Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Why Can’t I Be More Like Hemingway?

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I'm trying to think of something moving to write, maybe even something profound. It can't be anything else. The words need to be netted from the depths, tipped on deck, and culled for the best ones. It's a have-to that hovers as I stare at a blank screen.

My daughter -- My-Darling -- flies toward me with many tears. Her chin is glossy from them and there's a look of self-pity fixed to her face. If she weren't clutching her saxophone, I am certain she'd lift a hand to her forehead in a swoon.

"I can't make the high-D!" she cries. She puts the instrument to her lips and blows out a sound akin to the snort of a rhino. "See?!" More rhino noises. "Oh!" She shifts to a moment of calm. "That time was right."

That was right?

My-Darling is a good sax player despite problems with that one note. She just needs to practice, which I point out to her. "Only could you please practice in your room," I say, "because I'm trying to work."

My son -- Little-Buddy -- calls out from the family room. "You don't work. Daddy does."

I don't know what Little-Buddy is doing in the family room. I don't want to know. I just want him to stop saying I don't work. And today I want to write unfettered by children home for a snow day. There isn't supposed to be any snow. It's April. The tulips unfolded a week ago. Now they are buried under two feet of white.

If you want to be a writer you just have to write. Okay, I will, although that truism always sounds simplistic. I write the first word that comes to mind.

visit

An interesting word -- minimalist without being sterile. It has full curves in the middle, columns balanced on either side, and on the ends an aesthetic contrast between an arrow and a cross. So what am I going to do with it? I start free writing.

Visit grandma. Visit a friend. Grandma decided to visit a friend.

Eh.

Little-Buddy sneaks up then shouts in my ear, "Come see what I've done!" He ignores my promise that I'll come in a moment, pulls me out of my seat, tells me to close my eyes and leads me away. I peek under my eyelids, not allowing myself to trust. He brings me into the family room.

"You can open!" he tells me clapping his hands. "Skyscrapers!"

Shelves have been emptied and there are five towers of books on the floor. My books. Each one has been kept as a tribute to hours spent cozied up on the couch, in bed, at my desk or the beach. Why couldn't he have used his blocks instead of my books? I don't chastise him. He was occupying himself. If I were a Good Mom, I would help him create skyscrapers with clay from a well-stocked crafts closet. Together we would etch windows into them with a toothpick, paint them, and display them as a table centerpiece for the world to see. Then we would look up pictures of skyscrapers on the Internet. Next, we would plan to travel to the top of the Empire State Building.

Today I don't want to be a Good Mom and I'm willing to risk my books to buy some time. "You're doing a great job," I say as I walk back to my desk.

If I want to be a writer I just have to write. Like Ernest Hemingway did, aiming for 500-1000 words per day. He was, however, careful not to push it -- he stopped working while the words were flowing so that he could pick up the thread the next day. Imagine someone with so much time to write that he had to ration his words in case he ran out.

Here comes Little-Buddy again, waving his arms. "The dog is trying to eat the books!"

In the ten months we've had her, our dog has managed to chew her way through two rugs, a couch cushion, dozens of Little-Buddy's action figures, three Bratz dolls, and my favorite pair of sandals. I rush into the living room. No books have been ravaged, thank God, but I use the false alarm to segue into putting the books away. "It's time," I tell Little-Buddy, helping him with the chore. Afterward, I shout to My-Darling to take the dog for a walk. Hemingway didn't have dogs, as far as I know. He had cats, which can be ignored without much consequence.

I return to my desk. Time to meditate, to clear the mind of all but the present moment. Rhino sounds and book towers are in the past. Paying the bills and shoveling snow are in the future. I am in the now, feeling my breath, seeing my screen, touching my keyboard. My hands type seven words.

I am trying to focus my thoughts.

The doorbell rings. It reminds me of what is also in the now. My-Darling's school is having a talent show and she has invited friends over to practice their routine. If these girls could make it to our house on a snow day, why couldn't the school bus? Two girls come in, then a third, then three more. In addition to seven words on the computer screen, I now have seven girls in my house.

I write, My basement is full of 11-year-old girls.

The sentence has nothing to do with the short story I started the other day. Why am I not working on that? My mind shifts into the future, I've got to take the kids sledding. "I promise," I told them earlier. "Just give me a couple of hours to work." Where are the snow pants, the hats, and gloves? Why can't I remember what closet I've stuffed them into?

I erase and rewrite, Seven 11-year-old girls have invaded my home.

My scanty concentration is hip-bumped out of the way by the thumps of a pop song coming from the basement. At last year's talent show, everyone on stage danced to a pop song. Except for the little girl from China who played the cello. And the Mexican kid who danced to folk music. And the Indian boy who played Hindustani rhythms on his drum. So what does that tell us about the talent of immigrant children? Probably nothing new, but maybe there's an essay in it.

"Mom," Little-Buddy says, pulling at my sleeve. God, he can sneak up. He holds out his snow pants, boots, gloves -- at least he knows where things are. "Can I go outside?" I look out my window. Flakes are falling without wind to push them. While I help Little-Buddy bundle up, he asks, "Why do you write anyway? Dad works, you don't have to."

Ooh, there it is! I can hear it in my own child's voice, the condescension I sometimes hear in the voices of others. You're a mom living in the suburbs, the tone insinuates, not a name recognized in print nor a boho starving for your art. Therefore you're not a real writer, only someone playing at it. Or maybe I'm the one who thinks this. Little-Buddy is just a boy who loves his mama, after all. Well how about this, son? I write because it feels like breathing to me. It's been that way since I was fourteen.

After setting him free in the frozen tundra I return to my desk, stare at my screen, then at my watch. The two hours have nearly passed. I feel like a game show contestant racing through a store, trying to fill my cart before time is up. Plenty of goods to choose from, plenty of words and ideas. Just no time, no chance to focus.

Maybe a prompt will help. I stretch for my copy of The Artist's Way a book that tells me creativity is the natural order of life. I get a kick out of that -- it gives me a sense of importance in the universe. The book opens randomly and I read the page.

Exercise: Take yourself to a sacred place.

Is that like taking myself to a room of my own, as another truism indicates I should? Because it would feel like a place to walk into full of faith. Once I visited Hemingway's Key West home. His office -- roped off like a work of art -- was located in a building separate from the main house. An antelope head and fish hung from the wall and books filled waist-high shelves. Every morning he would disappear into that room and work at a wooden table. Woe to the children if they played too close to his door. Unlike Hemingway's work space, so sacred that people had to tiptoe past it, mine isn't separate from the house. It's off the kitchen with no door. My husband likes to sit in my seat rather than choosing the comfortable chair a few feet away. I have to lock my computer lest my children use it to download videos and games. My desk faces a window onto the yard. That's good because I want to be able to keep an eye on Little-Buddy. And that's frustrating because I must always keep an eye on Little-Buddy. No one else is going to do it.

Exercise: Describe three enemies of your creative self-worth.

That one's easy -- me, myself, and I. I critique myself while writing. "What crap," I tell myself, "You'll never write anything decent, it's a cliff you can't scale." Myself escapes the criticism by checking email, doing the dishes. And who needs to do a better job at setting boundaries? That would be me. In fact, maybe I don't need a room of my own. Maybe I need to beam a force field around me that keeps people and interruptions at bay.

Nine more words. So what if I write a bit of crap?

Hemingway once said he could write 91 pages of shit before getting one page of a masterpiece. (Masterpiece, Papa? Clearly you had little self-doubt.) This is reassuring except for one glitch. To produce a 300-page masterpiece, theoretically I have to write 27,300 pages. There it is again, that cliff.

Everything feels like a have-to today. Besides writing, I must edit and send out queries. And, I have to exercise, take the kids sledding, pay the bills, return phone calls, respond to emails, shovel snow, get food on the table, help with homework, oversee baths, and have some measure of fun. Then there is the bigger picture. Before I die, not only do I have to write 27,000 pages and sell 300 of them, I have to do it several times. And, I have to raise happy and healthy children, become established and well respected in my community, go local-organic-green, stay politically aware, turn my house into a home, pay off the mortgage in time to retire, maintain a marriage, maintain a circle of friends, have a satisfying sex life, avoid osteoporosis, grow spiritually, do service for others, and travel around the world in a yacht.

Now seven girls are arguing in my basement. It sounds like a disagreement over dance moves. I won't butt in. I won't be like some moms who select the music, come up with the choreography, and make the costumes. I will stay at my desk and write. The only thing I'll contribute is a plate of post-practice cookies and that's it. They won't even be homemade; they'll come from a box.

One more exercise: Write your own artist's prayer.

I doubt Hemingway would have prayed before writing since he once said all thinking men are atheists. Does that mean I should be one, too, if I'm going to get anywhere? I take the Middle Path and write a mantra. Breathe in the peace, breathe out the words.

I haven't yet showered, and I'm wearing dirty sweats. Frankly, I smell. I wander to my bedroom to take a shower while thinking of immigrant kids playing cellos. The bed isn't made so I make it. There are dirty clothes thrown on the chair so I gather them up and walk them to the hamper. The hamper is overflowing so I drag it downstairs to the laundry room.

If you want to write, you have to let the laundry pile up -- so goes truism #3. That's all well and good except that it has to be washed sooner or later. When Hemingway lived in Key West did he let the laundry pile up? I'm thinking his wife and servants took care of it while he wrote. Then, he headed to his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe's, where one day he met his soon-to-be third wife, with whom he jumped on a train a few days later, leaving second wife just like that; also with whom he headed to story-inspiring Africa; and from whom he ended up divorced because she preferred her own writing career to washing his laundry.

There is no Mrs. Hemingway in my life to take care of things. There is only the modern washing machine and dryer that keep the laundry from being an all-day affair like it was in Hemingway's time. I sort and spray, load and fold.

The phone rings and I answer it instead of letting it go to voicemail. It's an acquaintance, another writer, asking if I can watch her boy while she tries to get some work done. It would be a play date for Little-Buddy so why not? As soon as I agree to it, I regret it.

She asks, "How are you?"

"Oh," I say. "You know." There is a surge of despair in me. Maybe she'll recognize my tone. Maybe she'll take back her request for childcare. When she doesn't, I start to cry, describe my have-to's and end with my verdict. "It's all too much!"

Acquaintance says, "It just takes self-discipline." There is still no rescinding of her request.

"Oh wait," says me, "I can't babysit after all."

I once heard a harried writer describe her own work life. She was also the mother of two, a preschool child and a newborn. All the ensuing responsibilities filled her time -- diapers and bottles, housework and shopping, kids, kids, kids. Sometimes all she could manage to write was a sentence a day. One sentence -- a thin vein pumping blood from her heart to the page, keeping her sense of fulfillment alive. So today I'll take her lead. My one sentence will be typed in times roman, or maybe comic sans for fun. It will cut across the page like the line of footprints Little-Buddy has just left in the snow.

And I won't even care whether it's moving and profound.


Stephanie McGhee is a writer living in Montclair, NJ with her husband and two children. Some of her short stories and essays have been published in various journals in the U.S. and Europe. She has also worked as an editor for the English Language Paris Journal, Upstairs at Duroc and has managed a writing tutoring program at a local middle school.


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Your piece really resonated with me and I enjoyed reading it. I struggle with so much of the inside and outside distractions that you write of. You have inspired me to at least get down that one sentence today!
I will write at least a sentence today. There, I've done it. Well, maybe I more thought-provoking one. I will continue the Blog I set up - if I can remember the username... Writing is like breathing. I can't not do it! May you be inspired to write something, even if you're folding laundry and cooking.
I really loved your piece and am going to let "one sentence a day" be my new mantra for 2012!
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