I stopped reading for a decade. Well, not entirely. I read recipes, street signs, assembly directions for infant products, summer camp brochures, the narrative section of report cards, and lots and lots of email. On the rare occasion that I went on vacation I read a New Yorker. Not the long articles, but "Talk of the Town" blurbs and the restaurant reviews. I don't live in New York.
This state of affairs is perhaps not unusual for a working mother of three, but in my case, it felt extreme. I was a child who inhaled—or, rather, inhabited—books. No sooner did our station wagon pull out of the library parking lot than I was crawling into my books, much to the frustration of my younger sister next to me on the bench seat. Pulling at my sleeve, she would try to draw me back into the world of imagination that we had lived in together before the library trip. I was lost to her. I would walk into the house with my nose in a book, narrowly avoiding a collision with the wall, and throw myself on my canopy bed where I would spend the remaining hours until I had finished one book and could move into the next. Thus I made my way through the worlds of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, Maud Hart Lovelace, L.M. Montgomery, and many, many more.
A large number of the female protagonists of these books were aspiring writers themselves, scribbling away all hours of the day and night, hiding manuscripts in their trunks or sending them off to be published, only to meet with repeated rejection before their big break. And here, with these fictional women, is the root of the deep connection I feel between reading and writing. When I was reading voraciously—even as a child—my own words poured out. Emboldened by these characters, I understood myself as a sister writer and acted accordingly. The corollary? When I stopped reading for a decade, I stopped writing, too.
If it is possible to be so busy or so exhausted that you don't miss words, I guess I was close. But in truth, a pervasive restlessness characterized my few moments of freedom during this ten-year hiatus. During a rare pedicure, my feet in the tub at a nail salon, back kneaded by the massage chair, I should have been the picture of relaxation. But my attention would dart from the Elle magazine in my lap to the telenovela on the ceiling-mount TV, and I would feel slightly unsatisfied. I now recognize this bit of ennui as the itch to pick up a good book, to get wholly lost in a world or set of ideas different from my own. Then, last year my youngest son entered full-day kindergarten and tiny cracks of daylight began to appear in my schedule. I still worked. I still had three kids. But suddenly I had just the slightest amount of room to breathe. I filled some of these regained moments on the treadmill at the YMCA. But more importantly, I found books again.
The first time I remember completely giving myself over to books as a child was with a series of chapter book biographies written for children. This series encompassed all the "notable" American lives, at least as defined by the American History canon of the mid-1970s. I can still picture the font on the front of these books—Bookman Old Style? Please let it be so!—in a white text box overlaid on a blue or tan cover. Beneath this was an ink drawing of the child who would later become Thomas Jefferson or Harriet Tubman. I devoured these life stories, starting with the Founding Fathers, at the suggestion of my history buff father. But it didn't take me long to gravitate toward the stories I really wanted to hear, the stories of women's lives: Betsy Ross, Pocahontas, Helen Keller, Dolly Madison, Juliette Gordon Low, Abigail Adams, Sacagawea, Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt.
When my reading recommenced last year, it was not surprising that I again sought out the stories of women's lives, this time told primarily as personal narrative or memoir. I found the voices of women who made me laugh: Tina Fey, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert. I read the stories of women that made me cry: Jeannette Walls, Mary Karr, Kelly Corrigan. I began mental conversations with women who made me think: Barbara Kingsolver, Cheryl Strayed, Annie Dillard. And I grew quiet with women who made me pray: Marilynne Robinson, Kathleen Norris, Nadia Bolz Weber.
In the midst of this unaccustomed orgy of reading, I noticed that I was doing something strange. About a third of the way through a book, I was stopping and flipping to the end. Not to the last page of the story, spoiler-style, but rather all the way to the "Acknowledgments" section. No matter how gripping the narrative, I would pause and turn to review this section in the back. And—here's the really odd part—I wasn't just reading the acknowledgments, I was pouring over them. I would read the long lists of family members and editorial staffs "without whom there would be no [insert title]." I would really read specific names of complete strangers. It was weird.
And when I finished the books, I would sometimes re-read this section, still uncertain of what I was looking for. Many of the names were editors, agents, and publishers straight out of the New York literary scene. Again, I don't live in New York.
About a year and a half into my reading recovery, I decided to attend the Women's Breakfast at my church. I assumed that everyone would bring a dish, and that there would maybe be some praying, possibly some singing. I didn't really know because the little openings in my schedule weren't quite big enough to let in a regular Saturday morning commitment just yet. But after a special holiday invitation, which, to be honest, included the promise of mimosas, I decided to attend.
On this particular cold December morning I entered to find a small group of women gathered in a corner of the Great Hall with a few tables and the requisite stackable church chairs. Grey-haired ladies with walkers and middle-aged women in yoga pants milled around a hissing and gurgling coffee urn. In the spirit of the holiday, the group had broken out the church's monogrammed china, and when the coffee poured out of the spout and into those cups, the steam rose gracefully in the winter sunlight.
What I hadn't expected were the words. Not only scripture, but thoughts from feminist theologian Jan Richardson about Mary—as in the mother of Jesus, Mary. Hail Mary, full of grace, Mary. And because we come from a Christian tradition that does not adore her, but rather considers her, critically and affectionately, we were invited to see her in a different light. Describing the moment in which Mary receives the news that she is to bear a child, Richardson writes, "Like Mary, God invites us to be co-creators. And, like Mary, we choose."
The notion stopped me in my tracks: Mary as co-creator. Mary as that without whom. Mary as irrefutable evidence of the fact that the act of creation is never a solo act.
The acknowledgments. Suddenly, I knew what I had been up to. I had, in fact, been on the hunt for co-creators—those without whom an act of creation would simply not have come to pass. As I had begun to make my own choice to create, I had wanted to know where the help was going to lie. I had been searching these "Acknowledgments" as though they were an instruction manual detailing what it takes for one busy working woman to put her words in print. The editors, the agents, the patient husbands, the draft readers, the children who inspire, all of those who move aside the obstacles, absorb the stress, and provide the encouragement—I had been looking for them. I wanted to understand who they were and what they did that allowed their particular writer's words to rise to the surface and flow out onto the page. Because now, I was certain, these women writers, the ones I grew up with and the ones I encountered now, had not done it alone.
Since that December I see co-creators everywhere I go, and I have sought out some of my own: My supportive husband and sympathetic business partner, both of whom I have enlisted in the battle for time to write. My children who told everyone that their mother was a "published author" when an essay of mine went up online last year. My fellow frustrated writing moms—my own mother among them—in their offices and coffee shops trying valiantly to create space for their words. Friends and family with whom I too often share rough and uncut versions of my work, simply out of a desire to connect with them over something I know that they will understand. Co-creators, every one. Their work is hard to see. It looks like trips to the park with the kids during which I sneak upstairs to write, or emails with timestamps reading 12:42 a.m., containing feedback on my work. It looks like other women's prose, at once so hilarious and breathtaking and heart-wrenching that I am reaffirmed in my calling to put words out into the world.
I did not set out to write this essay acknowledgment-style, but as I look back up the page I can see that that's exactly what I have done. The litany of literary names I have listed here are the brave and dogged women who managed to put their words down on the page, those who made their voices heard; my own voice and vision are a direct legacy of theirs. Their real-life stories, their fictional heroines—each has given me permission to write, to take my voice seriously, and, ultimately, to create. Because of them, I have said yes. And eventually, when the words begin to pour out of me again, these same women will be gratefully recognized. Named, each one, as my "without whom."