Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Invisible Work of Writer-Mothers: An Existential To-do List

Dear Friends and Readers of this Blog,

It’s really been way too long since I’ve written here. The truth is, I’ve been a little depressed about my lack of ability to produce more lately, whether for this blog or for my manuscript, and so I think I’d better break this streak and give you an update, however meandering or self-absorbed it may turn out to be. And because I don’t have a preconceived topic at hand, I think I will turn to the list form because I like lists, and something about them feels less intimidating. More accessible. Easier to begin.

  1. I make to-do lists all the time, sometimes every day. I enjoy crossing things off them, even if they are little things like buying groceries or paying bills or returning library books. I can keep track of my own accomplishments each day, even when they are invisible to anyone but myself. Especially when.
  2. Writing or editing my book is always, at heart, the most important thing on my list, and yet, it’s also the thing that seems to only get attention when all other small and pesky, yet also important, obligations are fed. I wish this weren’t the case, but it so often is. It’s hard for me to settle deeply into my creative work when I have other things to do, and only a couple hours at my disposal. When I know I could cross multiple things off my list instead of just one thing, and one thing incompletely at that, it’s easy to choose the quick fix of “productivity.”  It’s much more satisfying to actually finish something, since when you are writing a book or raising a child, most of your work will never be done.
  3. I am growing tired of publicly proclaiming on Facebook that I am almost done with my book, or working on the fabulous Epilogue, or sending it out to a contest, or ready to launch it “soon”! I am tired of all these deadlines I keep setting for myself, but not meeting because no outside person is there to hold me to it. I am tired of people asking me when they can read my book, or how’s it going, or “So, you’re almost done?” and my own sorry, repetitive answer… almost, almost.
  4. If you’ve known me a long time, you will know I’ve been saying this for YEARS.
  5. I'd like to think that if you know me well, you will know that I have been meaning this for years. You will know that I am a hard worker and this is not a pipe dream. You will know that I am not simply re-writing this ending again because I can’t stand to let go of my baby, but because the book has evolved so much and I will give it what it demands. You will know that a part of me is also afraid to let go of my baby, precisely because I’ve worked on it so long. Maybe you will know that I mean what I say when I say I will publish this thing, but that in the long scope of things, what does it really matter if it happens this spring or this fall or next year? Ha.
  6. I am still working on this damn Epilogue. I am still editing many chapters. I still need to get feedback from my editor/friend before I can make any more proclamations of just how close I am, just in case she reminds me gently precisely why I need an outside reader on each new draft.
  7. You will probably hear another excited proclamation the next time I actually get a long chunk of time to write and thus feel jazzed and optimistic about writing again.
  8. I can accomplish more in one weekend to myself to write (working about 8 hours a day), than I do in MONTHS of working a few hours a week, here and there, if I’m lucky. Every time I put the book away for several weeks, I lose an essential connection to it, I stop living inside of it, and it takes a while to reenter it, to breathe in it and thus believe in it fully, which is why it’s really really hard to stop and go, stop and go, work on it for an hour here, or there. I know some writers, like Toni Morrison, can crank out a novel written in spare minutes on their baby’s diapers, but I am not that writer and I accept this. I am not profound and prolific. I am slow. I am patient.
  9. My husband and I have worked out a great system where we trade entire weekends. He uses his to go fishing; I use mine to write. Ever since we agreed to be 100% fair, trade a day for a day, I no longer begrudge his multiple, long fishing trips a year. When Cedar was younger, I simply accepted that I could not get away as much as he could. Now, there is no longer that excuse, and I will demand equity.
  10. Of course, on my weekends alone I prefer to just stay home where my papers, printer, and easy access to leftovers live; I don’t want to waste a minute driving somewhere or otherwise doing anything but writing if I don’t have to. So Matthew will usually take Cedar to Grandma’s for the weekend and stay away for two days, whereas he usually goes away for three days when he goes fishing. Which is to say that despite the appearance of equity, I am accruing a back-up of days that he “owes me”, which in my fantasy I will use during a week-long writing retreat some day in the near future. This feels more and more possible now, assuming that the retreat is cheap or free.
  11. Did I mention that I’ve been feeling a little angsty lately? Primarily, I think it has to do with not having enough time to write. But also, needing more exercise factors in there greatly, as well as more time outdoors, with hands and feet touching earth.
  12. You’d think by now I’d have figured out a rhythm so that I don’t end up feeling estranged from my writing for weeks at a time, but the thing is that life just keeps on changing and thus so does my routine. All it takes is a week of illness, or a couple weeks of my parents being away, to wipe out several chunks worth of planned writing time. If Cedar’s sick, then I cannot ask my childcare providers (friends and family) to watch him. If my parents or one of my regular friends I trade childcare with are suddenly unavailable for a week, then any window of time I have left to “work” pretty much has to go towards things like dishes, bills, emails, and cooking.
  13. I cannot live in a state of chaos. I like my life to be organized. And therefore, I cannot prioritize writing over all else when I am in charge of organizing our household. Our house would be disgustingly filthy, our bank accounts over-withdrawn. There wouldn’t be cooked meals in the fridge, and thus you’d find us eating out (which we can’t afford) or eating poorly, which I also have little tolerance for.
  14. I’m determined to get in better shape this summer and beyond. I’ve been going to Zumba twice a week, though now it is cut back to just once due to a class I’m teaching, but my intention is to start walking more too, all I can. I’ve also been cutting down on carbs, drinking more smoothies, and trying to always have some kind of yummy, easy, healthy food on hand for lunch, like quinoa salad and grilled chicken. It’s helped, though it’s a lifestyle thing, not a quick fix.
  15. Yes, I’d like to fit into my old clothes from just a year ago and not buy a whole new wardrobe, but my health aspirations are every bit as much for my mental health. Did I mention that I’ve been feeling a bit angsty? If I can’t write, I’m at least going to sweat and then take a nice shower and stretch out languidly, feeling my muscles again, thank you very much. This will help me cut down on beer and wine, too, in theory. I’m just one of those people who needs ample time and help to quiet down my brain at the end of the night. I’m a calm, mellow person on the surface, and yet somewhere inside is also a spring that is tightly wound. Sometimes I’ll go to bed and hear one of Cedar’s childrens’ songs on repeat in my head. It is a particular form of hell.
  16. As new parents, you do your best to just stay fed, showered, and rested enough to function and not go insane. You just try to make it through each day, and when you start feeling depressed, you try to gently remind yourself that this is because you are sleep-deprived and not because you don’t really want to be doing what you are doing. Yes, indeed, there will be days when you don’t want to be doing what you are doing, but then another season will change, another friend or activity will appear, or another window of time for yourself will open, and you are afforded a new positive perspective.
  17. At first, when Cedar was born, it was all I could do to write a short journal entry, and then eventually a quick feverish post on the blog. This felt satisfying and amazing to accomplish in itself.
  18. Then, a year or so later, if actually felt possible to start returning to craft and to edit(!) a piece here or there. To teach a writing class on Saturday mornings. And to take a workshop myself! To slowly inhabit more layers of my former identity, to dream of actually returning to the manuscript.
  19. Last summer, I hired a reader/editor to read through my book, to help me see it anew, through the eyes of a fresh reader who had never seen any of my drafts before. In the month leading up to sending her the pages, I worked on the manuscript with a focus and motivation that I hadn’t had in years. Someone who would read the whole thing! An actual deadline! Her feedback was really helpful and got me going again, back in the game, back to my proclamations of near-completion and publishing. Self-publishing now, so I could be on my own timeline. No more waiting around for acceptance.
  20. Now, a year later, the manuscript has changed quite a bit from what I sent her. It was “almost done” then, and it’s “almost done” now, but you see, there are many different kinds of “almost done”, and when you’ve been working on something for ten years you are allowed to call it “almost done” for at least the last few. And now I’m no longer so sure again about self-publishing. So much work. Maybe it’s worth it to send it out to agents again. What’s a few more years?
  21. My baby turned three at the end of March. I am the mom to a three-year-old! He’s a kid, a boy, not a baby. And all those articles for new moms that still pop up on my feed are no longer so relevant. I am seasoned mom, however still new in the larger scope of things. I am writing, teaching, and working one-on-one with folks as a writing mentor again. I am working on my almost-done book, and that much closer to publication. I am exercising again, I am planning summer camping trips, I am trying to make sure that my husband and I don’t wait one month (or more) again between date nights, and to do this, I am trading date nights with a friend  (an excellent arrangement for those on a budget). We are making this work, this whole work-life balance thing. I am showered and presentable most of the time. I even have time to think about putting on earrings. We have planted vegetables in a new raised bed made from recycled boards and free dirt. I am continually scattering bulbs, seeds, and plants around our yard, which is already gloriously lush and green and beautiful as it is. My child has a lot of energy and can be loud and defiant, yet he is also a deep pleasure to be around, and I truly love this age, being 3, the wonder and enthusiasm and sweetness of it all. Some parts of our house are falling apart, but we actually have been putting away money in separate accounts to save for emergencies and the like. My husband and I are more fiscally responsible and on the same page now. I love our co-op preschool and the friends we are making there. I am grateful for the sunshine and longer days, nights where we can sit out on the porch and it’s still light, hopefully moving away more from so many nights spent not talking in front of the T.V.
  22. What I’m saying, is that I’m mostly optimistic despite it all, and I know that things are good when I see them in perspective. I know I already have so much more time now to do the things I pined for a year ago, much less two or three. But as a writer, somehow it never feels like enough. No one’s ever going to pay me to sit down and write these books I know I must write, and so somehow we have to figure out a way for me to contribute some income to our household, and do the work I most love of all, AND be the primary caregiver for our child for the next couple years until he goes to kindergarten, and beyond.
  23. What I’m saying, is that it’s all still a complex and delicate balance, one that can so easily get skewed when there is no outside person breathing down your neck, threatening your job if you don’t finish this draft by tomorrow, and when there is no higher prioritizing of your work because it doesn’t equal money. That’s the sorry truth of it, no matter how much your partner or family says they support you. Lost your planned writing session? Oh well. It’s not really that important.
  24. So basically, if you are a writer who values your health, family, uncluttered space, connection with your partner, and overall happiness, then you’d better learn to embrace the art of patience RIGHT NOW, because it ain’t all gonna happen on some prescribed timeline that you think it should happen on. You’re upset because you haven’t published a book by 30? 35? 40? Too bad. If you are in it, from the depths of your soul, because you can’t not write, then you need to just let go of your old measures of “success”. You need to just keep doing what you can, little by little, every day, and learn to swallow your pride when you are asked the same questions, or are giving the same answers, a year later. You need to just trust in what you know needs to be done, and your own soul’s timeline you are working within, and let go of what you think other people think.
  25. It’s all going to get done. Whatever is meant to get done. It’s all going to get done if you keep trusting and working on it. A change in plans, a child’s sudden illness, another deadline pushed another off month? Get used to it. Make a new list, figure out a new goal, do your best. Breathe. Trust. Work hard. Stay healthy. Stay happy. Let go, when you need to. Push through when you must.
  26. Easy, right? Ha. The invisible work of writers. The invisible work of mothers. The extra hard invisible work of mother-writers. This is what we do. This is what our to-do lists look like. Laundry. Dinner. Blood. Wine. Crying a bit. Running if you do that kind of thing. Dancing if you don’t. Then laughing. Breathing. Starting again. Again. Again.


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