I've had the ridiculous luxury of being away on a writing retreat this week, leaving my partner and three sons to hold down the home front. From what I can tell, their carb intake appears to be veering toward the obscene, but they otherwise seem to be thriving without me. I don't really know, as I am trying not to look too closely. I'm trying, instead, to stay lost in the work I am doing on a book—a themed collection of approximately 20 essays. I entered the week with most of them well underway, if not nearing completion; the end is in sight.
The first three days of the retreat I systematically tackled a few wayward pieces. I caught up on the backlog of reading I needed to do to make them whole. I restructured paragraphs like a boss. I brought each essay to the point where it was on par with the better essays in the collection. I emailed one rewrite to a friend whose comments had sparked a major evolution in the piece, thanking her for the inspiration. I went for walks in the prairie and contemplated possible titles for the collection. Now this, I thought, is the writing life.
Yesterday, however, I started rereading some of the other, more settled pieces. This picking around led me to a full read through of the entire collection, which led me to start playing with an older essay that I had believed to be finished. Writing into that essay, I realized that my edits had implications for a different essay, one that I had just restructured. I went back to that essay and wrote a mess of words that went nowhere. Frustrated and tired, I returned to one of my standby essays just to make sure I wasn't losing my mind. Thankfully, on reading number 847, it held. I needed that. I closed my computer and got into bed.
As I lay there last night in the dark of my little writing room, I felt a kind of restless impatience that I recognized from my life as a parent. It's a sensation that I have largely been without this week, as here, in this quiet idyll, I am responsible only to and for myself. My sole standing commitment is to show up in the dining room for dinner at the appointed time each evening. This, I can manage.
But the anxiousness I felt writing yesterday was a kind of throwback to my life as a mother, and it occurred to me that it was exactly the sensation I feel when trying to get my boys out of the house and into the car to go to school, or to practice, or to the movies. This particular endeavor, as anyone who has parented multiple children can tell you, can feel like a game of Whac-A-Mole. It goes like this: I issue the call to leave. One of them (typically my oldest) comes immediately downstairs, dressed and ready to go. While I go round up the others, he wanders off to find his phone. When the second one materializes, he'll say he's ready and then realize he doesn't know where his shoes are. He sets off on the hunt. Now Phone Guy is back and reporting that my youngest is still in his pajamas reading Calvin and Hobbes on his bed. So I leave to go upstairs to talk to Pajamas. Meanwhile Lost Shoes has reappeared, shod, and decides, in this very moment, to practice piano. He sits down to play and the chords of Journey's Faithfully swell from the dining room to accompany the argument I am now having upstairs with Pajamas, who is insisting it's fine to wear pajamas to church. It is now five minutes past when I wanted to leave, and Lost Shoes is heading into the crescendo ("Whoa-oh-oh-oh…"). Phone Guy is in the car, maybe, and Pajamas is in full standoff mode.
Finishing my essay collection feels a lot like this.
Just when I think I have all my essays dressed and ready, I'll discover that one isn't actually ready at all—and another is wandering off. And still another just won't do what I want it to. I am rushing from one to the next, trying to bring them all to an acceptable point of departure, and growing increasingly frustrated and red-faced in the process. We are not moving toward the door.
And here, perhaps, my training as a mother should be instructive for Writer Me. What years of parenting experience has shown me is that the best way out of the pre-departure insanity, the one that results in less blood, sweat, and tears (and in trying to get my boys out of the house, I've literally experienced all three), is for me to slow down and take a deep breath. To remind myself, and the boys, that being late is not the end of the world. To stop, take a second look at Pajamas, and realize that maybe wearing pajamas to church isn't the worst thing; in fact, it's kind of interesting. To take a moment to appreciate the Journey.
My job is not to add to the insanity or to ramp up the anxiety, but instead to function with some magical maternal mix of patience and discipline. So it is with my writing as well. Essays, children . . . the truth is that everyone will eventually make it into the car. Their outfits may leave a little something to be desired, but no one will be naked. There may be some fussing over who sits where, but sooner or later I will hear the click of three seat belts, the minivan door sliding shut. At this point, I'll look in the rearview mirror, make eye contact with three sets of eyes, pausing for just a moment of reconciliation and alignment. Then, turning the key in the ignition and putting my foot to the gas, I'll do the job that only I can do. I'll get us where we need to go.