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!

The Work of Building Fences

It was quite a weekend.

Otto and friend

Otto and friend

On Saturday, I attended an “energetic boundaries” workshop up in Sebastopol, a beautiful little town about an hour north of here. Now, I know what you East-coast types are thinking: a what? 

I must admit that when my friend An Honest Mom invited me, I had to pause. I’m capable of all kinds of “woo-woo,” but on the other hand, it sounded a little nutty. But when I looked back over some of the events of this past year, some stickiness that’s been troubling me in my life and relationships, I realized that my boundaries could use some work. There’s the way I say yes to everything, and the way I worry all the time about what other people are thinking and doing and feeling (sound familiar, anyone?). And there’s the way I let other people’s opinions and thoughts invade my space and my psyche to the point that I kind of lose myself. These are patterns I’ve been in for years and years; many of us are in these patterns. I hoped that an energetic boundaries workshop might help me shift some of this, so I signed up and went.

I’m always hoping for miracles, and yet, it turns out, miracles are for other people.* Nonetheless it was a great day of experimenting with ways to get really clear about who I am and who other people are— and not to confuse the two.

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Most significantly, I realized, on the drive up to Sebastopol, that the boundary between my writing and what other people think about my writing is so thin it’s like the membrane of a bubble. A few days earlier, I’d found myself in a conversation about my writing that I did not have any desire to be in. A friend was, in essence, giving me advice I had never asked for and frankly did not want. It filled me with a kind of slow-burning and quiet rage—and later, disappointment in myself for letting that happen. But these kinds of interactions have been happening to me for years. It’s a little too easy for me to hear a question like “what’s going on with your memoir?” and start equivocating and rationalizing and dealing with a whole cadre of internal feelings to the effect of you, Susie, suck, you suck, you suck. And so, en route to the workshop (I like to get started early!), it occurred to me in a fit of nascent practicality: I do not have to talk about my memoir if I do not want to. And it is okay to say that!

(Hey, friends! Yeah, don’t ask me about my memoir right now. Some stuff is in the works; I’ll let you know when it gets published. Thanks.)

And yet, and yet—somehow I’ve been believing all these years that it’s not okay to say no. Not just to obligations, but to sharing information. Private people? They mystify me. I seem to think that when someone asks me a personal question that I have to answer it. That when I reveal something, I have to reveal everything. My writing, it turns out, despite being personal in nature, is also deeply personal TO ME, and there are very few people with whom I’m comfortable sharing the heartache and joys of that enterprise. And yet, when someone asks, there I go, blurting out the whole shebang, then wondering why people feel like it’s okay to give me unsolicited advice. Wondering why I feel so damn violated and angry.

The workshop did not solve all these problems, of course (see above, on miracles), but it did help me to articulate some of this. And it helped me to see, at least, the ways that I worry all the time about other people at the expense of myself. Not just my kid, but also B, whom I was tracking the entire day in Sebastopol: what’s he doing? Is he mad that I’m gone all day? Is L okay? Has he located the hot dogs I told him were in the fridge? And in the midst of the workshop, in what felt like the most uncomfortable and intense moment of the day: am I invading the other participants’ energetic space? Do they like me? Am I totally annoying? Should I change my behavior in some way? It reminded me of the friend who had made me uncomfortable the week before with her questions about my work: was I so worried about her safety and comfort that I ventured into territory I did not want to be in?

I think I did.

And so, reader, resolved: not to do that anymore. Or at least, to notice, to remember that I am allowed—no, required!—to protect myself from other people and to be autonomous. And to say no. How liberating!

But here’s the funny irony of last weekend. We got a tortoise. 

He arrived on Friday night, and our initial excitement was palpable. L was in heaven; B called him “Buddy,” as in, “Oh hi, Buddy, hi Otto,” in a cute voice you’d use for a kid, proving once again that my husband has the world’s greatest capacity to love of anyone I’ve ever known (Otto is a reptile with a brain the size of a peanut; he is the least cuddly creature on earth). But when I got home from my workshop on Saturday afternoon, I learned that Otto had spent most of the day roaming the yard, eating chard, pooping, and stressing out the neighbors, because he’d broken through his makeshift barrier.

And so whereas on Saturday I worked on my metaphorical fence, on Sunday, in the sweltering heat, I worked on a physical fence to contain the newest member of our family.

Something about this felt like a delightful kismet—and a reminder. Because Otto the Tortoise is testing both the physical boundaries of our yard and also my energetic ones. From my studio I have a clear view of his pen, and it’s all but impossible not to look out the window every five seconds to see whether he’s moved from his nighttime hibernation spot yet, or whether he’s still pacing against the walls of the enclosure trying desperately to get out. I’m not sure what the lesson is, here, but I know it’s something about letting go. About remembering the circle of rocks I drew around myself on Saturday as a physical representation of the space I’m allowed to take up on this earth. About not worrying so much about other people/reptiles.

Because there, I suspect, is where miracles happen.

SOON THEN

But miracles are for other people.

Here things right themselves and it grows humid again

and though we’ve stopped watering the garden—

earth crumbles at the base of an eggplant—

still, it feeds us. Who declared a weed a weed? What if God

is a criminal? You say: if God made hands, God made ghosts.

Hands would run right through ghosts.

Ghost speared by hand, hand surrounded by ghost,

both feeling just a slight warmth, a gentle rocking,

like a love poem, or a sense of soon, then.

© Susie Meserve, 2016

 

Hey! If you love this post, please click “like” below! And thanks, as ever, for sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anywhere else you think it should live. If you’d like to learn about the energetic boundaries workshop, message me over on the Contact page and I’ll put you in touch with Aimee M. Thanks.

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”

 

Giveaway: FREE Spot in My Workshop!

DSCI0568

Writer mom doing some “movement” with a monkey on her back

We have a winner, folks! Congratulations to Erin, who will be joining the workshop for free.

There are still spots available, and the “bring a friend, each get $10 off” offer still stands.

My friend An Honest Mom is doing a giveaway! And the giveaway? A free spot in the March 19 writing and movement workshop I’m co-teaching with a friend. If you’re not yet sick of hearing about it, and I hope you aren’t, because I’m so excited about it and it’s gonna be good—head on over to An Honest Mom’s blog for the details of how you can win a free spot in the workshop (and the kind benefactor who wants to help out a local writer/aspiring writer who’d like to go but can’t afford it).

Here’s the link!

 

 

Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story: Or, Faith

**Note! Special offer for writers interested in my Saturday, March 19 workshop Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story in Oakland (1:00-3:45 p.m. at Flying Studios at 4308 Telegraph Ave.) Bring a friend, both of you get $10 off the workshop fee. Email me through the contact page on this blog or contact Sandra at sandrakstringer@gmail.com to register.**

I’m really excited about this upcoming workshop I’m teaching with my friend Sandra Stringer on March 19th in Oakland: Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story: A Writing and Movement Workshop for Writers.

FlyerFinalREDUXI’m excited because I’ve been ruminating a lot on the nature of fear, and how it prevents us from doing good creative work. Truthfully, I feel like the thing that hinders me is more like procrastination, and grading papers, and parenting, but nonetheless I think it’s all of a piece: I get tense in my body and in my mind because of work, social, and familial obligations, and I worry that I won’t get everything done, so I act frantic, and then I don’t carve out enough space to write, and then I feel bad, and then I can’t work because I feel bad, and then…

Sound familiar? 

Anyway, it goes something like that, and I’m excited to do a workshop where we simply slow down for a couple of hours, let the body do its thing (e.g., release), and see what happens. I realize, in fact, that I’ve been craving this kind of time to just be still for several weeks. This is always a busy time of year; the papers-to-grade seem never-ending, spring break is fast approaching, somehow we’re supposed to plan for summer already (!), and we’ve had family visiting and more family coming. (I love seeing them all, so much, and it also means that I lose some writing time.)

So it should be a good afternoon.

In preparation for the workshop, I’ve been reading the famous book The Artist’s Way, which I’ve heard of for years but never picked up. The book is full of interesting practical ideas and an overarching theory that some would probably find a little too much: this notion that, to be an artist, writer, or creative person generally you need to put your faith in some kind of higher power. It’s all a bit 12-steppy, and yet, and yet—there is something about it that really resonates with me. Julia Cameron, the author, talks about the divine plan and how creativity works through us, like God working through us, and how, in a sense, you just need to make yourself receptive and then do the work and then, poof, it will all work out: you will become a creative and successful person. If you’re not religious, it might sound crazy (and I am not, so at first it was a little alarming for me), but it echoes notions of creativity that seem to be finding me everywhere these days: in this terrific Radiolab episode featuring Elizabeth Gilbert, and in a TED talk she did a few years back, both of which, when I first listened, absolutely blew my mind.

In a nutshell, Gilbert suggests that creativity is something outside of us, that creativity finds us, like a muse, or a little floating angel, as long as we’re open and receptive to it. There is something very anti-Puritanical about this notion! I, personally, was raised to work hard and not to expect too much. But for Gilbert, and Cameron, there is this belief that if you’re a good and dogged creative person, if you put the words on the page again and again and again, the universe will reward you with little gifts: a first chapter, a beautiful painting, the faith to keep going.

Whether you believe it or not, it’s kind of comforting, wouldn’t you say? It reminds me, actually, of my decision to name my chapbook Faith a few years back. I was obsessed with the word; it cropped up for me in everything I wrote. I think my entire notion of “faith” at that time centered around the belief that the words would keep coming, that things would work out if I kept at it. And in a way, I guess that’s what Julia Cameron and Elizabeth Gilbert are trying to say.

I hope, in my way, to bring some of that wisdom to the workshop the 19th.

Enough philosophizing for today; I need to go get some work done.

But I hope to see some of you at my workshop on the 19th, and, as ever, I’d be terrifically grateful if you spread the word to anyone else you know who might be interested. Note the special offer for bringing a friend! ($10 off for both of you.)

Faithfully,

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!** 

Help Wanted

Clerical duties include paying bills, recycling child’s drawings of Wild Kratts characters assuming “creature powers” when child is not looking, and collating massive amounts of wrinkled, unread periodicals. Will consider bonus pay for reading and summarizing of periodicals for resident parents, including six months’ back issues of The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and Crate and Barrel and BevMo! catalogs.

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Courtesy of Vegas Bleeds Neon

Occasional light house keeping, including wiping urine off bathroom floor after six-year-old has been in there and scrubbing sink of stubborn sparkly Crest-brand toothpaste.

Also light errands (groceries, dental floss, new stapler, post office, oil change, wine store, etc.). Expect some meal planning/prep of healthy, “kid-friendly” yet not drearily macaroni-laden meals. Some laundry. Also light carpentry, for ex. fixing mysteriously sticky front door lock, ensuring imminent but humane death of recurrent ants, and hanging of holiday-themed fairy lights on front walk.

Must keep multiple calendars (one on iPhone/laptop; additionally, one hanging in kitchen with endearing photos of nephews), including doctor, dentist, and parent-teacher conferences, and interpret chicken scratch on to-do lists throughout house (on white board in kitchen; on envelope-backs on desk in living room and desk in office). Financial planning skills (including balancing checkbook, paying taxes, and deciding whether $200 is too much for new boots that may last a decade—which makes them much more reasonable at a mere $20/year, if you think about it—) a must.

Ability to be in more than one place at one time a definite bonus.

Required computer skills include basic understanding of Google Docs and backing up of laptop at regular intervals. Also must know how to use so-called “Cloud” as well as troubleshoot reason thirteen-year-old-but-heretofore-reliable printer does not like to print PDFs anymore (why? WHY??).

Desired interpersonal skills include cheerfulness when on hold with health insurance company for extended period of time; calm demeanor when purchasing airline tickets on Kayak.com, even when resident parents must enforce Austerity Measures to pay for Christmastime travel; ability to not drop aging and battered iPhone more than 2X per week (including not shouting expletives within earshot of six-year-old after said dropping occurs); and devotion to The Japanese Art of Tidying Up, the recipes and personal ethos of Mark Bittman, and yoga. Note: there will be no time for yoga.

Must be willing to pour glass of wine at end of day and assure resident working mother also attempting to write book that she is doing great job.

My Printer Died and It Felt Like the End of An Era

My printer died.

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This happened on the same day that our car, which we had just purchased a new battery for, wouldn’t start in the driveway, and though arguably less crucial to life, and much cheaper to replace, the broken printer filled me with a more terrible sense of loss. I’ve had that printer for sixteen years. Sixteen years! That’s longer than I’ve known my husband. I bought it when I was in grad school, when I was tired of sending out poems printed all wobbly on my mom’s hand-me-down ink jet. The HP 1200 LaserJet cost $350, and at the time, that seemed like an enormous amount of money. I remember feeling like an adult, and like a real writer, when I bought it. It lasted through countless Apple computers—Four? Five?—and has printed countless poems; it’s printed my poetry manuscript and parts of my memoir and various essays in their draft stages, and many student assignments, and it was only when I went to print the first forty pages of the novel I’m writing that I mistakenly fed it a recycled piece of paper that was actually two pieces of paper, with a staple between them, and something snapped.

It seems outrageous that after all these years, it was a staple that did it.

But that, I suppose, is life, and if I make too much of the demise of a printer, let me just say that I’ve had this feeling lately that life is all these concentric circles, these interwoven links, and that everything is connected. So, for me, the loss of the machine that’s helped me put my writing into print for over a decade feels a bit like the loss of an entire era, like the loss of those lovely grad school years when the printer was new, those years when I could spend an entire day working out a poem, bring it to workshop, take it back home and work on it some more. That first year of grad school I lived in a makeshift apartment in a rickety old house in Amherst, and it was my first year living alone in quite some time (I’d had a live-in partner, and college housemates, before that). I can remember the night I thought drinking a second bottle of wine by myself was a good idea, and the night I broke up with someone but slept with him anyway, and the night I overheard every word of an argument between my landlords over the recycling bins and whose turn it was to take them out.

And then I moved, to an apartment in Northampton that was as charming as it was noisy, and the printer came with me. My desk was an old door from a house my parents were renovating propped up on two filing cabinets, and the cords for my computer fit through the hole where the door knob would go. The printer was on the far right, and despite this unwieldy late-nineties desktop computer and the large LaserJet, there was enough space for me to sit, comfortably, between them. The desk was in my bedroom, but I’d made a psychic barrier between the bed space and the writing space, and every morning I wasn’t teaching I’d stumble over to the desk with a cup of coffee and get to work. Some days the poems came like water, trickling easily out of the faucet, and other days they were labored and slow. Always, I’d print them, read them out loud, change a comma, read them out loud again. I drank so much coffee in those days; my anxiety, and my adrenal glands, shudder with the memory.

But was it a simpler time? Of course it was. When writers ask whether an MFA is worth it, I cite those hours at that desk and the feeling of summer camp, like I was writing in Northampton while Leah was writing in Sunderland, with Leslie at her desk in the adjacent room, and the Bens back in Amherst and someone else out in Greenfield, all of us working away like satellites in communication with one another, pausing for whatever; or not working, and pulling our hair out, and blocked—but that was our job, that, just to try to work, not to parent or to homestead or to be married or to publish—we didn’t even worry that much about publishing! Perhaps we should have. But just to do the work. I’ll never get that time back; I’ll always want that time back.

I left Northampton on January 1, 2001. On New Year’s Eve at 9:45 p.m. I’d been painting my blue walls back to white and packing the last of the boxes. Later, I walked over to see some friends. I’d already kissed Laura goodbye, and Leah was long gone, and Mikey vowed to stay in touch (and did). Jim Foley was very much alive. And off I went the next morning, drove out to Portland, Oregon, with my little brother, hitting every winter storm whatever region we were passing through could throw at us. And when he flew back to Boston a day or so later, leaving me to my new life, I cried like I’ve never cried before or since, with loneliness, with anguish, with the deepest sense of loss.

But, and perhaps this was no accident: a week later, I met the man who would become my husband. And then so many things happened that truly feel like fate: us deciding to travel together for a year, and us getting engaged while we were traveling. And me writing a book about that year of travel, and about my surprise, after always having felt outside of it, to have found a man who truly loved me. That book spanned the next decade of my life. And then we moved to Norway and had a baby, and when we got back, we tried again, and again, and again to have another, and I wrote about that, too.

And here I am, terribly pensive of a January morning. L didn’t want to go to school, and his face turned puffy with tears. B tried to rationalize with him about school and its importance, but I eventually just held him and said, “You’re having a really tough morning.” My morning was tough, too: the printer, the car, the muddled-ness, the awful news of the world.

“You’re squeezing me too tight,” he said, but I wasn’t sure what else to do but hold on.

 

The Curse of the Writer Mom

At drop-off at my son’s elementary school in the morning, I look at the other mothers quizzically. My son’s school is racially and socioeconomically mixed, and some of the mothers look like teenagers. Then there are the older moms, the ones who gratefully and graciously eeked out an only child after forty. Some moms hold heavy corporate jobs and arrive in pert dresses and knee-high boots; they look like they’ve been up since five, getting dressed and coiffed for a board meeting. Their goodbyes are loving but swift. One mom in my son’s Kindergarten class wore stilettos every day, heavy eye makeup, and what looked like a flamenco skirt.

Writer mom with a monkey on her back

Writer mom with a monkey on her back

I imagine all these moms going off to whatever comes after drop-off: coffee with a friend, working from home, flamenco practice, taking care of a loved one or a younger child, a high-powered job or an underpaid, dead-end one. I imagine their “afters” with awe and, if I can admit it, more than a little envy.

Because, me: I drop off in running tights and sneakers, go sweat out a couple miles’ power walk in the hills before I go home.

To write.

Some days, anyway. I teach at a local university, so my schedule is both forgiving and completely unforgiving. I can’t leave work early to attend a meeting at my son’s school if I’m in a class. I can’t take vacations outside of the existing school breaks. Two or three days a week I’m rushing off to class and my husband does drop-off. But I don’t have an office to be in from 9-6 every day—I don’t even have an office at school—so there are a few hours a week when I begin my work day by popping into the studio next door to our apartment, opening up my laptop, and beginning to write. Landing this career lifestyle was no accident; I cultivated it, and I’m lucky for it. My work life allows me to pursue three things: not just my job, not just my family, but also, my writing.

My work life is great in so many ways. But it gives me a burden, too: that I have to actually pursue that third thing, and, I hope, excel at it. And some days, faced with that reality, I become a complete ball of angst, tearing my hair out, agonizing over how much work I have to do, not knowing where to begin, and becoming irrationally jealous of every other mother in the world who does not have this “third thing” in her life.

I’m dead serious: I fantasize, all the time, about being a mom who isn’t, also, a writer. I wonder what it would be like to just have a job. To, at the end of the day, feel the normal amount of parental stress and work stress but not the added stress of page quotas and deadlines and query letters. What would it be like to be a corporate executive? Sure, it would suck—but it would also be The Main Thing, and maybe I’d actually be with my kid when I’m with my kid, instead of worrying about plot lines, character development, or whether my memoir will ever see the light of day. Maybe I wouldn’t worry when I’m cooking dinner for my family that I’m not building my platform, Tweeting something pithy and literary, or reading the latest short story or essay that, as a writer, I. Simply. Must. Be. Aware. Of. Because there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year, believe me.

While writing all of this—and mulling over whether or not I sound like an overprivileged white woman who’s incredibly lucky to have the kind of life she does—I stumbled upon the essay “On Pandering” by Claire Vaye Watkins, which you must read. No, really, you must. There’s too little space to explain, here, all its many nuances, but suffice to say it tells the story of Watkins being dismissed as a woman writer by a man writer—called a mere “student” by someone who on paper looked like her equal, being hit on, and, when the overture was rebuked, somehow being asked again, as though “no” once was not enough. The incident felt so familiar to me: the (male) doctor who told me “don’t freak out” when I told him I had to make a phone call to my childcare provider; the (male) band leader who made me feel like the world’s biggest idiot when I messed up at a jazz open mic in my twenties; and the times I have felt lesser as a woman writer, and as a mom to boot, as though there is something inherently frivolous about that existence. As Watkins asks, why do so many of us write for men, seek approval from men, not think we’re good enough as women writers, as mom writers?

And it got me thinking. 

Do I really wish to not be a writer? Or is it just that the pressure to be all things to all people—a great mom, a great teacher, AND a great writer (not to mention a great spouse, a good cook, a terrific singer, level-headed, perfect, tidy, and a sewer-of-inspired-Halloween-costumes, all, traditionally, the things we women do)—is just, sometimes, too much?

Or perhaps it’s that it feels like it’s not enough. I don’t know, but I do know that when I read this bit in Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” about trying to write after she had a new baby, I felt myself go Ohhhhhh:

 

“I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I’ll read and what I’ll watch. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.

I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your “telepathic heart”…is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.”

I can’t exactly say what I felt when I read this: grateful. Sad. Empowered. Angry. It was a good reminder that yes, writing—for everyone—is really fucking hard in the first place. Add to that a job, a kid, and a society that doesn’t always value you, and you’ve got a recipe for Not Always Feeling Like It.

I wonder if all moms have some “third thing,” if I kid myself that being a writer mom is different from being any other kind of mom. I don’t know. I know we all have days when we just want to cast off the many required duties and Christmas shop, or watch a movie, or meet a friend for coffee, or take our kid out of daycare, or blow off the math homework, or get a cocktail at three in the afternoon.

But, usually, we don’t.

——-

You might also like:

If You Enjoyed a Good Book and You’re a Woman, The Critics Think You’re Wrong

Aya de Leon on Claire Vaye Watkins

Aya on Writer Moms

Motherwritermentor.com

 

 

 

 

My Big F-You to the Writing Rat Race

A few weeks ago, I posted this blog post. It was all about my need to get off my butt and get some real writing done, my sense that the space I’d rented needed to serve as an imperative to produce, produce, produce—and about my difficulty getting started, in part because it was summer, hot and gorgeous, and my work schedule had drastically slowed down. But also because after spending eight years writing a memoir, and being in that limbo state before the route to publishing it has become clear, it was hard to even think about The Next Big Thing with a clear head. After I published that blog post, I got a few comments of congratulations on starting a new project and some encouragement to keep going.

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My kid flipping the bird

And then I encountered some resistance from two people: one, my friend slowmamma, who is on a one-woman crusade against the American rat race. The other was a therapist I really should be seeing more often. Slowmamma reminded me that the nice weather wouldn’t stick around, and that I should enjoy it while it lasted. The therapist reminded me that when any project is finished, it’s essential to take some time to sit with it. She talked about how, in the school of thought she follows, after any big life event (like finishing a memoir and an accompanying book proposal) there is a stage called “completion” and a stage called “rest,” and that if you shortchange the rest, you really don’t feel the completion. Take a break, she said.

For about two days, I kept the words of these wise women close. I reminded myself that breaks are good. I tried to quiet the voices telling me to keep pushing even when I wasn’t feeling it. I meditated. I sat in the sun and thought. I fully believed that I would honor the promise I had made in the therapist’s office: I was going to take a week off from writing. I would read some comedy, watch some comedy, jot down ideas as they came. Freewrite, perhaps. Rest. I said that on a Thursday.

But I lied. The following Monday, I’d convinced myself that I was ready to start work again. I tweeted that I was going to write 750 words a day, no matter what. I opened a new file, and I started again on the novel. I fantasized about having a completed draft in six months. I diligently put down those daily 750 words for about a week, though they seemed to come more and more painfully each day, and then something happened: the words just wouldn’t come anymore. So I wrote a poem instead. I stared into space, I washed some dishes, I cleaned the bathroom, I checked my email, I graded papers, and I wondered if I should have honored that rest period after all. And then I began to feel intensely guilty.

And afraid. 

All summer, trying to write and failing to write, trying to give up and failing to allow myself to give up, I have been ruminating on what it is I might be afraid of. Put most grandiosely, I think it’s fear that if I take a break, if I don’t produce, produce, produce, I will disappear off the face of the earth and never write again. That I’ll disrupt this trajectory I have wanted to believe myself on, a trajectory where I’m publishing regularly and going to writing conferences and connecting to other writers and “building a platform” and adding likes! And followers! And friends! And fans! And while some of this is the kind of garden-variety, free-floating anxiety I always feel when the writing isn’t happening, it’s also what we 21st-century writers are told we have to do if we ever want to get ahead, if we ever want to be widely read: Don’t. Ever. Stop.

I do want to be widely read, but lately I’m finding it hard to swallow the bitter pill that an act of creativity has become so tethered to consumerism and to getting ahead. When did it become the reality that books are merely “content” to be produced? When did I begin to feel that there weren’t enough hours in a day or years in a life to explore, to try new things, to think a little, to make mistakes, to pause, because if I did I might not get enough, say, Twitter followers? Didn’t I just blog a few months ago about not wasting my life? Why do I feel like I’m wasting my life by worrying so damn much about whether I’m producing enough?

I don’t know, but I do know I’m not the only one who’s obsessed. The voices are everywhere, and they’re loud. On She Writes the other day, the blog post The Art of Submission debated the finer points of quitting “being” a writer (in other words, stopping submitting and platforming and just, well, writing). No, the blogger declared. She would not do that. She needed to keep submitting, to write like her life depended on it. She needed to remain hungry to be published. And then there were the comments; one reader reminded everyone to push through and keep going at all costs—”try for 175 rejections!” she intoned. “Here I go.” Meanwhile, over on Twitter, every second tweet is about building your platform or improving your brand. Whole businesses are built on marketing for authors, social networking for writers, blogging to change your life. How to get more followers, more likes, more tweets. Even my trusted writer friends are at it: “What’s your hustle?” one asked me the other day.  In that moment, I just wanted to hustle myself to my bed, pull the covers over my head, and sleep—for days.

I’m not a naïf; I understand that we live in a different world than we used to. I can see the merits of social media for writers. I love that the blogger on She Writes is hungry—good for her. I always want to work hard, even when it feels difficult. At different times in my life, I’ve embraced those tools and that ethos and excelled. I’ve been hungry. But right now, I’m craving a much more innocent, and unplugged, space. I’m wanting to feel more like I did on the weekend I moved into my new writing studio, when I put my iPod on shuffle, sang along to every song, and slowly and happily applied a new coat of paint to the walls, thinking, I’ll finish this when I’ll finish it. I’ll hang pictures when I want to. And then I’ll sit at that desk and remember what it is when words are good and hard and raw and beautiful.

I’m a lucky woman; I have created the kind of life where I get to spend hours, sometimes, alone in a room creating. (To some of you, that may sound like hell, I realize.) But with that kind of life comes a lot of pressure and many voices, not all welcome. And here, today, on this blog, I’m calling it: I refuse to make my writing about the rat race we Americans make everything about. I don’t, ever, want to conflate producing and publishing and platforming with the much more fulfilling work of WRITING.

Which, sometimes, requires a break.

A break.

A break.

 

It’s lovely to get this off my chest. Thanks to Jesse Taggert for the encouragement. What’s YOUR experience with the rat race, writing or otherwise?