When my older son was 2 1/2 and my daughter a mere 6 months, a pigeon became caught in my cat’s self-feeder. It had been trying to eat her food, and instead it risked feeding her. After much effort — emotional and physical — I freed it. And then that night, I wrote about it, not a story, not a letter, but a description of what had happened, how upset I became, and then some reflection on why the event was so distressing. “I’m not sure what I’m doing,” I said to my husband the next morning, but I kept writing. Immediately after that, another piece took shape, interrogating my excessive preoccupation with children’s birthday parties, and that was then followed by a meditation on knitting and James Bond.
Quite suddenly, it seemed, a genre had found me.
I had never considered writing personal essays except those of the school admissions variety. In graduate school, I was trained in literary analysis and had written numerous critical essays. I’ve dabbled in fiction, and once I had a rather maudlin encounter with the lyric poem.
But my experiments in these genres were the results of deliberate choices to explore their possibilities. I was supposedly the one in control, aware of a form’s constraints and conventions. Sure — I had been overwhelmed by the flow of prose, had experienced the thrilling rush of words, of ideas, but I had always assumed that following the initial onslaught, I’d take all that material and mold it into some defined, preconceived shape, writing what I thought I needed to, and not what needed to be written.
Childbirth, and the resulting changes in lifestyle have forced me to loosen my grasp. I’m happy to say I’ve managed to survive, but I’ve only recently been able to see that. During the immediate post-pigeon period, I was not so aware and thus furiously confused by my need to write about an encounter with a greedy neighborhood pest. I had the chance to run this by a friend. “What have you been reading?” she asked. A good question. I’ve always read widely, but following my first pregnancy there were more and more memoirs and personal essay collections on my bedside table, and I had wondered about this shift. I turned to Donald Hall, our current poet laureate and a notable essayist, who argues in his introduction to The Contemporary Essay, that ours is “the age of the essay.” Was that it? Was I merely responding to the zeitgeist?
Perhaps the obvious answer is this: that I have sought out work to help me respond to the world as I encounter it in a new adult guise. I find Hall’s comment bewildering; I also find it hopeful, a relief in my more frustrated moments when I crabbily deride this society for a materialism and superficiality that not only inhibit reflection, but seem to wage deliberate war on it. When I listen to Hall, and then to Philip Lopate, who defines the essay as a form that requires “self-consciousness and self-reflection,” well, the world does not seem too far-gone. There is a space for reflection, for analysis that leads us to understand our world, our roles in it, and thus to improve it and ourselves.
But there’s more. If the personal essay takes a particular experience in order to meditate on its universal significance, it then allows us to connect, to reach out our hands wildly and be reasonably sure that someone will grab one, not harshly, stifling us with disapproval, but with kindness, understanding, and perhaps some gratitude.
The pigeon’s appearance immediately followed our move to a new city in the far west. For the first time in my adult life, I was not working outside the home. I was spending my days attempting to unpack moving boxes while I played with, and protected two small children.
I was very lonely.
Had I ever felt so isolated?
Pre-children, or even pre-stay-at-home mother life, I was accustomed to pulling time out of a busy week to have coffee or a long telephone call with a friend, opportunities that allowed us to examine and reflect on the seemingly incomprehensible events in our lives. With a move and no job, there were no friends and no time for these explorations. Even telephone calls became difficult. Suddenly, my children were always with me, and by the time they were asleep and I had the peace to pick up the phone, everyone I knew was asleep in the Eastern Time zone.
Eventually I found part-time childcare, part-time work, another baby, and then a full-time job. I now have moments of peace in my office and late, late at night or very early in the morning and have figured out, sort of, how to juggle my schedule so that something can sometimes get done. What hasn’t changed, however, is the possibility for conversation. Now, even when I am physically with friends, we spend our time together chasing children off the stairs, away from the fireplace, and out of the laundry room. Our attempts at conversation are interrupted by requests for juice or shrieks over coveted toys.
Previously I had relied on talk, conversation to make sense of my life. When family life made it no longer possible, I turned to writing and continued the conversation with myself, on the page.
And I am not alone. Many writers: Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, Louise Erdrich, Rachel Cusk, reflect on their experiences as mothers. While I researched possible places to send my essays, I was surprised to discover a veritable subculture of mother-personal essayists. Their work appears in newspapers, parenting magazines, women’s magazines, anthologies, many with bios identifying the author as a freelance writer home with children.
I hesitate to speak for others, but perhaps what motivates this group of mother-writers is the seemingly paradoxical combination of crushing loneliness that often follows childbirth, as well as the frustration caused by a need to be alone, to escape the all-consuming demands of little people one desperately loves. Is it this tension that allows us to discover that while a room of your own is nice, it’s not necessary to write? Indeed, it is possible, and for some a necessity, to compose amidst the screams of indignant children, the crashes of spilling toys, and the loud bleeping of some electronic contraption whose battery is running out. Ultimately, writing, particularly the personal essay, provides the chance to process, to reflect and understand the significance of our work in many spheres: it is a place where we can celebrate our children’s accomplishments, to mourn their heartaches, and to think about what all this means for the world, because, of course, it does mean something.
I have come to believe this so strongly that I try to share my convictions with my students. After several months spent on thesis statements, evaluating scholarly sources, and developing some sense of academic discourse, I assign my students a version of the personal essay. “I’m giving you a gift,” I tell them. “You will need this one day, this process of stopping, observing, and sometimes celebrating a seemingly small detail in your life.” For the most part, they respond with weary and wary sighs. How can I expect them to write yet another paper? Their eyes glaze; they hastily shove the assignment in their folders without reading it.
Undeterred, I continue. I tell them there will be moments in the future when they will have no one to talk to, or no time to talk to those they have. In response, a few raise their eyebrows or bite their lips. Some of them are now in the throes of loneliness. They have spent their high school years ostracized and rejected, and are fearful that college will not alleviate the misery. Some have only begun to understand the joy of talk — the late nights spent sharing their excitement for an idea, or a project, or a person. Others at least know that conversation is a balm for heartbreak, for despair. But what, they wonder, can any of this have to do with their schoolwork?
As they work on their assignments in the following weeks, some will begin to understand. Almost all of them will neglect to follow the directions that I so carefully detailed, but a few will begin to sit in class with their notebooks pressed against their chests. They will watch me, expressionless, and then suddenly slam down their books and begin writing rapidly. They will then ignore me for the remainder of the period, but I don’t mind, not really: the muse has finally arrived.
Now, after weeks of arguing that they’d love to write — if they could write about what they want to write about — they can’t figure out what to write about. It’s uncomfortable, off-putting, this process of learning to listen to oneself, but I hope that they are prepared for it when the voices become so persistent that they can’t ignore them anymore. Who knows what their trigger will be: maybe parenthood, divorce, or a more subtle, yet powerful conversion, something spiritual or political? All I can tell them is that when they are suddenly able to rise above the crush of adulthood’s details and routines, writing will help them to stay there.
As I write this, my four-month old lies on my lap. He is kicking and yelling, not to be consoled. I’ve already tried feeding, burping, changing, and walking around the house singing to him. He’s just mad. I’d like to discuss with a friend what could possibly be so upsetting for him? I’d like us to marvel at his lungs and fret over his stubbornness: might this be a precursor of struggles to come?
But talk is not possible above the sharp screams of an irritated infant, so I might as well write.