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.

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.

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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

Now I Have the Space, I Guess I Have to Use It; OR: How Writing a Book is Like a Yoga Class

DSCI0599

Summer!

Summer.

I love summer; I always have.

In fact, one of the greatest challenges of living in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area for me is that, though the weather is quite frequently amazing here, we don’t really, truly, get a summer that’s hot, hot, hot—and I miss it. But somehow, this past week, we’ve had something pretty close. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry (well, duh—it’s always dry) and the fog belt has been belted in, like so many unsuspecting children in the back seat of the car on a summer road trip (uh….). The garden is bursting at the seams. L is doing a fun summer camp and we’ve been biking there in our shorts. Then he has swimming class in a town beyond any mention of fog so I sit on the sidelines baking. Online classes make my time a little more my own, too. I went to yoga the other day for the first time in months.

And I do not. Feel. Like. Doing. Any. Work.

Suffice it to say that my huge enthusiasm for my new writing studio has waned some, simply because, while I love being in here, it also feels like an imperative to get off my butt and actually produce some writing. I’d love to! I really would! But man, it feels challenging.

This is not just because summer is so very, very tempting. It’s also because B and I are making some Big Life Decisions that are occupying a lot of brain space. And along with that, I’m in that very weird, somewhat-exciting, somewhat-terrifying place of starting a new project. A novel. It’s the same novel I started months ago, during NaNoWriMo, which I promptly relegated to the back burner once the book proposal and revisions entered in. But now that all of that is done, I have no excuse but to write the damn thing.

When I was a kid, my mom used to remind me, every time I started something new, that change was hard for me. Man, that was an understatement! The first day of Kindergarten wasn’t pretty. Starting high school sent me into a ten-day long depression that I still shudder to remember. Going away to college was awful. I’m not at all good with transitions. And so here I am, with one project to bed, sort of, and another on my desk. I know what needs to happen in the book, mostly. I have the premise all tied up. But I have a major problem to solve—I’m trying to write a character who’s a stand-up comedian, and frankly, I’m not that funny (actually, I’m hysterically funny, but only in person, and only to a small handful of other human beings). This is making me completely overwhelmed. In my more productive moments this week I’ve Googled “how to write humor” and done a few exercises that have been marginally entertaining. Then I kind of stare at the paper and freak out. I think what I really need to do is just jump in with both feet, get messy, and attempt to be funny along the way.

But I’d much rather be sitting in the sunshine with a good book and completely avoid it, because it feels really hard. 

So, as I said, I went to yoga the other day. During class, I had a bit of a facile realization but one that’s nonetheless reminding me something about the artistic process. The class was an hour long, and about halfway through, I got to that point that every yogi gets to in a yoga class: the moment when you really and truly hate it and wish you could go home. Your body hurts, you’re sick of mindfully breathing, the teacher is so annoying, and your thoughts have taken over and are running you ragged. Then, five minutes later, you calm down and remind yourself that the only way to get to the other side is to breathe and press on. Next thing you know, you’re done.

This is kind of like writing a book, I thought to myself. Not very much like writing a book, but enough like writing a book that I should remember it.

Here I go: breathing, pressing on, and attempting to wow you with my comedic prowess. Wish me luck.

 

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.