I traced my fingertips over the envelope bearing my name as we sat in the car on our way to run errands. Key turned in the ignition, engine warming, my daughter buckled in her car seat with a book perched on her lap and I told myself it was likely a rejection. Surely they would have called if I won a state grant award, I mused. Still, there could be helpful feedback enclosed on my manuscript and ways to make it better. I put the car in reverse and slowly eased back down the driveway before I couldn’t resist anymore and tore it open, trying to convince myself that it didn’t matter anyway.
My name was there, some sort of introductory phrase, but my eyes leapt over that to the
“We are very pleased to inform you,” which I read a half dozen times before I understood.
“I won,” I said softly, reading on about the honor and stipend to come. “I won,” I repeated.
“What Mom?” she suddenly said from the back seat, “What did you win?”
A car barreled up the street, honking at me for blocking him. I was tearing up in earnest then, motioning for the other car to pass me and waving the letter in her smiling full-moon face.
“A grant. I won a grant for my writing!”
She clapped right along with me, “I knew it,” she said with her wise child logic. Then, she turned the page of her storybook matter-of-factly and read on while I trembled all the way to the bank and grocery store. An Emerging Artist in Fiction on an ordinary Friday afternoon.
A few months later, the Secretary of the State stood before a polished oak podium and said, “In the world where everything is more shadowed than it seems, artists are charged with the task of illuminating life for others.” She noted her admiration for the solitude and singular focus one must have to bring a project to completion. Then, she solemnly called my name and handed me a certificate, shaking my hand before declaring myself and a dozen other writers and visual artists “the finest in the state this year.”
I stood in between a painter and a sculptor and suddenly knew what poet James Wright meant by the phrase, “If I stepped outside of my body, I’d break into blossom.” My heart pounded, blooming with pride, until my son sighed loudly across the room and dug his sneaker into the carpet, completely bored. I knew then that singular focus and solitude had very little to do with my writing career. It was all about love and the tenacity my children forced me to develop, just by their existence.
When the children were small, mothering was a delicate system of checks and balances, a mathematical problem of how to divide time around for two girls and one boy. Our life equation could very nearly be solved unless love, friends or (most of all) my writing were entered in as variables. Then, something would always fail to add up. There were negative numbers and awkward remainders, heavy smudges of eraser on the page and a tightness in my belly because there was never enough.
The mother I was then wrote in fragments of time, bare bones sketches of thought at the pre-dawn kitchen table while the house was still sleeping. That mother was greedy for time — hungry for an unbroken span of hours, frantic with frayed creative threads and a fear that the divide between mothering and writing was just too wide to cross. The rare evenings I got to write in a two hour burst were what kept me going. I hoarded that solitude. I clung fiercely to it as if my creative life depended on it.
I would read essays on mothering and writing like Alice Walker’s infamous, “One Child of One’s Own: A Meaningful Digression Within the Work(s),” where she most notably discussed how women could only balance writing with mothering, “assuming this is of interest to them,” if they had one baby. My third, meanwhile, was playing at my feet with a tower of wooden blocks already leaning, already close to toppling, and I became terrified in spite of my reverent love of her. I was terrified that it was already too late for me, that no matter what I tried to build, the foundation was inherently faulty, the odds stacked crookedly against me. The mother I was then was conflicted and afraid. The writer I was then, therefore, was always insatiable and restless, the right words just beyond my grasp.
I didn’t seem to realize that they were growing up on me, these tender babies. Of course, I’d heard that those things happened, but a secret side of me always feared I might be the one mother whose children stayed perpetually teething and diapered, or toddler danger-prone and gloriously high-maintenance. It is, of course, a cliché to say blink and you’ll miss it, but it is the truth.
I also didn’t realize that my stolen writing moments meant my creative self was developing right along with them, a ghostly fourth-child I was raising in every poem I wrote and every character sketch I squeezed in during naptimes or play dates. I certainly never would have believed that my children would be rounding into adolescence, independence, and a social world having nothing to do with me. But, by refusing to surrender my pen, even in those wild thickets of my early mothering years, I managed to emerge on the other side of the brambles with a novel.
A recent newspaper article had a small photo of me in the upper corner and an interview below. My oldest tucked it into her backpack to show her teachers and the kids at school. She was thrilled on my behalf.
“I told them how fancy your award reception was,” she reported that afternoon, “my teacher wants to come to your reading and so do a few kids and their moms.”
I smoothed her hair back into a ponytail, struggling to tuck the unruly flyaways behind her ears.
“It is so weird that you can think of things like you do,” she told me, re-reading the excerpt of my work in the paper. She shook her head, “It just doesn’t seem like the you I know.”
The words at the award reception echoed through me: solitude and singular focus. I pinned the last remnant of hair in place and rested my hand along the ivory hollow of my daughter’s neck.
“It is actually more me than you think.” I told her. She grabbed her bag and headed for the door, waiting for her ride and I imagined this reading with her and the teachers or a class mom perched on chairs, listening. My daughter’s blue eyes would be blazing with pride, but would they shift if I read that scene about my character who self-mutilates or the one who becomes a stripper?
The mother I am now packs lunches and matches up their socks while contemplating alcoholics, dark-hearted sexual liaisons, communes, catrinas, lap dances and nervous breakdowns, secrets and lies. I drop them off at school, smiling at the other mothers, but already mentally composing the scene where the violent ex-husband seeks his revenge or the boy with rust-colored dreadlocks finds his lover in the garden and crushes her mouth under his like a crumbling rose petal.
I have very little solitude as the mother of three, true. But it turns out I have developed it internally. Singular focus is the polar opposite of what I must have as a writer to see my projects through to completion. The writer I am now instead has had to cultivate a kaleidoscopic view of things — the pieces shifting and turning, colors melding and splitting, but all inexplicably and chaotically beautiful.
I wash dishes, but meanwhile my characters are bubbling under the surface. I drive to school, but really my mind is on the long journey from New Mexico to the East coast. My children believe in me. They keep me firmly rooted so that I can grow. They share in my successes and make the inevitable disappointments of the writers’ life that much more manageable.
The writer I am now is a fertile one, a maternal one, gestating future stories to be told and growing them up — right alongside my children.