I’m sitting on the couch with my works in progress: a newborn and a notebook. Delightful dribble — and frightful drivel. The baby is healthy and thriving, but my writing is malnourished and anemic. Evidently, I now write the kind of stuff other people only scrawl in the middle of the night — the byproduct of dreams — and promptly throw away in the morning. I’m just lucky if I rise out of my sleep-deprived fog long enough to realize how bad it is.
So why not just put the writing aside for a while? It’s not like I’m on assignment. No one will care if I shove this notebook in a drawer — or, better yet, light it on fire — and spend my maternity leave watching Netflix. But I’ll care. I’ll feel like I wasted an opportunity to make progress on my novel, however slight. These twelve weeks are not only precious bonding time with my second child, but also the closest I’ll get to a writing residency anytime soon. I want to make the most of this time in every possible way.
But my real motivation runs deeper than that. As it turns out, I simply can’t put the writing aside. This notebook cries like another mouth to feed — my own. After I’ve nursed the baby and made breakfast and changed the 87th diaper and dropped my two-year-old off at daycare and extracted the necklaces from the dog’s water dish (among other tidying-up tasks), the baby settles against my chest (asleep, finally!), and I put pen to paper with my one free hand. This is how I take care of myself. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for three days and haven’t brushed my hair in — well, I don’t even know how long — but dammit, I will write a paragraph today. It’s the only way I’m going to feel like me.
Writing has always been my way of knowing myself, so it’s only logical that I’ve made it a priority at a time when my identity is changing. In addition to my other roles in life, I’m now a mother of two. Just writing that is an exercise in self-discovery. I jot down notes about my daughters (My daughters!), intermixing quick observations with records of my older girl’s breathing treatments and my younger girl’s feedings and weight gain.
And then I turn the page. This is where I let myself roam. I head toward the world of my novel, but it’s so far away, I can barely see it. I suddenly realize I can’t remember the name of my protagonist’s mother or the point of that pivotal scene in the parking lot. I sit and pout for a moment, hoping all the details will come flooding back, but there’s not even a drop of rain. I won’t let this stop me. I wave to my characters, whoever they are, and keep going, hoping I’ll find my way to a short story. I imagine a path and wander down it. I invent a rock and turn it over. But the path goes nowhere and the rock reveals nothing. My words stumble and fall off a cliff, leaving me half a page of meaningless spit-up.
Why did I ever think I could write a novel if I can’t even form a coherent sentence?
My frustration sparks but fizzles out, even as I try to use it as fuel. I simply don’t have enough energy to struggle with this. Besides, I’ve got a baby sleeping on my chest. There is much to be grateful for.
Life is simple these days — centered around food and poop and sleep — so maybe my writing has to be simple right now, too. Baby steps. All I can realistically hope to do is remind myself what it feels like to write, and that being a writer is still part of who I am, even if my notebook suggests otherwise.
So, this is my hand, poised on the page. The pressure of the pen against my fingers. The dry scratching as the ink forms three small words: Here I am. For today, this has to be enough. This, and the faith that if I continue to pick up this pen, the gibberish will eventually make sense and I’ll crawl my way back to that novel.
Jenn Hollmeyer is the author of the story collection Orders of Protection (University of North Texas Press, 2019), which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. She was a finalist for the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in AGNI Online, Shenandoah, West Branch Wired, Post Road, Salamander, Meridian, and elsewhere. A founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal, she lives in the Chicago area. Read more at jennhollmeyer.com. (updated 6/2020)