There is also the question of how to balance writing in our emotional and spiritual lives—how do we give it enough attention but not allow it to take over? How do we remain present while also writing?
If we’re parents these questions become all the more complicated. And of course, in a pandemic, these questions become yet more complicated still.
In a personal essay that was published this week, I explore the role of writing in my own life: Why do I write? Why don’t I write? How do I find my subjects?
This is a personal piece and what I discovered writing it surprised me.
In another blog post, I’ll talk more about how to balance the practical aspects of writing and everything else–but in this piece, I explore the deep emotional roots of my writing life. I’m delighted to share the piece with you.
I also encourage you to think—and write—about the role of writing in your own life:
- What do you take as your subjects?
- How do family and writing interact for you?
- What surprises you about your own relationship to writing?
- What questions do you have about the role of writing in your own life?
Writing into our questions is always illuminating.
After my poetry reading, my daughter Simone, who had listened attentively, looking up at me from the front row, told me that she’d enjoyed my poems, especially the ones about her. This made me happy. And then, almost immediately, sad.
I wanted to have written more about her; I wanted my work to reflect my love. But my poems about Simone were mostly about my pregnancy with her 15 years ago.
She shows up again in my poems in snippets: a girl holding a bucket, drawing a flower. But the live, dynamic person that she is, my kind, spunky, thoughtful daughter with her blue-gray eyes, the girl who ran around the house putting on elaborate acting shows, who I held in my arms, who now goes about the world with such grace and surety, but whom I still lie down next to at night to check in about her day—that person who means more to me than language can ever express hardly appears in my writing at all.
Pregnancy turned me into a writer four years before Simone was born, when I was pregnant with her brother.
My changing body turned me inward. The more my belly protruded, the deeper I went and the more I wanted to translate that inner life into language.
I wanted to write partly to represent myself on the page. At twenty-six, in New York City, in 1999, I’d read few accounts of motherhood. And the examples of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, famous poet mothers who had killed themselves, scared me.
I thought I wanted to create a new story of motherhood, a new story of what it means to birth and nurture life, a new story of what it means to be creative.
My early poems were about pregnancy and motherhood. Later, I wrote a memoir about the first year of mothering my son. But when memories of an early childhood sexual assault started to surface, I pulled the memoir from my agent: in part writing about motherhood had made me start to remember pieces of my own childhood, and I didn’t want to publish a story that I myself only vaguely understood.
Now my son is off at college; Simone is in high school. And I’ve hardly written about being a mother.
What if when they read my work, my children and husband think that they aren’t important to me because I don’t write about them? What if they make the mistake of thinking that the real me is the me on the page?
I want to burn all my writing when I have this thought. I feel an old disembodied despair of not being seen in my wholeness. Of being only part of me, of being fragmented.
When I teach writing, sometimes my students say that they are scared to share their writing because they feel like they’re sharing all of themselves. They’re worried that their deepest, innermost selves are on display. I know that feeling all too well.
But I also know that this fear comes from a mis-equation between our writing and ourselves. It’s the ego speaking, that wishes we could have a stable, monolithic self that could be seen, understood, praised; it’s the bruised parts of ourselves that are afraid of rejection.
We can put parts of ourselves on the page and leave whole other parts off. We can be seen and also not seen at the same time.
For women, it is particularly hard to be fully seen. It was Walt Whitman who wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” But it was Emily Dickinson who said, “I dwell in possibility.”
For women, it’s that hard to feel that we are large enough—that the space around is large enough—to hold all our identities at once. We’re expected to be one thing, but we are so many. And then we worry that if it’s not all on the page, it’s lost—not important, not given the weight that it deserves.
But then I remembered again for the hundredth, the thousandth time: my writing is not me.
Just as my trauma is not me. Just as motherhood, too, is not me, just part of the experiences that have made me who I am.
Thinking about the ways in which I have—and haven’t—written about motherhood helps me reconsider and see more clearly the role writing plays in my life.
I had thought that I wrote to represent myself, to give voice to what is important, to explore what means the most to me and what I work hardest at, but none of this is so simply the case.
Thanks for reading! As always, please share this if you enjoyed it. And let me know what you think.