Six months before the conference
You learn about the annual conference of writers from your writing instructor and look it up online. It will be held in April in the state where you grew up, where your family still lives, 1,800 miles away from where you live now. You check the school calendar, but the week of the conference does not align with the week of your kids’ spring break, so you won’t be able to turn it into a family vacation.
I wanted to write as soon as I could read. In second grade, I decided I was going to be an “author” when I grew up. I’m not sure I knew what that meant, but Betsy Ray of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books wanted to be an author, and so did I.
Five months before the conference
You spend all your discretionary funds Christmas shopping and don’t have the money to register before the early bird deadline.
My third-grade teacher was big into creative writing and had us write a lot of poetry and short stories. I enthusiastically filled up her green poetry sheets with banal verse, clichés, and made-up words like “scrumpdillicious,” and she enthusiastically marked each page with a red A+.
Four months before the conference
You are hired into a new position at work and go from working three days a week to five, which means you’ll have less time than ever—for your writing, for your family, for yourself—but you’ll have the money to attend the conference.
At the beginning of fourth grade, our teacher had the class write an S and an A on a blank sheet of notebook paper. “There,” she said, “you’ve written your first essay.” That year, we switched from writing in pencil to using pen—black or blue ink, non-erasable—and, because this was Catholic school, our writing lessons focused on penmanship, spelling, grammar, and neat margins.
Three months before the conference
You discuss the conference with your husband, and he agrees he can do without you for a week. You check the dates with your family back home, and they’re excited to see you. You register, book your flight, and put the dates you’ll be gone on the calendar.
In fifth grade I made a book from toothy, lined newsprint, folded in half and stapled within a green construction paper cover. In that book, I wrote about the history of my friendship with a girl named Brenda. I included a chapter about when she first visited our classroom in third grade and one about when we modeled in a fashion show at JCPenney later that year. I titled a chapter “Fourth Grade ” but left the following pages blank. That year the leaders of the two cliques in our class formed an alliance and pulled all the girls into their orbit. All the girls but one. I spent every recess that winter standing alone by the fence, shivering in my pink corduroy coat and willing time to pass so we could return to the classroom, where my loneliness and humiliation weren’t so much on display. But I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. I hadn’t yet learned that, to write memoir, you have to dig deep, inhabit your own suffering, and fill those blank pages with your pain.
Two months before the conference
Your husband signs up for a weeklong professional training that will overlap with the first three days you’ll be gone. The training, in a city an hour away from your home, starts at 8:00 a.m. Your oldest son’s school bus picks him up from your house at 7:30 a.m. Your younger children’s preschool, twenty-five minutes away from your house in the opposite direction from the training, opens at 7:45 a.m. You’re the one who sees your oldest son onto his bus and drops the twins off on your way to work each morning. Short of a time machine, there’s no way your husband can get the children where they need to be and arrive at his training on time.
During my elementary school years I started many novels and stories but rarely got beyond the first few paragraphs describing the life of a pioneer girl in Colorado Territory or a family of mice who rode a rabbit for transportation. Despite reading voraciously, I knew nothing about plot, character development, or the persistence required to finish a story.
One month before the conference
Your oldest son’s music teacher announces the date of the spring concert; it will be held the day after you leave for the conference. A friend invites the twins to her son’s birthday party on the Saturday you’ll be gone. Your oldest son’s baseball schedule is published, with the first practice that same morning.
In seventh grade, I transferred to public school. Creative writing had long vanished from the curriculum, but that year I started a diary on loose-leaf paper in a pale-green pronged folder. I addressed each entry “Dear Margaret,” in imitation of Anne Frank. In it, I wrote about my unrequited love for various boys in my class and my desire to be kissed. I was learning that a character needs to want something, badly, to create narrative drive.
Two weeks before the conference
Your husband’s cousin calls; he’s filming an ad campaign and wants footage of your husband working on a house. The only weekend he has open is the one you’ll be gone, the one with the Saturday baseball practice and birthday party.
In eighth grade, I wrote angsty, melodramatic poems in a tiny blue spiral-bound notebook and signed up to work on the newspaper. We stayed after school one day a week to produce the two-page, stapled publication on a mimeograph machine. Once, on newspaper day, I was given detention for writing a note to a friend in English class. I couldn’t miss our club meeting, and I considered the punishment unjust, so I skipped detention. The next day the fifteen-minute detention was doubled to a half hour. I still thought it was unjust, so I skipped it again. The next day it was doubled again, to an hour, and I finally went, enduring unjust punishment for press freedom.
Five days before the conference
The preschool newsletter arrives, alerting you that the twins are assigned snack duty for the week you’re leaving, two snacks per day for twenty-four children. You buy or prepare ten different snack foods—hard-boiled eggs, baby carrots with ranch dressing, rabbit-shaped cheddar crackers, string cheese, pretzels, whole-grain chips, banana chips, grapes, oranges, and more carrots—and drop them all off at the beginning of the week.
In high school I wrote more angsty poetry and joined the newspaper staff, becoming editor-in-chief my senior year. Journalism was a regular class during the school day, but I also spent my open class periods and lunch breaks in the newspaper room, typing up stories, copyediting, and laying out pages. On the night before we went to the printer, I’d stay after school finalizing the paper, often as late as three in the morning, ensuring every photo, caption, header, footer, and column of text was in place.
Four days before the conference
Your husband tells you his business partners have reserved a booth at a trade fair, in a city an hour away from home, during the weekend you will be gone, the same weekend with the baseball practice, the birthday party, and the ad campaign.
I went to college to study journalism. But, because of the way the school prioritized registration, I couldn’t get into the classes I needed for my major and instead took history, anthropology, philosophy, music appreciation, and even piano, despite having a tin ear. I transferred for my junior year to a school that offered a single degree—not journalism—and that had only two writing classes beyond college composition: technical writing and creative writing. Technical writing sounded boring and the creative writing class had a weird name (at a college that specialized in quirky course titles). In truth, I wasn’t ready to be vulnerable, for my creative work to be read and picked apart.
Three days before the conference
Your husband agrees to teach a workshop at the trade fair an hour away from home on the Saturday you’ll be at the conference, during the afternoon after your oldest son’s first baseball practice, at the same time as the birthday party the twins have been invited to.
In college I read Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard and decided my dream job was to “go canoeing and write about it.” In my twenties, I read Gorillas in the Mist, Cry of the Kalahari, and In the Shadow of Man. I read books by women who bicycled around the world, taught English in Bhutan, hitchhiked across Southeast Asia. I thought I needed to travel someplace exotic and have a profound, life-changing experience in order to have something worth writing about. But I did not have the money—or the bravery—to travel around the world. Instead I took a job at an environmental agency, among engineers and scientists. Whenever anything needed to be written—a white paper, a legislative report, or a brochure—they called on me. I looked into a graduate program in environmental literature. I got married, and my husband and I applied to the Peace Corps. Before we got our country assignment though, I realized that what I thought was a stomach ailment from eating bad lobster was really morning sickness.
Two days before the conference
Your oldest son is assigned a timeline project by his third-grade teacher. He needs to track his life history on a poster board, using photographs to mark significant events. Due date: three days after you get home.
When my first son was an infant, I took him to story time at a local library on Friday mornings. One day I saw a flyer on the bulletin board announcing a writing workshop, to be held on Tuesday evenings. Prerequisites included an understanding of character, setting, and scene. I was not at all sure I understood any of those things, and I couldn’t see how I could spend three hours away from my baby every week. Next time, I promised myself. I’d sign up for the class next time it came around. But the flyer never reappeared.
One day before the conference
Your older sister picks you up from the airport. After lunch at an Indian buffet, she takes you to the convention center to register for the conference. When they ask for your ID, you can’t find your driver’s license. You search your purse, your luggage, and your sister’s car, six times each. You must have dropped it at security when you changed planes in Boston. You show the conference volunteers your debit card, your library card, and your checkbook, all with your name on them. You start to panic, and they take pity on you and give you your registration packet and conference badge—your ticket to enter the panels, readings, and bookfair. You don’t know how you’ll get home, but at least you can attend the conference.
When my oldest son was three years old, I convinced my employer to send me to a weeklong environmental writing workshop. I signed up for the journalism track, reasoning that it more closely matched what I wrote for work than poetry. But not enough people had registered for the workshop to run two separate tracks, so we all spent the mornings playing with language, metaphor, and symbolism and the afternoons learning about research, citing sources, and structuring long-form pieces. In the poetry sessions I discovered I could write about mundane things like the color orange and the incessant rain we’d had that summer in funny and incisive ways. When I got home, I kept writing in my black marbled composition book, about the ants in our kitchen, a motorcycle trip across Europe I never took, my son falling asleep on the couch. I’d rediscovered my love of creative writing. At the same time, my husband and I decided to try for a second child. A month later, I became pregnant with twins.
First day of the conference
You call your husband and ask him to send your passport. He tells you it expired two months earlier. You call the airline and the airport and fail to get through to a human. By the time you reach a customer service agent at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, you are in tears. The agent—an angel—arranges to send you a new license by overnight mail. Later, in your younger sister’s apartment, where you are staying, you find a slim volume of six-word memoirs and write one of your own: Passport expired. Ten years, no stamps.
Before the twins were born, a friend gave me several back issues of a literary magazine and another friend gave me a stack of print zines—all about motherhood. The essays and stories in both the professional magazine and the hand-lettered, xeroxed, and stapled zines took the quotidian, heartbreaking, ridiculous, beautiful, and demoralizing aspects of mothering and elevated them to art. I could do this, I thought. I could do this!
Second day of the conference
You attend sessions and panels, presentations and readings. You take pages of notes. There are at least 7,500 people at the conference, and you know no one. You walk into an evening social gathering and walk back out again. Late at night you meet a capital-W Writer, with actual published books to her name, on the shuttle bus from the convention center to the end of downtown. You walk together across a bridge to the area of town where you’re both staying. She tells you she writes fiction in the mornings. It feels like a piece of free advice: write what you love first; do what earns you money afterward.
After the twins were born, I wrote every chance I got, in a black sketchbook, on yellow legal pads, on our arthritic hand-me-down laptop. Often I wrote with one baby at my breast and my oldest son standing by my side, saying, “Can I type? When can I type? Do you want to play my computer game?” I produced the first issue of my own zine, had it printed at the local copy shop, and mailed it to everyone I knew who had kids. One friend called and left a message on our answering machine after receiving her copy: “I think you’ve found your calling.”
Third day of the conference
More sessions, panels, and presentations. For lunch you go by yourself to a restaurant across the street from the convention center. You order chiles rellenos, your favorite, and wait and wait and wait. After close to an hour, a bowl of colorless congealed glop is placed before you. “What is this?” you ask the waitress. “Cilantro soup,” she says. It’s almost time for the next session to begin, so you eat the bowl of tasteless goo, even though it’s not what you ordered, and hurry back to the conference.
When the twins were nine months old, another flyer appeared in another library, another chance at a writing workshop, this one called, enticingly, Writing the Mother Tongue. My husband, leery of being left alone with two babies and a preschooler, suggested I wait until next time, but, as with the flyer in the other library four years earlier, I knew there would be no next time. I signed up and, two evenings a week for six weeks, I gathered with a group of women in the cozy reading room, doing writing exercises and exchanging praise and encouragement. I’d come home each time to find my husband and all three kids sprawled in the recliner, sound asleep. To complete my assignments, I’d leave home an hour earlier than I needed to to pick my oldest son up from preschool. I’d park in the shade of huge sugar maples at the edge of a Civil War cemetery and write while the twins napped in their car seats. During our last class, the instructor asked each of us if we were serious about writing. I squirmed, tried to make a joke. I’d never been serious about anything. She raised an eyebrow at me. She knew what I did not, that, in order to become a capital-W Writer, an author, I had to be serious about writing, and she knew that, deep down beneath my jokes, I was serious.
Fourth day of the conference
You make one last pass through the bookfair, visit the booth of the MFA program that’s based in your state, ask if anyone has attended the program while working full-time and raising kids. The volunteer representatives assure you it’s possible, that it’s been done. At other tables for small publishers, literary journals, and writing programs, the attendants ask, “Are you a writer?” You shrug, fiddle with your bracelet, reply, “Sort of.” You’ve just had your second piece published—an essay in a print magazine, for which you received an actual check. But still you don’t feel like a real writer.
I took more writing classes online, in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. I kept making my zine and started a blog. I got a short story published online and an essay accepted by the motherhood magazine my friend had given me copies of before the twins were born. One of my writing instructors mentioned a conference, where all of the MFA programs and students and writers gather every year. The next one was scheduled for six months later, in my hometown. It would be my chance to figure out if I could pull off attending graduate school while working and taking care of three young kids.
After the conference
Your return flight doesn’t leave for three days, because it was cheapest to fly on a Tuesday. You plan to spend the time visiting family you rarely see. But in the middle of the night your intestines gurgle and you rush to the bathroom. The first day, you sit wrapped in a blanket, alternately shivering and sweating. Your mom, sisters, and dear college friend visit, bearing tea and sympathy. On the second day, your mom takes you to a Japanese restaurant, but even the miso soup and plain white rice turn your stomach. It was that damned cilantro soup, you’re sure. Salmonella or dysentery. On the third day, you down two bottles of kefir and hope you can keep it together for your flight home.
My husband and children survived my absence, and I came home from the conference with a yellow notebook filled with inspiration and a brain bristling with ideas. A year later I applied to a low-residency MFA program, and twice a year for two years I went away for ten days of workshopping and learning with fellow writers. Two evenings a week I went to the library after work to write. Two years after graduation, I quit my job, took my family on a 500-mile hiking adventure through the mountains of my home state, and wrote a book about it. The book found a publisher in the midst of the pandemic, despite my having gone back to work to help pay the bills, and it came out last spring. In the meantime, I completed a second book manuscript and started on a third. My oldest son will graduate from college this year and the twins from high school. At each step of this writing journey, there’s been a voice telling me that I’m not smart or creative or talented enough, that it’s too hard to write while working and raising kids, that I’m selfish to try. Even with a book in the world, plenty of time to write, and an occasional (small) royalty check, that voice is still there, but it’s quieter now, easier to ignore.
Three days after the conference
You arrive home late at night. It’s cold and you’re tired, but you stand outside and gaze up at the stars. Getting to the conference—and back home again—took every ounce of your energy, determination, and logistical skill. You overcame all the obstacles the universe flung at you, and now you want it more than ever—to be an author, a Writer. It won’t be easy, but you will do it. You hug yourself against the chill and imagine the possibilities the future holds.