I’ve come to a place without a view, a place where I conserve words and watch my footing because there are rocks to trip me and my ankles have been known to give out. In this uncertain place, my contributions seem small, unimportant, overlooked. You noted my silence. I invite you to walk with me a while, mindful of E.B. White’s advice that a writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” as together we tread this uneven path.
As I said, I’m uncertain, blurred at the edges as a writer and mother, and this scares me. For years I’ve thrashed about with my writing, much like the inexperienced swimmer flails in the water, managing to stay afloat, yet nothing akin to swimming. In these same years, I’ve worked to raise independent children, and with three of the four now adolescents the job’s description changes. For the mother, better or worse will depend on my children’s choices. As for the writer, better or worse will depend on my determination, and honestly, I am so tired of flailing I sometimes want to sink.
That admission sounds like defeat, and giving up on the dream of writing feels like giving up on the self. But writing for its sake alone isn’t enough for me. I want the work to be accepted, and praised. I feel embarrassed to admit this, and so I take solace in the words of Leah Hager Cohen, a wise and successful writer who still shares my craving.
“At best, such a desire grows out of valuing a connection with others, wanting to be informed by their perspectives, and hoping for a feeling of mutual recognition, a feeling of: yes, I am not alone in the world. I don’t think there’s anything shameful about wanting our art to find a home in the hearts, the souls of others. Where I think we get into trouble is with the notion that whether or not we reach this goal gets determined by a highly selective elite in whom we have invested sole authority to confer access…,” Cohen wrote in “The Fortress and the Fool.” “Because the very natural wish for evidence of our worth can mislead us into thinking that writing is about winning accolades.”
I have no mentor to share my doubts with, no one who might guide me back to my writing notebook, no one to gently close my fingers around a pen and tell me to continue. Now that I’m alone for five hours a day people expect results. Now that three-fourths of my children are teen-agers capable of caring for themselves (though to a lesser degree than I’m comfortable with so I stick around to make sure they regularly eat salad and shower), I expect results. But now is not enough. I’m aimless, tripping over stones, unable to navigate my way. I’m a white woman, middle-aged, and privileged because I can choose to either write or waste those five hours. And today I’m idling them away, nursing a cold as I sneeze ten times and a small amount of pee escapes my bladder and wets my underwear. A price of motherhood. There is a tightness in my shoulders, and my feet will not warm. I pull back the quilt on my bed, made an hour earlier, and crawl in, sighing because it’s warm there and the sun’s shining through the eastern window. I close my eyes and red glows beneath my eyelids. I sleep for a little while.
You wrote about a mother-artist’s struggle with aimlessness in your book “After the Sour Lemon Moon,” where a young mother leaves her family for a year in order to recover all she’d “lost and wanted returned.”
“I was tired of holding up the foundation, being so vital. I wanted to shed my importance and become a mere cog, a simple expendable part of the whole,” the mother, Sophia, said. “… It is widely believed that if a mother leaves her family there is something irreparably wrong with her, something rooted in her core being, something present long before she was a mother.”
I was simultaneously drawn to Sophia, who would abandon her family in order to preserve herself, and repelled by her because she could, with ease, build a new life that included little thought and no space for her two little girls. The persistent, binary view that a woman’s life must be either work or family, books or babies, shackles me, enrages me, defeats me. I put your book down. Months later I read it to its end and learned that Sophia abandons this second life, too, so that she might wear the mantle of motherhood, again, although not that of wife.
“There are many ways to live a good life. Mustn’t there be as many ways, if not more, of being a good parent?” she asks. “Is our culture too rigid in defining our parameters? I believe the answer is yes.”
I’d have liked the book to contain a road map to that sweet life because I’m in need of such direction. I ask myself “Where is the story?” as if it’s a place, a land from which I wandered away. Rest eludes me. I sleep, heavy and deep with dreams, sometimes, and sometimes without, but always, every morning, I wake and am tired. I drag my body up from this nightly death and walk among the living. They have places to go. They have ideas. They have plans, projects, people. I have emptiness: An empty mind and an empty day except when there is laundry, and cleaning, and trips to the grocery store, and paying the bills, and a walk with a friend, and doctor’s appointments, and physical therapy appointments, of which there are many, so my days are filled, only not with what I want.
Recently, I discovered a map and a mentor in Ursula K. Le Guin, who worked after her three children went to bed, and, when they got older, during school hours. In her book “Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places” is her 1988 essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” which explores the rewarding and difficult experience motherhood is for a woman artist.
“The artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbration has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility to both her art and her dependent children with no ‘tireless affection’ or tired affection to call on, has taken on a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible. But that isn’t how the problem is posed — as a recognition of immense practical difficulty. If it were, practical solutions would be proposed, beginning with childcare. Instead, the issue is stated, even now, as a moral one, as ought or ought not,” Le Guin wrote.
It’s easy for me to be preoccupied by the small, technical issues of my work, things that will not matter at the end of the day, like whether I shall write with a pencil or pen, or if this desk promotes bad posture and causes carpal tunnel syndrome. Perhaps both, because as I write the last sentence I note that my back is curved so belly meets breast bone, and my wrists ache. I straighten my spine, rotate my wrists.
Continue, I say to myself.
About what? I ask.
For whom? I ask.
For you, I answer.
But you will not read this, no one will read this ever. Typed into a program that no one can read because of a password that I cannot remember, it is protected. Disappeared off the computer the second I disconnect from the internet, it is lost. Sentences protected and lost. This is my life, protected and lost.
It’s taken me all morning to get to this point. To open the screen and begin filling a blank page with new sentences. First I copied old sentences, written maybe six years ago, and then rewritten and published, then copied again and rewritten into a longer story that was not published but critiqued by a class, and just now copied a fourth time into this space with the intention of rewriting it. Again. Words so dramatic and dull they desperately needed to be deleted, so I did. I deleted the words, some five hundred words, and started with zero, an honest number, reflective of my ideas at this moment and my energy level, since, remember, I’m also catching a cold.
You asked about now, me, this morning’s state of mind, and why it’s been so long since I’ve sat at my cramped desk and written sentences whose only physical manifestation will sit in my muscles as cramped shoulder and aching wrist. But let me continue because pain is a sum gain over emptiness, especially pain which I can use to justify my irritability with others, with my children, with Marcel, but really with myself, though no one will know it, not even me after I close the computer and forget the words.
“There is less censure now, and more support, for a woman who both wants to bring up a family and work as an artist,” Le Guin wrote. “But it’s a small degree of improvement. The difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books is immense: it involves an endless expense of energy and an impossible weighing of competing priorities.”
The morning began after I returned from biking Ivan to school. It began with a third cup of coffee and a cream truffle, and then time spent in bed sleeping, and then time spent in a hot bath with the last slice of cold pizza whose red grease smeared the two pages I’d printed of the aforementioned story that I tried to resurrect, but couldn’t. It was no Lazarus and I am no savior. I’m not serious about reviving the story, but I’m going to try to save myself from this cold by taking handfuls of vitamin C and a shot of fire cider, which leaves the taste of onion on my tongue and sends me searching for a second truffle and the cup of coffee, now cold. I wash the onion away and replace it with a taste I prefer, bitterness and black grit at the bottom of a cup.
Where was I? Somehow, after being in and out of bed two times, after feet were warmed in a bath, and hot water eased the knots in my right shoulder, after I dressed for a second time noting that the day was half gone, I began this. Is it story? No. There is no beginning, no ending, only a bit from the middle, the soft core gone lax, muscles cut by childbirth and atrophied from inattention, so that the spine can’t hold itself erect but curves into a defeated and deflated navel-gazing letter C. Could it be a story? Only if my life, protected and solitary, soft with silence, is a story. Which, again, it isn’t because story is an artifice, a fake form imposed on the bits and pieces of life that included sneezing and wetting one’s underwear and choosing not to change it but to let it dry, knowing that the rest of the day I would trail the slight scent of urine, which none but a stray dog would detect as we waited together in the school yard for the bell to ring, and it would wag its tail in friendship anyway.
The squiggly line moved over the snowy land, marched up the hill and over its humped back. Two straggling cows joined its end, followed nose to tail the line of cows that the man and his horse read. Black cow, white space. Black then white then black again, each cow a word, each space a pause in a landscape of blank verse. The line was thirsty and hungry, having slept through a bitter night and woke to a water trough frozen into a block of ice and grass that cut the tongue. Thin sunshine smeared itself over a thicker layer of snow that covered rabbit brush and sage. Grasses bowed under the weight of ice. The desert was a crumpled paper smoothed flat. The cowboy was cold. A bandana covered his mouth and nose, but there was nothing he could do for his eyes, which watered in the cold and iced his cheeks. He nudged the final cows to hurry along, and the squiggly line ran alongside the highway that flowed out of the Blue Mountains and dropped into La Grande. Steam rose from the cut in the hillside made by the road. Smaller clouds of steam rose from the cows. The moans and mooing of the suffering verbs joined the sound of semi-trucks breaking around the curves. In the puffs of steam and breaths of space, the cowboy read. Her eyes were like champagne. The line peaked the hill and black cow and white space pooled in the cold morning. Words were warm bodies yearning for home, and nothing more was written that day.
“Idaho” sung by Josh Ritter.
“When I write about my parents, when I speak about them to my children as my sister Louise spoke to my son, Samuel, I feel a profound loyalty to them because I felt in them the same unspeakable loneliness. I guard my tongue that I may honor their privacy, grant them respect. I sieve the good — their gentle ways, their traditional virtues, the quiet fidelity to moral principle that my mother embodied, the wry, merry slant my father brought to bear on life — so that they may pass on to their descendants, and mine, a legacy that will strengthen them as they in their turn strive toward good.”
These sentences from “Prospect: The Journal of an Artist” are gentle and wise, traits I sometimes lack, but am learning to cultivate from Anne Truitt, known for her minimalist sculptures and her sensitive writings about her life and work. She died in 2004. Look at her teaching philosophy, rich with hope and respect:
“I have found that I too can trust students to find their own way to process themselves into their work. For my part, I give information as needed, in a form as tailored to the particular person I can make it. More crucially, I maintain, and manifest a steadfast faith in each individual’s potentiality, provide them with the reinforcement that will give them, I hope, the confidence to translate aspiration into achievement.”
Besides directing me, Truitt also broadened my vocabulary with the word pentimento, which is the visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas. The hidden images can be found in centuries-old artwork and more recent advertisements. Truitt saw it within her grandson, who suffered from a disease that is incurable, life-threatening but controllable.
“I saw on his face the look of mute patience that marks children who are quietly beginning to cast off their moorings, giving way to the slow tide of death. By the time I visited him in the Richmond hospital, this look was fading. But its pentimento remains.”
Layers make me curious for the secrets they hide and exposure that results. The addition, its discovery and subsequent distraction create its own meaning, maybe even layers of meaning. I am also intrigued by what the pentimento exposes: the creative act, the mind at work.
Long ago a man newly in love made a picture from two photographs by laying his face over mine so they merged and overlapped, creating an illusion of double exposure. Not exactly a pentimento, but it feels like one with its ghostly images, and its disconnection. The faces turn away from each other: His eyes stare into the distance, mine look with anticipation out of the picture at the viewer. Maybe this is why he added the third layer, a single word “One” burst in flame.
The gift held not only the passion of the moment but the promise of today, more than 20 years later. Within its ghostly overlay, mouth becomes eye and lash turns to lip line, reminding me of Truitt’s cautionary advice to guard the tongue. Truitt writes openly, but respectfully about her parents’ weaknesses, and the failure of her own marriage, and where she fell short in mothering her children. Affection matured into love and loyalty, and sometimes loneliness. A legacy was formed, one that Truitt felt compelled to share, and one which I might learn from as I look at the picture of the woman who is now me, the man who became my husband and the four children created from our oneness. Truitt, one final time:
“An interview gives scope for self-explanation but even so is never entirely satisfactory. Some automatic ‘acting’ raises my voice a tone or two. I try to be perfectly lucid and to ‘tell the truth’ but seem only to approximate the honesty with which I speak to myself. Sometimes, if the interviewer is skillful and intuitive enough to ask evocative questions, I find myself saying what I have never said before and did not know that I knew. At best, an interview is a kind of intimacy — the kind that two congenial strangers might enjoy during a night of bus travel, knowing that they will part forever in the morning. In this sense, an interviewer and I weave between us a narrative to which we both appear to be equally loyal. But we are not. We entertain hidden agendas while we chat. Our composite narrator evaporates when we say good-bye. I am left with my thoughts; the interview cuts and trims a scenario to fit publication. All this interesting communication goes on in an exciting atmosphere. What is essentially a mutual seduction takes place, a seduction that leaves the person interviewed abandoned and the interviewer pregnant with a tale.
“When I write about myself, I ‘interview’ myself. There is a gap between the life I have lived and live, and the life I write. Partly this is the inevitable gap between experience and expression, partly what I make by deliberate choice. I am as honest as I can be about what I write — that is a moral imperative — but I ‘retain my reticences': I omit, abbreviate, abridge and retrench. The keep of my castle remains private.”