“…Oh honey–just wait until you’re in a small town somewhere with an underpaying job and a couple of babies, not enough time, a husband who helps out, or not, and one book on the shelf while the world has moved on to the next bright morning star–that’s when, if you’re lucky, you’ll be a writer. Send down your taproot then, into the many-chambered whatever it is, the comfort and fright of it.”
Dungy then writes: “I have been thinking about this quote Dan shares from a conversation with one of his mentors, Cleopatra Mathis. In the poem, he complains that the rate of his publications was so slow, and that he had to exercise such extreme patience. She responds that ‘you can thank God herself for it.’
“I am wondering, this morning, about the importance of practicing patience, and writing regardless of any affirmation from outside. This morning I think I understand why this was helpful as conditioning for adjusting to writing with family around after what was, for me, so many years of writing with only myself and my other job to keep me from my desk.”
KAREN RIGBY: How to begin? My son, who is twenty-months-old, is what is known as a “high needs” child. This is not a diagnosis, and not a condition, but a set of traits marked by intensity, sleeplessness, activity and other tendencies that are hard for many people to believe – until they have experienced it firsthand. For a small example: my son would wake up every 2 or 3 hours each night, every night, until he was eighteen months old. His cries weren’t cries – they were ululations. The calm, happy baby? That is someone else’s baby, mythical to me. My husband and I were given this extraordinary, different, passionate temperament to live beside, and there is little else like a tiny, persistent force on one’s life to summon previously unknown strength. That feeling of “I can’t go on/I’ll go on.”
Before motherhood, writing was something I did. A curiosity, even, not entirely understood by my family, but accepted. Post-motherhood, the fact of being a writer is more present, active, involving all of us, because it has to be – I guard it more and if I want to pursue it, everyone in the house has to come along, too. Right now, there’s no other way to make that writing life happen.
Motherhood has also clarified what I want in my life. Age has that effect, too. I am more willing to say no to what isn’t productive, to the energy-and-spirit-draining, to clutter, to whatever is taking away from rather than adding to. More willing to circle the wagons when that is needed. But even after that kind of refusal, there is a lot to do and fitting the writing in – the actual sitting down and thinking and reading – that’s the challenge. How do you even read a book when another pair of hands is eager to rip the book away from you?
Sending down one’s taproot – I like that idea very much. It feels right.
RACHEL MORITZ: Karen, I appreciate that you start with your son—and your real son, not the mythical baby. Motherhood and writing are often states discussed in the abstract. Because they are general states, right? There are so many of us doing this: trying to negotiate the continuation and growth of a creative life while raising a child. I don’t know how many essays I’ve read since becoming a mother about writing while stirring mac n’ cheese on the stove or while nursing in the wee hours of night. I still imagine this busy, energetic world of the domestic, and this generalized woman/poet somehow flourishing within it, balancing everything effortlessly. Why do I allow this image to continue in my mind? At this point, I want to just cut it all out and get real. For me, it’s a sham image and tied to what is expected of women in our society—which is doing it all.
There’s the specific real child, real day, real poem. Like your son, Karen, mine (now almost three) was/is intense and sleepless, especially as a baby. He absorbs pretty much all of my physical and psychic energy not taken up by my paid job. After him, there is also my partner and other family members to maintain relationships with, friendships to try and continue. I am often aware that my expectations for what is ‘optimal’ haven’t yet shifted, and I wish I was a more introverted or single-minded person who only required a relationship to literature to survive. Perhaps that shift is what’s now being asked of me.
Speaking generally, again, I often feel there is absolutely nothing new to say about motherhood and writing that hasn’t been said by generations—or decades, or mere months—before. And yet, one thing I ruminate on these days is the kind of ‘adjust and write while your family gathers around you’ sentiment. (Which isn’t really what Camille Dungy is saying here, just one nuance of this larger conversation). And I wonder if it’s harmful in some way. No one ever expects this of male writers who happen to be fathers: they get to maintain their position at Hemingway’s standing desk in that house at Key West with hours of uninterrupted time. What if this was possible for mother/writers? What if we had more support for this—both internally and externally? How can we shift the dialogue away from the ‘write while stirring mac’ n’ cheese’ conversation? I gotta say, I’m tired of mac’ n’ cheese. I want to write while sitting down at my notebook or computer, completely alone. Of course, I also want my son, who is the most visceral and real pleasure of my life.
Before I had my son, I read Tillie Olson’s amazing book, Silences (1962), while weighing in my mind the two possibilities for my future: with or without child. What a privilege to choose. Olson writes about “those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”
As a mother, now, I feel a greater kinship with the masses of silent people who have lived and died without leaving any words for us. The strange effect of this awareness, for me, is that I find language so much harder to come by. And standing within silence is more and more what being a poet means to me. This makes no logical sense, but it’s present.
What I think I’m doing right now is being used up— largely, by my child. Is it okay to think of myself as a vessel to be expended; isn’t that the point of life? The paradox of life with a young child is that I feel both far more full than ever before, and far more emptied. This leads, somehow, back to silence.
All of this said on a morning after a night of minimal sleep, what Camille Dungy and Cleopatra Mathis focus on here is patience. Motherhood teaches patience because one has no other alternative but to endure. Patience and silence aren’t exactly qualities of value to American capitalism, nor are they part of young childrens’ lives. So the mother/writer who sends her taproot down has first to find these qualities within herself.
KR: Rachel, the absorption, the emptying out you mention, the physicality with a young child who doesn’t always know – yet – where I ends and mother begins, who has an awe-inspiring, primal, innocent and exhausting sense of ownership… that’s exactly it. That ferocity of love and need makes solitude – let alone uninterrupted solitude – impossible. I’m reminded of a line by Alice Notley: “I am he, we are I, I am we.” Such is the porous relationship in early childhood.
Often the well-meaning will say this period only lasts for a few years, implying that life (an adult life, that is, or a semblance of one’s previous life, if that life enabled one to create) will return, and that one should savor the present while waiting. Such voices are right, of course, but still, why the expectation/assumption of deferment?
This conversation is about more than carving out a few hours to write. To put it perspective, my poems can wait. They have before, they will again, and the world isn’t waiting for them. Even before my son was born, there were years when I wrote nothing. The silence of not-writing (whether it is a welcome silence or a fraught one) isn’t unusual postpartum. Time is not the main question (though it is one). More a question of not being able to even think. The contemplative life – that shouldn’t be tabled at all.
You’re right that we don’t seem to live in a time or place that values silence and waiting. Solitude as essential and serious. Not just for daydreaming or renewal, but as necessary. Not just a luxury or the province of the “strange” (the spiritual, hermetic, defiant, eccentric), and not something wasteful, unproductive and selfish.
The disappearing act is the one act I can’t pull right now (a closed door, real and metaphorical) but it isn’t a new feeling. Mothers who write commiserate frequently, I’m sure. It comes back to compromises, working-around… and maybe a kind of faith. That powerful things can still be forged within us no matter where we are. It’s a fearsome leap, to believe that whatever is intended will be fulfilled.
RM: Karen, I love that you end with faith. Also, this image of elements being forged within us no matter the circumstance. I am remembering now the poet Sarah Vap’s essay, “Oskar’s Cars,” which I read in the last weeks of my pregnancy and found so painful to absorb that I almost couldn’t face it, though her writing left me rapt and breathless. Now, reading the essay again—three years on the other side—I understand that she’s speaking to this conversation we’re having—about the contemplative life, about re-orienting one’s self post-motherhood. She writes:
What I could try to tell you is that in mothering, I’ve lost the mind that I had before. I’ve lost my solitude, my body, my privacy, my time, my concentration. Mothering, I have lost my seriousness, my access, my connection to, my inclusion. Mothering, I have lost my sleep, my dreams, my mornings, my nights, my money, my job, and my time with other adults and other poets.
I do feel that my mind has been transformed in some essential way; beyond considerable memory loss, it has been made more porous, more speechless, and definitely more lost—not in the verb sense, but perhaps in a more essential state of ‘lostness.’ Like this, in Sarah’s words again:
Motherhood took the tree, and left me air, soil, space.
Sometimes I imagine my son’s arrival as serving to push me off a cliff. His body now catapults through time; my own is pushed at warp speed ahead of his. I am no longer tucked behind my own potentiality, which had everything to do with bringing him into the world, but hovering just beyond. This is also about age, and about experiencing the death of my father when my son was nine months old. Before, there were two doorways on either side of my selfhood, firmly shut. Now both have opened, in a terrifying way, and I feel myself less a distinct bookend between these two poles, but part of a continuous chain trailing out on either end. This curious—and of course, ordinary—perception is still new to me. Does it make any sense? Karen, I’m wondering about your own experience of selfhood, and of time, in these last nineteen months of your son’s life.
I’ll end with what Sarah Vap writes, in the same essay, about wordlessness and waiting:
But at the same time, something in me, something I used to participate in more directly, that something (or someplace?) is sustaining the poems on its own.
Composing and waiting, wordless until I arrive.
KR: “Wordless until I arrive” – a beautiful expression, isn’t it? To answer your question, Rachel, after my son’s birth, I experienced a huge shift. Being tethered by raw need left me on edge. The arrival of a divided mind – one part is always, instinctively, turned outward – a mind which I now realize will remain divided until the end of my life (how can I not think of my son, of where he is, what he feels, how he is doing?) — nothing could have equipped me for that simultaneous fragmentation and concentration. The sustained exhaustion of motherhood also brought everything in me to the surface. Nineteen months out, chronos marches on, kairos braids through it, and I’m beginning to see the shedding that happens in motherhood not as a complete loss, but as slowly revealing.
I don’t want to exalt motherhood, though, and go as far as saying that now the scales have fallen from my eyes, or that I possess deeper knowledge than before, or that a mother is a phoenix rising from the ashes. None of that would be the whole truth.
To come back to the idea of “standing within silence” – do you feel a different responsibility as a writer now, to speak from or for or to…? Or that the sense of mortality (your own, your son’s) has created a new compulsion/seeped into your work?
RM: I resonate with what you write about motherhood bringing things to the surface. The mental and physical stress—at the very least of having a baby who doesn’t sleep—bares you to the bone, doesn’t it? I’ve been faced with my own raw patterns and needs in whole new ways over the last three years. I’m also aware that I can project my best qualities onto my son; and I try to remember this is mostly my projection, as he’s his own person and always has been.
You’ve raised an interesting question about responsibility. I’m not sure that I have an answer. In terms of silence, I notice that I’m less able to write poems reflecting the movements of a self in the world. The living world, again, feels porous; everything bleeds into something else, and everything exists in present tense. I’ve lost some access to the music of emotion or internal conflict, which used to generate poetry for me. That said, I’m more engaged than ever with my life as a reader and more interested in voice-driven narratives in poetry and prose. Perhaps because I have less time to read or because I’m working through some change in the poems that are en route— a way to speak directly while tapping into whatever exists beyond my own egoic self.
How has language—and the act of writing—changed for you in the last year and a half? Do you find yourself answering to new preoccupations in terms of subject or approach?
KR: Writing is more accretive, with longer intervals between words. Am I finding less to say, less that is necessary to say? I don’t know. I have noticed, though, that I can no longer inhabit certain darker personas/voices as easily, and that some of the sources which fed my poems have receded. I’m with you on the poems en route. I can’t sense them yet, but somehow, I think the image bank I draw from will be another one. Determination may will that taproot into the earth, but the groundwater rising to meet it remains unseen, just beyond us.
Rachel Moritz is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Elementary Rituals (2013, Albion Books), Night-Sea (2008) and The Winchester Monologues (2005), both from New Michigan Press. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in American Letters and Commentary, Aufgabe, Cannibal, Iowa Review, 26, TYPO, Volt, and other journals. She lives in Minneapolis, where she edits poetry for Konundrum Engine Literary Review and publishes a chaplet series from WinteRed Press (www.winteredpress.blogspot.com).
Karen Rigby is the author of Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012). Her poems have been published in Black Warrior Review, Canteen, Meridian, Field, and other journals. She currently lives in Arizona. www.karenrigby.com