Sit anyone down for a free association starting with the word “mother,” and you’ll probably get some pretty sunny words. Love. Muffins. Involvement. Nurture. Meatloaf. Self-Sacrifice. Start with the word “novelist” and you’ll get an entirely different set of words. Solitude, the set might include. Late nights. Distance. Self-involvement. Whiskey.
Orhan Pamuk, in his 2006 Nobel lecture, defined a writer as “the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. As he writes, he may drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. . . he may write poems, or plays, or novels, as I do. But all these differences arise only after the crucial task is complete — after he has sat down at the table and patiently turned inward.” Pamuk defines “the starting point of true literature,” not a novel or a poem or a literary tradition, but rather the “writers who cut themselves off from society and shut themselves up in their rooms.”
Jane Hamilton has also written about the need for solitude. “Real life is always there, and I think the writer wants to go down into the well and the little children, they’re always interrupting you, so you have to climb up out of the well and deal with their needs, and then there’s this moment of peace, and despite yourself, you tend to go back into the well.”
I would contend, however, that even once we are back down in the proverbial well, shut away in our rooms with our laptops, we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought we might be. Parenthood, at the very least, changes the structural integrity of our wells. Forget revising that worrisome bit of dialogue — it’s time to drive off to the school pickup line. Forget finishing chapter six — the dead lizard on the back porch needs to be viewed this very minute! The worlds in our heads will exist forever in the moments we leave them, but our kids’ childhoods are now. And so they chip away at the mortar between the bricks of our wells. They begin to push themselves through the cracks.
The very week after I gave birth, I realized I would never again be able to sit down to my keyboard without the nagging feeling that there was a more important something else I needed to attend to, even when my daughter was blissfully napping. I could always pump milk for the freezer, I thought. I could sterilize those pacifiers. As my daughter grew older, the guilt crashed down on me when I dropped her off at daycare: other moms and dads wore business suits or scrubs — the uniforms of the working world, of interacting and giving, immediately, to others — but I had on sweats and a concert tee, the uniform of solitude, the one I wore in the luxurious writerly privacy of my very own home. Wasn’t there a real world out there beyond my laptop? Wasn’t my daughter out there in it? And shouldn’t I be out there with her? The world I lowered myself into each day just didn’t seem as seminal as it once did.
I remembered that Toni Morrison was a single mother of two, working full time as a book editor, when she wrote her first novels. When she finished Song of Solomon, she said to her son Slade, “I’m sorry. This whole summer, the whole time, I did not spend one minute with you.” In her son’s version of the story, Morrison is crying. I will never forget my guilt at dropping my then-fourteen-month-old child off so I could go revise, for the second time, the closing chapters of a novel my agent was still having trouble with. And while the mother in me was weighed down with guilt, the writer in me was watching my sense of process undergo a dramatic transformation. Gone were the days of furious, impassioned, nightlong writing sessions; gone were the days when, drawn by some inner fury, I could complete an entire short story in two days. Now, I type furiously while my daughter naps, I try to revise the syntax of an entire page during her thirty-minute piano lesson.
Shortly after becoming a parent, a writing student of mine e-mailed me that he’d “learned to love the toilet. . . I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in time, a new parent wrote a whole novel on the throne.” Orham Pamuk says he wakes at 5 a.m. to write for a couple of hours before waking his daughter Ruya for school. Like Pamuk, many of us wake before dawn and struggle to write as much as possible before the moment that will come, that moment when we spring out of ourselves and our narratives and into that other life, the real life outside the well, the life that makes us forget which character we were writing about, who they were getting ready to screw or to murder. In this real life, this life that begins when it’s time to make the pancakes or write the class valentines or tie matching ribbons around the ponytails, we forget those characters almost completely. Sometimes we even forget ourselves.
We may have identified most fiercely as writers before our children were born, but whoever we were then — those parallel selves that existed in the past — are but a part of who we are now. Truly, our children have leached through the bricks that kept us separated. But there are few transformations in nature that don’t leave the world stronger and more beautiful than it was before, and I’m loathe to believe that when our children push into our wells, they don’t make the atmosphere much nicer. For when the dinner has been served, the last bite of broccoli coaxed down a stubborn mouth and the dishes rinsed for the machine, when baths have been drained and pajamas donned, when soft lullabies have been loaded into CD players and bedroom doors have been quietly closed, then we lower ourselves back into those other worlds that we love so, we try to pick up our characters, remember who they were screwing or murdering. Our children are with us, sending love.
Before I was a mother, I created a lot of women who married for money and plenty of men who married for sex. I wrote characters who were almost always self-interested, who mowed down the world to get from Point A to Point B. I wrote characters I could know, not characters I could love. Now, I find that I love my characters so much more. I let them fall in love, and I let them live like there’s no tomorrow. They are, of course, a reflection of me. Because I thought I loved chocolate. I thought I loved my college boyfriend’s butt. I thought I loved my fellow Black people. I thought I loved The Dave Matthews Band. But after the birth of my daughter, I discovered love at oceanic depths.
I’d never felt a high quite like the one I felt when my daughter first played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the piano, and I’ve never felt a low quite like the one I felt the day I was late to her school Christmas program.
A couple of weeks ago, she began one of those whining sessions that are a staple of the terrible threes. “I want to watch Shrek,” she cried, and my answer was always “no.” I sat down, defeated, in the rocking chair, and she climbed up in my lap to get up close and personal with her whining, but after a few minutes of whimpering she fell fast asleep, sucking on her fingers just as she had as an infant. It was, perhaps, the sweetest moment of my life to date. I wanted to wake her up to play, maybe even listen to more of her sweet little whining. But it was also bedtime, time for Mommy to go write, time for me to lay her down in her bed and get back inside my head, my well. I did so, but I found that my daughter, more than ever before, was there with me. I wouldn’t have her anyplace else.