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”

 

Beautiful Book You Must Read: Holding Silvan, A Brief Life

It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because Knausgård manages to elevate the domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.

But last week I halted everything to devour a memoir called Holding Silvan: A Brief Life by my new friend Monica Wesolowska. 

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In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is determined to have massive brain damage—so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.

It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:

“During the part when Silvan is actively dying—if that’s not an oxymoron—I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and hold. This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”

I did—I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement—I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.

I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon, and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.

Happy, poignant reading,

Susie

If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this and this out.

 

 

Giveaway: FREE Spot in My Workshop!

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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!

 

 

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!** 

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

 

 

 

 

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)

Is Writing an Act of Bravery? How About Sleepovers?

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An act of bravery by a grimacing kid. And a not-so-subtle message unrelated to the rest of the content of this blog post. That is all.

I was so thrilled by the nice response I got to my essay in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Like the other pieces I’ve published recently, like this one and this one, the essay was deeply personal and more than a little revealing. Besides admitting to sometimes wishing my son would move out to a nice farm in the country for a week or two, I also came clean (again) about my struggles with secondary infertility.

I noticed that when all my lovely friends and supporters re-tweeted and re-blogged my essay, or shared it on Facebook, they kept referring to it as brave. “A brave essay by my friend Susie Meserve,” one of them said, and another, “Thank you for your honesty and bravery.” Honest, I’ll cop to—always. (Honest to a fault, methinks.) But brave? At the time I posted my snarky little article about parenting, another friend was publishing a piece about negative portrayals of women of color in television, for which, I’m sure, she received a $%^& storm of offensive comments. And of course I thought about the incredible bravery of Jim Foley. I was hard pressed to think of myself, in an essay complaining about the boredom and existentialism of parenting, as being “brave.”

I raised this with my friend An Honest Mom, who shared the smart point that we always think of other people as brave before we accept the idea that we ourselves are. And that, for many people, what I did in those personal essays—admitting to pettiness, jealousy, parental ennui, grief, and infertility, not to mention contending with years and years of rejection as a writer—is just that: brave. Well, gosh. That made me feel good. After all, I am the woman who spent seven years writing a book about my own anxiety, and how when I traveled around the world with my now-husband, fear kept me from experiencing all kinds of adventures.

That I might be brave for sharing that truth about myself is almost uncomfortably ironic, and more than a little pleasing to think about.

I had been mulling this over for a few days when I stumbled into a sweet conversation with my son L, who at five seems to have simultaneously inherited his mother’s risk-aversion and society’s ideas about what bravery really is. I was puttering around the kitchen while he drew pictures on the floor and practiced writing “letters” to me and his dad.

“Mama, did you know I’m not as brave as J?”

“You’re not?” I feigned surprise. J is an extremely intrepid friend. He’ll scale anything around.

“Nope. He’s much braver, because he climbs much better than me.”

“Well, you know,” I said in a fit of genius, “people are brave in different ways. Like, for example, I’m not very brave about climbing either, not like Daddy or J. But I’m brave because I write things that people don’t always like, and I write them anyway. And sometimes it’s hard to be a writer, because people say no to you a lot, and it’s brave that I do it.”

He was enthralled.

“And,” I continued, “I know a way that you’re brave that J isn’t as brave.”

“You do?”

“I do. You do a great job at sleepovers. And J still has a really hard time with them.”

“Yeah!” he said, jumping up and down. “I’m brave at sleepovers!”

“Yup,” I said, feeling utterly content with everything: my tenuous bravery, and L’s.

This question of bravery keeps coming up. L is more than a little obsessed with it lately. Playing “dinosaurs versus dragons,” he’s constantly asking me which team is braver, and his answers reveal a very narrow-minded idea of courage. For example, yesterday he told me that the dinosaurs were braver because they were winning. I suggested that maybe the dragons were braver for keeping on fighting even when they were losing, but no—that was the wrong answer.

I’m obviously more hip to bravery than L, but nonetheless I wonder whether my own ideas about what’s brave have been a little primitive. Like traveling with B. The entire time, I told myself that he was the brave one, because he seemed to be completely unafraid. But maybe, for pushing through my fears, for not giving up, for ultimately deciding I could have traveled forever, I was brave, too.

I don’t know. But I nonetheless like the idea of reframing bravery. For many years, I haven’t believed that I have been very brave at all. But I have started to wonder if maybe bravery is something different than I’ve thought.

And, an aside: NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words. Me? I’m shooting for 25,000. It may not be an act of bravery, but anyone who meets that goal, while working and parenting and preparing for the holidays, my hat is off to you.

Stay tuned for the 2014 Literary Gift Guide, coming soon!

Susie