Voice: A Study in the Writer’s Art
The night before my daughter started kindergarten, I had a nightmare, not about playground bullies, unsympathetic teachers, or empty nest syndrome. It was the day before her first day of school, and I had just discovered that I was nine months pregnant with a third child. Not just pregnant, but in labor. In typical dream-reality, I had missed the pregnancy signs until labor was imminent. My dream voice broke as I told my husband that this child would be born September third, two days after the crucial September first enrollment cut-off date. Didn’t he understand? It meant that it would be almost six more years before this third child started kindergarten. Six more years before I’d have all the kids in school, before I could finally begin my new life as a writer. I woke in a sweat, grasping my belly, relieved to find it still less firm than I’d like, but not in fact, housing a third child.
It was after the birth of my second child, the one now eagerly anticipating kindergarten, that I was faced with the reality that my other career, the supposed real one requiring framed diplomas, student loans, and confining shoes, was not going to make me happy. Slogging away as a young attorney, I’d justified this career path by reasoning I would use my writing skills. Ha. My second maternity leave in two years brought painful clarity. The novel that was simmering inside was going to have to come out, loans and billable hours be damned. Not to mention the fact that I had an infant and a two-year-old who would need to be raised. I didn’t want to do a poor job at lawyering or mothering, and trying to do both just wasn’t working. I quit my job, focused on the mommy-role, and began dreaming about the magical light at the end of the tunnel — the date when two kids would be in school. In the insanity and ignorance of early motherhood, I had no concept of what that would look like. Presumably five and seven-year-olds were self-sufficient, held jobs, and merely met me at the dinner table every night where we’d discuss Proust, the latest New Yorker fiction and maybe the new Annie Dillard book.
Life with two small kids was filled with every cliché, just as fabulous and terrible as the mommy blogs would have you believe. I soldiered through playgroups, co-op preschool, music classes, all sorts of child-enriching opportunities, thrilled when I’d meet another mom with similar literary, or even non-juice-box oriented interests. I did my best to grab a few hours here or there for writing — blissful quiet hours for myself. During this time, the kids stayed home with the carefully-budgeted babysitter — my guiltiest luxury — safe in their own domain, where they could be surrounded by their familiar accoutrements of childhood. My home office sat empty as I sped off in my car in search of writing space, a writer in exile, laptop moving from library to coffee shop to late night bookstores. Sometimes after business hours, I’d write in my car, laptop wedged between me and the steering wheel, eking out the last few paragraphs of a chapter of the troublesome novel before the agreed-upon hour of return. I’d close my computer with a sigh, wondering when I’d get a chance to revisit those characters, that scene, that dialogue. The longer the time away, the harder it was to get back to that place.
Kids, like writers, are all about voice — two voices in the backseat, an endless stream of commentary and chatter. The daytime chatter was halved when my son went off to kindergarten. I shed the requisite tears, waved good-bye, and settled in for one-on-one time with my daughter, who was thrilled to have mommy to herself at last. She enjoyed being my constant companion and primary voice in my ear. “Girl time” as she called it. We discussed the magic of the rotating dry cleaner racks, the improbability of finding a diamond as big as a house, the selection of stickers at the grocery checkout, the optimal living arrangements for fairies. The chatter would continue until three o’clock when her brother would again be with us and the volume (sound and quantity) of words would again be doubled. I still treasured those few hours of babysitter-provided quiet, the peaceful solitude of the car as I drove away from my frenetic, if joyful house. Soon, I thought, both kids will be in school, and I will be able to write all day. I will be able to focus on my voice
The summer before kindergarten was joyous and anticipatory. My daughter had a countdown chart in her room and each day she checked off a calendar square moving her one day closer to the start of her elementary school career, and me one day closer to my novel appearing on the best seller list. Her brother was also home, preparing for the rigors of second grade, and in anticipation of my coming writing bounty, I abandoned even the pretense of writing for the summer. We rode our bikes to swim lessons every day, bargaining for snacks at the pool snack bar, hiked, splashed at the lake, played endless card games, read a million books. Each child had a week here or there of morning summer camp, sometimes soccer, sometimes ballet, so that I could spend time with the other, doing whatever they chose. My son wanted to go on long mommy/son bike rides, chattering to me the whole time about “what ifs.” (“What if your head turned into a parking meter? People would put coins in you. That would be a good way to get money.”) My daughter wanted to go to the pool with just me to play elaborate games with incomprehensible rules that changed as quickly as she could speak, and always ended with me swimming her around on my back, a game called “water pony.” We shopped at farmers’ markets, rode ferries, ate popsicles, and I basked in the wistful comments from friends with younger kids. The first of a group of friends to get married, I was also the first to become the mother of school-age children, and my friends with preschoolers were bridesmaids envious of my upcoming event.
The countdown chart in my daughter’s room was finally all crossed off, the big day arrived. Both kids were outfitted with crisp new clothes, backpacks, school supplies, all the necessities for a successful education. My husband and I snapped a zillion photos of the kids standing in front of our house, their school, together, individual. My son waved and ran off to join the jaded ranks of second graders, while we walked our daughter to her kindergarten room. She gave us a kiss and brushed us off, entranced by her very own desk with her name taped on it. It was absurdly brief and anti-climactic. I smiled at the rookie parents toting toddlers and babies as they wept, saying goodbye to their eldest, the first in the family to hit the public school system. I remembered the angst and uncertainty, but I was dry-eyed and slightly giddy as I drove away from the school. My new life had begun. Full-time writing time had arrived.
I had bought myself school supplies as well, fresh note pads, pencils, new memory sticks, a book of writing prompts. Nothing to stop me from churning out the Great American Novel in record time. I sat down at the computer to write. The house was quiet. And nothing happened. I hadn’t written since June, and now those pages seemed stale, from a different lifetime. The characters were strangers. For three days in a row, I sat looking at the screen, scribbling notes occasionally, devoid of a single creative thought. Writing prompts failed me. Finally, for lack of anything original, I began a journal entry about the start of kindergarten. I wrote about it from my smug perspective of experienced school parent then drifted into what was behind me. No more diapers, the era of baby and toddler gear, the glitchy strollers and cumbersome seats, the vacations spent searching unfamiliar stores for familiar food. Then I drifted into the more recent years, the preschool ones, the lunches served on colorful plastic plates, the scramble for the trifecta: a palatable fruit, a protein, a starch arranged just so. The explanations of mysteries ranging from smoking to skin colors to combustion engines. Slowly my daughter’s entrance to school, distilled through the words on the page, clarified by the writing, was heartbreaking, and tears began to fall on my keyboard. I thought of the solo lunches ahead of me, the uninterrupted hours to write, but mourned the sheer volume of voices and life which would not come again. My writing life had not been on hold during those pre-school years. My life had been filled with words and voice and high-volume living. Filling the well, as I’d once heard in writing class. I’d been living with two writing prompts for years. No book would ever improve on parking meter heads.
The day after my tearful journaling, I sat down and started a short story, about a woman who was afraid to leave her house, who only viewed life through vertical slice of a half-open door as she picked up her deliveries, the opposite of the rich life I’d led with my small kids. I created a mystery around her, a tragic event that had rendered her afraid to go outside until she makes a connection with a stranger. I wrote and wrote, most of it terrible, but some sentences resonated with a satisfying yes. Then some of those words seemed right for my long-suffering and much-neglected novel, so I went back to that. Then, in the second week of school, I sat in my office and threaded my way through a few chapters. Suddenly, it was three o’clock and I had to rush to school before the final bell. Filing out of the building, my son and daughter’s eyes searched the sea of parents until they found me and lit up with simple relief and happiness. My son ran off to play with friends, but my daughter rushed to me, still the sun around which her kindergarten world revolves. She launched herself at me, her voice clear over the school playground. “Mommy, you’ll never guess what happened!” she enthused, her small face more beautiful than any dream. I knelt down to hear her news, and in an instant I knew I’d arrived at the moment I’d dreamed of for years, a writer and her muse, discussing the events of the day.