I didn’t know she’d be one of my mothers when I sat in Dr. Mary Brown’s Introduction to Creative Writing class my sophomore year in college. I was on the lookout for mothers, not because I was a Dickensian orphan or anything. I had a perfectly good mother waiting for me back home, but Student Affairs wouldn’t let me bunk with her in my dorm room. Still, I liked the feeling of someone watching over me, making sure I didn’t run into the street or major in Latin.
Dr. Brown and I didn’t take to each other at first. My grandmother had succumbed to breast cancer after a two-year fight, and we’d buried her four days before the start of the semester. My whole life she had been there like a second mother—giving me pep talks before dropping me off at school, scratching my back while I ate the scrambled eggs she’d made me, staying up late together while we watched old Doris Day movies and sipped her homemade chocolate malts—but she was gone. I was mad at anyone who had the audacity to be alive. I don’t think Mary Brown was too fond of me either, since she kept giving me B+’s and told me to stop sleeping in the back row. I never actually slept in her class—she misunderstood my perpetually half-mast eyelids.
Even though my millennial self-esteem was punctured by her high expectations, I continued taking Dr. Brown’s classes and eventually became a writing major. I’d show up to class with sheet marks on my face, wearing a bubblegum-pink “Mary Is My Homegirl” T-shirt with a cartoon Virgin Mary on it, and she’d roll her eyes. She’d return my poems with a saucy “Really, Angie?” written in green cursive ink in the margins, and I’d roll my eyes. We both saw the insides of our brains quite a bit in those days.
As Mary Brown taught me to let go of clichés (my heart was broken into a thousand pieces), use imagery (the room smelled of rotten cat carcasses), and show instead of tell (replace “I was mad at my boyfriend” with “I threw my boyfriend’s childhood troll collection into the retention pond”), I began to grow into the writer she knew I wasn’t trying hard enough to be. When she would choose a paragraph or even just a sentence of mine to share with the class, hope brewed in me. Maybe I was good at this writing thing. Maybe I could keep doing it. I began to realize that I cared whether or not Dr. Brown was proud of me, of what I could do on the page.
I was never that kid with the glasses and the dog-eared book who’d run around shouting, “I’m going to be a writer when I grow up!” Okay, so I had the glasses and the dog-eared book and some unfortunate bowl-cut bangs, but I wasn’t a pint-sized Plath. I never kept a journal for longer than a few weeks, and even most of those entries recorded my latest crush—for posterity, of course. I did well in school because I enjoyed seeing collections of A’s lining my report cards, not because I had any great passion for a particular subject or teacher.
I remember watching teacher-hero movies growing up. You know, the kind where the white former NASA astronaut goes to inner-city Baltimore and ends up taking a bunch of poor minority kids on a field trip to the International Space Station. My favorite teacher-hero movie was Sister Act II: Back in the Habit where Whoopi Goldberg plays Sister Mary Clarence, a music teacher who helps a young Lauryn Hill cultivate her incredible voice. Whoopi talks about trying to decide between a career as a singer or a figure skater in the Ice Capades. (Whoopi says, “Don’t roll your eyes at the Ice Capades. They were very cool.”) She tells Lauryn,
I went to my mother who gave me this book called Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. He’s a fabulous writer. A fellow used to write to him and say: I want to be a writer, please read my stuff. And Rilke says to this guy, ‘Don’t ask me about being a writer. If when you wake up in the morning you can think of nothing but writing, then you’re a writer.’ I’m gonna say the same thing to you. If you wake up in the morning and you can’t think of anything but singing first, then you’re supposed to be a singer, girl.
I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about nothing but writing. It’s been over ten years since I sat in that first writing class with Dr. Brown, and I can go for days, weeks, even months without typing a single word pertaining to my own work. But I know that when my baby is sleeping for ten minutes or two hours and I can steal a few moments away, I can sit down and do what I’ve been taught to do. I can turn off the part of my brain that worries about whether what I’m writing is going to sound stupid or whether I should even bother since I probably won’t like what I’ve written when I’m done. That mean-spirited, wasteful voice lives in the minds of all writers, but you can drown it out with other voices. One of the loudest, clearest voices in my head belongs to Mary Brown. I hear her saying, “Do the work,” or “This is good, more of this,” or “You’re close but not quite there.” I don’t remember whether she actually said these things to me or if I’m just hearing echoes of what I imagine she’d say if she were looking over my shoulder.
Some days, when I sit at my computer, I want to laugh because what the hell can I say that hasn’t already been said 80 times better by John Steinbeck. I feel the same way about motherhood. I still can’t quite grasp that I am someone’s mother now. I have moments where I feel like I’m playing house, mostly when we’re in a store, just the two of us. My baby will be bundled in my arms as we walk past the elderly greeter and grab a cart. “What a sweetheart,” the greeter will say, and I’ll smile and nod in agreement. I’ll struggle to fit his squirming legs into the cart. I’ll remember to wipe the handle with an antibacterial wipe only after he has started gnawing on it like a demented beaver. I’ll look around to see if people are staring.
This weird sensation washes over me even as I tell myself it’s not real. I freeze in panic and wonder if someone is going to come up to me and say, “That’s not your baby. What are you doing with him?” This phenomenon has a name. Everything has a name, any writer will tell you. They call it Imposter Syndrome, and it’s more common in women—as if we don’t have enough to deal with, what with rape whistles, tampons, and “leaning in.” Imposter Syndrome makes you feel as if you don’t belong, as if you haven’t earned your place at the table. The insecurity can be crippling and keep you from accomplishing goals you have every capability of meeting. I know this uneasiness well.
But when I sense the useless anxiety creeping in, I remember: I earned all of this. I carried that baby for 40 long weeks and one extremely long, bone-loosening day. It was my soaked face that turned both purple and ashen with the work of childbirth. I am his mother. No one else. And I might not be the next John Steinbeck, but I sure as shit know how to write. Because Mary Brown taught me. With every stroke of her green pen, with every exasperated sigh, with every B+, with every push of encouragement, she shaped me into a writer—someone I never knew I wanted to be. And isn’t that how mothers are? They see the truest version of you. And in whispers and nudges, they make you believe you can get there.