Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
On Being a Woman Writer: An Open Letter to Virginia Woolf

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Dear Virginia [comma, space, enter, I write]

Regarding the issue of being a woman writer, [pause, fingers poised over keyboard]

I am so screwed. [Appropriateness of using profanity with dead literary legend? Unknown.]

I am all asunder. [??]

It's not easy, that's all I'm saying.

Not only do I not have a room of my own (I'm typing this perched on the King size bed, legs tucked, computer leaning against my pelvic bone and the deep grooved C-section scar that seems made to help balance a laptop), but the room I do have is stuffed to the brim with:

1. books [nonnegotiable]
2. dressers [necessary]
3. a drying rack draped crookedly with a red and yellow kitchen tablecloth.
4. toys that are not mine
5. a husband that is
6. [most distracting] endless baskets of unfolded laundry

The heaps of tumultuous clothing whine and tantrum at me, but I force myself to ignore them [the parenting guides say you shouldn't reward bad behavior]. To them, I am that very bad mother in the grocery line, at the park, on the street, who is able to look smoothly away even when a small, lost voice begs her to come make everything tidy again. But I know it's a temporary respite; I can't ignore them forever. Already my accursed third floor washing machine is swooshing and bucking in its closet down the hall, promising the birth of more chaos into this room which is where I write.

I have to write quickly, Virginia, before these pebbles I have been rolling around in my mouth all day, repeating and reciting and reforming, lose their nuance and their groove, and smooth over, becoming blank faced and heavy. By tomorrow these words will become inarticulate stones in my pockets, dragging me down into distraction, so that I will snap unnecessarily at my children, break my own rules about junk food snacking to keep them quiet, and most shockingly, turn on the television just because they ask, as I desperately scribble with pen, pencil, crayon -- anything I can find -- on the back of grocery receipts, cell phone bills, and yellow sticky pads which I've taken to keeping all around the house just for this purpose. I will write feverishly until my hand aches and still, like one of those dreams where your leaden feet cannot outrun the hungry wolves, the phrases slip through my fingers, sliding off the page into puddles on the floor, leaving me drowning and bereft.

Tonight, I'm losing the battle before I've begun. Soon my son will start to cough, cough, cough, the sound echoing with gaps through my fancy baby monitor that circulates through three separate stations even though I only have two children. Cough, static, static, cough. I will try and coax him to drink a little water from a sports bottle. Even in sleep he will protest at a sippy cup - "I'm a big boy." But I know if I leave a real cup of water by his bed, it will spill and soak the bedclothes like the day I delivered him, when my water broke, as if in the movies -- whoosh -- all over everything, and then this mother-writer was born.

If I am unlucky, his coughs will awaken his sister, who is but a temporary visitor to her very beautiful, expensive Italian crib, and most nights takes up half of this King size, sleeping spread eagle horizontally between her parents as all children everywhere know how to do from birth. Her screams will inevitably interrupt what will feel like the very first sentence I have ever written. I will deftly try to keep typing with one hand, a trapeze artist, while lifting up my T-shirt with the other, shoving a nipple into her mouth. Then I will prop her head on a pillow next to my left breast -- I've got the routine down -- my left elbow carefully curves around the dark curls on her head, and if I sit just so I can reach the computer with both hands. Mercifully, she will fall asleep, as she does every night, undoubtedly wondering why sweet, warm milk so often comes accompanied by the rapid clickety clack of her mother typing 50 or 60 words per minute, filling up the equally hungry blank screen.

A cough, Virginia, a cry. From me and my darlings both. This labor of writing is equally painful and wonderful as those other pains that nearly split me in two before the surgeon's scalpel did just so, cleaving tiny newborn from the open wound. Though locked in a battle of rivalry to match no other, they are all mine, all beloved, all of my body, these blessedly hearty children of flesh and blood -- and their anemic, if equally demanding, literary siblings.

The laundry is done; here comes its final, vibrating shudder -- like some mechanized orgasm. Which means, of course, that my time is almost up.

Until, my dear, tomorrow night.
I remain,

A Woman Writer


Sayantani DasGupta (www.sayantanidasgupta.com) is a mother of two, writer, physician, and scholar of critical medical studies. She is Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics and core faculty in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She is the co-author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, the author of a memoir about her time at Johns Hopkins Medical School, Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor, and the co-editor of an award-winning book of women’s illness narratives, Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies.


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