Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection Doll Palace (out in September from Dock Street Press). Her stories have been published in The Good Men Project, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding NYC reading series.
I write, I don’t write, I think about writing. Fits and spurts and never enough, a pathetic and diffuse stream, which I’ve written about here and talked about elsewhere because apparently, blathering on about how little I get done has become a favorite self-pitying pastime – and only supports my inefficiency.
I am slow. I was slow before kids; I am slow still. I don’t know if that will ever change.
True, parenting has driven my output, the shape of things. First (and for a looong time) I wrote nothing. I was so consumed by it all – the terrifying, overwhelming love, the needs and wants, a gnawing depression I refused to admit – that I couldn’t get it together to utter much less scratch out a complete sentence. When I finally returned to the page, stories skewed from short to shorter, whatever I could compress, whittle down to the barest of bones. A friend once compared this compulsion of mine to his need of locating an exit the moment he enters a room. Maybe it is anxiety, maybe I am always eager for an out. Maybe those early years of motherhood exacerbated this natural instinct. Maybe it was all I could manage when unwashed, drunk on sleeplessness, without a stitch of childcare, and tethered by the teat. (Maybe you know what I mean?) One thing’s certain: I found it gratifying, a simple peace, to be able to put together a tidy pocket of a story when everything else around me was a mess. 100 words, 500, 1000 words I could wrangle. I could contain. I could get in, say it, and get out. Meanwhile, I learned more about language and concision, structure and narrative during those years than I ever did in a workshop.
Now that my children are older and sleep and go to school shapes are shifting again. As the hours stretch so do the storylines although I am haunted constantly by the voices in my head (wow, I sound crazy), the often deafening blare of “you’re no good.” Like right now. Who cares about your process? Why would anyone read this? Even on the off-day when things are clicking it is inevitable I am just finding my rhythm when it is time to run and scoop up my kids.
But time is a gift that I don’t take for granted. If anything, becoming a parent has helped demystify the whole writing process. Nothing is precious. I don’t care what’s in my mug or playing on the radio. I write when/where I can. Grocery lists look like this: “scallions, cheese, the aggressive intimacy of eating off another’s plate.”
Because this is what we do, right? And by we, I mean, all of us – parents, nonparents. All of us are juggling jobs, lives, all of us have commitments and bullshit and unforeseen tragedies and events and loved ones that take up home in our hearts. This is what it means to grow and breathe and be a part of the world. As writers, we do our best to carve out some quiet but also must embrace the terrific beauty of all that competing noise.
This is being a writer, with kids.
So – my daughter.
I look at her. Unlike her mother, M is a force. M does not dick around.
At six, her prolificacy rivals Joyce Carol Oates’. The kid churns out three books a day: The Dirty Gown, Eli and the Purpul (sic) Grapes, Nikki’s First Time, Don’t Let the Dog Go In the Car! (Book 1), The Tiny Tertel (sic).
She writes in the morning, on the bus, in “choice time” at school, on the toilet, she is still scribbling against her pillow as I turn off the light, the outside of her fist stubbornly ink-smudged. Her books, stapled and illustrated, are everywhere. We gave her a basket, wide and deep, but it’s overflowing, her books spilling out and onto every surface in her room, down the hall, throughout our home. There are so many. It is impossible to keep up.
She rewrites fairy tales she’s read, movies she’s seen (as if she’s already caught onto the notion that there are only seven classic plots.) She imitates her favorite authors’ styles (Shel Silverstein, Lore Segal) like an MFA student in a Flannery O’Connor phase. She’s big on series. Pajama Blueberry Saves the Day! Pajama Blueberry and the Key of Evil, Pajama Blueberry and the Badist (sic) Ghost, etc. Series sell, she tells me. Snaps fingers: Ka-ching!
The kid is no dummy. She’s collaborative. She’ll outsource the artwork or text to a friend, while steering it under her vision.
(OK, so she might be a teensy controlling.)
(OK, so you may be dismissing this now as some bloated mommy brag.)
But – this girl. This girl is my inspiration.
M faces the page with singular focus. She can’t get the words out fast enough, doesn’t worry about spelling much less punctuation (who has the time to pause?) but keeps going, barreling through to the end, then moves onto the next.
The Girl Who Rode a Unicorn. Goldie’s Golden Box. String and the Hot, Hot Soup.
There are no voices in M’s head telling her that she is unworthy. No inner critic robbing her of the permission and chutzpah necessary to write exactly what she wants to write. She never catches herself and says, Oh, it’s been done before. And done better. Or: What could I possibly add to the conversation?
She just writes, with delight and with fury, without any hang-ups, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. When she’s done she reads her stories aloud and awards herself Newbery medals, drawn in gold on her covers.
In this way, every day, she teaches me. She teaches me through the unbridled joy on her face, the confidence in her carry, the mischievous light in her eyes, the total absence of self-doubt. (How is she even my daughter?) I pray this conviction never wanes, that she manages to karate chop her way through the quicksand of second-guessing that sucks in so many around adolescence, that has me still by the throat. My heart fills my chest. To watch her is to remember: Have fun. Writing is play. Take pleasure in it. Play more, worry less. Believe in yourself.
Occasionally, someone will ask her: Do you want to be a writer?
Which is like the funniest, weirdest question.
She will lean in conspiratorially as if she holds the secret to success. No, she’ll whisper. Of all things in life my daughter wants to be… a dentist.
Happily ever after.