Several years ago at a writing conference, I was listening to a panel of agents and editors talk about how to get published. They had advice about query letters and first chapters and whether or not to compare yourself to Nobel Prize winning authors. A man stood up and said, “How long should a novel be? I don’t want to have to write this thing again and again, so I’d appreciate it if you just told me what you wanted right up front.” I could feel everyone in the room sigh for this man, but of course, we all knew what he meant. Why is this so hard, I’ve thought a million times. You read a great book and it feels effortless, like the writer just knew how to tell that story. All of us in that room wanted to know how to tell our stories, too.
My first novel took eight years and seventeen drafts. I wanted to believe that it would be easier the second time around, but I was wrong. It might even be harder, because I know exactly how long the road is. But I am not complaining. No one is forcing me to write — if I hated this (OK, sometimes I do hate it. A lot. But then I love it again later) I could stop. I understand that starting is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first your fourth book, you are always in the dark. Also — a reminder to my future self—it’s not just the beginning that’s difficult. The middle, oh the middle is a test. And finishing? Dear God!
These days I am working on something new. I did the math again, tried to make a deal with myself to write a certain number of pages a day. I dreamed of having a draft by the time my son was born in November. I had a lot of pages, but I did not, by any stretch, have a draft. When people ask me what I’m working on I tell them I don’t know yet since it’s is still in the primordial slush phase and has not yet sprouted legs and crawled up onto land. I have been saying that for a year. Still no legs. And that has to be OK, because that is what’s true. I still hope that in a matter of years, and I do realize that it will be years and not months around, I will be able to walk back out of this room having showered and put on respectable clothing with a readable manuscript in my hands. But that time is not now. Now, I need to close the door and kneel down in the mud. I have to have faith that something is growing here, even if it is just a single-celled organism, slippery and legless.
I have been a writer for my whole adult life. I have only been a mother for five months. Like many women, I worried that having a baby would unmake my professional life. I worried that I would never have time to write, that my upcoming book tour would be a disaster and the novel that had taken me eight years to write — arguably my first baby — would not get the birth I wanted for it.
My son was born in November, and for several weeks, I disappeared into the slow, rolling water of motherhood. My sense of time disappeared. It made little difference if it was night or day — I nursed, I slept, I ate, I gazed down at this brand new creature, alive for the first time in history. I forgot all about my book, about the new novel I had been working on while I was pregnant, about publicity and schedules. There was a new story in my life: the story of my son, the story of me as his mother. In the first nights, the baby slept beautifully but my husband and I lay awake because it was impossible to look away from him. His tiny, perfect hands rested on his tiny, perfect chest. This is my baby, I kept thinking. I will love him for the duration. I had been making things my whole life, but never had I created something like this.
When my son was two weeks old, I got an email from my publicist with a series of interview questions from another writer. “Could you have this to me by Tuesday?” she asked. Tuesday? I thought. What is Tuesday? The calendar and I had parted ways. It seemed so strange that everyone was having a regular work-week, that they were tending to the usual business while I was living a miracle. Still, I opened my computer and discovered when Tuesday was. I read the questions and thought about them. It took me a few days to get all the answers down, but it felt good to remember that other baby of mine. Especially since I could do so with my son on my lap, swaddled and sleeping. He was happy to let me do my job, to make room in the day for other parts of me.
Three months later, the book was published and reviews began to come in. Though they were mostly positive,
it was overwhelming to see the work I’d done evaluated all over the place. Before the first reading I started to wonder what I was doing.
How was this a good idea again? The private part of writing suits me; I wasn’t sure how I felt about the public performance part. But I looked down at my sweet boy in my lap. He was sucking on his hands — a new trick. “I’m just going to read to you, OK? You are the only audience that matters.” He smiled up at me. And for the next four weeks, in cities across the country, he was there in the back of the bookstore curled up on my husband’s chest. He cooed and gargled occasionally and slept most of the time. He did have to be taken out of the room once, but not because he was upset: he had the giggles.
After I had read and signed books, milled and chatted, the three of us would go out and find a glass of wine someplace. It was wonderful. We were a family, my husband, our son, me –both the mom and the writer. I had worried about how I would pull everything off with a baby, but I hadn’t considered how I would have managed it without him.
Maybe there are four or five people on earth for whom writing is effortless and never heartbreaking. I don’t know those people, and I’m not sure I’d like them if we met. Writers are professional feelers—our hearts should be tender and sore at the end of the day, right?
Still, sometimes it feels as if any other vocation would be easier. I could have studied fresh-water algae, been a long-distance runner, a baby-seal feeder. But that’s exactly the thing that bring me back: writing allows me to live a hundred other lives besides my own. When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be an actress, but there was one small issue—I was shy and not interested in performing. It turned out I wanted the other job where you get to imagine your way into the heads and hearts of other people, feel the world in a new way every time you sit down to work.
Most of the day, we all tend to the usual things. We pay the gas bill, find a parking place, buy cereal, apples, chicken breasts, remember to call our mothers, take the children to the doctor, sort the stack of mail. We do what needs doing. Meanwhile, we lose friends, fall in love with people, teach our babies to talk, help our parents leave the world. Being alive is so gorgeous, so hard, so everything. Writing—and reading—is the place where I get to try to understand some of the ten zillion strange, beautiful, terrible truths. For me, it is the second half of being alive.