Monday Musings: Creative License

Monday, March 2, 2009

When I was eight months pregnant with my now-2-week-old, my husband and I were out to dinner and I was in a funk. Truth be told, I had been in a funk for a few days (Decoder Ring: Days=Weeks), and I hadn't been able to put my finger on what exactly was wrong. Yes, my back hurt; yes I was apprehensive about having a third child; yes my eldest had whined for 23 hours straight the day before. But it was none of that. It was this prevailing sense of malaise. This nagging sensation that time was passing without notice. This nebulous feeling that I was letting my life happen to me, as opposed to charting it myself.

"What do you want to do?" My husband asked, sincerity oozing from his pores. The poor guy, I think I rolled my eyes at him--because if I knew the answer to that question we wouldn't have been having that conversation in the first place.

"Seriously," he said, "what do you want to make sure you do in your life?"

The first thing that came to my mind has been the elephant in that dark, scary room of my mind for the last 4 years: Before I die I want to make sure I finish my book.

By way of background: A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, which led to a benevolently misguided publisher taking a chance on me and giving me--an unknown writer with wide-eyes in lieu of any established rep--an advance to write a book. It was, at the risk of sounding trite, a dream come true, a gift that landed in my lap. I took 4 months off from my job and wrote a first draft. A few months later, I received comments on the draft and--could it be?--the editors did not laugh me out of their offices. They actually liked it. I turned in a second draft and all that was left to do was complete one more round of changes.

Fast forward to today: The manuscript sits untouched, somewhere in the deep bowels of Microsoft Word. (How decidedly un-poetic. A manuscript should sit untouched in a creaky old drawer of a Louis XIV-era armoire. Not in some computer program. I was born a generation too late...)

When I look at it, as I force myself to do every so often, I don't recognize the voice and it truly is as if I am reading something somebody else wrote.

I don't know how to tell that story anymore.

Between the second draft and now, 4 years have passed, during which I have gotten pregnant and given birth 3 times. In a move of epic originality, we accordingly moved from San Francisco to Berkeley. I am currently on my third maternity leave from my ridiculously generous job. Days spent letting my mind wander have been replaced with many days in which I state as a goal to keep my mind sane. Simultaneously, I have found a happiness I never could have imagined; my world has become so much bigger, but so much smaller at the same time.

I am the same person who wrote those first two drafts and in a way that book feels like a child I have yet to bring into this world. My friend Lisa, who you met last week, says her first baby was not her 2 1/2 year old--it was her store, Iniam. We have talked about it so much it sometimes loses meaning but--we were all doing so many things before we had children. We had so many goals and ambitions; hopes and dreams and impossible schemes. And we of course make decisions to give up some things for others. Many of us were happy to leave jobs that were unsatisfying in order to stay at home and raise kids. In fact, when I had my first child, I gave myself the opportunity to let the wave of stay-at-home-mom-ness wash over me--I wanted to let myself have it if it so called. But...

It did not so call.

I know myself so much better after three kids that I sometimes wonder if I knew myself before at all. There is so much I want now. And I can talk about it without feeling embarrassed, self-important, presumptuous. I have certainly felt like I am a failure for--well--failing to finish my book. I have felt like I have something to prove. But I don't feel like that anymore. I'm too tired to prove anything to anybody! If I want to prove anything to anybody, it is myself. But more than proving a point, I want to be the full person I imagine myself being...and that is for my kids.

On top of the list of things I want to do is finish this book.

So I wonder: How many of you guys have struggled to fit creative endeavors into your post-motherhood lives? On the one hand, time at home with young children is a great time to find pockets for our own creative exploration--naps and early bedtimes afford blocks of time for ourselves, if we choose to allocate it as such. On the other hand, the fatigue I sometimes feel these days, in between the nursing and the taking care of two other little ones, is beyond crippling. Just today, as I was mid-way through writing this, I took a "break" to nurse the littlest one. Watching the clock tick by, staring down at the objectively gorgeous little face of my little girl (!)--I could feel my world retract. All these thoughts? This navigation of what it means to want post-children, of what it means to counterbalance motherhood with other aspirations? Out the window. The only thing I could focus on was my daughter's eating, and was she getting enough, and why was she slowing down, and it has only been 9 minutes is she really already done? Afterwards I was exhausted in that way that can only be analogized to a parasite-host dynamic. How could I possibly finish my book if I couldn't even finish a blog post about finishing my book?

But, on the other hand, I seem to work better with more obligations. When I started writing this blog, I was about to return to work after my second maternity leave and I was pregnant with my third child. It probably was not an "ideal" time to start a new venture. And yet: Here we are, five months later, and writing these little blurbs every day is as much a part of my life as tucking in my kids at the end the night. It does not feel like a burden and, in fact, more often than not, it feels like a privilege.

I force myself to remember: One of the main reasons I started writing on a blog was to give myself a kick in the ass for not having been able to finish my book. I was angry at myself. I am angry at myself. Who squanders such an amazing opportunity? In my mind, I had absolved myself by making the worlds largest pile of excuses for my negligence. But the book still lived and still lives, back in that silly room where the elephant resides. And it remains there now.

You learn to trust the signs life gives to you. Like that "gut feeling" that your child's fever means something more serious than the doctor is saying. The hangnail-like thought poking your consciousness, telling you to Do Something. I have been ignoring the poking for years now. I have told myself that it's okay to leave the book undone because--look at my life--it's an embarrassment of riches. But that poking, that hangnail, that nagging voice in the back of my head--it remains, it taunts me, it tells me: "Me thinks thou dost protest too much"...or whatever the correct Shakespeare quote is...

So, with all of you as my witness: (Me thinks) I am hereby establishing as a goal that, one day, before I die, I will finish this book...or some book. I will re-claim my voice and I will complete what I started. I will do it because I want to. Because it will make me happy. Because nothing is worse than looking back on a period of your life--even a supremely happy one--with anything that could be labeled "regret."
20 comments:
Niyati said...

Wow, what a great post about something we all struggle with, namely fitting in our old life with our new. While I can't imagine writing a book with three babies, I know it can be done and here's to watching you do it. Thanks for sharing!

Idina said...

Just found your blog through BlogHer and am really enjoying it. This is a very honest, wonderfully written piece and it sums up so much of what goes on through a mom's mind. Count your blessings for being able to articulate what you want. I have seen so many people get to the point of having 5, 6, 7 year olds and they can't even remember what their other desires were anymore...

Anonymous said...

wow good luck with the book! hope you will post your progress on the blog!

Ravi said...

Inspiring, especially the last line about regret. Good luck!

Ruchi said...

In response to your question about juggling creative ventures and your real life I can add my two cents: It isn't easy but it pays back in dividends. My creative pursuits are only hobbies but I picked up all of them (painting, sculpting) after I had children. I can't explain how important that time "for me" is and I think everybody needs to figure out a way to make such time. Yes, the cliches are true, time for myself makes me a better mom. But even more important I think is that doing creative things, whatever they may be, keeps your mind in tact. What's more important than that?

Ashwin Sodhi said...

Methinks me sound like Cookie Monster! Methinks me would buy this book. Iz about cookie?

Anonymous said...

Oh my I can relate. I had many plans for projects for my maternity leave. I am set to return to work next week and I literally have not completed ONE of my projects, and I too beat myself up about it. I have many nice friends who tell me not to beat myself up but as it seems like you relate to, I don't really need to reinforcement to not to the projects, I need to figure out a way TO do them. This post read my mind I hope you find a way to fit the book into your new life, I will keep trying to fit my projects into mine.

Anonymous said...

jeez you're really writing a book with three kids under 4?!?!? I don't want to be a naysayer but I can imagine that is going to be increidbly difficult, not only to find the time but to find the inspiration because as you said with the fatigue and the nursing and whatnot, creative thoughts might be few and far between. I admire your resolve, good luck!

Nivi said...

Good luck. It isn't going to be easy but it sounds like you are committed and your lucky children! They will get to read a book written by their mother one day if you can pull it off!! Hope you don't stop writing for the blog, it has become one of the first things I check everyday. Best of luck to you.

Hema said...

I wish I had an answer to your question about fitting creative pursuits into everyday life. I dont think it is unique to parents, though our challenges may be larger or at least bigger in number. Sadly, most of our friends these days have seemed to let many of their hobbies, hopes "dreams and impossible schemes" (love that) fall to the wayside, whether because of pressure at work, social obligation or what have you. I do think we will look back with regret if we don't re-engage soon. Hope some of your readers have some advice.

Geeta said...

Lots of people make time for the things that are important post-baby, you just have to be willing to live with the opportunity cost. I am writing my first book (non fiction) and i do the bulk of it in during naps and after my 2 year old is in bed, like you said. But I don't get out much, have lost touch with many friends etc. It is worth it to me but might not be to everyone . And some people are surprisingly unsupportive about such a choice (e.g., the friends i don"t get to see as much).

Neesha said...

This is something almost everyone I know, who is a newish parent, is currently struggling with. The biggest thing, I think, is what a poster above said--being able to live with the trade-off that pursuing creative pursuits entails necessarily. It's like that quote about how we all want to be a good wife, mother, and employee but more often than not, we will only be able to be 2 of the 3 well (so choose wisely!) If you are going to write that novel, paint that masterpiece or whatever your pursuit is, you probably aren't going to be at all the hippest restaurants or attend every party. Choices, it's all about choices.

Jyothi said...

Deepa! I had no idea you were writing a book! I concur with the above poster I hope you will post what you are writing to the blog. My book club by the way has decided to read one of the books you recommended last week about dinner parties. Hopefully we will read your book one day in our club.

Anonymous said...

I think you hsould write a book called "Typing While Nursing", it would be a hit! How do you DO that?!?!?!?!

Ushi said...

I'm curious about the line about moving to Berkeley. I always think my creativity is somehow linked to my surroundings, both in terms of my home and my city. Do you agree???

Anonymous said...

My goodness but you must cut yourself some slack. Not only did you just have a kid, but if the impression that your eldest (by which I mean your husband) and your eldest son are under that Mommy's (unbrushed) hair is flammable is true, then I'm sure your hair routinely bursting into flame probably puts some strain on your day as well.

But that's a secondary issue here, really. There's that old saw that writing a book is like giving birth, but my guess is that right about now popping out a fourth looks easier than getting published, or even finishing. Nature takes care of the one process, but nurture is required for the other - and it's a demanding little shit, that novel. Your son isn't half the whiner it is.

The greatest writers have spent years on a single book. Rushdie measures his life out in five-year chunks with a book per (his best, anyway; frankly, the less impressive - Fury, say - are the ones he spent the least amount of time on). Twain spent nearly a decade on and off on Huckleberry Finn. Tolstoy took seven years for his magnum opus and didn't even like the finished product. And Bellow's editors would implore him to pick up the pace.

This is the more important point to consider. Apart from the most arbitrary deadline (death), any other is not useful. If you don't like what you've produced, simply having something out there with your name on it will be small solace (again, Rushdie: Grimus is an embarrassment for him). Time is not running out, and it's all too clear that, like many hyperachieving Indian women, you're your own wifebeater; any woman who's browbeating herself just after giving birth for not doing enough clearly has the masochistic and generally screwed-up mind necessary for artistic endeavor.

So if it takes a while, let it. It'll be better than it would have been.

A said...

I would love to read a book you write! But yeah, I'm a writer too (or was, rather, before kids) but have barely written a 500-word article since my second baby was born. Creativity takes energy. The mind-numbing drain of 24-hour mothering (my husband is gone from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and I have no help) is hardly conducive to writing anything decent. So I've decided to wait, enjoy this time with my gorgeous babies, and try and pick up where I left off once they're off to school full time. I admit that I don't feel like a whole person if I don't write, so I do have a journal... but it's not the same thing.

Veena said...

Hi Deepa --

I am just now reading this b/c I'm out of town, but I wanted to tell you how eye-opening it is for me.

You are one of the most productive people that I know. I put similar pressure on myself about writing that dissertation (arguably more egregious that I'm not doing that) . . . and just yesterday I finally determined that I would finish it.

It's frankly a relief to read that someone that I so love and look up to has had similar struggles. Thank you for putting this out there and being honest -- it would have been a very difficult thing for me to do. But this post puts all the pressure that we put on ourselves in perspective.

Anonymous said...

Letting it out...feels good doesnt it :)

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the idea that you don't want regrets and the world needs anything written by Deepa, but I'm sort of tired of the whole pressure to prove you're "not just a mom." I held my mom's hand when she died and while her job/hobbies outside the home built a lot of happiness in her life, it was her children that were her greatest joy and accomplishment in that most important moment. I treasure the little moments with my daughter and work full-time at a job I tired of years ago so I can enjoy the most of these early years with her instead of working to further my career right now. It nags me at times and I have the same feelings of failure, but I was lucky, yes, lucky, enough to experience my mom's death young enough to learn this amazing lesson. Life is short, but it's not that short (!) and you're young, D. Don't feel bad about enjoying the little stuff with those adorable kids - who will very soon want nothing to do with you, ha - and you will complete that or another book soon enough. You can have it all, but don't add the pressure.

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