As I pushed the stroller into the community center, damp circles of sweat bloomed under my arms. I took a quick sniff check and prayed for good ventilation at the meeting. Parked outside the door were three well-used strollers; I wheeled mine next to them and clicked the brake pad. Then I gathered my 17-month-old daughter Indra, my diaper bag, and my courage, and walked in.
A handful of women sat on the floor talking about the upcoming launch of their new online magazine Literary Mama. In just a week the new e-zine would be up on the web for the first time, and along with other mother-writers around the country, each of these women would be writing columns and/or acting as editors for various sections. I was awed by their ambition and energy and the way their small children joyfully toddled around the room, orbiting the conversation. This was just what I'd been hoping for when I'd replied to the e-mail: "Mothers' Writing Group Open To New Members -- Childcare Provided -- Bring Your Babes!"
Of course, I'd immediately questioned my qualifications as a "writer," after all, since college my writing had been confined to erratic journaling. During my pregnancy, however, I had begun writing poems again. Before I could lose my nerve, I'd quickly e-mailed the contact person. A little while later, I received a reply inviting me to their next meeting. I held my daughter's dimpled hand as she walked circles around my swivel chair and announced the news to her, "We're going to Writing Group next Thursday!" She shook her tiny blond pigtails with delight and sped up, "Go Mama!"
I may have been nervous that first day, but my little one adjusted quickly. After the initial "hellos," Deirdre (the childcare provider), stepped in and easily enticed her into playing with the other children on the opposite side of the room. Indra ambled over to me only occasionally with her discoveries: a worn picture book, a wooden block, a yellow dump truck. Once I'd settled myself on the floor, the women went around the circle and introduced themselves. They each talked about what brought them to the group, their writing histories, and their current projects. All were stay-at-home moms who'd had an impressive array of pre-mama callings: Teacher, Activist, Journalist, Banker, Neurobiologist. The common thread that drew them to the writing group soon became apparent. Motherhood had affected each woman in unexpected ways: stunning, spectacular, painful. For most, becoming a mother had been the force that peeled away the last layer of their resistance to writing.
Encouraged by their openness, I told them about myself: I grew up in a working class family in rural Vermont, went to college to study music, but soon declared cultural anthropology as my major and writing as a minor. I spent two semesters doing fieldwork in East Africa, India, Nepal and Tibet, and on my return stateside, I began writing poetry as a way to process my experiences. But after college, I had to face the reality of my student loans. I believed the messages I'd grown up hearing -- that occupations like ethnographer, writer, poet, and musician are pipe dreams, hobbies only to be engaged in if one had any energy left after putting in an honest week's work at a real job. Before my diploma had even gathered dust on a shelf in the closet, I threw the writing dreams out the window, got an office job to pay my loans, and was married. A few years later we had a baby, and I became a stay-at-home mom. Still, throughout these years, deep down I secretly considered myself a writer. Only now, like the toddler tugging at my arm, writing was demanding my attention -- attention I was ready to give.
The group explained to me that it had been founded with an emphasis on providing constructive, supportive feedback. Keeping with that ideal, I was offered an outline of basic critique guidelines to follow:
1) To me, this piece is about: _____________.
2) When I read this, I felt: ________________.
3) Some things that are really strong about this piece are: (specific examples of dialogue, sensory detail, scene-setting, clincher details) _________________.
4) Some ways to make it stronger are: (specific examples of dialogue, sensory detail, scene-setting, clincher details)_______________.
Every Tuesday I printed out the three pieces of writing to be discussed and read them. Following the group's critique guidelines, I'd mark the offerings with my comments. Both the guidelines and the moderator helped to bring a little order to the potentially chaotic nature of our meetings. As we sat around in a circle of folding metal chairs, giving feedback on each other's writing, our children wove around our legs and laps as they played. There were times when one (or more) of us might have to stop and nurse, calm down a toddler throwing a tantrum, or change a dirty diaper. Halfway through the meeting, we'd take a break and help Deirdre set up a big plastic red-checked tablecloth where the children shared snacks. As in every other aspect of mothering, our "schedule" was a loose term -- more of a suggestion -- which required each of us to bring an improv-attitude to the whole experiment. The moderator did her best to keep us on track by watching the time and ensuring that each person's piece got a similar amount of attention.
Week by week I began to experience the true meaning of the "writing process." I took part in and witnessed each woman working diligently on her pieces from the first to the final draft. Even after a piece was "done," we might see it reincarnated months later with a totally different spin for another publication. It took me a while before I felt brave enough to bring in my own work because although I'm a compulsive reviser, I still get caught in the trap of falling in love with my first drafts, and tend to take criticism personally.
For my critique debut I brought in three poems I'd written in the wake of Indra's birth. Two were somewhat sweet, but the third was heavier -- about working through deep childhood pain with my partner. I wouldn't have included it except that I'd been inspired by the honesty and rawness in everyone else's writing. I followed protocol and pasted the poems in an e-mail to the group. After clicking "send," I stared at the screen, wanting to reach in and grab the poems back. Instead, I swiveled my chair around and picked up Indra, twirling her in circles around the room as we laughed, her with the joy of flying through the air, me at releasing my fear and allowing the group to see my work.
Three days later I sat red-faced as folks commented on the poems. Feeling utterly naked, I wanted to jump up, grab my child and run out of the room for good. Instead, I entrusted them as they had me; I stayed and listened. One member commented that one of my poems sounded like a song. My prickly-super-sensitive side took offense, as though she had said it wasn't real poetry, but my more pragmatic side scribbled the comment in the margin and shelved it in the back of my brain. Overall they gave positive suggestions and constructive criticism: "This isn't very clear" and "Could you give more description here -- sound, smell, color?" all for me to take or leave as I wished. I struggled as my mind instantly turned every comment into something negative. When I looked around the circle of faces though, I saw women who were being thoughtful, who wanted to help me express myself clearly -- who weren't trying to put me down or box me in.
The group became a support not only for my writing, but my mothering. One day, I trudged into the room and plopped myself down in the folding metal chair so hard that it almost tipped over. As I caught myself, I told the group how exhausted I was from waking with my daughter's nighttime nursing(s), and a gentle voice chimed in:
"She's old enough to sleep through the night without breast-feeding, she might only be doing it out of habit. You could try a few nights to see how she does if you don't nurse her when she wakes up."
I sighed and looked up, trying not to cry, I just shook my head a little. She continued,
"It's really important that you take care of yourself."
I soaked in the advice and mulled it over. Within a week, everyone in my house was sleeping through the night; there can be nothing more integral to forming a thought -- or a sentence -- than a good night's sleep.
Because we are all both mothers and writers, the waves of life continually change our families and the group. Babies are born, children start school, members move, new members join, some leave, some return, babies are adopted, and more babies are born. Amidst the chaos, we share the words we have strung together in the precious quiet (or not so quiet) writing moments we manage to squeeze from our busy lives. Through it all we talk; we talk a lot. We talk about writing: the process of it, the business of it. We talk about books and authors we love with mentions of Louise Erdrich, Susie Bright and Alice Siebold easily thrown into the span of one sentence. We talk about body politics, the meaning of "Feminism," the Middle East, Middle Earth, beauty, Viggo Mortensen (ahh yes, Viggo!), global warming, dirty dishes and diapers. We talk about the loss of loved ones, the pain of miscarriage, the struggles with our families of origin, the difficulties and joys of our partners and children. We talk about the stuff of our lives, and then go home, write about it, and come back to talk some more. It's decidedly not a therapy group, but I've ended up in tears more times than I can count: good tears, tears that helped me move past junk -- junk I'd written, junk I was holding onto.
Each woman in our group has her own potent personality; alike in many ways, we are still so very different. I can't imagine how we might have ever come together under any other circumstances. On the days when I'm the first to arrive at our meeting room, I'm surprised by its drab institutional interior; when our group is there, it seems that every crack and corner of the gray-hued room becomes filled with the neon pulsing of "us."
Sometimes it can also be a struggle to hold all that energy in one little room. Sometimes feelings get hurt, personalities clash; there are weeks when we all just need a little extra space from each other. A few years ago after a particularly bad patch of hurt feelings it seemed that the group might dissolve. Hasty words had been exchanged via e-mail. I became so upset that at one point I posted a message to the group that said "I don't have the stomach for this." Yet as terrible as I felt, I still couldn't imagine giving up all that we'd worked so hard to create.
Most of us showed up to the next meeting, anxiously aware that we'd be facing a painful and difficult conversation. Like the messy work of childbirth, once we were in the middle of it, there was no way out but through it. In the end we reaffirmed our decision to hold each member accountable to our one basic rule of trying to stay in the supportive spirit of the critique guidelines. Eventually a few people decided to leave. Others were willing to keep working together. Things felt a bit shaky for awhile, but we recovered, regrouped and continued, concentrating on what had brought us together. The weekly routine and the process of writing grounded us and carried us through that difficult time. Since that experience, we've become closer and much more protective of the unique chemistry and the delicate balance that keeps it all together.
During that time, I actually began writing more and branching out into different genres. Still, I usually only brought my poems for critique. I continued getting "this kind of sounds like a song" type comments. To be honest, I found that annoying -- I wanted to be a serious Poet with a capital "P," dammit! But those comments didn't go unnoticed. The fourth time I heard it, I finally fessed up,
"You guys, I used to be a musician. I originally went to school for voice...but it was, well -- let's just say. . . I'm a diva -- in recovery."
They looked at me in amusement, like I was joking. A full-fledged confession ensued where I told them how in high school I'd played Laurie in a musical production of Oklahoma, was a choir girl extraordinaire -- was even the "Oh Holy Night" soloist for Christmas Eve mass, and when I wasn't singing I played trumpet in the jazz, concert, and marching bands. Up until a few years ago, I'd been in a variety of large choral ensembles, but since my daughter had been born -- nothing.
When I stopped, someone asked, "Why don't you sing anymore?"
Dead silence. Then "I guess I got bored with it, lost my passion -- it wasn't fun, it became work."
The voice volleyed back at me "But it doesn't have to be work now -- right?"
"Yeah, I guess."
I swept my hand through the air, pushing the whole topic aside. Without any more discussion, we moved on, but the questions sat with me, looming large in my psyche.
The group's inquiry ultimately led me to explore music again -- for the love of it. I've since cultivated and discovered a whole new side of myself musically. I'm now one half of an alternative rock duo along with my husband Thom (also a musician from a tender age). We currently take to the stages around San Francisco and the Bay Area, write our own music and have recorded multiple albums; music has become my passion once again.
My Mamas (as I now lovingly call my writer-group compatriots) have been like lifeguards through it all. They calmly guided me as I flailed through my sea of self doubts, threw out life preservers when I was sinking in rejections, and cheered me as I sailed on to each small success. Thanks to their encouragement, I'm working on a host of writing projects, both for the page and the stage that I never would have imagined possible five years ago. I've finished a chapbook of poems that chronicle the early years of my daughter's life. I received my first check (yes, actual money!) for an essay that I had published about my breastfeeding relationship with Indra -- an essay that was inspired by and workshopped in our group a few times -- before and after it had been rejected by another publication. I've held a series of poetry workshops with my daughter's preschool and kindergarten classes. Now I'm working on the hard stuff: a collection of short stories inspired by my childhood in Vermont -- and my relationship to my own parents.
Throughout these past five years the group has continued to take me to task, for being (a little bit) lazy, for not going deep enough, for not being concise. They've pushed me to re-work this very piece from something that began as a warm-fuzzy, long-winded "I love you guys" e-mail into what you are reading right now. Ever the writers, they mined it for material, sending replies asking about why and how my experience was different, and what I had learned.
After sharing my first draft I became so discouraged that I couldn't deal with all the work it needed, and I stuffed their twenty-odd pages of comments into my "writing folder" as soon as I got home, leaving them there, untouched for over a year.
When a burst of inspiration finally hit me, I took the piece out, uncurled the edges and looked the pages over. Scribbled in the margins I found notes like: "I want more!" and "show -- don't tell!" or, "I want details about your feelings/thoughts about the process," "expand!" and "how about digging into the growing pains the group has experienced," and of course, the eternal, "what did it feel like in your body?" It is always a challenge to meet their comments with humility and grace but as is often the case, I find that if I'm given a little time and space it's easier to digest. They'd pointed out things I'd hoped to gloss over -- but they never let me get away with that. I spent a few hours on the piece, but then shelved it again in frustration.
Our meetings gradually moved from the community center into each other's homes. One member volunteered to host recently so that we could admire the renovations she'd just finished in her fancy new kitchen and gather in the comfort of her living room to discuss our writing. I sat in an overstuffed chair, munching on chocolate croissant reveling in the fact that my daughter was in kindergarten. I soaked in the sun that shone through the windows and cast a spring glow on everyone, especially the Mama sitting across from me -- who had just announced her upcoming wedding. It felt like the perfect day to go through this essay again. Returning to it (yet again), I'd made revisions to the point where it seemed I couldn't go any further, so I'd posted it to the group with a slash and burn mentality. I was ready to finish it, and looked forward to their final "polishing" suggestions.
I should have known better. As always, when it seems like I have nothing more, they push me to go deeper. When my turn came someone said, "I'm so glad you wrote this and brought it back to share with us." Smiles and head nods all around with lots of kind words, then we got down to business. To begin with, I was given a (kindly!) lesson on the dangers of my overzealous usage of adverbs (note taken). Next, there was a general consensus that my beginning was, in fact, two paragraphs down from where I'd thought it was. The aforementioned paragraphs were ripped out and cast aside with a note that I should go back and comb through them for salvageable scraps. I was advised to make serious decisions about the direction of the piece by one person, while others shrugged their shoulders. Before long, we got sidetracked, and started to reminisce about our shared history. Caught up in the conversation, I listened and distractedly typed notes into my document: "others really wanting to know what we think . . . don't have to go at it alone -- just like motherhood."
And that's just it. Neither mothering nor writing is done in a bubble -- and why should they be? The fruits of our labors are meant to be nurtured, grown, cultivated, and shared with the world, in the hopes that they might do a bit of good. What better way to get work done than to do it together? Indeed, in our circle we work side by side, our voices a chorus of encouragement, pushing each other to new heights. It's often said that it takes a village to raise a child -- I think the same can be said for a writer. Collectively, I have watched not only our children blossom, but also our words -- into newspaper articles, magazine features, anthologies, short stories, chapbooks, novels, and memoirs.
These women have become my friends, my confidantes. They help me write, think about, and understand the world within and outside of me.
Without them, this essay wouldn't exist.