Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Writing Between the Cracks

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"I have forced myself to write when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes...and somehow the activity of writing changes everything."
– Joyce Carol Oates from a Paris Review interview

I write between the cracks of my life, the narrow space I have left between potty training and ballet practice, laundry loads and dinner on the table by six. Because I am a stay-at-home mom, living on my husband's post-doctoral stipend -- which means we live month to month, riding on a wave of debt that always threatens to submerge us -- I only have time to write when my children are sleeping or when we (rarely) have enough money to pay someone else for their care. So I write during naptime, after bedtime (eyes burning), occasionally while Savanna and Camille are outside making forts in the twisted cypress limbs (threat of distracted drivers and greasy-haired child molesters never far from my thoughts). But these cracks in the walls of my life, though hair-line, are long and deep. Within them, writing is the seam that holds everything together.

Because I have so little time of my own -- and certainly no room to call my own (just a desk, in the corner -- old, wooden, sturdy), much of my writing exists in my mind. Shadowy characters appear as I match socks and peel apples. Sometimes, when I'm out for a walk with Camille in the sun-bleached jogger stroller, stories come alive like movies in my brain. It's the space and movement of walking outside, away from the tedium of household distractions, which allows my brain freedom to roam. As I wheel my toddler down the trail that follows the Salinas River, characters emerge from the shadows and morph into bright beings with struggles and traumas, longings and regrets. My eyes track seagulls, resting on egrets that feed on crustaceans in the tidal mudflats behind our house and I talk to my little one, "Yes, bird. Bird. Egret. Eee-gret." But all the while a story world uncoils within my mind; a realm that only I can see or hear, but that seems as real to me as the wind from the egrets wing-beat as she flies over our heads and my daughter squeals with delight.

When I get home, there's no time to write because there are diapers to change and sippie cups to fill and I have to pick Savanna up from school and then it's time to prep dinner, help with homework, and listen patiently as my oldest learns to read. Then a quick run to the store because the chicken smells like Salmonella and I have to hurry home to get something on the table so my husband can make it to the board meeting on time. But what I do is jot down my ideas into a big white notebook, organized into sections like "characters", "ideas", and "things people feel." If I don't capture these glimmers, they will wash away clean and sure as the tide. In my multitasking mom life, where my mind is always on at least two things at a time, I think of this notebook as an extension of my brain. If there was a fire, my notebook would be one of those things I'd run back in to grab once the kids were out -- right up there with the photo albums and a back-up disc of my computer files. After dinner, bath, and Goodnight Moon, I lie down to snuggle with my little girls. I am usually so exhausted after a long day of car pools and temper tantrums, that if I shut my eyes I could fall asleep. Sometimes I do. Usually it takes every bit of strength I have to wrench my body up from the sheets, disentangling my limbs from those of my sleeping daughters. But somewhere in the back of my thoughts between wakefulness and dreaming the story world simmers. I force myself to rise, kiss their dewy cheeks, and shut the door that separates our room from theirs. The house is finally quiet. My husband may be plunking away at his computer or supine on our sagging green couch. There will definitely be dishes to wash, school lunches to make, and a mountain of laundry to fold. I have to ignore this and envision my to-do list as a running scroll that rolls forward into the next day. I tell my husband that I'll watch that movie with him another night -- maybe tomorrow. Even though I am so tired I can barely see, my thoughts slush through grogginess, and I can't imagine where the energy to create will come from, I propel myself towards my desk. The story world is unfurling within my brain and I need to cast off my imagination and capture something in its wake before it slips away. It doesn't matter if I'm using laptop, pencil, fountain pen -- I just sit at my desk and write.

The first words usually come slowly. Especially late at night, especially after a busy day of play dates and soccer games. The first sentences always feel like labor, like I am trying to overcome inertia by pushing a boulder up a hill. But I force myself to string word after word together and before I realize it's happening, I've forgotten about my exhaustion and become immersed in the story world. The simple act of doing surrounds me with the magic of the muse. She doesn't come to me, I have to summon her. And the act of writing is what makes it happen. Once I am surrounded by the magic, totally engaged in the work, I feel as though I could write forever. Hours pass and I never tire. If I look up and it is after midnight I have to force myself to stop because I know it will be time for cereal and diaper changes in less than six hours.

Sometimes it is agony. Sometimes I wish I didn't write because I think it would make me a better wife, mother, person. I've sworn it off before - no more writing for me. From now on I will be content to play with my children and sweep the floors, maybe go back to work full-time once my youngest is in preschool. Maybe get a full eight hours sleep. Focus on the now instead of the foggy story world that constantly tugs at my thoughts. I know mothers, stay-at-home moms, who are totally fulfilled being "just moms." I think how complete it must feel -- clean dish towel folded by the sink, sack lunches made for tomorrow, another days' work done. But a fault line threatens destruction if immobilized for too long. When I don't write I am restless, anxious. I feel as though I've lost my voice, muffled beneath the demands of my family, the play-whoops and bickering shrieks of my children, the yelping barks of the family dog -- and worse, silenced by my inner critic that constantly rattles off a list off things I should do, reminding me of my inadequacy in the land of housewifedom. My life begins to feel worthless, as though I'm watching it slither away, the years sliding by like sand through my fingertips, mountain eroding to sea.

It is the act of writing that brings me back to myself. Most of my waking hours are spent fulfilling the needs and desires of my children and husband, not to mention the family pets -- cooking, cleaning, caring for my loved ones while they're sick; shuttling them to play dates, doctor appointments, school performances; cheering them on at gymnastics practice, swim lessons; planning birthday parties and dinner parties, editing my husband's manuscripts, correcting my daughter's homework, and folding everyone's clothes. In all this activity of caring for others, it's easy to lose my self. Writing helps me find my way back to me. When I finish a poem, short story, or essay, I am rewarded by the satisfaction of having completed a project -- the perfect compliment to days overwhelmed with the never-ending monotony of laundry loads that seem to pile up as quickly as I can wash them, the floor that's smeared with mud prints soon after I've wrung out the mop. While running on the never-ending treadmill of stay-at-home-motherhood, writing allows me to reach a finish line. It is my passion, my drive. It is the yearning that keeps me sleepless and sweating at night, titillating my thoughts like a secret lover. It's the one thing I have in my life that is all mine.

And when my children are napping or playing outside or building castles out of LEGOS, I wedge myself in these cracks of my life, these slivers of stillness I carve out in which to write. I never know how long I will have before I hear the pit-pat of my toddler running from her room having woken from her nap, or before a fight breaks out and LEGOS are flying, fistfuls of blond hair pulled and little girls screaming -- or if I will be given the gift of solitude to write until it's time to start dinner. But the benefit of having so little time to write, and no reliable schedule in which to write, is that I don't know much of this thing called writers block. When I sit down -- if I sit down -- I cannot afford to wait for the muse to ride in on her chariot and gift me with words of grandeur. All I can do is write. When my back is hunched over my laptop, cup of chai tea growing colder by my forearm, the outer world of to-do-lists and household clutter melts away and I become totally submersed in the story world. The words -- the-good-and-the-bad -- flow from me like a dam burst open, all that creative energy that has been stored up and aching for release (the cows lowing for their calves) just pours through my fingertips like I've tapped into some rich vein deep within the earth and the words do not come from me but through me like water sensed through a dowager's stick and I am only the witch, eyes closed, blindly moving forward as I feel that stick bend.


Lily Dayton’s work has appeared in Monterey Poetry Review,
Insite Magazine, and the anthologies A Mile in Her Boots: Women Who Work in the Wild and The Back Road to Crazy: Stories from the Field. She lives in Moss Landing, California with her husband and two daughters.


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