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On Writing

Published on August 14th, 2013 | by Shanthi Sekaran


LIFE SENTENCE: Shanthi Sekaran on Writing, Motherhood and the Truth

The year was 2002. I’d just finished my writing MFA, and was about to see my first short story published in a bona fide, industry-sanctioned fiction anthology. I was 23 years old, and in my myopic opinion, I was on my way to literary stardom, glamorous book parties, the big leagues. The literary big leagues, as far as I knew, were inhabited by graying New Yorkers and new sensations–hip, young, hot authors who traveled in packs and drank Pisco Sours in Williamsburg and argued about books by Nabakov that no one else had read. All I had to do was write and publish my first novel.

Cut to 2009.

It was 5:40 a.m. when I heard the predictable rattle of a crib frame, the happy squawks that welcomed each morning. My 1-year-old son was awake for the day, punctual as ever. I stumbled into his room and picked him up, then sat down again to nurse. He always had a smile for me. He delighted in the sight of his barely conscious mother. I’d come home at two from a Litquake party in San Francisco, and was starting the day on three hours of sleep.

The night’s party had barely begun when I decided that I’d have to leave if I was going to survive the coming day. I’d just seen my first novel published, and had entered the world I’d spent years watching from the outside. I was in. And now that I was in, I wanted to be all in. I wanted to be the Literary It Girl I always thought I’d be. And for a few hours the previous night, I was. I was a girl. I was literary. I was it. I was most definitely not someone’s mother. But the thing about Literary It Girls is that they don’t have beautiful babies waiting for them at home, waiting to be nourished and loved at five in the morning. As I held my son to my breast and rocked myself to sleep and wondered if the vermouth would stymie his neurological development, I decided that I’d have to make a choice. Was I a mother or a writer?

Shanthi Avi Skyline

I decided to be a writer when I was 22, long before the idea of children pitter-pattered into my plans. I’m 36 now, a writing professor, and mother to two sons, Avi and Ash. Avi is five and Ash is a two-month-old with a monstrous appetite. When I’m not breastfeeding, teaching, doing school pick-ups or shopping for string cheese, I work on the edits for my second novel. In the years since my first son was born, I learned that there’s no or when it comes to living and writing. I’m not a mother or a writer. I’m a mother and a writer. A motherwriter.

Earlier this year, the book world witnessed a minor uproar around Lauren Sandler’s article in The Atlantic (June 2013) that claimed the best way to balance motherhood and writing was to have just one child. The online comments section exploded with rebuttals from female literary luminaries, from Aimee Phan to Zadie Smith. Multiple children and creativity are perfectly compatible, they argued. To say otherwise questioned the basic tenets of feminism. For many commentators, Sandler’s claim implied that devoted mothers made bad writers. (The conflagration died down when Sandler stated that The Atlantic had stuck a bogus title on her article, which she’d intended to be a discussion of her favorite female writers.)

Claims and conflagrations aside, the relationship between motherhood and writing feels both essential and impossible. Female writers often don’t–but really should–think long and hard about whether they’re going to have children, and what that decision will mean for their careers. When my students ask me about the practicalities of being a writer, they want mostly to talk about agents, editors, publishers. I want to talk about husbands, partners and babysitters. Marry someone with a reliable job, I want to tell them, surprised at how old and stodgy I sound. Marry a scientist. If you’re a woman, get a good nanny. You’ll need one. When I say these things, the budding writers look at me like I’ve gone wildly non sequitur. Often, I have. What I’m trying to tell them is that the practice of writing does not take kindly to motherhood. Writers don’t get maternity pay. The literary world won’t stand still until my kids are old enough for school. Agents, publishers, reviewers and readers don’t make allowances for mommy-brain. The struggle between writing and motherhood is hard to talk about, because no one wants to think that her career could make family life impossible, or vice versa. But the Sandler debate raises a question that still deserves an answer. What does motherhood do for a writer? And what does it take away?

Sleep. We’re starting with the obvious. Young infants wake their parents two to five times a night, every night, for months. Sleeplessness decreases mental function. For about three days this week, the only adjective I could think of was “awesome”. I’ve been using it in conversation, often as a final concluding thought. Now and then, whomever I’m speaking to agrees: Yes, they say, It was awesome! But most of the time, I get looks of amusement and diffuse pity. I’ve decided to stop writing and wait for it to go away.

Networking. When you’re a writer, most of your networking happens over drinks, often after midnight. Being a successful writer depends heavily on being at the right event at the right time. You find connections and use them. It’s important, early in a writing career, to get out to readings at bars, followed by after-parties at bars, followed by after-after parties at bars. But when your kid wants breakfast at six in the morning, he won’t care that you’ve just shared a 3 a.m. mezze plate with Jonathan Lethem.

Distraction. The other day, a Very Important Writer emailed me about submitting something to his anthology. So often, writerly relationships begin with a scant handful of impressions, based on emails and three-minute conversations at parties and conferences. I wanted to reply to the VIW’s message with something pithy and professional, some indication that I deserved his attention. A Literary It Girl, of course, would have whipped something up in seconds and moved on to her next professional conquest. But my reply, three lines long and strictly factual, took about twenty minutes to write. Picture me holding the infant with my left arm, breastfeeding, typing the crucial email with my right hand, trying to re-attach the baby who’s squirmed away from my breast and now writhes and wails, his head thrown back, while my five-year-old, for no obvious reason, stands at my side, yelling Acka-MACKEREL! Acka-MACKEREL!


Logically, it should have been clear from the start that having children meant not having novels. And yet, I’d managed both a book and a baby the first time around. I got a book deal a month before Avi was born, and my first novel, The Prayer Room, came out in 2009. And again this year, I finished my second novel just weeks before the birth of my second son. I was on the One Book One Baby plan, and it seemed, somehow, to be working. But could I say that having children has actually made me a better writer? I shy away from claims like this. I don’t know much about outcomes, but I know what I’ve learned. Here’s what motherhood has taught me about writing.

Sleep. This again. With the obliteration of sleep comes the end of over-thinking. Just as insomniacs have terrible short term memories, mothers of infants learn to let go of the past and future, and focus on the here and now. Sometimes, after three night- time feedings, after weeks upon weeks of mind-altering sleep deprivation, the here and now are all I have.Every writer has pulled herself out of bed to find a pen and write down the brilliant sentence that’s come to her in a dream, in a fog of half sleep, knowing it will be gone by morning. Even if she remembers the gist of her idea, the spirit of it will have evaporated. Caring for an infant reminds me, more acutely than ever, that ideas are ephemeral, magical and easily lost. Like my son’s first gummy smiles, creative inspiration is precious and fleeting. When it comes, I grab onto it, even if it means pulling out a laptop when I should be sleeping or eating. And in the wee hours, I’ve discovered a new mental zone. It’s vaguely psychedelic, free of inhibition. It exists in the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness. It’s the stuff of Coleridge and his pleasure-domes, sans opium.

When you’re overworked, procrastination becomes a luxury. So does indecision.

And as it turns out, I no longer have issues with either. When you have three, four, five things keeping you from writing, you’ll be amazed at how badly you want to write. My two-month-old lies on the mattress next to me, his arms splayed wide, laying claim to his half of the bed. I know I have twenty minutes to write, maybe thirty. And if I’m lucky, an hour. The clock ticks down with every raspy baby breath.

When I have a sentence that works, I write it down. When I have a vague idea of a perfect word, but can’t for the life of me pin it down, I find another word. And I move on. When I do get stuck, I think of the well-worn message: “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” One true sentence is the best thing that a writer, any writer, can hope to achieve. I used to know who said this. I don’t anymore. It’s 2:17 in the morning. I can’t remember a thing.

Networking. Who needs martinis? People with kids like talking to other people with kids. This includes writers. What better way to bond with another writer than to talk about your kids, their passions, the politics of screen time?

Some thoughts on editing. It’s 2 a.m. I nurse my son. He poops. I change him. He wants to feed again. So I nurse my son. He poops. I change him. He wants to feed again. So I nurse my son. He poops. The cycle continues. It could go on all night. It could go on for all eternity. At some point between three and four in the morning, I nurse my son. He poops. Three seconds later, he is blissfully asleep. I let him lie in his dirty diaper, because eventually, it’s all I can do.

At a certain point, you’ve got to let your writing lie in its own shit, and move on.

Research.  They say that every writer should learn a trade–if not to earn a living, then at least to know something about something, to be able to lend knowledge and authenticity to the lives we invent on the page. I wrote The Prayer Room before I’d had children. In simultaneous bouts of whimsy and narrative economy, I gave my main character triplets. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing to the poor woman. Now that I know what it’s like to have a baby and raise it, I will never so flippantly saddle my characters with twins or triplets–not without treating it as more than a plot point in a woman’s life. If I wrote the book now, Viji’s labor would be epic, her children all-consuming. She would be a truer mother than she is now.

When I started my second novel, I was pretty nervous. I’d chosen to write about a Mexican woman who’d crossed the border to California without papers, had a baby, and proceeded to lose the baby to the state adoption system. I spent a lot of time doubting myself. What did I know about being Mexican? An undocumented immigrant? A prisoner in a detention center? Who was I to think I could tell this story? The answer: I was a mother. I knew what it was to carry, birth and love a child. It was through this experience that I accessed my character. Motherhood was my ticket into a life that bore no resemblance to my own. It gave me the confidence that comes with learning a trade.

Avi Shanthi working 1

Storytelling. When he was about two, Avi discovered that his mother could make up stories. I didn’t tell him that I had a degree in making up stories, that I could do all kinds of neat stuff with character development and thematic parallels. All Avi wanted was the story in its purest form. His favorite game was to toss out a series of plot elements (Spaceship! Dinosaurs! Hanuman!). My job was to invent a story about Hanuman on a spaceship with some dinosaurs. Though I was spending less time typing, I found that I was constantly creating. My son brought me back to the basics, and I discovered the fun of storytelling, the beauty of beginning-middle-end.  I got pretty good at weaving morals into my tales, and the best part of it was watching Avi’s face as I told these stories, the intense focus in his eyes, the half-parted lips. These were more gratifying than a good review. Telling stories to my son reminded me that fiction is a living thing. It moves, it grows, it thrives.

What makes a writer able to write? Heartbreak. Love. Fear. Loss. Living has deepened my writing. Having children has been a crash course in human experience. Every day I spend with my children, I know love and fear, jealousy and empathy, soaring happiness and small doses of heartbreak. Through motherhood, I’ve tapped into the driving force behind the human experience. What do we desire most as humans, but to love someone, to understand and be understood, to leave behind something whole and lasting? And what do we desire most as writers, but to say something true and memorable about being human?

Having children has wired me to the pulse of creation. I have a more profound relationship with the world around me than I would ever have had as a martini-swilling It Girl. This is what I tell myself when motherhood seems to shove aside all my other dreams. Now that I’ve been a mother for five years, I couldn’t imagine not writing. And conversely, I couldn’t imagine what sort of writer I’d be without my children. Writing, like motherhood, demands that I engage with the world in all its mundanity. Because so often, spaceships and dinosaurs aside, it’s in the everyday that I find the nuggets of my stories. I’m a writer who decided to have children. As a result, I became a mother who decided, at all costs, that I would still be a writer.  I may not be sleeping. I may not be reading. But I am living.

And I remembered, eventually, that it was Ernest Hemingway who said the thing about the one true sentence. When Hemingway’s first son was born, he had his devoted  Hadley and later, a full time governess. And still, he struggled to get to the truth in his writing, which makes me think that children aren’t the obstacles we make them out to be. As an overstretched mother, I feel no further from my creative core than I was before kids. Even through the mental fog, the noisy days and hazy nights, being a mother has clarified the world around me. I’ve never been closer to what is true.


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About the Author

Shanthi Sekaran teaches writing at California College of the Arts and is a member of the SAN Francisco Writers Grotto. Lucky Boy, her new novel about motherhood, detention and immigration, comes out in January 2017.

11 Responses to LIFE SENTENCE: Shanthi Sekaran on Writing, Motherhood and the Truth

  1. Pingback: Kate Chopin, the “mother-woman” | OUPblog

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