I’ve never been afraid of water. I’ve been a swimmer all my life. Summer days, vacations, my earliest best memories are swimming, diving off my father’s shoulders on Lake Chaubunagungamaug, riding the waves with my mother at Hampton Beach. In my suburban Massachusetts town, I took swimming lessons and earned my Junior Lifesaver certificate before my voice dropped. I could out-dive my sister and out-distance my friends underwater. So I was surprised to discover how many people drown in my novels. Sometimes two or three per book. Plummeting, tumbling, sailing over bridge railings and ridge tops.
This list began as a series of notes to myself, things I’ve needed to hear these first four years as a mother-writer. I hope something here can be of use to you as well. (As for you fathers, or you writers-not-parents or even artists-not-parents, I see you too; feel free to find resonance here as well.)
1. These aren’t rules. There are no rules. You’re a writer and mother, so mother and write.
2. You don’t always have to love the journey.
3. Love the journey.
4. A paragraph written with spit-up on your shirt will look no worse in print.
5. Hide from your children. The bathroom is good. Caves are good. Child care is better than diamonds (hint, hint, partners, relatives, friends).
I believe that literature can contribute hugely to positive social change. That stories and poems and essays and theater can illuminate injustice, open minds, and inspire us all to work to transform in our world. My favorite writers—like Kamila Shamsie and Paule Marshall, Rosellen Brown and Sadie Jones—position their work on the fault lines of our world, the dangerously shifting plates of political turmoil and human connection.
When I was a child I would crawl under my bed, with my gilt-edged copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a flashlight, to read. I felt adventurous hidden from the world behind the counterpane, snug as if I were in cave as I pored over stories illustrated with toothpick fairies and anthropomorphic animals. My mother would be practicing the piano, indefatigably repeating bars, mostly by Mozart, whom she found divine.
Deadline. It’s not a warm and fuzzy word. In fact, it can remind us of the hospital monitor flatline that usually means the patient is, you know, dead.
Back when I was a starry-eyed new author, I believed deadlines were graven in something violently explosive that would shatter if I missed one, maiming me for life, and booting me into a circle of hell that included never being published again. But no, a seasoned editor friend told me with a wise smile, nobody makes their deadlines. Editors don’t even expect you to make your deadlines. (Note to students: Please forget you ever read the preceding.) It’s all an attempt, said my friend, to keep authors at least in the ballpark of being on track, which is, she went on, an awful lot like herding cats.
Today is the day to play jokes. To set someone up only to announce, at the last crucial moment, “April Fool’s!” To assure that whatever line of malarkey we just stated is totally untrue.
Many writers and various other creative types do a version of this, no matter the date on the calendar, delivering all kinds of silly statements. The difference: We often say these things not only to others but to ourselves, and we’re not joking. Whether bestselling accomplished or just-uncapping-the-pen novice, we often spout the same baloney about so much of the writerly, from personal incompetence to industry-wide conspiracy. On this day of foolishness, let’s look at a few of these tired tropes, and see right through them:
“I have no time to write.”
We have time to do anything we wish. It’s already all there, long been manufactured—there truly is no need to “make” it, and we couldn’t if we tried. We just need to figure out how to take advantage of the time we have.
Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, by Alexandra Oliver
On September 10, 2013, the Canadian press Biblioasis will be bringing out my second full-length book of poems, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway. The title comes from a poem of the same name, in which I recall meeting, as an adult, an elementary school bully in the supermarket.
Over the past twenty years, I have run into other members of the same gang at parties, reunions, and weddings. One, whom I encountered in a university coffee bar in 2003, died last year after a terrible illness. I can’t say I was happy about it. Life had dealt her a bad hand.
But before I talk about tormentors, I want to talk about books and how I came to make this one. Continue reading →