I teach high school English. At the start of every school year, I write a letter to my students and read it aloud. For the older ones, it’s all about how life doesn’t tend to go according to plan, that where you see yourself down the road isn’t always where you end up. And I use myself as the example, which always leads to this question: “But, Ms. Lavelle, if you wanted to be a writer, why didn’t you just become a writer?”
Aren’t they wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic little darlings? Clearly, they miss the point of my letter. But, in their defense, one time I did use a metaphor that involved a not-so-easy-to-fold road map before remembering that their only understanding of a road map was made by Google.
“Well, guys, I am a writer,” I say, but then I reconsider. Am I? Am I really? I’m not even sure I know what the term means anymore.
When my original plan (and I won’t divulge the original plan because, after all, I was once wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic) didn’t want to pan out, I tried to adjust. At some point along the way, I became a teacher and thought, Yes! I can do this (for now)! There are summer vacations and holiday breaks! I’m done by 3pm!
There have been many early mornings, before work, squinting through the quiet dark, watching the window lighten with the minutes. I’ve spent planning periods (meant for planning, grading, making copies, contacting parents, checking my mailbox, eating lunch, performing lunch duty, using the restroom and breathing) frantically trying to finish a single paragraph. But then there’s an essay on Plath I forgot to grade. Or a recommendation letter I need to finish. Or a knock on the door from the kid who keeps falling asleep in seventh period.
I had my first child at twenty-eight, a week after I finished writing my first novel. A few years later came another baby, and two years after that, one more. Life seemed to hasten its pace. But I tried to keep some of those early mornings (if I had slept at all the nights before) and just as their bedroom doors closed for afternoon naps, the laptop opened.
But no matter how hard I have tried, I have never succeeded at putting the writing first.
Putting the writing ahead of my children makes me a not-so-good mother. Putting the writing ahead of my students makes me a not-so-good teacher. Putting the writing ahead of exercising makes me a not-so-healthy person (and — let’s be honest — just plain fat). My children deserve my attention, my students deserve my attention, and my mind and body deserve my attention. And so the writing becomes the reward for fulfilling all of the other obligations. I never meant for it to be that way, but that’s the way it is.
(But, then, it works the other way, too. When I’ve gone too long without writing, everything else suffers. Because life is all about some kind of balance that I haven’t figured out. Yet.)
Each summer, I tell myself I’ll have the time. And so here is another July — the first week gone, and I haven’t accomplished very much. Not writing is very very hard. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that it aches. I keep at it, working in bits and pieces, in moments, here and there. There is no vivid and continuous dream; though the hours in my day may be vivid and continuous, they are not quite conducive to writing, no matter the height of my effort or the width of my intentions.
I set my alarm for 4 am so that I can get some work in before my run (it’s July in Florida — morning running is the only option). At 3 am, my son comes for a visit. You know, just to make sure I’m still there. And then he gets in my bed. In his sleep, he inches closer and closer to me until I turn off the alarm and move to the couch.
During the day, I escape to the porch, but the screech of the sliding glass gives me away. And there they are.
“Can I have a Luigi’s?” Yes. Two minutes later: “Where are the spoons?” You might want to check the drawer. Where the spoons ALWAYS are.
Then comes another one. “If I poop in my pants, you’ll yell at me and tell me I can’t play games.” Right. Glad we’re clear on that.
The oldest stops by for a visit. She sits on a tricycle she’s far too big for, and faces away from me. She’s bored, even though we’ve already been to the playground and for a hike on a hidden boardwalk today. I explain that I’m trying to get some work done. The tricycle stops, and she stares ahead of her through the screened wall.
“But what is your work, Mommy?” It’s almost a whisper.
Before I can answer (not that I actually have an answer), this comes from inside: “WHERE ARE MY ORANGE GOGGLES?!”
Sigh. Because, really, what is my work, anyway? (And I know exactly where the orange goggles are. That’s the kind of space I seem to have in my brain.)
I scribble things down in a notebook, then forget where they came from. There’s something about dragons, about houses on fire. There’s something about the yellow-green glow of these afternoons. I hope it comes back to me someday. Or I come back to it.
On Sunday, I helped my middle child ride her bike for the first time without training wheels. The air was thick, and our efforts left us sweating. She took off up the hill in the mid-afternoon sun, and her image was melted still at the top of the street. And I realized: this is my work. And I can’t discount it.
I’m not complaining. I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m trying to be realistic. I’m trying to remind myself that all of this work is valuable, not just the writing. I need to tell myself to keep at it, and it will happen, bit by bit (the same way my hair is growing gray). Maybe there’s another mom out there who didn’t get to write today. Or yesterday. Maybe she hasn’t written anything substantial since her first child was born more than nine years ago. And maybe she needs to hear this.
Yes, I’m a writer. But what I’ve come to learn is that right now, the writing can’t come first. And that it will come very slowly, if at all. Right now, this — this family, this classroom, this one-line-at-a-time — is my work. This is the work that makes my life. And maybe, someday, this life will make my work.
(But right now, I need to clean up the trail of crackers he’s left that stretches the length of the living room. He licked off the salt, so they’re soggy and starting to stick to the floor.)