Do you have the magic spell that can inspire me to write again? I have not written anything in so long. Whenever I write about parenting or families, I feel like “this has all been said before. Why write about it?” I also find that it’s been harder and harder to come up with clear thoughts because my brain is always multi-tasking.
How ’bout a taste of Writing Potion Number 9 (a.k.a.Amy Rodriguez)
Dear Writing Potion Number 9,
I hear you. Life can silence us, convincing us that the world we live in is comprised of only the minutia of the day-to-day. So I’m pulling out the big guns: the wise words of two of my favorite writing mothers, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Paley. (I would include Toni Morrison, but she was able to get up and write at 4:00 a.m., and with that I cannot identify.)
Part of the reason these women are my favorites is because they write about real women who I feel like I know—or perhaps who I feel like I am. Tillie Olsen speaks heavily on silencing. In particular she says, “It is the workload so many have to carry, the problem of time. You may use spoken speech marvelously, people love to listen to you. Or you are a great gossiper, or somebody who is empathetic to what others are thinking and feeling, but none of that gets written.”
What’s Tillie saying? Stop talking and get writing! When you tell a story and get a response from your audience it takes away the urge and urgency to get it on the page. Write it down before you share it in the carpool line. I find myself doing that all the time—but once I get the laugh in the telling I move on, and I’ve missed an incredible opportunity to get unique and compelling details into a story.
Grace Paley says she owes her first book to her time shared with other women on the playground. When discussing her subject matter she says, “I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read.”
Listen closely to her next observation: “The point is that the outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.” Read that twice if you have to, because it’s important.
As for your worry that it has all been said before, I disagree. It hasn’t been said in your way, through your lens. If there is truth, emotional truth in your prose (or poetry) it will always resonate and always be original. For example, in the YouTube video below, Amy Hempel reads Grace Paley’s story “Mother.” Now, the story of the death of a parent has been told before—but I defy you to tell me this telling isn’t original and emotionally true. The other wonder of Paley is how much she is able to compress into just a few pages.
It is only recently I would dare to call myself a writer—last spring, inspired by poet Naomi Shihab Nye, I returned to writing every day. I love to write, but I write in the edges, in the spaces in between. With three children, a school to run, papers to grade, talks to write, a patient husband but too many pets, writing, for me, feels like a luxury. If the dishes are mostly done; if I’m caught up on my correcting; if neither college-age daughter is having a life-crisis; if I wake up early enough, then I write. In my life, writing is like dark chocolate or a glass of wine or a bubble bath—an indulgence, a treat, a reward. And that’s only the doing of it—finding time to revise, to edit, is another struggle, but it’s one I’m enjoying, and my respect for those who write all day every day has grown exponentially. Perhaps I wouldn’t love it as much if I had to do it all the time.
It sounds to me like you’re making it work. Kudos to you for sculpting edges into your day. Paley talks about being a writing mother. “And then we had our normal family life—struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days.” When times get tough there can sometimes be no in-between. You have to remember you are a writer even when you aren’t writing. It is a luxury you can’t afford to give up. (Just like chocolate!)
I think you’re right there is a different feel to writing when it is your full time job, but for the hoi polloi we look to the edges and I thank you for reminding us how it can be done.
For anyone needing inspiration, (and I know you don’t have a lot of time), take a look at the reading list below. And don’t skip Shirley Jackson. She isn’t just twisted and dark but hilarious when it comes to mothering.
Sarah Martin Banse is a Senior Fiction Reader at Ploughshares. She was a Dean's Fellow at Emerson where she received her MFA in Fiction and was the recipient of the Graduate Award in Nonfiction. She was named one of Boston's Top MFA Students by Kneerim and Williams Literary Agency. She is at work on her first novel and a nonfiction book proposal. She lives west of Boston with her four children.