As a teenager in Alaska, I wrote out my misery on winter ice with a teacher’s blue overhead pen. Come spring, the words melted and fed birch, moss, new ferns, raspberry brambles. In other seasons, I relied on pen and paper to exorcise my demons, burying those telling scraps in earth or garbage or flame. I needed the ritual. It purified me.
In my early 20s, I was accepted to an MFA creative writing program and discovered the concept of audience. This was heady stuff. But still, at that time and for many years after, I honored the instinct to write mostly because it was the solitude at the center of storm. And though I eventually overcame the trauma of child-becoming-adult, I have never ceased to find profound pleasure in the hard work of putting down words.
When I was 34, I was offered my first book deal. This, from what I came to know in my MFA program, was arriving. With published book in hand, my degree would be legitimized. I imagined myself embracing the writing life fully — taking long walks in lush greenery, and returning home to pen abundant, saleable ideas. Or accepting a tenured creative writing position at some small, but prestigious university, where I would let my hair grow very, very long (streaked with gray, as I aged, of course), wear bright flowing clothing and, perhaps, add a tasteful piercing to my face. Or lunching with my favorite author, Michael Ondaatje, and knowing the perfect writerly thing to say (Sir, as for the knife and carrots, you and I both know it’s really about the music).
A short while later, I became pregnant with our first child, and this added to my joy — I thought of my book and the child blooming within as two great “firsts” of my creative life success story: authentic author, nurturing mother.
A professor in the MFA program generously offered to review the terms of the book deal. He found them agreeable. As I had not yet signed an official contract, I wondered if I should pursue a bigger publishing house. I thought about the things I would like to buy for my child. I thought more about my career.
As weeks and months passed, I revised chapters and sent them on to the publisher, and was rewarded with eloquent praise, if not a finalized contract. A famous author in the same genre deemed my writing worthy, and I bought a good number of his books, wondering what it was, exactly, that he saw in my work. I was not used to all of the attention.
And then, early in my second trimester, I nearly miscarried. There was an emergency surgery, and I was assigned total bed rest at the hospital for the duration of my pregnancy. Because I was not allowed to lift any part of my body that would put pressure on the abdomen, the mechanics of typing or even writing by hand were awkward, and painful. Well-meaning friends told me of brilliant authors who had composed award-winning novels in conditions similar to my own. I felt that I had failed both my unborn child and my art.
In December, on the day of Buddha’s enlightenment, I turned 35. Soon after, the publisher sent an apologetic letter — there had been the September stock market crash, after all. I cried while Koun held my hand. Well that’s that, I thought, and I gave up writing to become a mother.
When my son was born in February, healthy and full-term, I was grateful for all that I was able to keep.
I now have two children. Boy, 4, and Girl, nearly 2. Like most parents of young children, Koun and I lead hectic lives between work and home. Both are rewarding. But we have little support here in Japan, and sometimes, we struggle. We rarely find time to focus on ourselves, or on each other. It is not an unusual story.
In the past year or so, though, I’ve come to see that I need to be a writer again — to find that quiet, pleasurable, challenging, invigorating space — for myself, but also because it is good parenting practice. I want my children to encounter their creative mama every day, and that is something that I must work to cultivate. I want to become my best self, and I know that, for instance, when I am writing consistently, my focus expands, my humor improves, I feel softer and more open to whatever comes. My writer’s eyes, in a way that is different from my ordinary eyes, find beauty and poignancy in unexpected places — in the well-tended Jizō along my bike route to work each morning, in my son’s new-found love of superhero poses, in changing my daughter’s diaper at 3 a.m.
I want, in some small way, for this blog to be an offering — to myself, to my children, to all beings. I may never become an author of note. I may never publish anything ever again. But now I get it. That’s not the point. It never was. Blue ink, ice — just this.
I really like reading you and Ondaatje..
Thank you, Hilary. I so envy his gorgeous paragraphs. . .
Tracy, this essay really touched me. Your writing is always piercing but this particular piece hit close to home for me.
I’ve been in a few different “promising careers” that were variously cut short by unforeseeable external events… and many of the loving people at those times tried to support me by pushing me to get back on the old track, while I was trying to let go of the past, understand and commit to the present, and move forward in new directions.
I lived and worked in Japan a long time ago (Osaka and later Fukuyama-shi in Hiroshima-ken) and even as someone without children and who spoke Japanese I found it could be socially isolating for me. In those pre-Internet days, writing for me meant writing letters (I was an epic correspondent), which proved a great creative outlet. In Hiroshima-ken, I also had the opportunity to join what I believe was Japan’s first gospel choir and as a lover of music, having the company of other singers was magical for me.
All of this is to say I’m sorry that the book deal fell through and I have some understanding of what some parts of your story are like. I’m so glad that you and Boy survived that terrible time. And I’m happy that you are finding different ways to write and incorporate writing in your life–and grateful that you’ve chosen to share your writing here with us.
The other thing about writing is… it’s not all about putting words on a page. It takes living, too. It sounds like you’re doing a lot of that. Living in Japan, committing to your marriage and child-rearing and Zen practice: it’s not as obvious a step in a writing career as pursuing an MFA, but it still “counts”. If a time comes down the road when you want to write and choose to write with a goal to publication, you will have so much more to draw from.
Thank you again for sharing your writing here with us in the meantime.
PS I wish I lived down the road. I would be so happy to say “I’ll watch Boy and Girl today–you sit down and write.” I’m on the wrong side of the Pacific, alas, but maybe on day…
Shaula, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences—they are much appreciated. Such interesting parallels! I think you hit the nail on the head here: “It takes living, too.” So true. I’ve been looking over the draft of that book, and I realize that I definitely now have a much more nuanced view of Japan, of practice, of life. And I have loads more to write about. This will be a valuable asset in revising my work—and especially in taking on new things. My one regret, really, is that I stopped composing (non-academic) writing for such a long chunk of time, and I wasn’t reading enough creative work, either; I see that as a lost chance to improve. But, shouganai. I’m thrilled to be engaging actively with reading and writing again now. I believe there will be a positive payoff for this—perhaps not in the dreamed-of ways (though I’d certainly welcome that!), but in unexpected ways that (also) matter. . . Your lovely encouragement, for instance!
PS I wish you were down the road, too,. . . so we could have a chat!
Beautiful. I love your writing. Keep it up. Seems like it works for you. Hopefully, I will get to introduce my daughter’s to your children someday.
Thanks, Matteo. Let’s aim for a playdate the next time we’re in your neck of the woods–I can’t wait to meet your cuties!
You are phenomenal, friend. Keep up being you, because that’s a gift to the rest of us.
You are too kind, Michael. I miss you.
Thank you for the self revealing post. It is a blessing that you can combine motherhood with creative surge. Perhaps, caring the baby at 3 a.m may teach one as zen as zazen. As for style, if you take it in good humour, you must read more Stephen Crane. Thank you.
Thank you for your comment–and for your reading suggestion!
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Somewhere in your posts, you seem to mention a book you have written. Is it available in print? Thank you.