I haven’t been writing much here, but I have definitely been writing.
What I’m working on has turned into a fantasy series with (likely?) 4-5 installments. I’ve finished the first book (although… I’m already thinking a prequel to that book would be nice to write later on) and I’m approaching the climax of the second book.
I’ve been slowly chiseling away at this monster of a second book on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 2-7 a.m. (Yeah, you read that right.) I’m not very exciting on Friday and Saturday nights, but the benefit is that I’m rarely, if ever, interrupted early Saturday and Sunday morning. Everyone is asleep. Because everyone else is sane.
I understand this.
It’s a price that I’m willing to pay to bring this story to light. It’s a story that just won’t go away.
Some themes that are central to this series of books:
How humanity understands and interacts with the Divine
The relationship between pain, growth, healing, and death
Healing that causes harm and harm that causes healing
The cyclical nature of creation and destruction: Creation as destruction and destruction as creation
Some questions that the series explores:
Who deserves to be saved or healed? Does everyone deserve a second chance?
When should healers withdraw their healing and leave a person to their pain/fate?
When should the needs of the group take precedence over the needs of the individual?
Where is the line between pain leading to growth and pain crushing someone’s soul?
How do the dead continue to influence the living?
I’ve been inspired by When God was a Woman, a book about the transition in human history from primarily polytheistic worship of a female goddess of creation to a monotheistic worship of a male god of creation. If that sounds interesting, please check out my previous post, “God, the Mother.” I’m also combining bits of history and mythology from Turkey and Serbia.
I’m not going to lie: Writing this second book has been a slog.
In April, I had a few very bad weeks and almost abandoned the book completely. I was in that “murkey middle” part of the book and things were just getting very unwieldy. I struggled to keep in mind what the motivations for my characters were and what they would want to do in certain situations. It’s very hard to write alone, in the dark, sitting on a pile of words that no one else reads, for weeks at a time.
What got me through this part was sharing parts of what I was working with others. Just getting some general feedback of, “I like this character” or “I want to know more about that” gave me the motivation to keep going.
Some people say that quitting is easy.
It has never been easy for me to quit.
Once I start something that I believe is worth the effort of my creativity and persistence, I will nurture whatever I’m doing until it grows into what I think it can become.
So the next time you’re up at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, drink a cup for me.
Because what I felt in labor had been deeply spiritual. In my first labor, I sensed God’s presence, but not in a physical way. What I experienced was beyond my physical senses.
But this time… I had seen things.
I had actually physically felt things that I couldn’t explain.
I knew that a blog post would become buried in this website over time. That’s not the way that I wanted to share this experience with an audience. I wanted something more permanent. Something more discover-able and more available to as many people as possible.
So I published a short Kindle book, called Why Your Middle Name is Jacob: A Birth Story.
From August 3-7, I will be giving away free copies, so I encourage you to download your copy today and share with anyone whom you think would be interested in it.
Important: You don’t need a Kindle device to read the book.
As long as you have an Amazon account, you can read this book. Just go to Amazon’s website, log in, find the book, put it in your cart, and checkout (for free). Then choose “Your Account,” and then select “Your Content and Devices.” You will see the book there and you can read it in your web browser.
Included in this e-book are six additional essays that I wrote in the early postpartum period, curated and compiled for a larger audience.
The World is Good Because it is Bad: A Letter to My Unborn Child
These Holy Hours
Week 6: A Great Time to Return to Work
Week 7: And Now My Watch Is Ended
Is There Room in Motherhood for Feminism?
Kindle Direct Publishing only allows me to give away free copies of a title every 90 days. Please take advantage of this free promotional period while you can. After August 7th, the book will be available for $2.99.
If you download a copy, please review it on Amazon.
As an independent author, I rely on you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on my work.
And if you’re truly practicing gratitude, generosity is sure to follow.
In the whole first year of my book’s publication, I sold about 150 copies.
Last week, I gave away 309 copies.
Let me explain.
Last year, I learned the Number # 1 Lesson of baby fairs and expos.
Everyone is coming for FREE stuff.
To try to convince someone to buy something at these events is almost impossible.
People were so confused when they would walk up to my table, their eyes searching for what they were going to walk away with. Hmmm… papers with words on them… Some books on book stands… Their fingers would slowly trace the tablecloth, their brains registering the fact that…
I really had nothing.
What I had were fliers, cards, and pamphlets with information on something that I wanted them to buy.
All the other vendors had enormous bowls of candy (regardless of the season) or little goodie bags filled with free magnets, pens, and pamphlets. The smart ones also had a clipboard to collect email addresses for “a chance to win this diaper bag” or basket of baby books, or whatever.
So this year, my approach at this past weekend’s baby fair was quite different.
I gave away my book. For free.
Kindle Direct Publishing allows me to run a free book promotion every three months. The dates of the most recent period coincided perfectly with a local hospital’s community baby fair. So I scheduled my promotion to run for three days, from Saturday, September 24th to Monday, September 26th.
I decided that I would give out half-sheets of paper with directions about how to get their free Kindle copy of my book. At the bottom of that half-sheet of paper, I politely asked for their Amazon review if they enjoyed the book. I also invited them to follow my blog by email.
Then, I told them to enjoy the book.
Their eyes lit up, their eyebrows arched.
“I’ll get it tonight!”
I didn’t advertise the free book promotion at all until Sunday, September 25th.I thought there might be a few people who would come across my book and download it on September 24th, but my main reason for beginning on this day was to have a buffer period for things to go wrong (i.e., Hey, why isn’t my promotion showing up on Amazon???) before the actual date when I need the promotion to be working.
So imagine my surprise when I checked on Sunday morning to see how many free Kindle books had already been downloaded.
97 Kindle books.
I wasn’t sure I was reading the graph right. I read it and reread it. I put my finger on my laptop screen and touched the line.
Who were these people? Was there some special link that Kindle readers follow to immediately download new free Kindle books?
Whatever the reason, I felt incredibly grateful.
No, I’m not making any money. In fact, I’m still about $1500 in the hole for my accrued publishing and marketing costs.
By the end of this promotion, I had reached 309 new potential readers. Some of them will actually read the book. Some of them will recommend it to others. And some of them might even buy a copy for a friend.
Generosity makes the world go round.
Maybe giving away all of these books will lead to this book’s next big break.
Maybe it won’t.
But I feel certain that some new mom out there will end up with this book in her hands and feel comforted by its message.
I don’t know how many copies of Becoming Mother I truly expected to sell on its release date.
Maybe 20? That could as least cover some of the costs that I’ve shelled out of the last few months. Yeah, 20 seems reasonable. Okay, maybe 15.
When I checked that evening around 10:00 p.m., I braced myself.
Success in publishing can be measured in a lot of ways.
Before I published this book, I braced myself for how the whole publication process might affect my own feelings of accomplishment and self-worth. Anyone who knows me knows that it’s easy for me to take criticism too close to heart. I have to mentally prepare myself for any heartless comments that may come my way.
I knew that by taking on the challenge of self-publishing, I was putting the responsibility for book promotion and sales entirely into my own hands.
I’m inviting you behind the curtain today, to show what self-publishing has been like in this first year post-publication. The nuts and bolts. The costs and benefits. The frustrations and joys.
Other publications that have helped to promote my writing:
Fearless Formula Feeder
A lot of people could scoff at me for choosing the “easy way” to publication. I would scoff right back at them and say, “Easy? Are you kidding me?”
The only “easy” quality about it is that I didn’t have to spend the time flirting around to find an agent who might be interested enough in my work to get it in the hands of an editor at a publishing house, who might actually want to take the risk of publishing my work, who might not completely change my vision. In that sense, I was able to spend more time in honing the quality of my work and deciding exactly how I wanted to market the book.
Self-publishing wasn’t the easiest way to publish. But it did help me accomplish a few goals:
I was able to publish this work while I am still a mother of a young child. This helps me identify with my readers.
I had total control over my content, organization, and book layout.
I had immediate access to my sales records–so I could know when certain promotions were working or not working.
I retained my rights over my creative work.
Interested readers could easily access and purchase my book through Amazon.
I was able to market this book however I saw fit.
Some of the things that I did to market this book flopped. Some things worked well. Here’s what I’ve learned. Take it or leave it.
Do not do a Goodreads giveaway with the expectation that the winners will actually review your book. They just don’t. If you want to do a Goodreads giveaway, just do it out of the goodness of your heart and be thankful that someone who is not part of your regular social circles may read your book.
Facebook ads didn’t really produce many sales. Maybe they get your book cover in front of eyes and lead to a few clicks, but it never made a huge difference in sales for me. This was mostly wasted money, I thought.
Don’t be afraid to charge a fair price for your book.
Sometimes your buyer isn’t your reader…
Selling events are great… for figuring out how to market your book. They might not be great for actually selling that many books.
Instead, do these things:
1.) Above all: KEEP WRITING.
If you’re really a writer, this will not be hard at all. You love to do it anyway. You love it even though it doesn’t pay the bills. You love it even though you are rejected over and over and over again. You. Just. Love it.
2. ) Promote your most trafficked blog posts through Facebook promotions. (Hint: Being vulnerable often leads to highly trafficked blog posts. This means that you write about the tough stuff.)
3.) Blog. Regularly. But…
… save some stellar work to submit to other literary magazines or websites who are looking for original, unpublished work.
Find other places to submit your writing and submit often. Take the rejection. Take all of it because there will be a lot. Swallow your pride and keep going. You’re in this for the long haul.
Follow other people’s blogs.
Identify tags for posts that appeal to your target audience.
(For me, this meant following tags like pregnancy, motherhood, writing, baby, and parenting.)
Like and comment on other people’s posts.
Respond to every comment on your blog.
4.) Embrace the Power of Social Media
Disclaimer**: I was born in 1981, the very beginning of the Millenial Generation, and God, it shows. I graduated college before the advent of Facebook and smartphones, so I have a weird mix of social media literacy and social media repulsion. And yet… I cannot deny that it has helped me reach readers that I otherwise would never have reached.
Blogging has helped me connect with readers in Australia. Facebook has helped me promote my book to Facebook friends and friends of those friends.
I have not walked through the dark, dark threshold of Twitter yet. I fear I might never return. I have too doggone much to keep track of, so I limit myself to Facebook and blogging.
Establish an on-line presence through social media.
Create a Facebook page for your book and regularly update it with new blog posts, book reviews, book progress, and other related readings that you find noteworthy.
Like other Facebook pages for websites and books that are related to your topic.
Start interacting with other bloggers whose work you admire. Comment on their posts. Follow their blogs. Like their Facebook page. Then, see if they are open to receiving a free copy of your book and reviewing it. Graciously accept whatever review they create, be it positive or negative.
Attend writer’s conferences and workshops. Network. Learn about their writing, their blogs, and their books. Help them out and they’ll help you out. Oh, and while you’re there, learn about writing.
Be honest. Be authentic. Be you. No one wants a martyr. No one wants a superhero. People want authenticity. They want to see you down in the mud where they are–but they also want to see you climb out of it and shine.
In a previous post, I wrote that I had a great concept for a new novel while I was writing my last book, Becoming Mother. Of course, I didn’t have the time to pursue it while I was finishing my last book, but I scribbled out some pages in hopes of not letting the idea get too far from me.
Three weeks ago, I went on summer vacation from teaching. This is my time to write. Pretty much my only, luxurious, uninterrupted time to dive into a creative project.
I wanted to make the most of it.
Even with all uninterrupted time, writing did not come easy this time. Every time I would sit to put my characters in a scene, I would get blocked. What would he say? How would she act? What happens next?
And then the dreaded, What’s this story really about again?
Argh. So frustrating.
How could I write this story if I couldn’t even get my mind around it?
I ignored it and plowed ahead, letting the scenes take me where they wanted.
Boy, did I get lost.
I kind of started developing an understanding of the characters that I was writing about, but I still felt like I didn’t really know where the story was going. But worse, I didn’t feel like I could see into the soul of these people.
Last Thursday, totally in a funk, I closed the “Working_Draft_3” document that I was hammering away at. Then, I pulled this book off my shelf.
I bought this book several years ago when I was looking for ways to improve my already-written first novel.
I’ll be honest about my first impression: I scoffed at it.
This guy was presenting a “formula” for writing a great novel. It gave you guidelines for how many sections to have in the beginning, middle, and end, depending on the final word count. It pretty much laid out a lock-step guide for crafting a novel.
Great art is not formulaic, I’m sure I thought. And I’m an artist.
Yeah, but I was also a novice. I didn’t really know the first thing about crafting engaging and well-paced scenes inside narrative arcs.
I wanted to break the rules before I even knew them.
And that’s how I ended up with 400 single-spaced pages of plot-gone-wrong.
And a beast of a novel that was far to wily for me to tame after the fact.
When I revisited this book last Thursday, I thought, Yes! This is exactly what I need.
I need structure–badly.
My idea is great. But this book helped me work through some of the biggest challenges in creating an engaging and believable plot and characters.
I used to think (secretly) that I was too good to write a formulaic novel.
Nope. I’m not.
I’m not above it at all.
I’ve got a lot to learn, and I’m ready to learn it.
And in that spirit, I’ve plotted out all 48 sections of this new novel, complete with three formulaic surprises and worsening failures for the lead character from start to finish. I also spent time creating characters notes so that I could understand my character’s inner struggles and conflicts.
Now, when I sit down to work on a scene, all I have to do is look at my notes on the current section that I’m writing, review my character notes, and jump into it. I realize that I don’t have to have this all finished before I return to teaching–because I can just look back at my notes and remember where I’m going.
I picked up this book at a library book sale a few weeks ago. Two middle-schoolers handed me a grocery sack and said that I could fill it with as many books as I wanted for $5.00. This was one of the books that I grabbed.
I’m so glad that I did.
Signs of Life is a cogent blend of journalistic investigation and memoir that explores hospice, palliative care, and our modern preference for treating the human body as a battle field and death as failure. But it’s so much more than that.
Brookes shares stunning observations and insight about the dying process and the grief that follows it. He does more than gather facts. He narrates his mother’s last six months as she slowly dies from pancreatic cancer. This bittersweet combination of history, science, and human experience provide a multi-layered approach toward understanding this topic.
I was first struck by one of Brookes’ first arguments:
The more we try to avoid death, the more likely we are to end up with exactly the death that we fear the most: helpless, afraid, in pain, alone. (p. 24)
Brookes combines interviews with doctors and hospice nurses along with his own experience with observing the dissection of a human cadaver to show us the absurdity of treating death as failure even though death is absolutely certain.
Who knows whether our panic and hand-wringing in the hospital corridor are at the thought that someone is dying, or that someone is dying the wrong death, in the wrong place? (p. 205)
This observation, I feel, is key to unlocking some of our modern discourse around death. We all know that we’re going to die. But when our moment has come, we’re encouraged to deny that it’s happening. This isn’t my time. This isn’t the way.
We typically view the concept of living in physical terms: breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity. But this is limited, as those of us who have watched our loved ones fade away piece by piece can attest. In an especially insightful passage, Brooks defines living in terms of our ability to be creative, even in the most mundane sense. As his mother’s health declines to the point that she struggles to continue her silversmithing, Brookes explains how losing this ability to create is a kind of death.
Any action is an act of knitting the past with the present to create the future, of making things that will exist that will have consequences, that, like earrings, will still be there to be given away or shown off. Inaction, the stricture of a sterile environment, severs the connection through time and thus suspends life, as if death had soaked like a beet stain backwards through time and saturated the fabric of life still left. (p. 168)
Our ability to create, then, becomes the vehicle that connects our past, present, and future selves. As Brookes narrates his mother’s dying, we see her selves slowly detach from one another: first, from her future self, and then from her present self. What remains in her final days is a self that digresses further and further from the present world until she is nearly completely engulfed in her past.
It makes me think of what my mother told me about my father in his last days. Suffering already from Parkinson’s and depression, my father died of complications after he fell and broke his C-2 vertebrae. Several days before he passed away, my mother walked into his room in the nursing home and he asked her if she had “his whites washed.” She asked him what he meant. He said that he needed his whites washed so he could get ready for his shift at the bakery. In his mind, he was living in a moment that had happened thirty years earlier.
Brookes also expresses the experience of grief in words that resonated deeply with me. Here are several quotes that need no explanation. They are just pure, simple truth. I underlined them. I starred them. I nodded ferociously.
I had thought that grief was a sign of lack of completeness, a wailing for the piece of the self that is missing, and as such, bereavement is necessary for us to individuate, to be whole. Now I saw that individuation is a machine’s notion of humanity: we pour into each other like inks in water. To be complete is not to be unaffected, or if we are separate, we are also part of something else, something we have in common, that infiltrates us at every cell. (p. 210)
Somehow grief had given me an exquisite awareness of the difference between the things that were suffused with life and those that lacked life energy, or abused it. (p. 211)
I felt as if I were breaking myself into little pieces and feeding them to vultures… The difficulty comes in the crossover between the inner and the outer worlds, having to deal with the pressures of the material world at a time when we have just been somewhere else. (p. 247)
I didn’t have the energy—and perhaps above all I didn’t want to have to be the one to spell it all out: I was wounded, and I wanted someone else to take care of me, someone who understood it already. (p. 248)
About a year ago, I opened up about my own experience with connecting birth and death in a blog post called “What Labor and Death Have in Common.” In summary, I feel strongly that experiencing the pain of childbirth pushed me into a space where death came up alongside me—and I allowed it to stay. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear it, simply because there was no time to fear it. I was consumed by the waves of contractions. And so I entered a space where my body and mind went to mute and all I could sense was… quite frankly, God.
This experience was so profound that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wished that there were some way to fully convey what I had sensed during these hours, but language couldn’t fully articulate it. I felt that I had grown a new pair of eyes that could see a whole new view of the world, as if I had learned how to bend light to hit objects in a new way.
I wrote about this in my book, Becoming Mother, but I placed it in a separate appendix at the end of the book, not totally sure that all readers would truly understand what I was talking about, or perhaps be turned off by too much “woo-woo.”
So imagine my surprise when I read Brookes’ account of how he felt after had said good-bye to his ailing mother and accepted her impending death. His description of walking alongside the inevitability of death mirrors perfectly my own experience in childbirth and the first few days that followed.
I was of this world, but not affected by it, my mind unencumbered by gravity. Remarkable thoughts kept occurring to me… It was as if I had burrowed through all the rubble of tedious necessity in my life and found myself in a chamber lit by some unknown source, walls covered with pictures and hieroglyphics… I felt immune to trouble or hardship; I couldn’t imagine anything that could defeat my spirit. It was as if I had an umbilicus to God… The euphoria lasted about five days… (but then) I felt like I had lost my soul: I simply couldn’t think myself back to the state of grace I had known… Being so close to death, it seemed, was offering me wisdoms that I wasn’t using. (pp. 193-195)
I could have written these exact words about my own encounter with experiencing and witnessing life’s beginning.
In fact, in my own book, I write these words:
I felt the presence of God for the first time in the darkness of a shower, hours past sleep deprivation, and in the hardest hours of labor. In those sacred moments, punctuated with pain, I was finally truly aware of a portion of the self that is beyond the body and beyond the mind. My spirit soared into the foreground. And there, in the quiet darkness, as water spilled over me, I was connected to the Divine. Its energy flowed into me, took control, and pushed me forward. It stayed with me for days. It caused me to glow. (p. 274)
After such a profound experience, I also went through an opposing wave of emotion, feeling that I had lost my center. I kept trying to get back to those moments of clarity and spiritual connection, but it just wasn’t possible.
I had a similar experience when my father passed away, though not nearly as profound. And it truly made me a believer that those who draw near those moments of birth and death also enter sacred spaces. Life coming in. Life going out. Life all around.
After I finished this book, I flipped to the front matter to check its year of publication and noticed a stamp from the library on the inside cover. Discard, it read.
I laughed. The irony was too much.
Then I flipped back to this passage:
To talk only of death makes death triumphant. The best thing we can do for the dead and for ourselves is to give them back their lives. It’s a kind of resurrection. (p. 232)
I feel that this is what I’ve done for Signs of Life today, as I retell its story, hoping that it finds even more readers 20 years later.
Few things incite my anger as quickly as the characterization of maternity leave as “vacation.”
In a recent interview with the New York Post about her new novel, Meternity, author Meghann Foye suggests that maternity leave allows mothers to take a step back from their lives and find their focus. She reports that she felt “envious” that mothers would leave the office to pick their kids up while she stayed behind to “pick up the slack.” Her sentiments led her to believe…
… in the value of a “meternity” leave — which is, to me, a sabbatical-like break that allows women and, to a lesser degree, men to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.
After reading this interview, I was infused with rage and resentment. I ranted about this interview to some colleagues (because I read it at work–where I actually have a few moments to read something on the Internet).
I am far from the only one. Here’s what Jenn Mann, author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat, posted about Meternity. And if that’s not enough, take a look at the Amazon reviews for the novel that started this whole mess.
Understandably, hoards of American mothers have rushed to the social media crime scene of Meternity to put in their own two cents about Foye’s misguided attempt at humor. Many of their comments focus on their frustration about the fact that Foye has completely misrepresented maternity leave. This is true. Foye presents “meternity leave” as a parallel path for women without children to take in order to focus on self-discovery.
But she misses the mark completely.
Her concept of “meternity” isn’t parallel to maternity leave–it’s the exact opposite.
Which is why mothers are so freakin’ pissed.
Contrary to what Foye assumes, when I was on maternity leave, I had never before thought so little about what I wanted in life. What I wanted–nay, needed!–in life was at the very, very bottom of the priority list.
Time for reflection? When?
Here’s 24 hours with a newborn. Midnight-1:00: nurse, change, soothe. 2:00-3:00: nurse, change, soothe. 4:00-5:00: nurse, change, soothe. Etc. And that’s when everything is going well. Throw in some bouts of baby gas, constipation, colic, the fact that you haven’t showered in three days or that you’ve got four visitors in your home… I think I may be preaching to the choir on this point.
The first time I was able to finally step back and reflect was when I returned to work and my daughter was in daycare. While Foye sees “meternity leave” as a way to reflect on her life, the reality is the privileged American mothers who actually have maternity leave need to end it in order to have the time and space to reflect.
And let’s not forget all the American mothers who don’t get maternity leave, be it paid or unpaid. Then, there’s the mothers who must return to work ASAP because they’ve run out of vacation days and sick leave (two unfortunate misnomers that feed the ignorance about maternity leave). And what about the mothers who stay home and are immersed in care-taking day in and day out? Are their lives full of reflection?
It’s no wonder that so many mothers are absolutely incensed that (once again) care-taking has been written off as a kind of leisure activity.
Meghann, let’s level with each other. It is especially hurtful to hear maternity leave compared to a vacation when it comes from another woman. I’m assuming you’ve experienced times when you’ve been the target of presumptive, uninformed judgments from men who don’t have a clue.
But let me be fair, Meghann. You have indeed made a spot-on observation about maternity leave:
From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of (new mothers) shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.
You are right, Meghann–but it’s not because new mothers simply have time off from work, which is how you envision “meternity leave.”
The reason that mothers emerge with a new focus is because they have been plunged into a nonstop, grueling training program that schooled them in quickly distinguishing what was important and what was simply window dressing. Through pain, blood, and tears, they learned how to put aside hunger, frustration, exhaustion, and self-doubt in order to find the strength to keep mothering.
They learned how to get rid off all the noise and distractions in order to find a place to drop the anchor so they could hold on while the storm waged on.
That’s how mothers redirected their focus. That’s how they “found” themselves. Not by traveling and thinking and reading and ruminating. They did it through boots-on-the-ground training, every hour of every day for weeks. And then for months. They did it through self-denial, arguments with their spouses, and constant reassessments of how and when they could have social lives and personal time.
Becoming a mother is an ongoing lesson in humility, beginning from that obvious (yet still surprising!) realization that your baby cannot thank you for getting up four times at night. Your baby doesn’t thank you for suffering with a torn vagina just so he could emerge into this world. In fact, your baby can’t even really have a conversation with you for another two years.
So those early weeks of new motherhood are training for a lifetime of not being thanked or even acknowledged. And while we continue to feel annoyance and frustration about this, new motherhood does a remarkable job of tempering our emotional reactions.
But everyone has their limits.
So maybe you can understand why we get pissed when one of our own gender joins in the obliviousness of calling maternity leave a vacation. We get frustrated because what we do during our leave is often done in the dark, with no thanks or acknowledgement.
In fact, that is one of the reasons that I wrote my book, Becoming Mother. When I was pregnant, I noticed that there was a true dearth of books that actually took a pregnant woman into what it’s like to become a mother. There were plenty of books about the physical side, but nothing really that dealt with the emotional and mental upheaval, which is truly what makes maternity leave so necessary for coping with new motherhood.
When I was experiencing those first weeks of motherhood, I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about this? This is insane! This is so unbelievably hard that I can’t believe no one talks about this.” And while there were plenty of books on first-time motherhood that took the shape of humorous confessions, no one was really being real with me.
So I wrote a book that would be real with new mothers.
I wrote it to cast light on the hidden side of maternity leave.
Okay, she doesn’t have children yet. Okay, maybe the closest she has come to someone who has taken maternity leave is her view of the empty desk that she sees at work. But the gravest error that Meghann has made is choosing a subject that she doesn’t know much about. And then going so far as to write a novel about it. And then approaching that subject from an angle that provokes the ire of millions of mothers.
Put simply, her gravest error is a lack of humility.
But I’m venturing to guess that she might be learning that lesson now.
I could have written off this whole concept of “meternity” as very poor taste and a lack of social awareness. I could have just rolled my eyes, stewed at my desk while eating my lunch in fifteen minutes (so I could finish grading final exams–because I don’t have time to grade at home), but this is too important of a moment to let it go.
This is the moment when we need to say something. This is the moment when we say, “Knock it off with the vacation comparisons, already.”
It’s not funny.
It’s not even cute.
At best, it’s feeding a culture of misunderstanding.
At worst, it mocks what mothers of newborns actually experience.
It’s not that I hate people. On the contrary, I find a lot of satisfaction in connecting with others.
What I hate about networking in the field of writing is that it forces me to move beyond my moments of paralyzing insecurity. It pushes me into the uncertainty of interacting in an arena where I am still relatively inexperienced and unknown.
I can network with teachers and mothers all day long. I slip as easily into those roles as I do my favorite pair of Ryka running shoes.
But networking with writers challenges me to fly a flag of a country where I’m not sure I’ve earned citizenship.
I don’t have a degree that attests to my skills as a writer.
I don’t have a traditionally published book that agents and publishers have agreed is worthy of publication.
But at this year’s Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, I decided that I was going to take the next step in my journey to own the identity of writer.
The first night. A Thursday night. Sitting in my car, taking deep breaths. One. Two. Three.
It’s fear, I told myself. You’re afraid, but you shouldn’t be. No one is going to throw you out because you self-published your book. No one is going to laugh at you. Hell, you might even sell a book!
I walked toward the hotel lobby where the roar of several hundred people filled the room. Laughing. Hugging. Squealing.
I stopped at the registration table and picked up my badge. It was a nothing but a thin piece of paper and plastic, but when I hung it around my neck, it became my own magic feather. I looked at my name and reminded myself:
Own this identity.
You belong. You can do this.
Owning the identity of writer is different than owning my other identities.
As a teacher, I could fall back on the magic feather of my two degrees. I deserve to be called teacher. I’ve earned it. And two universities agree that I am one.
As a mother, I could fall back on the magic feather of my own body. I deserve to be called mother. I’ve earned it. And everyone is calling me one.
But if I’m really being honest, I know that the degrees didn’t make me a teacher. I didn’t truly know how to be a teacher until I started teaching. And although I navigated the new and murky waters of pregnancy and childbirth, I didn’t really know how to be a mother until I started mothering.
But calling myself a writer forces me to acknowledge the truth that I have no degrees in writing. I have no university saying that I’m qualified to do this. And, most of all, not many people know me as a writer. I’m more likely to be seen as the teacher who also writes on the side. Or the mom who has a writing hobby.
Owning the identity of writer requires me to truly believe in my own worth.
Without the magic feathers.
During the first dinner at the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, they played this video.
In this video, Erma confesses her own disbelief in her identity as a writer. It wasn’t until her literature professor acknowledges her gift that she truly starts to see herself differently.
What did her professor say?
“You can write.”
I take comfort in this video. That even Erma Bombeck, a truly great writer, needed someone else to call her a writer before she was willing to believe it. She needed someone already in the community to invite her to the other side.
The journey of self-publishing Becoming Motherhas forced me to wrestle with a lot of my own demons of worthiness. Not only did I have to believe that I had a message to tell and the talent to bring it to the world, I had to also believe that I had the right to do so.
Without the degree.
Without the title.
I had to believe that I had the right.
But as I move into this unfamiliar space of networking with writers, I realize that I’m still wrestling with these same demons–only now, I’m doing it in public. My private battles of worthiness are now being reenacted in real time with real consequences that cannot be rehearsed and tamed from all sides. If I succumb to crippling self-doubt and turn into an incoherent mess as I try to talk about my writing, that encounter cannot be undone. And I have to learn how to just live with it.
And move the hell on.
With my drink in hand, a knot forming in my throat, I looked around for a group to join in the sea of networking writers.
Maybe I’ll hang my coat up first, I thought.
“Excuse me,” I smiled at three women as I placed my drink on their table for a moment. I crawled out of my coat and readjusted my bag over my shoulder. When I turned back around, I realized that I now had a place at the table.
They made room for me.
They made room for me.
I met columnists Betsy Bitner, from Albany, New York and Christy Heitger-Ewing, from Bloomington, Indiana along with aspiring writer, Mary Hennigan from Cincinnati. We talked about our jobs and I put on my comfortable hat of ESL teacher, which can procure about twenty minutes of material if my audience is interested.
But then it was time to bridge into why I was really there.
“Well,” I said, “I actually wrote a book last year and I’m here to get some inspiration to push forward to my next book.”
“What was your book about?” Christy asked.
I gave my pitch.
“Do you have copies?” she asked.
My hand slipped into my bag, but I knew there was nothing but a padfolio and a folder. I was hoping to fish out at least a business card with my name on it, anything for this willing audience to not forget me as soon as I walked away.
I had one card.
I could talk easily about being a mother, so I did. I wore that comfortable hat to get my bearings and my confidence back.
And no one criticized me.
No one questioned me.
They just said, “Good for you.”
On the final day of the workshop, Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, authors of Queen of Your Own Life, shared a keynote address in which they touched on the topic of fear. Kathy shared these words (my paraphrase as I took notes):
I had to make the decision to walk through my fear. Yeah, I was afraid, but that was also okay. I mean, so what? We’re all afraid. But if you can learn to walk through that fear, you can free yourself.
Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, authors of Queen of Your Own Life, April 2, 2016
Someday, I hope to fully embrace the freedom to call myself a writer, as I have with the name teacher and mother.
But like everything else, becoming a writer is a process. A lot of it is done in the dark, without cheering or even polite acknowledgement. It will take time for me to grow into this role. I still have much to learn about the craft of writing, especially if I want to grow as a fiction writer. (And thank you to Anna Lefler, Susan Pohlman, and Katrina Kittle for giving me some much-needed guidance on the craft of writing fiction!)
But I must also acknowledge that cultivating an identity as a writer requires that I build relationships with others who see me in that light. I can’t just skip this hard part.
I need to walk through my own anxiety and self-doubt because it’s my only path into this new country of writers.
About a year ago, in the middle of January, I was trying to fall asleep and out of nowhere, a sentence came to me.
Just one line. A line of dialogue.
It tugged at me. It kept me up.
Who said this line? Why did they say it? Where were they? What were the stakes?
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King compares the process of writing a good story to the process of unearthing a fossil. You see part of the story peeking out of the ground–then you unearth the story by asking the right questions. You don’t imagine a bunch of independent, isolated pieces lying on top of the earth and then try to fit them all together.
You start with one piece–then you see what’s already attached to it.
So that’s what I did. I got out a notebook and I started answering those questions.
And a story emerged.
A long story.
Long enough for three books.
I stared down at my notes and thought, I don’t have time for this. I’ve got to finish this book I’m working on right now. When am I going to find time to write another book, let alone three? I’ve got a job. And a toddler.
Still, the story wouldn’t go away. As I drove to work, the plot, the characters, and their motivations took shape. As I listened to music in my car, and I could see critical scenes playing out before me as I drove, much like a movie trailer. One morning while on a short vacation with friends, I got up at 5:30 and spent two hours writing out the first five major scenes.
But then I got stuck. I couldn’t see past a major conflict. I couldn’t figure out how to resolve the conflict in a way that fit with the characters.
So I put it away. I finished the book I was working on. I learned how to publish, how to market, and how reach new readers. I spent time blogging and writing essays to submit for publication elsewhere.
But the story wouldn’t go away.
My husband put several books in my stocking for Christmas this year. One of them was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.
I wasn’t ready to read it at first. I was still working through the grief of miscarriage. But within a week, I decided it was time to allow myself to cultivate my creativity again. It was my creativity, after all, that had saved me, time and time again.
In Gilbert’s book, she articulates a belief that ideas come to people, almost like a kind of spiritual possession. And if the person doesn’t try to bring forth the idea to the world, it will move on, seeking someone else to bring it to light.
What a bunch of mystical bullshit, I thought.
But I kept thinking about the story that I had told to wait. I couldn’t deny that it was still lingering there in the deep recesses of my brain. It was like a puzzle that I couldn’t figure out.
So I dug out my notes about the story and the twelve pages that I wrote a year earlier and I read them.
As I moved through the pages I was swept up in the story that my previous self had written. Whose voice was this in these pages? Who wrote this? I know I did, but this doesn’t sound like me at all. It truly felt like I was reading someone else’s great idea.
But I still couldn’t figure out how to resolve the major conflict.
This last week, I had coffee with a good friend, Cate. She asked me if I had any desire to write fiction again. I rolled my eyes and shrugged, “You mean besides that one book that I can’t figure out?”
“What book?” she asked.
It occurred to me that Cate was a fresh audience with whom I’d never shared the concept of this book.
I told her everything that I knew. She listened, her eyebrows lifting in interest in all the right places. I had to backtrack a few times to clarify plot lines and motivations, but she stuck with me the whole time. As she asked me questions, I could feel the gears clicking into place again, the story starting to open up and move.
As I drove home, I started to re-imagine the story. What if this… What if that…
I jotted some more notes down in a new notebook. I scribbled out the plot arcs for all three books. Oddly enough, the most logical and motivating place for me to begin was with the second book.
And so that’s where I’ll begin.
After this experience, I can’t totally write off Elizabeth Gilbert’s premise, that ideas knock on our doors, asking for us to bring them to light.
Because where did this first line of dialogue come from?
I have no idea.
While I can rationalize the experience of unearthing the fossil of this story question by question, I cannot rationalize where that first spark of curiosity came from. I can attribute my own imagination as the source that fleshed out the answers to all the questions that surrounded this line of dialogue.
But where did that first line of dialogue come from?
I know it didn’t come from me.
Damn you, Elizabeth Gilbert.
But also bless you, for convincing me to not give up on the idea that wouldn’t go away.
To celebrate the first six months of publication, I’m giving away two signed copies of “Becoming Mother” through Goodreads this month. Enter any time between February 8th and February 26th. Feel free to share with friends!