I say I’m a firm believer in telling my kids they can be whatever they want to be. They have all of the freedom in the world to follow their dreams (I suppose it’s better than raisins and explosions).
But the truth is, I don’t mean it. There is one thing none of them can be. There is one thing I won’t let them be. Not one of my children will be a writer. And if they ask, you can tell them this: You cannot be a writer because most of your life will be spent not writing. And the not-writing hurts too much.
You cannot be a writer because when you’re a writer, if you’re lucky, you yank yourself from sleep at 4am into the quiet half-dark of the living room. And you bite your fingernails down to the quick as the clock ticks closer to six or you hear your son kicking the rails of his crib. Because soon you will be not writing.
On the ride to work, a steeple silhouettes itself against almost sunlit sky. The lake reflects it. You want to write it. Every morning.
You think that it might be sweet relief just to read a line of good poetry. So you work Yusef Komunyakaa into your senior syllabus even though he isn’t British, but you’ve already covered Owen and Sassoon, so why not? Since you’re on the subject of war, you might as well read Tim O’Brien. You stand at the podium, pouring over each thing they carried.
Two periods later, you introduce an acrostic poem that you’ve read ten thousand times before, and you think back to the first time you read it, which was sixteen years ago now. And you’re moved like the first time you read it. You stand in front of your Smartboard, wondering for a minute if the students notice, but then the quick ones call out, “It spells Martha Stuart!” And the rest of them put down their phones long enough to look and say, “Martha Stewart’s dad wrote this?” You think you hear yourself sigh and say, ”No, that’s a different Martha Stewart.” But you can’t be sure.
You lay your head on the desk and say to yourself, This is a drought. What we have here is a drought.
It’s a number of days before another 4am. You think of the hours you’ve lost. The days. The weeks. The months. The childhoods. And you realize that for eight years, you’ve been meaning to write a poem about your daughter being born in the caul. (Which means it’s been eight years and two weeks since you finished that novel.)
You read somewhere that Lois Lowry published her first book when she was forty, and for a minute you’re given a reprieve from the panic. Until you remember it has nothing to do with publishing. It has only to do with getting the words out of your body and onto the page. An expulsion. Maybe an exorcism. There’s a little towhead named Liza in there, and you know her compassion runs too deep. But she’s stuck as a shadow because you haven’t written her. Yet. (Yet is what you keep telling yourself, anyway.)
You look at your daughter’s face and consider the way it has changed and the way that it hasn’t, and you think, I could write this. Your son has a lying-down tantrum on the sidewalk outside daycare and you think, I could write this. The trees that line the practice soccer field lose their depth and definition as it turns to dusk. The landscape wears a purple halo and people are suddenly harder to see. You come close to screaming, I could write this! I could write this! I could write this!
You think it’s an addiction. Maybe a compulsion. Until, ultimately, you decide it’s an affliction. You want to look at a peony and not make it a firework. You want to watch the Gulf of Mexico swallow the sun and not wonder if “swallow” is the right word. You want to just be a wife. A mom. A teacher. A person who reads books because you like to read books. That’s all.
You cannot be a writer, so if you have some obligation to create, take up something else: watercolor or gardening. Grow peonies or peppers. Something that shows you an end result, even if your toddler wobbles over and picks all of your peppers. At least you can see them lying in the dirt. At least they’re not just a pile of words.