In June, just weeks after we found out I was pregnant, a purple finch built a nest on the fuse box outside our back door. The nest was small and compact, a perfect fit in the palm of a hand. It sat above eye level and had steep sides made of twigs, leaves, and grass. If we held still at a distance, we could see the bird herself, a motionless body with dark, alert eyes like living BBs. We tried to go in and out the sunroom door to give her plenty of space, but even the man at the bird feed store said she would probably abandon the nest; finches are very shy.
We knew exactly how she felt. She was guarding her nest while we were rearranging ours. My small writing office upstairs had to be entirely dismantled to make room for a crib, a changing table, dressers and toys. We rolled up old carpets and took them to the dump. We secured shelves and put away breakables, washed walls, scrubbed floors, and vacuumed out the heating ducts. We moved desks and file cabinets, boxed books, papers and folders. Our nest was bigger, but our jobs, ours and this finch, were the same: to prepare for a baby.
As I was packing, I thought about that bird, if there could be any resentment in her, any sense of loss for the freedom she had given up. Because there was for me. It was ‘t anything as strong as anger, just a mental pause, a bewildered question: Where will I write now? How will I find the time? Will it even matter? The baby was supposed to be the most important thing in the world, after all. There wouldn’t be time or room for things like novels anymore, let alone stories or poetry. All of that was metaphorical, a creative process that paled in comparison to the literal creation of a baby. Nothing else was supposed to matter.
That summer, my novel had been with an agent for almost a year. We’d been working together on it for over two; now it was making the rounds at various publishing houses, but nothing much was happening. Things were slow in the industry, she kept telling me, but it was getting embarrassing. In fact, it was embarrassing and had been so for a while. Friends had stopped asking. Writer-friends had begun not-so-gently suggesting that I try a new agent. I felt loyal and correct in staying with her — for about nine months. As the year wore on and I grew bigger, I became more realistic. In the fall, I faced the fact that she was not going to sell my book. When I wrote to her at Christmas, she wrote back saying that she was not surprised. She wished me luck.
I had worked on the novel for eight years; it had become, truly, my first child. I began it just after the death of my father, deciding that if he could die at age fifty-five, gypped out of so much time, then there was no reason that I should not have a book published by the time I was thirty. No more lollygagging. Why futz around when one knew what one wanted? I had never been goal-oriented before, but death has a way of scaring the shit out of you. I got serious.
My story was set in Wyoming and centered on a pair of high-school age sisters whose mother had died. They were left alone to live with their rancher father and the cook, with whom their father quickly began an affair. Not long after the funeral, a mysterious stranger appeared on the ranch, a ghostly boy who couldn’t talk.
I used an early draft to apply to MFA programs and, not surprisingly, looking back, didn’t get in. I was accepted, however, to an MA program, and I took the book along, determined to do what’s called a “creative concentration.” I had to write a lot of literary analysis papers, simple mind games compared to the growing tome that was to be my thesis. I focused on not over-controlling my characters. I wanted to let them reveal who they were in scene. Show don’t tell. But my people, alas, didn’t seem anxious to do much of anything. The difficulty was in the immense possibility of things. The girls’ father might be in love with the cook, or he might just be after sex — a release for his grief. The mute boy might be a benevolent angel, but just as easily might be a murderous psycho. The sisters might be allied against their father or might be bitter opposites, unable to console each other. These complications led one teacher to forbid me from working on it in her class, demanding new material and admonishing me to re-think the book. “You’ll write yourself into a hole,” she told me joylessly. “I know. I’ve done it.”
I used a shortened version as my thesis, graduated, and then wrote steadily on. I was no longer working outside the home; my husband had a job that supported us, so, while the rest of the world got out of bed and went to work, I wrote. I grew bored with it. The whole thing began to feel like Barbies for grown-ups — that arbitrary. I took walks around the park and watched the women pushing strollers. No matter where you live, there are women pushing strollers. Even as an undergraduate back in Georgia, I’d watched them pass the front window of the bookstore where I worked, an endless stream of ladies and their buggies. I thought the same thing then: What do they do all day? Now I, too, was stuck at home. On bad days, I’d scorn myself, believing that I ought to just give up and get pregnant, give myself a real reason to be at home all day. Pregnancy was that kind of failure to me: a woman’s surrendering the chance to do anything really important with her life. When the writing was going well, I felt superior; I was doing something grand with all my time, unlike the mindless task of raising children.
But the more unpleasant the work became, the more I began to ask myself why I was doing it. It began to dawn on me that even with a published novel, the writing life might be this dull. It would be just as hard to stay interested in a story; it would hurt just as much to sit on my butt and hammer out the plot. It would be just as confusing to figure out how to handle time — both within the novel and without. How much time would the novel span? And how, exactly, would I organize the long days? Motivation would be an issue forever, again, in both the novel and my life. I might have the older sister go off to college, or be told she couldn’t go because there was no money. The family might be very successful, but her father might not want her to go. Out of love. Or spite. Or both.
What was worse, I began to lose sight of my goal. How was my life going to change, exactly, when the book was published? Wouldn’t I still live with my husband and stay at home all day, nursing the not-so-faint sense that my life was meaningless? For a writer, I ought to be happy. I had, after all, the two essential life elements: somebody to pay the bills and lots of time. I ought to be ecstatic. So how come I was dreaming about a day job, something that would keep me too busy to think?
I finally wrote my former thesis advisor with one specific question: How does your life change after publication? I felt like a developer, researching his prospects for a big, probably over-budget spec home. She wrote that while seeing your book in print does indeed validate the years of hard work, the writer still has to get out of bed and put her pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. She asked a halting question: Which do you want, she wrote. That publication change your life completely, or not change it at all?
I wasn’t sure. Well, I was sure. I certainly did want my life to change. I was sick of the questions. I was sick of my own voice. From head to toe, from the inside out, I wanted to be somebody else. As a writer, and a person of integrity, I felt I should not want this. I wasn’t writing to be rich. I didn’t want fame. The process was supposed to be what it was all about, this endless horizon of time and possibility.
Something inside me began to shift. It was like the epiphany of dieting, when you finally realize that losing a bunch of weight is not, in fact, going to transform your entire world. Only your looks. Once you understand this, the whole effort kind of loses its luster.
My daughter’s birth took place on a cold night in January. It was more work than anything I had ever done. I labored at home for over twelve hours, was seven centimeters dilated when I got to the hospital at ten. By midnight I understood that we couldn’t all agree to quit and try again tomorrow. Panic set in.
Describing it to childless friends, I realized that my strongest sense was the physical intensity of it, a job difficult beyond belief. A furniture moving analogy comes close; it’s as if you had a piece of furniture the size of a small car that must be moved through a standard size doorway. There won’t be any moving team; you must do it alone. We speak of babies as tiny, precious, and fragile, yet their power is muscular and unstoppable. Think rivers, oceans, and thunderheads.
I pushed for nearly four hours before the doctor finally said, “Let’s get that baby out of there.” A vacuum extractor appeared. The nurse pounced on my massive belly, pushing down toward my spine and feet with both hands. The doctor became a blur, her hands moving like fluttering wings. My husband drifted out of my awareness. The hot liquid rush of my baby — this was all I was aware of. Though I distinctly heard someone say the word girl, I cared only that it was over. We were all done. The nurse’s face came close to mine, “You did a great job,” she said, her voice sounding like it came from behind a glass wall. “You are a strong woman.” She had blood spattered over her face. Like a soldier, I thought.
When I took our daughter home three days later, it was with the understanding that my life had profoundly changed. No more endless possibilities. That essential question, the one that had haunted me for thirty years: What will you do with your life? had its answer, and the answer had changed. I would raise a daughter. The interesting, comfortably vague, I will write books, was no more. I understood that if I wrote books at all, it would be ancillary. The fact of motherhood lurked in every corner of my life. Toweling off after a shower, it would hit me. Washing dishes, opening a window, getting the mail, and suddenly there it is: she exists. I grew her and now nurse her, and because of that, she will hear music for the first time. She will taste chocolate, make mud pies. Swim in fresh water, see the ocean, watch thunderstorms. She will read books.
When the baby was three months old, I hired a college student to come three afternoons a week, so I could take a look at my manuscript. I rewrote the first one hundred pages, then began reading part two. The changes necessary here were innumerable. After a week, I faced the fact that the middle section had to go. I had sent the older sister to college and now had to admit that this was because I didn’t know what else to do with her.
As I read on during those slow, quiet afternoons, my throat filled with dread. I faced the facts: I had written and rewritten this story until nothing bad happened. This is, of course, the best and only ending to a life of endless possibility. I couldn’t bear any of these now-beloved people to be motivated by spite. Or jealousy. Or rage. I couldn’t stand for any of them to be hurt or to hurt anyone else. My determination had the unfortunate result of making all the characters read as equal. Rather than zing, they all flat-lined as perfectly safe, understandable people. When the mute boy fought for the affections of the younger sister, I knew he was a good, sweet person. He was just shy and maladjusted. He fought a twenty-five-year-old cowboy, a ranch hand motivated by lust and personal gain. But that bothered me too — I ended up with a twenty page aside outlining the cowboy ‘s childhood, his miserable, poverty stricken parents, his vicious younger brothers: he couldn’t help but be bad.
I understood that when I began the book, my family life had come undone. My mother was calling me three times a week about her new dog, which she both loved and hated. My brother was in the process of admitting his homosexuality to himself and the world. My sister was finishing graduate school and facing all the disappointments that come with academic endings. And of course, my father was no more. I saw now that I had wanted to write the story of a family shattered by grief, but different from my own. Things were going to work out for these people. They were going to be fine.
The purple finch abandoned her nest on our fuse box. It happened mid-summer, while my husband was away. I had noticed her absence but did not mention it; I was afraid that we were somehow linked. If her baby didn’t make it, neither would mine. I did not look in the nest, or move it, or go anywhere near it. My husband, a more literal man, returned and immediately looked. He found a lone, cold egg. As I’ve said, my baby made it. My book did not, the finch did not, but my daughter did. It’s that simple. Action, and consequence. The bird chose a bad spot for her nest, and her baby died. Motivation doesn’t matter nearly as much as it would seem to, no matter how badly you want it to. Sometimes survivors can’t put the pieces back together. Sometimes families fall apart.
During my daughter’s first year, I remembered my father more vividly than ever before. I could hear his voice, see his hands, remember the way he used to clear his throat. These memories hurt. Up until this remarkable year, memories or feelings about him reached me only to a point. I held myself in a shallow holding tank of half-felt sentiment. Giving birth pulled the stoppers. My memories of him now plunge the depths, leaving me certain that grief is a bottomless well, full of danger and sorrow. I’ve got that inside of me. I can no longer pretend that I don’t.
Motherhood reintroduced me to danger, and the possibility of doom, precisely what my work was missing. My younger self believed that motherhood was failure, a place a woman went when she had given up. Here I am, stuck at home raising kids, my writing life a shadow of what it once was. Yet every time I sit down, even if it’s less often, for shorter periods of time, what I risk is greater. My work is dangerous. It demands consequence. No more lollygagging. I do the kind of work worthy of the woman I hardly recognized that cold January night, the one that made her way through labor and delivery and continues to navigate the frightening, often doomed, yet just-as-often triumphant plotline of motherhood.