A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to A Young Poet
I once wrote a novel in a month. I wrote alongside thousands of other writers, all around the world, for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal of the project, on a large scale, was to help aspiring writers—or even just those who’d always wanted to write a book, professionally or not—to overcome the inertia, perfectionism and self-doubt that can stymie projects before they even begin. I’d known about it for a few years, and had considered myself an “aspiring writer” for much longer than that, really since I was a child. Finally, one October 31st, I decided this was the year. In the midst of teaching, the first year of marriage and planning our school’s Narnia-themed Christmas banquet (a much more elaborate endeavor than our own wedding the year before), I’d write about 1600 words a day to reach the lofty goal of 50,000 words by month’s end.
The final product was fine. It won’t win a Pulitzer (though Hallmark, if you’re in the market for a really sentimental inheriting-a-business story set in the Swiss Alps, you know where you find me), but it accomplished exactly what I hoped it would. With a little determination, a bit of time set aside, and a deadline that spoke louder than my inner editor, I could manage to write a novel. The road not taken, the alternate life in which I wrote instead of taught for a living, didn’t seem as far-fetched as it had the month before. That was enough, really, to call the whole project a success.
That was 2014. The following year, I didn’t do NaNoWriMo. Instead, I gave birth to my eldest daughter, in the third week of November, which seemed creation enough for me for that whole year. And I’ve never done it since, nor written any novels. I’ve been busy, of course, mired in the earthy daily-ness of raising two little girls and distracted by the big-picture work of discovering an identity that both encompasses motherhood and exists beyond paid vocation. I’ve moved several times, baked a few hundred loaves of bread, sewed lots of stuffed animals and washed a million dishes. I’ve been working ever so hard, but none of the work has amounted to the kind of fiction I once imagined I’d write. If I’m honest, I’ve never really recovered those focused hours that I once devoted to writing, and it’s taken me a long time to learn exactly how to do it without them.
This Sunday, the first of Advent, a guest speaker named Scott Erickson, of Scott The Painter Instagram fame, spoke at our church about Mary’s “angel experience,” in which she learned she was carrying the infant Christ, son of God. He had many observations, most of them from his excellent Advent devotional, Honest Advent, but my overwhelming impression was his depiction of Mary as a mother. The kind of mother I am, the kind who carries, gives birth, raises a child.
What struck me yesterday was that as soon as the angel leaves Mary, she sings a song. I didn’t know Mary before she was the Mary, not well enough to know if she—like me—was the kind of child who wrote poems and stories in her head all the time, so that this was fairly in-character response to the angel’s news. What I can see, though, is that her response to becoming a mother is beautiful, personal and creative. Literally the first thing she does, before telling anyone else the news that would change not just her life but everyone else’s as well, is write an original song of praise.
Mary’s example is startling and refreshing precisely because it runs counter to a dominant narrative about modern motherhood, that it so demanding that it temporarily consumes all other passions and delights that a woman once cherished. The earlier story, even more damaging, was that raising children was so fulfilling that it was somehow selfish or indecent for a mother to desire to do anything else during that time. Indeed, I think about the female writers I love, and many of them—Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson—chose words over children, whether or not they’d ever have expressed it in those terms. There simply wasn’t time or cultural flexibility for anything different.
I’ve been fortunate, in to be surrounded by examples of creative mothers, who have kept pursuing their crafts through these busy years. There is Morgan Auten Smith, who layers color on canvas into abstract paintings, and ceramicist Jennifer Joy, who continues to study line and form in the slim margins of her day, and Dani Abernathy, who works on her own novel while coaching other novelists, including me, through theirs. And this creativity takes so many forms, from friends who garden to those who decorate cookies, those who paint, quilt, bake, and remodel old houses. Everywhere I look, I find friends and mothers who have managed to keep hold of these gifts and passions that are inlaid into their personalities, and to find new expressions that fit this season of life.
As for me, several years ago I started writing tiny poems and posting them on an Instagram account called Little Comma Letters. Most months, I write one poem, something short enough that I can type it up on my typewriter, often on one of the many watercolored abstract paintings that my daughters produce. For a long time, that was enough, along with this intermittent blog, to remind me of this practice I once loved. I still am a writer, still a poet, these words whispered in the background.
I’ve been working on another novel for a year and a half or so, which seems like forever compared to the one-month process of pre-children standards. It’s about love and loss and returning home, and it’s set in a past that requires a good bit of research for me to make it convincing. At the beginning of this month, I wrote two chapters in two weeks, and briefly considered calling this my “NaNoWriMo 2.0,” if I could pull off another two in the rest of the month. But I needed to research, to learn little fragments of information like prominent clockmakers of turn-of-the-century Seattle and just where the streetcar line crossed Salmon Bay. And then there were birthday presents to wrap, Thanksgiving pies to make, walks to take with friends. This month, lacking half the words I may have thought I could write, was still full of beauty.
I still don’t know if that other road, the Professional Writer road, is ahead of me on this journey, but if the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that getting paid for something isn’t necessarily what makes it part of me. I’m still a teacher, though I haven’t seen a paycheck from a school for a while. I’m a mother, though there’s a well-documented lack of salary for that title. And I’m a writer, for so many reasons, not least of which is that I have chosen to spend this, my one guaranteed hour of solitude, on these words.
In the end, I’m thankful for Mary and her song, the words that she turned to the moment she found out her life was about to change forever, and for the many other mothers I know who continue to inspire me to do the same.