“Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me. If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses me, what pains me– everything that makes me react, in short– I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life.”
These words appear about halfway through Jhumpa Lahiri’s nonfiction book In Other Words, about her journey to learn Italian. I’ve underlined many passages in that book, but this is the one struck me the most. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write for these exact same reasons, starting with little short stories with illustrations as a child and my first “chapter books” as a middle schooler, all the way through publishing my stories in literary journals as an adult and earning my MFA.
But I stopped writing when I got pregnant. Not on purpose; I was simply too sick and then too distracted. I spent the first half of my pregnancy not doing much other than battling nausea and headaches on the couch, then we moved to Germany and I found myself racing against my due date to find a house, doctor, hospital, and to figure out a new medical system in a new language. Even then, I had the time to write, but I couldn’t produce anything creative. My brain, I lamented to writing friends, had turned to cottage cheese.
I felt the same way after my baby was born. I couldn’t even think of writing anything creative. Still, I spent those long hours breastfeeding with my mind wandering far and wide, brainstorming things I wanted to write when I had time and was less sleep-deprived. I kept notebooks nearby and scribbled ideas in them. However, it wasn’t until my daughter was seven months for me to actually write any new fiction. I also hadn’t been able to read fiction since she was born; it required too much concentration. Then, I picked up Roxane Gay’s story collection Ayiti and it was perfect for re-introducing me to the literary world. Most of the stories are short, great for my still-somewhat-cottage-cheesed brain, and the writing is so impeccable that it made me want to write again. So, I did, a little flash piece that I revised and submitted to journals. It was the smallest step back into writing, but a very important one.
I didn’t feel like myself, in any sense, while I was pregnant or in those first few months after my daughter was born. Even then, I couldn’t stop myself from writing altogether– I couldn’t keep myself from scratching notes for future use. I was still putting pen to paper to make sense of the world around me when everything was changing and nothing actually made all that much sense to me. And, unsurprisingly, my first piece of postpartum fiction was about motherhood. Like Lahiri, I use words to organize everything around me, and only then do I understand it.
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