Two things grew in me all fall. One was coiled head to toe like a shrimp, developing hair, fingernails, and lungs. The other was Prose — words, phrases, sentences — with a will of its own. I handed one creation, carefully addressed in a manila envelope, to the woman sitting behind the front desk as I stood awkwardly just inside the English department door, one arm reaching towards her, the other resting on my prominent stomach.
“Can I leave this here?” I asked. She smiled reassuringly at me and took the bundle from my hands. And that night Henry began his journey out, with a delicate pop and a gush of amniotic fluid.
Until that day, the writer and mother in me were one, for the creations of both child and good idea were conceived in darkness, seeds fertilized and buried deeply. Because such mysterious conceptions happened simultaneously, my instincts knew just how to nurture both Henry and Prose. But by turning in the application to the creative writing program and delivering Henry, writer and mother diverged. Now Prose was in the hand of others that I trusted more than myself, and Henry would be my infant to coddle.
Nine months earlier, the room I worked in was small and dusty, overflowing with books, a tiny refrigerator, microwave, and coffee machine. The white papers pinned to the bulletin boards flapped in the breeze from an open window. My stomach pitched and rolled.
It was an unseasonably warm April, and I needed the open window because I couldn’t stand the smell of reheated leftovers and burnt coffee. I called Josh to complain.
“When are you supposed to get your period?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I guess that could be our problem, couldn’t it?” I tried to count days and weeks in my head.
I bought a pregnancy test on the way home from work as scenes from TV commercials played through my mind: Couples in breakfast nooks embracing each other at whatever marvelous result they have just discovered on their easy-to-read test strip.
We didn’t have a breakfast nook, and it seemed more logical to take the test in the bathroom. We stared at the top of the tank into a small disposable cup with a centimeter of yellow liquid. Beside it sat a small plastic case shaped like a fat credit card with an open window. My hand shook as I eye-dropped the liquid into the window. The floor swayed slightly.
The hollowed out rectangle began to change color, and we turned from it. Josh’s eyes were wide as he picked up the case and tilted it in his fingers, examining the smooth white surface.
“It’s very, very pink,” he said. “Pinker than the test mark.”
In the first three months my body created the placenta, a meaty organ like raw steak. My doctor explained that building it is as much work as climbing a mountain. Progesterone coursed through my veins along with the 50% more blood that pregnancy brings. The cells in my uterus divided again and again, becoming more specialized with each division, creating bones and connective tissue. My body, which had always been mysterious, frustrating in its needs, frustrated in its wants, seemed suddenly clear.
Week by week I read about the kind of fruits and vegetables my embryo resembled — not in feature, but in size — a grape, a plum, a peach. Henry at seventeen weeks was the size of a fat yam, and I felt the first brushings of arms and legs. The books call the first felt movement the quickening, named for the moment the spirit is believed to enter the developing fetus. It felt like fluttering wings, like a muse. It was as if I suddenly understood my birthright.
In birthing class, I sat next to a woman who also called herself a writer. Liz had the same ob-gyn as I and a writer for a mother. Earlier we had stood in the hallway, holding our backs, bottled water in our other hands, our stomachs jutting out into space. She told me what her mother had told her. You are not a writer until you have a baby and write.
As the instructor pulled and stretched at the elastic fabric of a life-sized model of the uterus, I tried to interpret what her mother meant. My hand pushed against the hard ball of my stomach. My uterus was firm and strong. Inside was Henry.
The instructor’s fingers pried at the tiny opening of the cervix until it peeled back. The red bag bunched around the baby doll’s head, and the instructor pushed at its edges. Liz and I grimaced at each other. Then the hard peach-colored body popped out through the opening. What part of this process will make me more of a writer, I wondered?
Henry didn’t cry as his head, then his body, slipped and twisted from between my legs in one fluid motion. The doctor was matter-of-fact, her hands efficiently cutting the cord as Josh stood beside me, speechless and smiling, his hand kneading my arm absentmindedly. The nurses swept Henry away to the warming light, suctioned his mouth, and jostled his froggy little body until he cried.
I watched. Purring. In my arms, he cried beautifully as I admired his red, wrinkled feet. My own body was full and soft like a loose bruised plum, full of juice and blood and adrenaline, dripping with the syrup that I created.
Meanwhile the seed of my prose was quietly lodged in an envelope somewhere, and it would reside there while I was otherwise occupied. I did save the few jottings I managed to do during Henry’s first nine months, notebooks with a couple pages filled and forgotten, odd bits and pieces of paper, napkins with pictures and words, calendars with bits of information: the first day he smiled, the first time he laughed. I put these things in a file folder and labeled it Henry. Otherwise, I gave up that baby to foster this new one, for I had accepted motherhood like entering a warm ocean, submerging myself in it, nearly drowning, yet somehow learning to tread water.
And then I got a letter from the university, announcing I had been accepted to the creative writing program. Though Henry was four months old, I was in the deep-end of motherhood. It was a luxury to be there and know I would be writing again in five months.
It was hard to leave the house as Josh and Henry stood at the front door. I scurried from table to closet to chair to school bag, saying, “Mommy’s going to school. Mommy will see you soon.” Finally stopping in front of them, I said, “Give Mommy a kiss bye-bye.” Henry reached for me, face scrunched up. I hugged them both. “Wave at me through the window.” I watched them through the crisscrossed pane of glass as Henry blew kisses until I walked out of sight.
During a writing exercise my fiction instructor sends me down a flight of stairs. Actually my classmates and I sit at desks in a circle with our eyes closed as she guides us through a visualization exercise. White plush carpet, a banister on the left, a Norwegian toy museum poster on the wall. As I reach the lower landing, she tells me to look off to the right, and there is my mother washing dishes. My imagination leads me farther down the stairs until I reach a door, stained a dark red mahogany, loose on its hinges, rattling as I grasp the doorknob. It opens easily onto a bare cement room where my grandmother’s trunk stands. The pungent smell of age hits my nose as I am instructed to open it.
Inside is my Grandma’s red flannel comforter. It is a thick one with lots of polyester batting, and the plaid flannel feels softer than silk against my face. I am told it is a present for me, and I lift it up, both my hands grasping it along one edge. It flies back behind me like a cape as I swing it about my shoulders. Before I can wrap it all the way around, it transforms into a pair of large feathered wings.
They arch and fan of their own accord, and before I can protest, they wedge themselves to my back. I crane my neck to look at these heavy and cumbersome appendages. I shiver at the cold air in the cement room and stomp one foot, making the wings vibrate, causing my shoulder blades to itch. The wings are uncomfortable — and argumentative.
Quit fighting us. They say.
My instructor says they are my muse.
Months later, I sat at the computer. On the floor, Henry looked up at me, head tilted back, brown eyes questioning. “Up? Up? Up?” he said. So I paused and picked him up. He wanted to type, too.
And when I was vacuuming, (after giving up trying to finish my draft), I held the long tube of my vacuum cleaner, going after all the dog hair. Trailing behind the vacuum cleaner was Henry, scooting on his behind, not unlike a buffing machine, his rear polishing the wood.
And later, when he took a bath, I thought I would write while he was contained. I sat on the bathroom floor, scribbling while I had the chance. After ten minutes, he pulled his skinny body up, holding the side of the tub, reaching his wet arms out to me. “Up? Up? Up?”
“Are you sure you’re all done?” I pleaded back, showing him his toys, demonstrating how fun a bath could be by pouring water from a cup.
And, in the middle of the night, a breathy, whispered voice, “Up? Up? Up?”
“Hold on. It’s okay, I’m coming.”
I sit down to write, and my words scatter across a page. I push them out, my pen halting and stuttering against the paper. Details, details, details. Who cares? I wonder. My mind oozes with the unnecessary. Over-written.
I decide I need to show some force. I cannot allow myself to ooze like this.
Where is the end?
What am I trying to say?
Is that so hard to answer?
Here Henry is sleeping, and I am finally writing. Make use of this time.
What to write about?
How do I start a piece?
How do I finish a piece?
Teaching Introduction to Creative Writing my first fall in the program, I preached what I couldn’t do. The trick, I told my students, is to give in and trust the process. Believe that writing will take you where you need to go. Trust it, and you will find yourself someplace unforeseen and surprising.
I never let Henry cry it out. I decided early on he cried to tell me something. And if he was to trust me, I believed we would have to work together on this.
Henry’s manipulating you, warning voices told me. He’ll never learn to comfort himself, they predicted.
But with Prose I struggle. Prose is unruly. It wants to mire in the moment. It lacks ever-important tension and conflict. I send it to the corner crying. Stay there until you are prepared to be cooperative, I lecture my young Prose, mumbling under my breath, I want to sleep at night. The house isn’t clean. The laundry waits. And what about Henry?
I sit Prose down and try to force it. Structure. The arch of the narrative. I write Prose into a climax, prodding and needling the whole way. I have a hollering, wailing monster on my hands that makes me want to vomit. I have written a frenzy on the page — an out of control, spoiled, rotten egg. We don’t relate.
Prose and I entered the summer locked in combat.
I made it through the first nine months of school, completed my first year of the creative writing program. But Prose and I were insecurely attached. There were no tears as I left it at the beginning of the summer. We did not wave as I walked away but sighed with relief as we parted company.
As a baby, Henry was compelled to throw himself into every activity joyously, thrilled with the adventure. As a toddler, things hold him back. There’s a little separation anxiety, a little more awareness of danger. Now he will stop at the curb; he will stop before touching the electrical outlets, and even if he does protest against holding my hand, he still does it before crossing the street.
Henry has four summer tantrums between my first year and second year in the writing program. I consult a book called The Emotional Life of a Toddler. It tells me the toddler is in conflict. Part of him wants to stay with his mother; the other part needs to go off and explore. In the midst of these needs, he loses control and thrashes his body.
As he flails arms and legs, he’s hard for me to hold. I rock him. I offer him my breast. I pull him close. He is knees and elbows, intentionally arching and collapsing. I protect his head as I try to place this unfamiliar child on the floor. I watch him and periodically say, “It’s okay; Mom’s right here,” while he writhes and wails out of control.
I let him continue until I feel it has been too long. I pull him back to my lap, pulling up my shirt. This time he accepts and shudders as he sucks. One wide brown eye is pinned on my face.
Prose, too, has things holding it back: a chaotic mysterious conception, the fundamental development of plot, and the fear of sentimentality. These things keep me frozen in the headlights.
Prose slides out a disorganized mess. I look it in the face and feel responsible for its future. I let inky lines grow from my head onto the page. Organizing themselves into letters at the tip of my pen. Tumbling onto the paper. Beautiful scribblings. Lovely and mine. Painfully un-whole. I wish I could claim I was just teething. Look, I’d say, you can tell by the diaper rash. Look at the hand in my mouth. You can tell by my restless nights. It’s just developmental.
In the hospital baby class, the instructor handed us flow charts that notes the organized versus disorganized stages in an infant’s development. Children as they are growing and learning, the instructor warned us, cycle constantly through chaos and order.
I have never come across the same flow charts and books telling me what to expect from my life as a writer. Here, at the cutting of Prose’s two-year molars, the caption would read, you can expect disorganization. Symptoms include despair, tantrums, diarrhea, and rashes.
Just keep writing, a more secure writer could reassure me, just keep at it and don’t worry. You’ll grow through it.
When Henry gets hurt, he tips his head wide-eyed with great concern, and asks his own appendage, “Are you okay?” And then he kisses it
“All better,” he proclaims.
“Blue,” he says, grabbing for the red marker.
He draws one red line crookedly down the middle of the newsprint. “Worm,” he says and points to it. “Yea!” he claps.
“Sit,” he tells me, bending to the ground and patting a place beside him. “Write, write, write, Mommy.” He points at the page, demanding I do it.
Prose is still disorganized in this stage of development and hasn’t fallen into any foreseeable pattern. But there is something there. Something fighting for independence and autonomy. It still needs me though. It looks back once in a while to make sure I’m there, to check if I’m following. It leads me on with its tottering gait.