I went with my friend Anjali to this Q&A talk yesterday. After navigating the odd elevator system that didn’t want to allow us down to the floor of the event—and being reminded yet again of how awkward Bostonians can be when faced with a situation in which they must speak to strangers (A tip, y’all: just smile, for starters)—we finally plopped into our chairs close to the front and found ourselves with a few minutes of idle chitchat to spare.
I happened to notice people in the audience taking candid photos of the authors with their phones and asked Anjali, a published author, what she thought of this phenomenon. She laughed and cheerily replied, “It hasn’t happened to me yet!” But we agreed the lack of privacy must be challenging for a public figure. (In case you didn’t know this about me, I am not the most photogenic in candid photos.)
The opening speaker informed the audience it was only the second time in twenty five years PEN New England hosted such an event. If I had felt lucky prior to that moment for learning about the event, adding it to my calendar, and remembering to attend (and even to shower first!), that feeling couldn’t compare to the satisfaction this remark stirred, with a twist; I flinched under the weight of responsibility to listen up and listen well. Because I can’t wait another twenty five years to hear this stuff and neither can you, I’m posting a recap today.
Heidi Pitlor, the Best American Short Stories series editor and author of a forthcoming novel, The Daylight Marriage, served as moderator. She asked the group great questions, such as what they did to cope with feeling isolated, how they juggled the multitude of tasks and the judgment of other mothers, and about the beginning of motherhood and writing.
Heidi shared her own story of the clash of the two; once, while nursing her twin infants, she received a call from Alice Munro that she couldn’t answer because she had her hands full but also couldn’t not answer because Hello! Alice Munro. How’s that for an image of the moment we’ve all had in which we realize what we thought we could do was actually impossible? She also said probably my favorite one-liner of the event, while answering a question about how to manage a career, motherhood, and writing:
“I wish I’d married rich almost every day.”
Claire Messud, whose novel The Last Life Mishiko Kakutani referred to as mesmerizing, spoke about her “vague faith it would all work out” and how, while attending the Bread Loaf writers conference early in her time as a mother, she realized she had no idea how it would work out. She compared the extreme sabotage she inflicted on herself by taking on too much to the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, even when limbless, shouted, “Come back here and take what’s coming to you!” As a woman who loves a good Monty Python reference, I decided then Claire must be a cool chick too.
[A note about Claire: I just read a New York Magazine article about her and her husband, New Yorker book critic James Wood, in Vulture, from which I gleaned I should never allow a New York magazine writer to interview me. I thought it a bit snarky and rude. However, I did particularly enjoy this passage:
“There’s been a great deal of closely spaced difficulty to sort through,” she says. “You know that Katherine Mansfield story, ‘The Fly’?” It’s about a fly being slowly drowned in ink. “Well, I am the fly. Every time I hope that things will get better, somebody drops another inkblot on me. So it seems to me if there were a divine lesson it would be to stop hoping that the blots will cease, and instead to come to terms with it … At some point you have to think, All right, it’s not as if someone is promising you something easier or better. You have to be grateful to get it done at all… [The fundamental questions of my life are] how to balance the relation between art & life? (between the interior & external worlds)? how, as a woman raised to care for others, do you claim space for yourself? at what cost? in what state of delusion?”]
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Megan Marshall (whose book about Margaret Fuller I bought and had signed, woot!) spoke in a measured, gentle way about the challenges of motherhood. She noted how daunting it was to be a mother in the 1980’s, when most of her friends eschewed both marriage and motherhood. She related a funny story about a time the Phil Donahue show wanted her on to talk about her book on single women. After blathering on (her words) about her book, Megan finally admitted to the show’s producer she was feeling exhausted from just returning home from the hospital with her baby, at which point the producer said, “Me too! We have to get you on this show.” The lesson from that experience, she said, was not to hide your true feelings but just be who and how you are.
After growing up a latchkey kid, Megan didn’t want that experience for her children, so she did much of her writing in waiting rooms and in the car at soccer games. She described the crushing disappointment of having a column accepted at the New York Times that she realized she could no longer write now that she faced a mother’s obligations at home. She shared a favorite essay by Anne Tyler from the book The Writer and Her Work, called “Still Just Writing,” which was named for what a fellow parent asked Anne at school pick-up. The most animated I saw Megan was when she took a vehement stance against men who compare book publishing to birthing. “Writing a book is not like having a baby,” she said. Indeed.
Kim McLarin, a fellow southerner and frequent contributor to WGBH’s Basic Black, is author of a memoir I hope to get soon with the title that makes me chuckle every time, Divorce Dog. Kim offered a raw, real portrayal of a woman who isn’t so in love with the concept of motherhood but then discovered it also brought her “unexpected gifts.” In revealing her truth, she gave us permission to feel the ambivalence creeping in that we’d normally push away. I scribbled down a Virginia Woolf quote she shared:
“Killing the Angel in the House (is) part of the occupation of the woman writer.”
Kim inspired me when she said she wrote a whole book simply by following the 1,000 words per day rule for 50 days. The moment I decided to get over my typical starstruck shyness and come on stage to shake Kim’s hand was when she admitted moving to Boston was a difficult adjustment for many reasons. Thank you, Kim, for saying my truth out loud.
When facing the audience, Lily King, author of the novel Euphoria, flashed us a bright smile and sparkly eyes. Lily described a moment in her mothering career in which she attempted to calculate how much time she spent with her children compared to writing; she eventually sought therapy for a condition she called “way too much math and not enough writing.” She said that, like Sue Miller when writing The Good Mother, she created awful mother characters as a way to confront her fear of bad parenting. I laughed when imagining her trudging downstairs after writing and feeling suddenly buoyed by her own self-righteousness at being a better mother than the terrible character she invented.
On the whole, I found the authors to be at once intimate and distant, much like our surroundings, which included the furniture of a cozy living room and the sterile lighting and temperature of an operating theater. There were several snafus with the microphones that would have been comical if they had been more able to laugh at themselves and each other. The setting perhaps appropriately reminded us that these were not our friends up there dishing on their difficulties, and yet, slices of the talk were sublime. When questions were opened to the crowd, Anjali asked whether the authors ever needed to let go of a third passion to pursue motherhood and writing, and the authors came alive in their response, in the way that a fantastic question can produce such liveliness.
Later, in response to an emotional outpouring from an audience member about her diffcult-to-follow difficult life, Kim deftly cut right to the point, figuring that what this woman needed was not to be promised she can write now but to be told it’s okay that she can’t. She was sent home with a mission: read the biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, who didn’t write her first book until her 50’s. I jotted her name down as well.
My selfish reason to post these notes about the event is that I desperately want to recall the wisdom—with ne’er a platitude in sight—those kind ladies passed on to me. I fear that if I don’t dump my brain out onto this page while it’s still fresh, I’m doomed. I’ll wake in the middle of the night and flail about in bed, hoping against hope to find the thread of recollection, the way in those first days of motherhood I’d perform a frantic, groggy hunt amongst my sheets for the phantom baby I thought I had fallen asleep nursing but who was actually sleeping peacefully in her crib. But just maybe, if I come back and read these words again later, I’ll remember they gave me permission to fail, to be who I am, and to ignore my kids long enough to write those thousand words a day. I hope so.