. You have been a lovely reminder, nurturing me personally with your words and honest stories. 

S: That’s so great! Thanks for telling me that. And you’re very welcome.

POSTCARD FROM A SAILOR (#6)

Arriving in California

just before Thanksgiving,

I’d say I felt pensive

if pensive were the sensation

of one billion thoughts colliding

in the cerebral cortex,

not pinprick stars,

more like dark matter chaos,

more like an unweaving,

a de-constellating,

the loss of any sense of order,

of any sense of navigation,

as if the parking tickets were papered everywhere—

and the email had begun to explode—

and the cars all crashed into one another—

and all the marriages torn asunder—

the children unborn—

all the tools tossed into the sea—

if there were a sea—

if there were any stars by which to navigate—

(© Susie Meserve. This poem appeared in Rock & Sling issue 9.2)

I Have Wasted My Life

The view from my hammock

The view from my hammock

Lately, everything has felt busy. Sometimes I think this is the mantra of my generation, at this time in our lives: we’re working parents, we’re social beings, and we’re ambitious, and many of us feel like things are about as full as they could be. In the past year, my life has amped up in several ways, and it’s left me simultaneously dizzy from the excitement of it—I’ve felt, finally, like a real adult, a real breadwinner with a real career path—and overwhelmed by the day to day.

In general, I’ve been proud of the way my family has adjusted to me working more and L starting Kindergarten and all the other things we’ve added to our plate. B has become an extraordinary caretaker, making bread for us every week and planting the garden with veggies and folding all the laundry. L is a pain about doing anything to help out, but he’s five, after all. And I’ve loosened the reins on certain projects and I still manage to get a good dinner on the table most nights and keep us in groceries and a clean bathroom. Our life together has felt very manageable, and very happy, if at times a little too…full.

But something small can throw a huge wrench in the gears, and that’s what March was: this weird cold/flu I had that migrated to my ears and became a double ear infection. For the past month, I’ve had tinnitus (no fun) and this constant sensation like a valve in each ear is popping open, closed, open, closed. I missed a week of classes, which I had to make up, and once I felt a little better I found that my work ethic was shattered: it didn’t feel like much fun to sit at my computer and listen to the roaring in my ears, so I started to postpone grading and planning until the last possible second. And of course, when you get sick, you end up having doctor’s appointments, which means time away from work and writing, and then there are those bills to pay and meanwhile everything else continues unabated. I’m not complaining—it’s been an interesting reminder to me about the nature of life, and in particular the nature of my life, and now that’s it’s all getting a little better I’m much happier seeing it in a different light—but nonetheless, all the worry and sickness and anxiety and discomfort have been…disorienting.

And so, on the most practical level, I had a few days there where I felt quite firmly that my life was spinning totally out of control. I worked a lot over the weekend, just trying to get caught up with a book proposal and all the grading I’d been neglecting, all the while feeling like I was barely making a dent. Hardest were the liminal spaces, the hours and minutes in between classes or events, when I’d expect to accomplish small tasks or phone calls and for whatever reason, utterly fail. Finally, on Monday night after a full day, I spent a few hours catching up with travel plans and my son’s school activities (oh, how I had been neglecting the various appeals from the PTA) and filing bills and paying bills and generally trying to get my head to clear.

It was amazing how much better I felt once I’d done all that.

But one thing I still hadn’t managed to do was blog, here in National Poetry Month, of all times, when I always feel I should be blogging.

And then, a certain poem came barreling into my consciousness yesterday and I knew exactly what I wanted to blog about.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
© James Wright, from Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Vision (Random House, 1987)

When I read this poem in college, the professor asked us to interpret the last line. And I recall many of us, then on the cusp of becoming adults, saying that the last line meant that lying in the hammock, looking around, was a waste of life. I felt quite firmly that what Wright had meant when he wrote this poem was that he had been lazy in his life, that he should have been more ambitious.

How wrong I was. Now, saddled with all the things I’m saddled with at 41, bills and obligations and worries, I see clearly that what Wright meant was that all the noise we fill our lives with is, truly, the waste. Now, this poem speaks to me in a way it never could have when I was twenty-one.

And so, yesterday, after I’d taught two three-hour classes back to back, and used all my liminal spaces for phone calls or emails, I came home to a quiet house. I calmly washed the dishes, changed my clothes, and sat quietly at the table filling out raffle-ticket stubs before picking up L at school. And when we came home, and he decided to run off to play with the neighbor, I sat in the hammock in my backyard for fifteen minutes, reading The Remains of the Day and listening to the birds and the sounds of the guys working on the house across the way.

I will not waste my life.

It’s National Poetry Month! And, two great books of poetry you gotta read

Eliot was wrong: April is not the cruelest month (I have a particular belief that February is, but actually, I think it’s different for everyone). For me, March was a bear, since I spent much of it sick and am still temporarily (we hope) deaf from a double ear infection that’s lingered. So it was not with great sadness that I said goodbye to March yesterday (but it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my parents, who, visiting for three weeks, made the month somewhat bearable).

Because I’m still digging out from illness, I don’t know that I’ll be able to post a poem a day in April this year. But we can celebrate National Poetry Month nonetheless.

Today, I wanted to plug two beautiful books of poetry that found their way to me this winter.

The first is called Where’s Jukie? (Absurd Publications, 2013) by poet Andy Jones and essayist Kate Duren. I met Andy at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February. It’s interesting to meet someone as charismatic and upbeat as Andy. He’s something of a legend, with his own radio show and a reading series in Davis. But his book is about his family’s struggle to figure out life with a child with a rare disorder called Lemli-Opitz syndrome and regressive autism, to boot. It’s a really beautiful book. Kate Duren’s essays about her son feel controlled and confident and wise, but Andy’s poems attest to the incredible doubt and difficulty of parenting a special-needs child.

Here’s the poem “Dinner” from Where’s Jukie?

DINNER

When I get up from the table,

you cry.

Our relationship is the most honest.

 

Sometimes with the spoon,

sometimes with the napkin,

I wipe the applesauce from your chin.

 

The crow caws to us

from the backyard.

You crane your neck to see.

 

At dinnertime your fingers

are dull tools.

You swat at the spoon.

 

Feeling gravity too keenly,

you sink into the chair.

You must be strapped in.

 

You look at me as if to speak.

Your eyes refocus before

you chirp like a hyena.

 

The wasps thump against the screen.

How they wish the door

were thrown open.

 

Sometimes your mouth opens

so wide that I think you could roar.

 

The wind shifts the vertical blinds.

You look at them and cry.

How I wish I could understand you.

© Andy Jones

The second book is called Thunderbirds, by Christine Penko (Turning Point Press, 2015). This is an extraordinary book. It’s poetry, but the poems are linked so as to tell a story, so it feels as much like a memoir in verse. And the subject of the memoir is a family riddled with dysfunction and confusion, and a mother who’s both observer and orchestrator. I came away–having not been able to put the book down, I should add–with great respect for the writing and the characters in the book. Here is “Science Fiction” by Christine Penko:

SCIENCE FICTION

Dazed by your news, I pretend

it’s possible for us to take

that summer trip we’d planned,

possible to leave our alien selves

locked in the battered house

I’d once considered a fortress.

In Sedona, it’s monsoon season.

Clouds boil against mountains.

Buzzards reel.

Words pass between our mouths, melt

into lozenges of despair.

The future is impossible to imagine.

Inside my chest, something poisonous rips

open, spreads wings, gains speed.

© Christine Penko

 

 

What I Learned from National Poetry Month, or, Trying to Get Published in a Major Magazine, or: How to Tweet?

After the intensity of my daily posts in May for National Poetry Month, I haven’t blogged much. I actually had a brief mourning period when that month was over–mostly, I felt relief because choosing the poems and blogging them felt like a very important task that I was constantly worrying over–but I also loved the feeling of being so connected with readers and poems. Many people wrote me privately to say thanks, and, as I said on the last day, I felt after posting those daily poems like I was reminded of poetry’s great importance in my life. My recent feelings of cynicism about poetry’s power were dashed in favor of a great respect and awe for that most underdog of forms, teacher of children and adults, reminder of the daily wanderings of the mind, irreplaceable, sturdy, delicious poetry, for which we should all be very grateful.

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

So have I been writing any? Not a lick.

In fact, I owe the esteemed Mike Dockins a postcard poem in a big way, but I’ve been very busy attending to other things: personal essays.

And brooding, of course.

I turned forty this past year, and had the important realization that, to quote a good friend, life should not be treated like a rehearsal. What would I have to lose, I wondered, if I just put myself all out there? More to the point, what will I feel if, on the verge of 50, I’m still in the same place I am now–mostly happy, mostly lucky, yet angsty about my writing career? I don’t have an answer for that, but suffice it to say I decided this year to push my writing in every direction possible until it makes sense not to. To be relentless in my pursuit of an agent for my memoir. To be shrewd, smart, driven, and careful. To keep at it. And, though this may sound crazy, to learn how to Tweet.

Yes, Tweet. One thing about this crazy stupid world of ours: you can become someone, sort of, through social media. I guess if you do it right you can at least generate interest, book sales, a following. And more and more, my rejections from agents say things like “I need someone with a strong media platform” or “You’re very talented but I’m afraid I won’t be able to sell this in the current market.” Maybe my work is unsellable, or maybe I just need to work harder, better, different, to become someone with more cache and power. So I’m trying both to get published in more high-profile places than poetry ever allows (read: personal essays in women’s magazines with huge readerships), and, well, to Tweet about it. Or something.

But back to the personal essays. And angst. A friend recently stopped writing. She said she was too wrapped up in ideas of her own success, too obsessed. If an agent told her her book lacked X, she’d stay up all night rewriting it. If a different agent then told her it lacked Y, she’d freak out and rewrite it again. She asked me, if your memoir never gets published, would you still want to keep writing? And for me the answer was a very quick yes. Maybe that’s crazy; maybe the fact that I am not yet published means I should give this up, but the truth is if I could do anything all day long, it would be write. So I’m keeping at it. For now. Until it makes sense not to. What’s my point? I don’t know. Something about perseverance.

The personal essays, wow–they’re fun. And raw. It’s a challenge to remember that while you can ramble and play with language all you want in a poem or a longer work, in an essay that will stand out online or in a women’s mag you want to be pithy, smart, funny, honest, not too cerebral but not too light. It took me a lot of revision to get the first essay polished up and tight as a drum, and I think it’s really, really good.

Now to find someone who feels the same and wants to publish it.

In the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @susiemeserve.

Onward, friends,

Susie