(submission) Baby steps

BI became a writer on November 3, 2014, during one lunch break in a windowless office. Walking back from Potbellies (I went for the pickles), sandwich in hand, it had occurred to me that I was wearing maternity pants and had not been pregnant for almost two years. The pants were so comfortable! I guessed that probably I should wear regular pants now, the kind that button. And then I thought of two men I know who had recently had a major success in Hollywood. I wondered how concerned they were with their daily pant selection. Did they feel bound or measured by the same rules I did?

Similar questions, some even more profound, had occurred to me regularly over the course of my then 39 years. Usually I gave myself a minute to consider them, to imagine delighting some unknown reader, and then moved on to whatever task was at hand: an urgent assignment from a superior in my day job saving the planet, or an item from the neverending list of culturally obligate achievements. In my case these had included maintaining the state of my person in such a way as to attract a husband, procuring a husband and organizing the requisite festivities, domesticating a husband, figuring out how to have a baby which having watched my share of nature documentaries seemed straightforward but wasn’t, learning how to milk myself in order to maintain my standing with said superior from day job, and other pursuits that occasionally included compulsive bouts of spider solitaire.

On this November day, sandwich hastily eaten, I willed myself to resume work on the list, but I couldn’t. And, for the first time in years, I allowed myself a few minutes to find the words and write them down, chuckling merrily as I imagined one reader in particular. I sent the four paragraphs I’d written to six friends who encouraged me: We like these thoughts, we are interested, we’d like to hear more. So the next day I wrote more.

Beginning to write was like taking a laxative. While driving, the only unaccompanied time in my day, I was awash in ideas: topics of interest and import to dazzle and delight such as parking anxiety or the hilarity of potty talk. While most of this initial writing was intended to be funny, it was always a mix. A piece about toilet humor or an unfortunate trip to the cosmetics counter followed by a piece wondering if I’m manic depressive. I typed hurriedly in the driver’s seat of my car, my colleagues walking past on their way to lunch. I had a one-year-old and a three-year-old at home. When else, where else was I going to write?

My husband and I had recently signed our first-ever mortgage, purchasing a 30-year plan to climb aboard the ladder of ownership via the “worst house in the best neighborhood” we could afford. I had been writing consistently for about a month when, sitting on the sofa in the house we were still renting, I told my husband that I wanted to leave my job.

I had spent fifteen years in the world of international nature conservation, a world of synergy and frameworks. I still cared about the same things, but I imagined another role for myself, a role related to changing the story, a role that required the freedom to speak as myself, rather than at the behest of an organization. I didn’t intend to become a writer. I planned to write while I figured out what I was becoming.

Whatever I dreamed of becoming, my life situation presented certain constraints. Without significant disruption to three other lives, and taking into account the acquisition of a mortgage, I could not relocate, or hope to regularly attend a class in person, or take a job that would pay less than the cost of childcare in the Washington, DC area. I had no family in town and my husband travelled frequently for work. Finding my way would have to fit into this set of circumstances, somehow.

Between November 2014 and April 2017, I took any freelance work anyone would pay me to do, the kids got older, I sold cosmetics to friends and family, and I kept writing. I put videos of myself on YouTube prompting friends to ask about my mental stability, and I kept writing. I was trying to figure out my version of “do what you love, the rest comes.” My version was to try to love what you have to do and to carve out space when possible.

By “I became a writer in 2014” I don’t mean to suggest I had not written before this time. I worked as a staff writer and editor for two magazines after college. And I got my big break into the world of nature conservation through my willingness to edit thick, heavily appended scientific documents. I started a funny advice blog in 2001. I posted several columns, received some positive feedback, even some from strangers, and I quit, unable to fit consistent writing into my chockablock schedule of one full-time job and caring for a dog.

I started a second blog in 2007. Barack Obama had just been elected President. People in my circles were very hopeful about all of the change on the way and I felt the expectation was too much for one man, no matter how magical. He needed our help to succeed and I had ideas, tiny things we could all do like looking on a map, or reading a poem, or eating an apple. Again, people I didn’t know were reading my words, liking them, engaging. I stuck with it, posting daily for almost a month before giving up in the face of travel for work and the fear that comes from sharing what you are trying, learning how to do something out in the open, being publicly imperfect.

When I say I became a writer in 2014 what I mean is that from that day until this one I have consistently written. I have used writing as a path from what I don’t know through what I am curious to know to a place of increased clarity, sometimes, as a bridge to share my questions and the answers I’m finding with other people.

In 2014, I was pretty adept at sangria-mom prose, humorous writing about the travails of parenthood frequently highlighting the widely espoused parenting aid of wine or more wine. While my writing did not feature the intersection of babies and booze, that voice was in my head and it came out on my page. I think I thought that’s what readers were looking for: amusing escape or amusing commiseration.

In July of 2017 I was reading One Man’s Meat by E.B. White. Standing at my window, I watched a man and his dog as they encountered my neighbor and her dog. I noticed the man’s ease with the animals and thought about introverts and my discomfort at the block party the previous night. I think of that as the first day I heard my own voice clearly on the page.

Maybe the piece about the man and his dog was copying E.B. White’s style. But when I read it, I felt something exciting. Even now, typing at this moment, I feel a vibration, a happy tearfulness, I remember how it was. I was scared to share it. It was…different, not cool or mom-hip. The people who read my blog, about 30 people at the time, liked it. Some of them did and they told me, that helped me, I feel that way too. Not “you’re funny,” “you’re a good writer,” “look what you can do,” but “I like how that made me feel.”

I kept writing the blog, in my own voice, and gained a few more readers. I started a novel, a new experience from the standpoint of sitting down every day and writing whether you feel like it or not, whether you know what will happen next or not. The good news is that novel writing is excellent practice. The bad news is that I lost most of it. One of my children accidentally deleted the file and it was not properly backed up (oops—my bad). I had run through all of the self-alloted time for unpaid writing work, used up as much retirement savings as felt acceptable, so, in addition to heartbreak, I couldn’t afford to start again.

But losing the novel moved me to take stock. Why hadn’t I backed it up properly? Why had I been talking about it like this cute little thing I was trying on the side? Did I not care? Or was I pretending not to care so that if it was no good I wouldn’t feel embarrassed? I didn’t know how central writing had become to my way of being in the world until I lost the novel. I also learned that I didn’t want to be writing in secret anymore – sort of sharing with a handful of family and close friends, pretending that meant I was trying to share. I wasn’t. I was scared.

Losing the novel showed me how much I wanted to finish something and to participate in the world as a writer. But how? I couldn’t imagine starting over and waiting for another novel to be finished, and then looking for an agent, looking for a publisher, waiting for a book to be published, writing at home alone for what would likely be at least several more years, while continuing to take as many copyediting jobs as I could find.

So I looked back at what I had written in November of 2014, retracing the path from pants day to the day I lost the novel. I decided to use the words I had already written to share that story in a book I would publish myself. Because it would exist. For real. In the world with other people.

I laid out, edited, and proofread the book myself. Five people read the book before publication including my mother, one man (a writer friend), and three close female friends. Parents of a child in my daughter’s class asked about the cover. I was designing it myself, I had been working on it that day. Turns out they are designers and they offered to design a cover for me.

It took ten months from deciding to make that content into a book to holding a published copy in my hand. It’s beautiful, to me. Finished. It didn’t go viral. It hasn’t made it onto Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram feed (though Sara Rue included it in hers). The writer friend who read the draft of my book said to me: I think having this out in the world will open a door for you. He was right. Since its publication I’ve been introduced, through readers of the book, to new clients and I’ve been hired to do more paid writing.

I haven’t hit the big time. I don’t have an agent or accolades. I’m a writer because I write. So far, it’s an unpredictable path with unexpected turns. But it seems that as long as I keep writing, exploring questions by taking the time to sit down and be with them quietly, and sharing what I find, a path is appearing. The path may lead to a book deal and all the trimmings. I believe that it can. But more than that, I hope the path brings me the means to continue writing and to keep asking honest questions, the possibility of imagining new stories, the freedom to speak as myself, and the opportunity to find more people who might say “I like how that made me feel.”

I like how that makes me feel.