Last fall, in a serious several-day patch of Ann Lamott-ish wanting to throw my child down the stairs (luckily, we don’t have stairs in our house), I begged a local friend of mine to watch my child for several hours and arranged with my husband to pick her up after he was done with work so I could venture into the city to go to a bookfair, called Wordstock, for the heft of the day.
I knew my Ambitious Writer was running amok inside of me, and had been for several days, hindering me from being a Good Mother by making me daydream about “being a writer” rather than “being in the moment” while I actually was “being a mother” and thusly getting frustrated with all the ways my two year old was “being a toddler.” I needed to appease that pesky Ambitious Writer and get her to settle down so Good Mother could come out to play.
Initially, I thought I would just drive my daughter into the city with me and have my one city friend look after her for an hour or two. But while that friend was willing, her family’s schedule made dropping my kid off quite complicated.
“I probably just won’t go, then,” I said over the phone, as victim-y as could be. “I mean what’s the point, I have no writing career anyhow.”
“You can’t hide,” my friend said. “Just because you’re not producing doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. This kind of thing is the worst thing stay-at-home moms can do – hide and be embarrassed about doing this great thing of raising a child.”
“Yeah, but that’s my point,” I said, starting to cry, “I should just stay home and not pretend I have some sort of writing career.”
“This is just a phase,” my friend said, “You’ll be back at it in a few years. She’ll be in school, and you’ll be writing again, producing. Go to Wordstock and be a part of what you’re a part of.”
I hung up the phone and cried more. The struggle of wanting a writing career, a ridiculous career-choice to want in a time of the “impossible to get published” yet “self-publishing is not really publishing” tug of war, some days is overwhelming. Plus, once again, I felt so terrible about not being able to handle my one and only child and about wanting a break. I love being a stay-at-home mom, and yet, I love writing just as much. Plus, I’ve been a writer for a lot longer than I’ve been a mother and though I’m bound to be a mother for the rest of my days, that role will change in terms of the hands-on factor, whereas my love for writing every day, my Rilke’s “must write” answer, won’t change too much.
To top off all the torment in the days leading up to Wordstock, I had another problem: I also wanted to take my daughter to this cool harvest festival held on the exact same day. The harvest festival is a fundraiser in the woods for a sweet little primary school, and the place is full of children who prance about in fairy costumes or in bug antennae headbands. Local vendors sell their groovy wares, apples are pressed into cider, the sun sparkles on thigh-high, dry grasses and the little creek burbles and runs freely. Good Mother fought hard with Ambitious Writer all week long about what to do. It’s hard to believe the torment that goes on inside my head.
But the morning of the book fair and harvest festival, I pulled the curtains open to see coastal rains pounding in such a manner as to make one believe the rain will never stop. I thought, or Ambitious Writer thought, the harvest festival won’t be that fun, so call your friend for child care and go. As I arranged my day, I rationalized I could go to the book fair to hear the author Mary Rechner read from her book, Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, an author whom Portland writer Karen Karbo called “the Mary Gaitskill of motherhood.” Since many of Rechner’s stories had to do with being a mom, going to the book fair could be a “stay-at-home-mother work trip.”
To make a long story endless, finally, I dropped my kid off at my other friend’s house, which took so long due to my inner struggle that I just barely made it to hear Rechner’s reading. But I heard Rechner read a story from her book and I liked it a lot. I bought her book from her publisher and then talked to the author for a bit, mostly about motherhood, and she was kind.
At Wordstock, I happened to meet up with three other writer friends from my small town, whom, even though they live close to me, I rarely see, because I’m a mother more than I am a writer. The four of us took a break from all the books and readings and signings and stood at a tall counter eating overly-priced, greasy Chinese food. We discussed the state of publishing and how it’s changed so much in the past five years with all the virtual and desktop publishing programs, ebooks, closing of major booksellers, Internet opportunities, etc. The changes are both exciting and exhausting and I was glad to commiserate with these other writers, even though all of them, to my eye, were doing more to advance their careers amidst these changes far more than I was.
Over our paper plates of leftover grease, I told the story about how two years ago, before my daughter was born, when I was still trying to sell my novel, I got a rejection letter from an agent, an older agent who’d been in the business forever, the kind of agent who knew everyone, had done everything, and had her own agency. The agent wrote: “This is the type of manuscript which drives literary agents to distraction. The writing is strong, the sense of place and theme fully realized...In another time I could have sold this manuscript mid-list and started a career. But today, for a solid novel like this, I have no place to go to sell it…” No place to go. I thought that comment was amazing, with all the publishers that exist, not one of them is the right place? My writer friends nodded knowingly.
The agent also said later in that same letter “Good writing isn’t enough.” To me, what she meant was that a novel, even a good novel, cannot be sold on its own anymore. The book has to have an entire platform on which to stand, and that platform is constructed by the writer with a solid web of social networks, blog followers, listserves, marketing plans, projected outcomes, and literary connections, connections, and more connections. But for a stay-at-home mother whose husband works five jobs to get us by (I’m not exaggerating), with only a modicum of child care during any given week, writing anything creative (and good) is a daunting task, much less finding time to blog, network, read other blogs, connect, post, tweet, “friend,” and email. I left the book fair feeling spent and very much missing my sweet little daughter.
This week, after reading one of the few blogs I do read, that of a woman and mother who does more in a given day than I can conceive, Ambitious Writer had me fretting over all of this “good writing is not enough” stuff again. Ambitious Writer wants me to “do, do, do more, more, more” while Good Mother says, “Pay attention to your child.” Instead of getting all sweaty and abandoning my kid again, this time I decided to simply breathe and do the next right thing.
An ancillary anecdote: some actor friends of mine, who’d moved to Hollywood after college, complained to my sister and me one afternoon about the rigmarole of auditions, headshots, managers and the “who you know” aspects of the acting industry. My sister lived in L.A. at the time and she said to them, “Look, this is Hollywood, either you embrace how the business works or get out.” The comment was well taken. I embrace the rigmarole of the ever-changing publishing industry – and I’m a stay at home mother with a daughter growing in leaps and bounds. I’ve decided to accept that I can do what I can do for my writing career and that’s enough because my city friend is right, these years with my girl are short and quick. And while good writing may not be enough anymore, hopefully, good writing is still the best place to start.