I’m going home tomorrow, after an intense week-long writers’ workshop in D.C. It was called “Building the Novel,” and when it was my turn to be critiqued, eleven other emerging writers dissected my embryonic novel declared the funny parts “funny”, the writing engaging and smart, but also pointed out that, three chapters deep, they still had no idea what the main conflict of the novel is.
I’m returning to my regularly scheduled life tomorrow, after seven days of learning the art and business of writing from Mat Johnson, a writer whose work I stumbled upon four years ago and who reigns among the contemporary black fiction literati…
After evenings spent discussing the mutilation of child soldiers in Africa with Chris Abani, the continent’s up-and-coming It Writer, over sangria…
After getting a much-needed shot in the arm to my fiction-writing efforts at the Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Summer Writers’ Week, I’m going back home to talk to eight-year-old Taylor about Judy Blume books, and to three-year-old Peyton about why she shouldn’t eat what she finds inside her nose.
I’m going home tomorrow to be Mommy once again, chauffeuring kids to summer camp for two weeks, remembering swimsuits on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and packing bag lunches every day. It’s a bittersweet return; I’ve missed the girls, but I’m going to miss sharing literary gossip over Ethiopian food with my dozen or so new best friends. I’m going to miss days and nights which are completely my own.
I’m not looking forward to days fragmented by little people’s need for three meals and three snacks a day, by their sibling squabbles, by my custom writing and freelance obligations. But fragmented days are part and parcel of the job description for a mama-writer. Lamenting them makes as much sense as lamenting what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” They happen, but you have to keep writing anyway. In her memoir, Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, writer Rebecca Walker recalls a handmade sign her mother, Alice Walker, kept over her work desk when Rebecca was growing up. The sign reminded Walker that compared to the obstacles faced by her literary foremothers, her obstacle, young Rebecca, was “much more delightful and less distracting than any of [those] calamities.”
However indelicate, Alice Walker’s sentiment does strike a chord. I don’t think of my children as “obstacles”, but given a finite amount of time, parenting and writing are, on some level, in competition. It’s my job to strike the right balance, and more often than not, I do (and when I don’t, it is the writing that is neglected). What this requires is that I be ruthless about my time. With the deaths of three loved ones in the span of a year, I have a whole different outlook on my time–what it’s worth, what’s worthy of it, and how much of it I have to waste (none). And guilt–feeling guilty that I devote time to writing, which some people consider little more than a hobby, and certainly not a “real job”–guilt really is a big waste of time. This is a lesson I continue to learn, daily: that writing is not a guilty pleasure, because there’s nothing to feel guilty about.
We all have our crosses to bear, but like Alice Walker, I have it relatively easy, especially compared to my literary forbearers, including Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, for whom the foundation sponsoring the writing workshop I attended is named. Hurston, Wright, Langston Hughes, and many others paved the way for writers like me to tell the stories we want to tell. It’s my job to travel the road they have paved. What this requires is a measure of courage and commitment on my part, along with the willingness to do the balancing act that being a mama-writer demands.
To these ends, I have this column and a few published non-fiction articles to my credit. Fiction, which was my initial writing passion, has been harder for me. I already have two unfinished novels under my belt. The third time will be a charm, though, not because of luck or any guarantee of publishing success, but because this time is different. This novel is better, stronger, and so am I. This time, I will finish.
I know I will finish because I’m doing something I haven’t done since about 1999: I’m dreaming again, imagining a future ripe with possibility. I’m thinking less of accolades and financial success (though I welcome them!), and more about the sense of accomplishment, of getting these stories and ideas and these people out of my head and into print.
I love writing and telling stories and I want it badly enough to find a way, make a way, to be the best writer I can be while being the best mother I can be. In my dreams, it is possible though not easy to be both. But nothing is easy.
I know where to start, though. By sitting down and finishing chapter three. Amidst the tent-pitching in the backyard in these last days of summer vacation, teaching Peyton to tie her shoes, and helping Taylor with her own book-in-progress (called “Oh, Sister!”), I will finish chapter three, and then four, and so on in the months to come, building the novel to The End. Easier said than done, but it will be done.