During my master’s program, I stole a stranger’s cart at the grocery store. Twice. My mind was so preoccupied with plots and characters that I began pushing the nearest cart in my vicinity toward the next item on my list. The first time it happened, the gentlemen whose cart I pinched gently corrected me. The second time, a woman chased me down the aisle yelling, “Really! Who does that?” Apparently, I did.
Graduate school was a unique period in my life. I had the freedom to immerse myself completely in my writing. True, my singular focus proved detrimental to shoppers at the local Food Lion, but it was glorious.
Then I had a baby, and my mind was filled with other things. Every free crevice of my cranium became packed with onesies washing, paci finding, and blowout managing. All my creative mental space evaporated like puddles on a steamy summer afternoon.
I stopped working on my first novel. My mind could barely contain my everyday life, let alone an entire imaginary world. When I was pregnant with my second child, I experienced a manic burst of creativity.
“I’m over 30, and I’ve never been published,” I moaned.
Frantic doesn’t begin to describe the last months of my second pregnancy. Before the birth of a child, some women nest, adding finishing touches to their homes as though the world would end without curtain ties. I let the window treatments be and nurtured the stories that had simmered in my mind as my firstborn grew more independent. My impulse to write bordered on compulsive. I would awaken in the night, horrified of what little I had accomplished and what more I needed to do.
Even with this hormonal motivation, I knew the novel must wait. I started writing short stories, which felt more manageable in the bursts of time I had while my daughter slept. Weeks before my youngest was born, I published my first short story. Then another.
Then I had a baby and a three-year old, and my brain became even more packed with the mundane. I no longer stole strangers’ carts since mine contained a child and others usually didn’t. Plus, my husband took on most of the weekly shopping, minimizing the opportunity for another theft.
Instead, I forgot things. I sent my husband and preschooler to a birthday party a month before the actual event. I skipped another party because I tried to attend the day after the date clearly stated on the invitation. I forgot the plot of my novel. I forgot the fear of never publishing it. It’s now no longer a question of if I will forget something, but when, and the magnitude of the fallout.
Sometimes, I think back to my time in graduate school, when my intellectual life felt so full. What happened to the woman so lost in her own creative world that she failed to notice her Lean Cuisines had magically morphed into carrots and oat bran? Simple answer: She became a mom.
I believe in the tenants of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. As a writer, I need both the physical and mental space Woolf deemed so necessary to create. She may not have used the term “mental space”, but I’m pretty sure she would have agreed that managing an endless stream of pre-K birthday invites counteracts the creative impulse.
While I’m blessed with an in-home office (with a door that locks!), my mind remains cluttered. I hear my children playing in the next room or step over a toddler-sized Dora the Explorer doll and my thoughts wander. I no longer have “a writer’s life” where I write suspended in time, shaping my thoughts into words uninterrupted. But I still write.
My children and their needs have pushed their way into the part of my mind that once held the names of characters, plotlines, and even my dreams of publication. Yet my writing, while often drafted in fractures of thought, has improved since having children.
I would love to let go of the grocery lists and field trip forms that have become permanent fixtures in my thoughts. But these braining-filling details go hand-in-hand with the emotional richness, both good and bad, of parenting.
A grad professor once told me: “You write without heart. Technically, it’s all there, but I can’t feel it. You think too much.”
I bristled. I’m a very emotional person, I thought. I cry at movies, birthday cards and the occasional Subaru commercial. Then I realized, I never cried when I wrote. I was all business, analyzing every sentence, every word in minute detail.
My writing changed in two ways after having children: First, I lacked the time to over think it. Second, I bawled my eyes out.
I sobbed as I finished my first piece on parenting. I must be hormonal, I thought, blowing into a tissue. It’s nonfiction, I reasoned. Then, it happened again, this time while writing a short story.
My brain may be full, but so now is my heart. I believe this has made me a better writer.
Last month, I reread the novel draft I put down six years ago. It felt like rereading a book someone else had written. I had forgotten details, good and bad. Reading with a new distance, I found stalls in the storyline and contradictions in character. Reading with a new perspective as a mother, I found nothing that brought tears to my eyes.
I may be interrupted every five minutes as I work through the revision process to finally complete my first novel. But there is beauty in these fragments. I will likely need several packs of sticky notes to scribble the information that no longer fits in my very full brain. But, I now keep a box of tissues by my desk. If nothing else, I intend to revise until I use them.