Mother. Writer.

Nov 19

In her classic essay, “Why I Write,” Joan Didion talks about “images that shimmer around the edges” and the way that the shimmer indicates to her, as a writer, that she’s stumbled upon something she’s going to write about.

She explains, “…certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.”

For the past year or so, an image has been shimmering for me. It’s been shimmering and I’ve been simmering, feeling called to learn more about it. I saw it in Louise Erdrich’s gorgeous The Blue Jay’s Dance (which my friend Stacia was so kind to send me when I was pregnant with Baby Sister). I met it again in this blog post at Brevity by Betsy Andrews Etchart. And then in an essay by Jane Smiley. And another by Tillie Olsen. And this one by Ann Patchett.

The image is of a woman. She’s nursing an infant, cradling his fuzzy head in one hand while scratching notes for a new character in her Moleskine with the other. She’s lingering a minute longer in the bathroom, sequestering herself from the noise beyond the door to be alone with her thoughts. She’s sitting on the sidelines of her daughter’s soccer game, announcing an idea into the memo function of her iPhone.

She looks like Adrienne Rich and Alice Munro. And Toni Morrison and Pearl Buck. Like Mary Shelley and J.K. Rowling. Marilynne Robinson and Jennifer Egan.

She is a mother and a writer.

Since the invention of writing, most women have not written. Among those who did – and especially among those whose names we know – few were mothers. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott: all childless. Virginia Woolf, also not a mother, dubbed the expectations placed upon her contemporaries, “The Angel in the House.” Woman, she wrote, “must charm, sympathize, conciliate…be extremely sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own…[and] excel in the difficult arts of family life.” Of that Angel and her own choice to eschew traditional domesticity, Woolf wrote, “It was she who used to come between me and my paper…who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her…or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.” Sylvia Plath agreed: “A woman has to sacrifice all claims to femininity and family to be a writer.”

But since the middle of the last century and the rise of the women’s movement, more and more women have donned the mantle of mother and writer, writer and mother. And I am fascinated by – no, obsessed with – the stories of how these women do it. These are my shimmering images.

I know from my own life that balance – any kind of balance – is elusive and ever-shifting, maybe even apocryphal. The stories of these mother writers show a seesaw, teetering toward the demands of children and then tottering toward the call to the page. Erdrich writes resonantly about that particular tension:

Her smile is so touching, so alight. I put my head down on my desk and within the dark cave of my hands a shout gathers. I’m at the moment. I will turn to her and lay aside this story, but with loss. I will play with her but part of me won’t be there. Conflict has entered our perfect circle in a new set of clothes, and I’m torn between wanting to be with her always and needing to be – through writing and through concentration – who I am.

I want to tell the stories of these mother writers. To learn from them as I carve out time and words of my own. So it is with pleasure that I announce a new series here at Motherese: Mother. Writer. Each month I will bring you the story of another woman whose life has been filled with words and children and how she’s woven them together.

Please tell me you’ll come along for the ride. (And please let me know if you have a favorite mother writer you’d like to know more about!)

Image: thank you 80s. thank you leg warmers by emdot via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.