One of the hardest things we do as writers is balance our writing and the rest of our lives. There are all the practical challenges: how to make time for writing in our already very busy lives? How do we fit writing into our life if we also need to earn money?
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.
Why do I write? Why don’t I write? How do I find my subjects?
I wrote with these questions in mind, and what I discovered in the writing process surprised me. I hope you enjoy the essay:
Writing and Not Writing: Motherhood and the Self
After my poetry reading, my daughter, Simone, who had watched attentively from the front row, told me that she’d enjoyed the reading and especially liked the poems about her.
This made me happy. And then, almost immediately, sad.
I wanted to have more poems about her. I wanted my work to reflect my full love. And for a while, I felt full of regret.
Simone shows up in my poems only 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 I lie down next to at night to check in about her day, who now goes about the world with such grace and surety —that person who means more to me than language can ever express, does not have a place in my writing commensurate to the place she holds in my heart.
Why was that?
I became a serious writer in part because I wanted to write about motherhood. My first pregnancy, with my son four years before Simone was born, made me want to find my voice.
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. In 1999, at twenty-six in New York City, I’d read very few accounts of motherhood. And the examples of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, famous poet mothers who had killed themselves, were ones I wanted to write against.
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.
In the many years since, a curious thing happened: I only sometimes wrote about motherhood.
What happened? Why aren't my children, who are so important to me, represented more in the pages I have written?
What if, when they read my work, my children and husband think that they aren’t central 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?
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.
But this fear comes from a common mis-equation between our writing and ourselves.
Many of my students and many writers worry that they are not fully represented on the page. They worry, like me, that they haven't done justice to the people they love. Or they worry that their writing is too dark and don't want people to read it because it doesn't represent all of them. Or they worry that they can't put the truth about their feelings for people on the page because it will hurt others. Or they worry that their writing puts their deepest, innermost selves are on display and are concerned about what people will think.
I've had all of these concerns myself, but when I really sit with the situation, I realize the fear comes from the ego that wishes we could have a stable, monolithic self that could be seen, understood in its fullness. It comes from an ego that wants to be fully seen.
But what if it's okay to 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 and still be whole.
After all, Simone told me something she liked; she didn't tell me that she was hurt that she didn't appear in more of my poems, but I immediately translated that into what I hadn't done enough of.
That's common, too. It's easy to feel that our writing isn't enough. But what if it is?
For women, it is particularly hard to be fully seen and feel that what we do, what we are, is enough. 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 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 we are not our writing. Just as we are not our trauma, and just as we are not any one role, not just mother or lover or friend. All of these things are just part of the experiences that have made us, but are not simply who we are.
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.
When I started writing seriously as a young mother, I had thought that I wrote to represent myself as a woman, that I wrote to give voice to what means the most to me and what I work hardest at, but none of this is simply the case.
If I wrote to represent myself on the page or to give voice to what I think is important or what I have worked hardest at, certainly, I’d have written much more about motherhood and my children.
So my basic assumptions about why I write are undone.
Why, then, do I write?
I started to write seriously when I was a new mother, I now think, because that experience turned me upside down: there was so much that I did not know.
And I was propelled also, in part, by a trauma story that my body was holding that I wanted to bring out of silence.
When I pulled my memoir from my agent, I thought I was pulling it because I didn't want to write from a place of not knowing.
But if it was a good idea to pull my memoir because I wasn't in a good state to be public and I needed to prioritize my healing, in fact, there is nothing wrong with writing from a place of not knowing.
I write to discover; I write from the places that are not actualized in other ways.
I write from silence, from the place language does not yet go, to try to put into language what I do not understand. I write to break toxic silences.
I reach toward truth, but like my meditation practice, my writing teaches me that there is no simple static truth and no fixed location for my identity, for myself.
I write not to express myself in any kind of monolithic way, but to explore possibilities, and to make on the page something beautiful.
My writing has a life of its own. It takes me on its own journey of spirit and listening.
Other people write from other places. Each of us has our own, unique and valid relationship to our creative writing, a relationship that changes over time.
But for no one is there a simple one-to-one relationship between their writing and their selves.
Even memoir writers must make a distinction between their lived life and the life of their character on the page.
When I am with my children, I try to be as present as possible, grounded, and open to my ever-changing relationship with them.
And when I am with my writing, I am with my writing. If we try to force our writing to be something it might not want to be, it becomes constrained, and, in fact, we misplace our energy.
But if we give our writing freedom to be what it wants to be, both our writing and our lives expand.
Interestingly, I find myself now going back to some of the themes of motherhood that I first wrote about more than twenty years ago--but of course, I do that from a different perspective now, and I look forward to seeing where the writing leads me.
PS: Stay tuned for another essay coming soon about writing about difficult relationships and breaking family silences.
(An earlier version of this essay was first published in Literary Mama.)
I 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.