Last month’s prompt invited readers to write an essay that reflects upon and gives advice about publicly declaring one’s identity as a writer.
And Thus, a Writer was Born
By Kezia Willingham
The first time I seriously entertained the thought of becoming a writer, I was on maternity leave, sitting on our small red couch, nursing my new baby in our overstuffed little apartment, nestled on the top floor of a 178-unit housing project in South Seattle.
My son was so small, so fresh, new and vulnerable, his soft, miniature hands grasping my breast as he suckled. My heart was his. I savored every minute that I had with him.
So I wracked my mind trying to come up with ideas about how I might possibly create a way to prolong our time together. I thought about trying to become a writer.
But as soon as the thought congealed, I found a million reasons why it wouldn’t happen: the new baby, new husband, a new stepson, my eleven-year-old daughter’s first year of enrollment in a prestigious private school, and the daily household responsibilities such as laundry, meal preparation, and dishes. All made me feel as though there simply was not enough time to manage it all.
I had made some real mistakes in my life.
All the right things I’d ever done, like have my kids, I’d done in the wrong way.
Both of my children were conceived out of wedlock.
I never had any money. I had my first baby before I had either an education or a career, and ten years later, shortly after I finally earned my master’s degree, I went and got knocked up again.
It was like I just couldn’t get things right and follow the path that life is supposed to take: school, career, dating, marriage, home ownership. Only then were children supposed to be carefully conceived and born.
This time around, I was finally married, but it was a marriage born out of desperation, not love.
My husband is an illegal immigrant to this country.
He came here to work to support his younger siblings when his father died. He and I met at the preschool program where I worked and his son attended. One day, after his son graduated from the program, I agreed to help him with something. To thank me, he offered to take me out to dinner. After consuming a couple of margaritas, our son was conceived, just like that.
Despite the haste with which we had created a new life, things were going along quite well between us until he got a letter from Immigration stating his Temporary Protected Status was going to be denied due to a crime he’d committed 4 years previously. His one and only conviction had cost him his ability to reside in this country legally. Feeling we had no other option to allow him to be present in our baby’s life, we chose to get married.
All of these rapid changes in my life, I thought, gave me ample writing material. I looked back on the last year and felt that I had a story to tell, but then I would doubt myself, so I kept everything inside until a new wave of discontent lit me up like a firestorm. It wouldn’t wait.
I unleashed it to my small circle of friends on the Internet. MySpace became a place for me to vent, to express my angst about our situation, and to gather support.
Blogging allowed me to share my feelings and validate my experience with people who knew and cared about me, but who lived elsewhere. My friends continued to say they liked my writing, and I figured if they liked it, then maybe other people would too. Each positive comment encouraged me to keep expressing the intimate details of my life for public consumption.
I decided the only way I could cope would be to document life as it was unfolding.
My husband was facing potential deportation.
We did not have enough money.
Our marriage was tenuous.
I was not sure I would have a job to return to when my maternity leave was over.
And there were three children who needed more stability than our current circumstances allowed us to provide.
So I wrote.
I wrote about our date with Immigration.
I wrote about being discriminated against in our housing search because of the fifty dollars a month we received in federal housing assistance.
I wrote about when my husband’s ex lied in a child support hearing in an attempt to make him pay more child support.
I wrote about how the judge ruled in her favor.
I wrote about my plan to separate from my husband temporarily because I would be able to find a larger, nicer apartment more easily on my own than I could with his criminal history and limited income.
I wrote about the day I found out that my husband’s Lawful Permanent Resident Status application was denied, and his work permit would expire in three weeks. With a mortgage that would be eighty percent of my monthly earned income, and the knowledge that I was on the verge of impending homelessness, I walked around in a state of shock for weeks. I wanted to run away, go back in time, and feel confident in my ability to provide for my children. But I didn’t.
So I kept writing.
I wrote about the day a lawyer told us it would cost nearly seven thousand dollars to hire her to represent us before the immigration judge.
I wrote about the ten thousand dollars my husband put on his credit cards.
I wrote about the $300,000 loan we had taken to buy a house.
I wrote about my $70,000 student loan debt.
As I wrote, I tried to let go of my anxiety, and instead focus on each positive aspect of my life: nursing my son before and after work, the smell of his hair, the oxytocin high as we snuggled together at the beginning and end of each day; conversations with my daughter; visits with my stepson on the weekends; a good home-cooked meal waiting for me when I returned from work; the fact that I had a decent vehicle to get me to my job everyday; and lying next to my husband after all the kids were asleep.
Some people turn to crack when their lives seem unbearable. I immersed myself in writing.
I set a goal to get published this year.
Many of my favorite writers had been single mothers who had dealt with difficult circumstances. The only difference between them and me was that they’d been writing longer. If I was going to move my fantasy of becoming a writer into reality, then there was no time like the present to make it happen.
And thus, a writer was born.
Kezia Willingham is a former high-school dropout, single mother, and welfare recipient who earned a B.S. from Oregon State University and an M.S.W. from University of Washington. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband and children. Ms. Willingham works for the Head Start program and is an advocate for immigration reform. She credits the memoirs of other mothers as guiding lights in time of darkness and her children as her inspiration.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
When I first received this essay from Kezia, I recognized it as a diamond in the rough. I thought it needed significant revision in order to be polished. So the first thing I did was ask Kezia’s permission to see if she would be willing to do that kind of work. To my delight, she said yes.
I then sent her back the document with suggestions in just about every paragraph. In the end, only the last 3 paragraphs remained; all the others were cut and created anew. Some of my comments to spur this revision were pretty tough. Here are some examples to show just how tough.
See how general this is? Go deeper. Give us specifics. What was happening? What did you write about it? Give us a short view into your life at the time.
This paragraph continues from the last one — and really summarizes rather than giving readers a bird’s eye view into your life.
This sentence is SO FULL of things readers need details about . . . bring all this to the forefront and show us this life you are leading and the courage it took to write while so much of your energy is centered on surviving.
I don’t think there’s anything new in this paragraph that you won’t already have incorporated into the earlier suggestions for revision.
Yikes! It takes a lot of courage to be born as a mother writer! But Kezia obviously has it in her; she got the revision back to me within 24 hours.
In the next round, I cut a lot. She had gone deeper, but in doing so, sometimes there was too much detail and repetition, so I went through and streamlined the narrative. I asked her permission, and she granted it, and she was happy with the result.
Here is what she wrote to me once we were done:
“I really enjoyed the process of working with you because you were able to offer very tangible suggestions about ways that I could improve the piece. This was the first time I had been through such an experience, and I found it to be very valuable. I don’t currently have any writing mentors in my life, and for a variety of reasons never share the things I submit with anyone before I send them. After the initial release and sense of accomplishment I feel after I complete a project, I then enter a period of intense self criticism: remembering things I meant to say but forgot to, wondering why I choose to air my dirty laundry or fearing what people think. Having someone express an interest in your story is the validation that I assume most writers seek when they expose the raw details of one’s life for others to reflect upon. The concrete feedback pointed me in the right direction and allowed me the ability to improve my story.”
So, the lessons we can take away from this month’s “Birthing the Mother Writer” editing process are these:
1. Be willing to ask for help in polishing your diamonds in the rough — find an editor or writing mentor or creativity coach who is gifted at doing this.
2. Be open to hearing specific, concrete criticism about how to improve your writing, and instead of wasting your time resisting it, just jump in and do it.
3. Be aware that this process will actually be, in Kezia’s words, “enjoyable,” and “valuable,” and provides the “validation,” that “points [you] in the right direction.”
One final lesson: I think the most worthwhile thing we can take from Kezia’s essay itself is the inspiration to keep writing, no matter our financial, physical, or emotional circumstances. Life can be very, very hard. But writing always, always helps. Keep on writing, Mother Writers!