it took me years to write.

classroom.

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!

left.And so I repeated the mantra I had learned in college and graduate school: The writing comes first.  Be disciplined.  Make a schedule.  Stick to it.  Fifteen years later, I can say that I have tried.

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.

them.Just last week, I managed to draft a poem.  An entire poem.  But the process always goes something like this:

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.

Quiet.

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.

Quiet.

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.

aw.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.)

i’m gonna kick tomorrow (upon hearing my daughter, age 8, say, “i really enjoy writing.”)

kids.

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.

prisoners.

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.

discovering.Your AP class is reading The Road. You’d like to carve it into the pulp of your heart.

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.)

soccer.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.

swallow.You want to feel what normal is. But you can’t.  And you won’t.

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.

baby come back, you can blame it all on me. i was wrong and i just can’t live without you.

thank you.  Last summer, I published my first-ever blog post. The blogging world was fast and exciting.  It was new to me.  And maybe even a little bit scary. (Publishing with the click of a button?  Downright terrifying.  And kind of awesome.)

At the onset, I posted regularly.  Not compulsively, but at least once a week.  (I didn’t want to be one of those inconsistent, unreliable bloggers.) School days came around again in August, and I managed to keep up that pace until November, when I focused my writing efforts on NaNoWriMo to get reacquainted with my fiction.  December became a three-way competition in those early morning hours:  grading papers against blog writing against novel writing.  In February, I added a new blog to the fight.  And the novel writing became my reward.  After the paper-grading.  After the first-blog-posting.  After the second-blog-posting.  “If I just get all of this finished, I can get to work . . . ”

The blog became another obligation.  A kind of burden.  Another thing that got in the way of me doing what I wanted to be doing.  Blogging kept me from writing.

revisions.

Seven years ago last March, I finished writing my first novel.  (Yes, I know.  You’re supposed to write your first novel and then hide it under your bed forever.  You’re never supposed to actually attempt to publish your first novel.)  Less than a week later, my first child was born.  That summer, while she napped, I queried.  I received a personal letter from FSG (when they still accepted unsolicited manuscripts), requesting to see more of my work in the future, which I guess was a bigger deal that I thought it was at the time.  But I was a new mother.  I went back to work; the writing time dwindled and sometimes even disappeared.

Over these last seven years, we’ve evolved.  Together.   I’m middle-aged.  A mother of three.  The book has kept only the setting from its original form.  Its protagonist is still young and female, but nothing like its first young female protagonist.  After these word count.years of the on-again-off-again relationship, it’s time we got back together.  And while the blogs have spiced things up a bit as a source of instant gratification, I am ready for a long-term commitment.

Because what I’ve realized is that, for me, it’s about the work. I don’t write for publication or for notoriety. Perhaps I did at one time, but not now.  Now I write because I have to.  I don’t claim to think that mine is the Great American Novel or some kind of New York Times bestseller.  But I believe in it enough to think that it warrants being written. That’s the work, after all.  The life work.  I don’t think I’m too concerned with whether or not anyone wants to read it. (Except for my friend Karen. I’d like for Karen to read it.)

congratulations.

I’m not saying I want to turn my “online presence” into a Salinger-esque style of reclusivity (though I do think there is something to be said for going forty-five years without publishing and still writing every day), but I wouldn’t mind retreating a bit. Perhaps we (the blogs and I) just need to start seeing less of each other.  Perhaps we need some space.

It’s time for the novel to come first.