Last month I wrote a post on my disappointment over losing opportunities to connect with the writing community. I mentioned an author I was looking forward to reading and meeting in person. Well, life goes on, albeit in a world altered by coronavirus.
This month I tuned into Porter Square Books’ virtual event Tell All Boston with Maya Lang, author of the newly published memoir What We Carry and the 2015 novel The Sixteenth of June. I was thrilled to be at this event -- with Maya Lang, of course, as well as with other writers who performed beautiful readings, with a Grub Street writing instructor commenting in the chat, and with Linda Wertheimer (an author I read a few years ago) who I was thrilled to see in another context. It was exactly the type of event I pictured occurring at Porter Square Books -- no surprises here, as seeing Rachel Gilson’s book launch would have been!
Since I had been registered to attend Maya Lang’s session at the Muse 2020, I was invited by the publisher to download a galley copy of her memoir and, if I was so inclined, to post a book review. Thrilled to be a part of this process, I would have read the book and reviewed it anyway, but it turned out that What We Carry is one of the best memoirs I have ever read.
Now, I haven’t lost a parent to Alzheimer’s, but her description of how becoming a mother ignited her passion to pursue her dreams really resonated with me.
“It sounds like the worst time to weigh one’s desires, as a new parent, but maybe it’s the best, the most necessary. When tasked with caring for a human being, when asked to subsume one’s own needs, this is when we require a firmer grasp on ourselves. Rather than telling new moms to indulge, to do the frivolous activities women in movies do, we should say this: Find yourself. Gather yourself up before it is too late. You are at risk of getting buried. Do something that will solidify your sense of self, buttress your retaining walls. Don’t worry if it feels scary. It’s probably a good thing if it does. / Working on my novel for an hour or two restores me. I return home from the coffee shop feeling renewed. / Perhaps this is what we should give new moms: A laptop and a cup of coffee. A notebook and a pen. Permission to dream.” (Part I, Chapter, 29)
I thought I was the only one who, after becoming a mother, preferred writing time in a coffee shop to getting a massage, but Maya describes it perfectly.
When Maya wonders how to take care of her baby, how she will ever get through it without the how-to manual, she realizes,
“My assumptions of motherhood have been all wrong. I feared I was supposed to have all the answers. I didn’t know my daughter would help me find them. I worried she would be an obstacle to my dreams, not the reason I went after them. Zoe makes me want to be the best version of myself. That isn’t sacrifice. It’s inspiration.” (Part I, Chapter 29)
Then I recalled a friend who felt the same way. Before writing his first graphic novel he told me he wondered how he could encourage his daughter to pursue her dreams if he didn’t pursue his own.
I love how Maya describes the experience of knowing she is a writer. In her family, it is this forbidden, derogatory role, not a real job, so her father tells her, but she feels that “pang of recognition” when he calls her a writer. “Is that what I am?” she wonders. I felt the same way, when my teacher said I wrote the best paragraph for our standardized testing in third grade, and later, when my seventh grade teacher selected my short story to discuss in front of the class. Could I be a writer too? It seemed too much to hope for.
“‘I’m used to my father firing insults at me -- “worthless girl” is the one that usually gets me sobbing -- but that afternoon, the word writer is an arrow hitting an altogether different target. Writer! I can’t believe there’s a word for what I am. I sit up straighter inside.” (Part I, Chapter 25)
Yes, me too, I think.
And when she writes of her despair over not finding a publisher for her novel, I understand her pain. And when she writes about going back to her work despite her lack of reward, I understand that too.
“Eventually, after weeks of moping, I return to working on my novel. Giving it more of my time is hard to justify. I work on it because it’s the only thing that makes me feel better.” (Part I, Chapter 39)
I’ve had a lot of disappointment over the past year -- rejections from writing classes, too much constructive criticism from an agent and an editor, room for improvement in every excerpt I present to my peers, and, of course, the cancelled writing conference. I feel unmoored from my writing project. I wonder if I should even continue these essays. Surely, when I don’t otherwise have direction with my work and especially during a global pandemic when I am prime homeschooling teacher and summer camp counselor for the foreseeable future, maybe it would be useful to think of motherhood as my main job and set everything else aside.
Maya writes that’s what she tries to do when she fears she will never find an agent...until she signs with one.
“Certain moments in life cause us to look up and reassess. The day I sign with my agent is one of them. It yanks me from my neatly stacked baby food purees and sparkling windows. / I see that I have been living in an illusion. I’ve created a fairy tale where home is picture-perfect, motherhood all-consuming, and martyrdom synonymous with bliss.” (Part I, Chapter 39)
I feel similarly. I return to my essays and to my project (thank goodness for writing group accountability) despite my disappointment. They make me feel grounded in a time when I am otherwise grappling for hope.
Perhaps someday I’ll get to meet you, Maya. Until then, thank you for writing. Thank you for drawing me into your story.
If you can get your hands on a copy of this book, read it. I’m pretty sure it will inspire you too.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.