Published on November 20th, 2015 | by Kris Willcox8
WAKING THE DEAD: How Parenting Brought KRIS WILLCOX’s Writing Back to Life
If you’d asked me at the age of thirty, when I finished repaying my student loans, what might bring me back to writing, I would not have said “lack of sleep” or “the inability to finish a sentence before being interrupted by a crying child.” Yet parenthood is how I arrived, late and disheveled, to the writing life.
In my twenties I dropped out of not one but two graduate writing programs, where I had such riches of time that I couldn’t seem to write anything. In the decade that followed, the only writing I did was in diaries where I excoriated myself for laziness and lack of talent. Through practice, I managed to turn that staple of writing workshops, the “free write,” into my own personal corn maze of defeatism and shame.
Then I had children. Hugely pregnant with my second child, I sat with my laptop balanced on what remained of my lap, tapping out tentative new stories and essays while my two year-old napped. Under the fickle deadlines of naptime and another birth, I found words again, when I could barely find time for a shower.
The cliché bothers me a bit—motherhood as the doorway to my true calling—but the fact is that my children called me a writer before I was willing to. We were reading a picture book called “Working Mummies” in which sprightly, female mummies emerge from their coffins to go to all sorts of interesting jobs: doctor, teacher, beautician. My son pointed at the writer mummy in the glow of her computer screen and said, “That’s like you.”
“Yes,” I said sheepishly, “it kind of is!”
As they got older, I realized that by working at my craft but refusing to call myself a writer, I might be setting a bad example. For years I saved my creative work in a file labeled “Scraps.” My inner Betty Friedan was livid: “You are telling them that a woman’s work doesn’t matter! And that striving is for losers!” I recently renamed the file “Work in Progress” and you would think, from the flush of accomplishment this produced, that I’d accepted a residency at Yaddo.
Writing requires more of me now, and that means less time—less of me—for the kids. I’m still here to play catch and weave friendship bracelets and clean up the spectacular mess of “Kids Cook Night,” but I’ve acknowledged to myself and my family that writing with intent to publish requires more than dashing off the occasional draft, then waiting for alchemic magic to turn those scrambled pages into finished work. Having repaid to the Sallie Mae Corporation more than I wish to disclose for writing degrees I don’t have, I’m now enrolled in a writing school that is free, and highly exclusive. It’s called the Butt-In-Chair program. There’s one instructor and she alternates between slapping me in the face and giving me sage, caring advice. It’s hard, but I am now writing first drafts that are followed by second, even third drafts and sometimes, a polished piece of work.
Some writers reach this place at twenty. I’m forty, and have run out of time to be jealous of wunderkinds. My adoration is fixed on late bloomers like the novelist Tessa Hadley or the essayist Emily Fox Gordon, who arrived to their fully-formed writing selves in their forties. They give me hope that my waiting years were not wasted. As Hadley said in an interview, “When you do finally make your way into the writing personality that is your real one, it’s such a relief (however small that personality might be, however partial). It’s like wandering round for years in a writing wilderness and then letting yourself in at last to your own house with your own key.”
Reading this, I caught my breath: Your own house. Your own key. The sense of recognition was so sharp it hurt: to be locked out of one’s writing life—a place you long to return, yet have never fully inhabited
I am not in the house yet. Sometimes just reading an article about MFA programs, or the seeing the headliners for the next AWP conference brings back an old, twitchy sadness: fear of all I wanted, and all I might not have. Before I had kids, this place of uncertainty is where I turned back. When the going got tough, I simply returned to base camp and told funny stories about my ass-over-tea-kettle descent down the mountain.
Now I’ve got an even scarier—though healthier—motivation to write: striving is one of the skills I want to teach my son and daughter. I’ve told them that I write because it’s the best way that I know of to feel fully awake and alive. For this to become a useful demonstration, they’ll have to see me sitting down in the chair to write. Sure, I’d like to instruct them in how one properly curtsies to the Swedish royal family when accepting a Nobel Prize, but if I can’t manage that, tackling my own aspirations of being a writer with stamina and grace is not a bad life lesson either.
Children are generous judges. Mine think that I’m a world-class baker, for example, simply because I made edible bread a couple of times. But they are highly skilled bullshit detectors, too. And they’re watching—not to find out if I publish or finish a book or become even moderately successful, but to see how seriously I go about the business of being alive. So I am giving it a go. It’s what you do, when you’re a working mummy and the moon is full—you climb out of the ground and get to work.