Sophia Van Buren is on my short list of heroines. She weathered the wrenching implosion of her first marriage with quiet grace and continues to navigate ongoing custody drama with child-centered dignity. If you haven’t read her transcendent writing, you should visit her at A Non-Custodial Mother or read her memoir, Illumination, which is on sale this week as a Kindle download on Amazon for 99 cents. Check out her Blogger Space below.
When I was 10, I read Harriet the Spy. It changed my life forever.
Even though I was a typical kid, growing up in a typical family on a cul-de-sac, I knew deep inside that my thoughts were not typical. They swirled around in my head, a jumble of ideas and emotions that made me confused and feeling, I imagined, a bit different from the other kids. When I read those stories about the little girl named Harried who put her observations of the world and others on paper, I knew I had found my hero. Writing was he superpower. I was like her, and she was like me.
I kept writing, from age ten to 25. I filled journals with poems, stories, lists, and thoughts that I kept all to myself. I got married to my future ex-husband on my 21st birthday, and the deeper I settled into my marriage and motherhood, the less time, energy, and motivation I had to write. The shocking rate at which I had once filled notebooks began to dwindle until the same notebooks completely transformed into ledgers filled with grocery lists, family menu plans, and the household budget.
When my suburban life spectacularly imploded in 2002, the destruction of it reignited something in me. The same 10-year-old, the one I’d buried in favor of the grown-up, had patiently been waiting her turn. The difference was that now she had an adult voice and a story to tell.
My grocery lists vanished and the poems and stories cascaded onto paper again. The need to put pen to paper, to write again, to write something important, became almost a physical ache. My outlet, my cure, was to design the blueprints for the life I needed to re-invent for myself and my children.
Only when I write can I truly make sense of how I feel. I unwind my mind, empty my brain, and sift through the bits and pieces that make up the prism of my reality, allowing me to see things with a clear and fresh perspective. It’s like taking a knotted-up ball of yarn and straightening it out, end to end, so you can give it a purpose, and see a beginning and an end to what was moments before a jumbled mess.
I wrote Illumination – How One Woman Made Light of the Darkness in fragments. This is the way it came out of me, because the disparate stories had been welling up inside of me for seven years, and they had begun to bubble to the surface, begging to be set free. Each time I wrote a chapter, it felt like a bubble bursting.
My real husband (I prefer “real” to “second”), whom I call Noah, was the one who encouraged me to not only keep writing, but to look at the stories I’d written as pieces of a larger story. Once I began to weave them together, I saw the bigger story taking shape, the story that would become Illumination.
I have penned this piece for Pauline’s blog at my “official” writing desk, which I’ve created as something like an oasis to fuel my creative side. It is filled with pictures of my children, my husband and me, a single candle, and a jar of pens and pencils. I allow myself to stray from it, though, if I desire the comfort of a couch, cushioned chair, or even a warm bath. I’ve noticed that the more relaxed I am, the less editing my writing needs. A long weekend at the beach usually creates a packed notebook of material that is indicative of my relaxed state of mind.
Once you are able to lose yourself, and then find it again, I think it becomes so important exactly because it found its way back to you. For me, that’s the real test, and when I’m able to recall an incident, feeling, or even a smell attached to a memory, I know that it impacted me in some way, and I don’t let it go again. There’s power in writing about those things. You can even call it a superpower.
Notes from the Professor. She also blogs at Open Salon. Her whip-smart writing is funny in the way that only working mothers desperate to hide out in a room of their own so they can crank out a paragraph in peace, goddammit, can be. The following essay ran last winter on another site, but Kate was kind enough to let me re-post it here. Check out her elegant Blogger Space below.
I write wherever I can. Every time I read an article or attend a writing workshop that stresses the importance of writing ritual: the room, the time of day, the equipment, the temperature, the tools, I want to give up. If that’s what it takes, I’m doomed. My ritual is that I don’t have one.
I used to write at a desk in my kitchen, shoving aside to make room for my keyboard a basket overflowing with detritus: at any given time it might contain cafeteria lunch menus, field hockey camp brochures, unmailed Christmas thank you notes, empty jewel cases, a flash drive, a folder full of medical receipts, a box of stationery, a newspaper clipping, a school district calendar, a couple of school directories, a list of props needed for the winter play, an overdue DVD from the library, the rough draft of a homework paper, the course catalog for my daughter’s High School, and countless marginally functional writing instruments. This mountain of obligation and trivia — a pile that grew and shrank with the seasons — sat at my elbow and taunted me. You shouldn’t be writing. You have things to do. You are not afforded the luxury of creation for its own sake. Instead, you have created children, a home, a family. Now tend to them, dammit.
For several years, I tried to write in my office on campus. I shared a suite with three other faculty members. One of them was a poet who liked to watch the South Park movie on his desktop computer while he graded papers. I could not get much done with Cartman and friends singing What Would Brian Boitano Do? in the next cubicle. Another office mate spent hours on the phone with medical professionals, frequently bending my ear about her newest ailment. She was grandmotherly and smelled like talcum powder, but I was relieved when she finally retired. In short, it was not an environment conducive to the periods of uninterrupted, quiet reflection I imagined I would need if I ever wanted to write seriously.
I would start writing in earnest, I kept telling myself, when I had a place to do it: a sun-drenched study with a door, and a desk, and a Buddha statuette in the corner, and a computer that no one was allowed to touch, and a comfortable chair, and a coaster for my coffee mug, and bookshelves packed with every novel I’d ever read, and that cool old rug I’d seen at the consignment store, and…and…and. So a new house, I guess. And more money. Fewer kids. Time.
But in the meantime, over twenty years and in twenty-minute chunks, I had managed to write only bits and pieces of essays, beginnings of short stories, character sketches for novels that would never be written, blog posts for a blog that didn’t exist, letters to people who would never read them. I wanted to write, but I made every excuse not to. If I never published anything, no one could tell me not to quit my day job. I was afraid that what that drunken bitch at my husband’s office party had said might be true: that those who can’t, teach.
It was my husband who finally called bullshit one Sunday morning at the breakfast table. He had been gently nudging me for years, but I was never convinced that his admiration for my writing was inspired by anything other than love for the writer. He’s a scientist: a smart, talented, and very well-read man with a Master’s degree. How would he possibly know good writing when he saw it? That day, he shoved the Life section of the paper in my direction and jabbed with his index finger at a due date accompanied by a stylized fountain pen logo and submission guidelines for a fiction writing contest.
“All you have to do is send it. It’s a deadline. Finish something. Please.”
He had done this before, and was met with defensiveness, pleas for a sun-drenched study, reminders of the mountains of obligation and trivia. But this time–maybe it was life stage, or maybe I had simply run out of excuses–I listened. I finished a story that I’d started months before, and then I wrote another one, just for good measure.
I have been writing ever since, wherever and whenever I can. The wherever is usually in the wing chair in my bedroom; if I’m in here and the door is closed, my kids know not to interrupt me unless someone is bleeding. Sometimes I write sitting on the couch after dinner while my husband reads in the chair opposite me; we sip bourbon and rework sentences. Sometimes I write in my office. These days, it’s a cinderblock box with no windows and a fire door, but it’s all mine. A few days ago, I wrote the ending to a story that I had been struggling with while standing at the kitchen counter and barking orders at my kids. I knew that if I didn’t get it down right then, it would leave me. When I can steal the time to write in real seclusion, I have a coffee shop that I favor. The decor is sort of hideous, but there are lots of power outlets and they brew their coffee by the cup. Over my holiday break, I got in the habit of meeting a couple of other writers at a Panera near the mall. I could write a screed about my loathing of chain dining establishments and retail destinations, but all that matters is that the company is good. I like to hear my friends’ keyboards clicking, and sharing word counts with them every hour or so. It keeps me honest.
Now it’s a few days later, a snow day in the middle of the week. I’m in my wing chair. It’s found time, to be sure, but uninterrupted it is not. Snow days mean endless disruptions: the kids beg to make cookies; I field phone calls to reschedule appointments and carpools; I try to catch up on grading. It is late afternoon before I sit down to write, but the carpool that would usually interrupt my day has been cancelled, so the time finally presents itself. Everything outside my window is silver. The sky has been dark grey all day, but the trees shimmer in their new skins. More ice is on the way. Here is where I write.