Photo: Jorge Santiago
Photo: Jorge Santiago

Writing Like a Mother(f*cker)

In the first few months after the baby is born, I experience a singing clarity: Milk! Diapers! Milk! Diapers! Lusty oxytocin! Sleep! Chee­z-it binge! Sleep! I have cleared out a space–no, cleared out my whole brain–for this time, and I have no expectation of writing. It feels good to sink wholly into the physical, answering needs like playing whack-a-mole: hunger, got it; poo, got it; exhaustion, nailed it, and in between, losing myself in the baby’s depthless black eyes.

But small bubbles of time begin to surface in my day. I sneak in a chapter of Under the Volcano; I jot down brief sketches about motherhood. I grow bolder; I start an essay. I feel the old desire, bone-deep and restless, to get back to it, but this time the desire comes shrouded in a new haze of guilt. Echoing behind each page is the question of necessity, both immediate and existential: why does this matter?

The house looks as though someone has flipped it upside down and shaken it, we’re surviving off cans of refried beans, the poor dog is curled beneath the walnut tree in a state of shocked despair, and I am looking up shades of orange (Mahogany! Vermillion! Atomic tangerine!). I might as well be stopping for a cupcake in a hurricane. I have no grandiose vision like I did months ago of published books, of saying, “Well, Terry, thanks so much for having me”; I have no sense even of career and trajectory. I have only the very real and palpable and inexplicably essential desire to capture the fact that this morning I fed the baby a wild black raspberry, felt her muggy, gummy little mouth on my fingers, and turned to see her round face, smiling its guileless baby grin, tilted askew to meet mine.

At dinner one night, I tell my husband, Jorge, that for the first time I understand writing as that struggle on the page towards clarity; in the past, I’ve mostly known what I wanted to say, had an idea how to say it. Now, I don’t. I gather up the everyday and stir it around on the page, working it and working it until the water runs clear.

At a time when I am still figuring out how to keep a small, vulnerable human alive, I am less and less able to define why writing matters, and yet I begin to write like I mother: out of bedrock necessity. The baby’s diaper needs to be changed and I change it. I need to write and I write. I don’t write because I think I will lose a part of myself if I stop, because I think becoming a park ranger will cause my soul to wither with the spurning of art. In fact I think I might live a healthy, happy everyday life: bake more pies, write more letters, stop driving my husband mad by leaving balled diapers on the rug. I write not because I have some new gleaming sense of purpose, or even because the literature of motherhood pulled me out of my own moments of despair and made me want to give that gift to another stranded soul. I sure as hell don’t write to make money. I know less and less of why I write and the less I know the more compelled I am to do it, the more I drive at it the way the hummingbird drives with a jet roar into the hostas, making me duck each time.

In Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel, a professor of philosophy living in Japan, recounts his quest to learn archery and, through it, Zen. Herrigel is constantly trying to find some trick, a formula, for pulling off the perfect shot, but his teacher insists that he not shoot, that instead, when the bow is at its point of highest tension, he wait until the arrow shoots itself. Of course, this is maddening for the poor pupil, the kind of thing that makes a frustrated writer want to say, screw it, I’m going to start a mommy blog. Herrigel tries again and again, unable to wait, succumbing to quivering muscles, always attempting to discern the right moment instead of letting go. And then one day he does it, unawares. He looses the arrow unconsciously, having disappeared into the postures and rhythms he’s learned so well. He writes,

“It is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved center. Then comes the supreme and ultimate miracle: art becomes ‘artless,’ shooting becomes not-shooting, a shooting without bow and arrow; the teacher becomes a pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection.”

I am unsure whether the hours I manage to carve out at my desk with leftover peanut butter pie, shredded from intermittent waking, could be qualified as perfection, but from time to time slogging away I feel myself become this center. It is a return to the emptiness I experienced for the first time when I was pregnant: a feeling of calm, clarified seeing without any grasping. The part of my brain that is perpetually waiting for the baby’s slightest whimper, the part that is aware I’m in a barn in a hot green Ohio summer struggling to write to the tune of the whirring fan: all fade and I am nothing but the play of words. I am not going anywhere or aiming at anything; I am not myself so much as I am a hollowness. I am rung by the world like a bell; I am breathed, as Herrigel puts it, instead of breathing.

Mostly, however, I write like a mule schleps its load up a mountain. There is no misty aura of glory or romance, and oftentimes it’s a slow and tedious hoofing for my hormone-boggled brain and I stop every ten minutes for Cheez-its. I defend my writing time, however, with teeth. My husband and I get in the worst, longest-smoldering fights of our relationship about this time, whose practicality I cannot justify. He is the one earning the money. He is the one whose time is billable, who actually pays the bills with his wedding photography, although often he’d rather be shooting documentaries about rodeo riders in the Mexican Sierra. And he washes dishes, fries bacon, does laundry, walks with the baby around the yard saying, yes, the birdie house, yes, the leaf, oh, yes, what a nice rock. It requires a terrible and terrific arrogance for me to claim three hours to hash out a half-coherent treatise on waiting and the gestation periods of walruses: an arrogance not only in the immediate domain of my family but in a larger, universal sense, to imagine that fitting life into language matters when I have now lived the reality of birth and the pressing need of a hot little mouth.

The preciousness of that time, the fact that it is so contested and fraught with the weight of what is not being done with it, have forced my hand: I have to admit that I believe in art. Not as an abstract concept, and not as tangible and real salvation, but as a way of being. A consciousness. One that, for me, is equal to motherhood in its eradication of the self and the worldy, and yet is simultaneously of the world, composed of paper coffee cups in cheap hotels and the ragged snores of sleeping dogs, of mangoes and the first warm waft of summer breeze through a dusty screen. And so I bear down and defend my territory, lash out from it like a threatened bear. And yet the time itself is not some great march towards progress or shining glory; whereas in the past I was always working towards a goal, an MFA, publication, awards, recognition, now I just work. I feel like Herrigel does when he lets go of the need to master archery:

“Weeks went by without my advancing a step. At the same time I discovered that this did not disturb me in the least. Had I grown tired of the whole business? Whether I learned the art or not, whether I experienced what the Master meant by ‘It’ or not, whether I found the way to Zen or not–all this suddenly seemed to have become so remote, so indifferent, that it no longer troubled me.”

Still, the pragmatic is constantly encroaching from all sides, with its spears of financial, familial anxiety: how in the world will we ever afford college? Preschool? A move out of the Midwest? Ignoring these questions would be delusional and unfair, although I can fight against the overwhelming American pressure to conform, to assume that the only way to raise a child is in a nice suburban home, bed at 7 and steadily accumulating college fund and soccer on Sunday. There’s nothing wrong with this; it can be a dreamy way to grow up. But there are other ways to build a life and a family that bring their own benefits: the days I spend with my daughter traveling, showing her seashells, rolling around cheap hotel beds blowing raspberries into her legs, and the meaning my husband and I find in our lives, our work, our everyday, that I hope we give to her as a deep passion and priority.

Still, I’d love to be paid for my writing, to live from it. I’d love a nursery, beautiful rocking horses, actual counter space. But even as those endless, important, and tedious questions about the accumulation of wealth and status weigh heavier and harder on the everyday, I sense a more pressing need to sequester my writing from them. The stakes are higher now than ever: either I keep it separate, I write because I have to, I read what I want to, and I figure everything else out as best I can (fellowships? ESL? second photographer to my brilliant husband?) or I give it up. Become a park ranger. Bake pies and move on. Which maybe, someday, I’ll do. But for now I take my coffee and my computer to the barn and I go until my brain hurts, until my body feels wrung out, and I keep going until up at the screen pops Jorge’s brown bearded face: “Te toca.” Toothy grin. In his arms is the wriggly baby, hungry for mom, hungry for milk, and her eager pawing at my chest reminds me once again why this matters so much and not at all.

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1 Comment

  • Congrats for being a mother & still able to write :D Reading this made me realize even after being a mother, I should depend my writing time :D Thank you for sharing Sarah :D

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