I’m seated at a long table in a classroom on the seventh floor of the Tokushima Youth Center. From the window I can see cherry blossoms and department stores. My notebook is open before me, awaiting ink. I’m here in this room in Western Japan with a thirtyish Canadian woman who writes poems about working with refugees in Guatemala, a blonde lawyer turned assistant English teacher who aspires to be South Africa’s answer to Bret Easton Ellis, a British man who has self-published a novel about a philosophical drug dealer, and an African American woman. We are all here to write.
Our leader, Andy, sits at the front of the classroom, his long, dark hair draped over his shoulders, the sleeves of his white billowy poet’s shirt bunched up at the elbows. He positions his watch on the table, readies his pen, and says, “Okay, freewrite. Fifteen minutes.”
I try to do what Andy does, to write so fast and so thoughtlessly that I am writing outside of consciousness. The words spill across the page: tide wave surge bloat burst flow. Before the allotted time has expired, I jump up, hurl myself through the door and to the nearest bathroom. I vomit into the toilet bowl.
I am an expatriate, a writer, a woman four months pregnant with twins.
I’m lying in a hospital bed at Nakagawa Women’s Clinic in rural Japan. I read almost a book a day. The doctor told me that I am not allowed to get out of bed. If I even attempt to walk across the room, I might provoke a miscarriage.
I have brought along the manuscript of my novel-in-progress, thinking that I will finish it during my maternity leave. It’s a story about an all-girl punk rock group in 1980s underground South Carolina. My characters shoot heroin, have spontaneous, unprotected sex, lie to their parents. They are dangerous and irresponsible.
Lying here on these crisp white sheets, hooked up to an I.V., I can only think about protecting the babies inside me. I don’t want anything to do with those bad, bad girls.
I read books. I throw up. My parents call once a day from America. After his job as a high school teacher and baseball coach, my husband Yukiyoshi brings me the mail. He comes bearing rejection letters from agents who have been considering my first attempt at a novel, a story about a teen-aged girl who falls in love with a Gypsy musician and gets pregnant. I wrote it before I knew what morning sickness was. Reading over these letters, I’m thinking that I got it all wrong. I will have to write it again.
Mixed with the letters from agents, there are magazines, cards, and then a letter from an editor telling me that one of my stories has been selected by a famous poet for a “best of” anthology. This has never happened to me before. I am so excited that I can barely sleep. I can hardly wait to tell my parents when they call the next morning.
But then something happens. My babies are born the next morning. They are fourteen weeks premature, just this side of viable. The neonatal specialist tells me that although he will do his best, it will be difficult to save them. Even though I am worried, exhausted, and scared, I’m still excited about the anthology. Of course everyone else — my parents, my husband, the doctors and nurses — could care less.
Ten days after my emergency cesarean, I am released from the hospital. My son and daughter will remain in the NICU with the pink-smocked nurses and beeping machines for another three and four months, respectively. I visit them twice a day, logging cheery messages to them in a diary kept by the staff. Away from the hospital, in cafes or sprawled across my quilt-covered bed, I write out my sadness, my sense of failure.
Later, my husband will accuse me of having had children just so I can write about them. He doesn’t know I am following two of the most important dictums of writing:
1) Write about what you love.
2) Write about what you fear the most.
Up until now, I have been an equal-wage earner in our marriage, something that has allowed me to laugh off my husband’s rants about my poor housekeeping. My English-teacher salary and rent-free apartment allowed us to save up to make a down payment on a house, travel to foreign countries, and eat in restaurants three or four times a week.
When I first told Yukiyoshi that I wanted to stay home with the twins (twins!) while they were babies, he was against the idea. His own mother worked throughout his childhood as a hospital nutritionist and managed to take care of a family.
“Yeah, but twins?”
“They’ll go to daycare,” he said. “We’ll get a babysitter.”
In June, a month or so after our children are born, I drop in at the office. My immediate supervisor at the board of education informs me that my maternity leave is almost up.
What? I thought that I had until November.
He tells me that as soon as my twins were born, maternity leave began. Due to their prematurity, I’ve basically forfeited my first fourteen weeks of leave. I have no idea when my children will be ready to come home. I have no choice but to quit my job.
The doctors tell us that we will have to be careful for the first couple of years. Because they were born before their lungs had a chance to fully develop, a simple cold could quickly lead to bronchitis or pneumonia or worse. “You should avoid crowded places,” the neonatal specialist says. So we can’t go to libraries, playgroups, restaurants, grocery stores, or shopping centers. We barricade ourselves. When my mother-in-law shows up at our house on Christmas Eve with toys, fried chicken, and a runny nose, I turn her back into the cold, dark night. We are isolated. Alone.
My friend Andy calls about a new writing workshop that he will be conducting. Do I want to join?
I beg my husband to let me participate. Since he returns home late from school, I make arrangements for my mother-in-law to help out. At the first session, I once again find myself with writers of different nations. This time, instead of being tired and nauseated, I feel giddy with freedom. Out alone for two hours! This is just what the parenting books call for: rejuvenating breaks, temporary relief from stress. During the free write, my pen blazes across the paper.
But when I get home, the mood is grim. Although a couple of weeks ago my husband had been quite willing to give me a break, he is worn down by a day at work and the crying of infants. He yells at me, tells me that I am a bad mother. He won’t let me hold my babies. “Can’t you just stop writing and concentrate on taking care of our children?”
I think that there is some fantasy Self-Sacrificing Japanese Mother in his head, someone that I can never be. He tells me that his own childhood was filled with fear and insecurity because his mother worked all the time and he had to stay with a babysitter. After a couple more weeks, I drop out of the writing workshop. It’s either that or divorce, and I’m not prepared to take on single parenthood of intensely vulnerable infant twins.
But I need to have some sort of identity in addition to Mother. I owe it to my children, as well as to myself.
I begin writing secretly.
I write essays and short stories during naptime. I finally finish my novel. And then, just to prove to myself that it’s possible to make money writing and because having no income makes me subservient, I decide to start freelancing.
Because I can’t leave the house much, I sometimes invite interview subjects to my home. I call up a British digeridoo player that I’ve heard about and arrange for him to come to my house. He shows up with a hangover and starts telling me about a fight he had with his wife. I offer him a drink, and he asks for beer. I watch as he spills Asahi Super Dry all over my leather sofa. But he gives colorful answers to every question, and I manage to place the final article with three different publications. I am earning money.
I set myself the goal of making five hundred dollars a month during naptimes. After I’ve reached my quota, I will permit myself to write fiction and personal essays. For love.
At first it seems easy, but after a few months I begin to run out of ideas for easily executed articles. Worse, the twins are sleeping less and less. They no longer need a morning nap. Or they fall asleep at different times.
One night I find myself pounding at the keyboard while my daughter lies in a hospital bed battling pneumonia. My husband is spending the night with her so that I can get some much needed rest, but I am frantic to finish an assignment that is already overdue. The work itself is boring, but the pay is good. I want to honor my commitment to the editor who hired me, but I am tired of being in a bad mood because my children won’t let me write. I decide to stop writing for money. For a while, at least, whenever possible, I will write for love.
A friend in Colorado informs me that she will be participating in a week-long writing workshop. While I have never, not for one second, wished my son and daughter gone from my life, I feel a pang for the years when I passed entire afternoons at my computer, sipping a pot of coffee and composing sentences. A couple years before, I attended a writer’s conference at a Renaissance castle in Holland where I spent two weeks polishing a single short story, “Oh, The Beautiful Swans!” That kind of writing is no longer possible.
And though I am always harried, always grabbing at time — five minutes while stirring a pot, 15 before turning out the light to sleep — good things start to happen. An essay that I wrote about my pregnancy is published by a brand-new magazine, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and reprinted in an older, more established magazine that I read and admire. My café scribblings from the NICU days are also published in one of my favorite journals and nominated for a Pushcart. A story inspired by my little girl wins a prize: a pair of airplane tickets to anywhere in the world. I manage to have a photo of me with my daughter published along with the story. When she sees it, she is thrilled. “Your mommy wrote this,” I say, pointing to the title. “Your mommy’s a writer.” A successful literary agent offers to represent the novel I finished during naptime. My kids get a little older. They become healthy and start going to preschool.
Later, when I begin to revise my novel, I work on the relationships of my punk rock girls. When I’m finished, it’s no longer just a story about disenfranchised wild young things making raw music. It’s also about the connections between these girls and the men and women who raised them. I write about the mothers.