Wanting to become a published writer is a little like thinking about going on a diet.
You imagine your life will be different. You think it will solve some self-esteem problems. You think people might like, respect, and admire you a little more.
But then there’s all the work! Where do you start? What if you try and fail? Is it even worth it?
Becoming a published writer is like having lost the weight.
Yes, you do feel lighter. There is that moment when you look in the mirror or at your published piece, and you think, “Is that really me? Did I do that?”
People do congratulate you.
Some are jealous of you.
But, really, life is pretty much the same.
You cut veggies for a salad. You draft another article.
You take a daily walk even when you’re tired. You research new places to submit your work.
You look at the Hostess Twinkies on the supermarket shelf and think, “If I wrote about them, would it justify eating them?” and decide to pass. You wake with visions of starting a new book and realize that this fantasy is keeping you from the hard work of revising what you’ve already started.
Two of the wisest writers I’ve read are Audre Lorde and Anne Lamott. I think one of the reasons I like them both so much – in addition to the precision and truth-telling of their writing – is that they are both survivors.
Audre Lorde survived child sexual abuse and rape (which I write about in We Heal from Memory), and she was also a 14-year survivor of cancer. Anne Lamott writes openly about her struggles with alcoholism and faith. Both women write in the face of destruction and mortality – and yet, they allow us to feel the light of what happens when we cut down on the drama and do the work.
Let’s look at their writing for guideposts to how you, mother writer, can negotiate what happens after your work begins being accepted for publication.
1. Write for the person you are becoming.
In 1985, while Audre Lorde was visiting Arlesheim, Germany, getting treatment for the cancer that had spread to her liver, she wrote,
I brought some of my books with me, and reading The Cancer Journals in this place is like excavating words out of the earth, like turning up a crystal that has been buried at the bottom of a mine for a thousand years, waiting. Even Our Dead Behind Us – now that it has gone to the printer — feels prophetic. Like always, it feels like I plant what I will need to harvest, without consciousness. (A Burst of Light, p. 80)
I often tell my clients that they are writing for the people they are becoming.
This is why it’s so important to write without editing, to let the language lead you across the page, to allow the mind to get out of the way and keep going.
Writing like this – for yourself, not for “the market” — will change you. It will make you stronger. It will ensure a career of writing deeply and truthfully and long.
Even after your work begins to be accepted for publication, you must allow yourself to write for you. For the crystal buried deep within you that you will need to excavate one day.
And you, like Lorde, will later return to the writing to harvest what you need.
2. Be a mess –
on and off the page.
Anne Lamott tells the story of having her tonsils removed at the age of 21 and how, when the pain killers ran out, she wanted more, but the nurse refused and told her to chew gum. When we have a wound, the nurse explained, the muscles tighten around it, and we must work it out to loosen it. She writes,
I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds…. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there…but they keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us experiencing life in a naked and immediate way. (Bird by Bird, p. 30)
Many mother writers struggle with keeping it all together. We constrain ourselves because behind the books on our shelves and the book we hope to write, there lurks a dark shadow of who we might become if we give all of ourselves to our writing.
All this leads to is a cramped and wounded mama.
There will be times in your life when you will have pain – it may be cancer, or divorce, or death, or coming out, or people leaving, or life disappointing you.
If you try to hide from this and just “do your work,” your writing will suffer.
If you face this and let all the plates fall into a thousand smashed chips all over your sticky kitchen floor, I promise – promise! – that you and your family and your writing will be a million times better for it.
3. Go beyond your children and claim your power.
Many of my writer mama friends have kids in their teens right now. I see two things happening. First, their careers are beginning to take off. Second, they are tempted to cling to mothering.
Audre Lorde writes about the need to find our power in places other than our mothering:
For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection that is feared by the patriarchal world. Only within a patriarchy is maternity the only social power open to women. (Sister Outsider, p. 111)
I understand the power that comes with mothering. The appreciative comments from strangers when you have a baby with you. The connection with other women that can come from sharing the heartache and the joy of constant caretaking. The hole in the heart that a child can fill when one’s childhood or marriage is disappointing.
But all of this ends.
As a stepmother to a daughter who was 11 when my daughter was born, I had an inside scoop on mothering.
You may not want to think about it now.
But they do.
That’s your job – to prepare them to leave you.
What are you doing right now to prepare yourself and your writing to be flourishing when that day comes?
4. Breathe. Fill up.
Remember how I wrote that becoming a newly published writer is like losing weight and coming to terms with the excitement and tedium of that new self?
Let’s return to that.
Some people get addicted to hunger. Some people like to hold their breath.
“I lost weight? I’ll eat even less!”
“I got published? I must write more, better, longer!”
We can get so into the rush of the new that we start to hurl ourselves as writers into a perpetual future state of better, more, if, then, and when.
But remember, we only write one word at a time.
We only take one bite, one breath at a time.
It is this place of wisdom from which your best writing will come.
Here’s what Anne Lamott says about this:
I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it, and I don’t think you have time to waste on someone who does not respond to you with kindness and respect. You don’t want to spend your time around people who make you hold your breath. You can’t fill up when you’re holding your breath. And writing is about filling up, filling up when you are empty, letting images and ideas and smells run down like water – just as writing is also about dealing with the emptiness. (Bird by Bird, p. 170-171)
Just before I wrote this column, I went to the fridge. Cheese? Chocolate? What did I want?
I shut the door and went to the computer to check when my next column was due. Three days. Time to sit.
I started by breathing.
Like a Zen monk, we writers mostly sit and breathe.
And then I began.
Did it help that I had a deadline and an editor ready to read my work? You betcha!
But had I already done the work of writing from my deepest self, letting myself be a mess, and going beyond mothering to claim my own power? Oh, yes!
And the breath was deep and filling. And the words came smooth and flowing.
Go to your page. Right now. Start writing. Keep going. You can do this, too.
In the tradition of Audre Lorde and Anne Lamott’s truth-telling, I invite you to submit a creative non-fiction piece of 800-1200 words on the theme of how you are learning to integrate your identity as a writer into your personal and family lives. Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by July 31st. Please note the following:
– Put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 3” in the subject line of the email.
– Include a brief bio in the email.
– Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email.
By sending in your submission, you acknowledge that if your piece is chosen for publication, you will work with writing coach, Cassie Premo Steele, to receive (gentle and nurturing!) suggestions for revision, and you agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.