The “Writing Life,” as Explained to Me by an Expert

When I was working on my second graduate degree, an MFA in creative writing, someone had the brilliant idea to bring in professional writers to talk to us about the writing life. Unfortunately, the guests weren’t always as great as the idea itself. One evening, as we gathered around the conference table, the speaker was introduced to us by our professor–that night’s guest had been in school with our quite successful instructor, who had published a number of books, one of which got a lot of national attention. Her friend, well, not so much.

Nonetheless she was a writer and therefore qualified to talk to us about what it’s like to live that life. I was certainly the oldest student in the class, but most of the time that was not a problem for me. This evening, though. Well. We were told to max out our credit cards, whatever we had to do financially so that we wouldn’t have to let employment get in the way of writing time. We were told not to have kids whatever we do, because there was no way we were ever going to write anything if there were kids taking up our time. My favorite part of the conversation was when a classmate asked about getting an agent. Our speaker had an agent, all right–our professor’s. Seems the best way to get one to me! Hope I have a really successful writer friend who hooks me up, too.

Instead of laughing maniacally and calling her a nutbag, I will address her points one at a time.

  1. Telling young people to max out their debt has got to be the stupidest, most irresponsible piece of advice I’ve ever heard. Clearly the woman never wastes time reading a newspaper. Nothing like starting out a life likely to be impecunious with staggering, unpayable debt.
  2. I sat there, a mother of two, while she told us that mothers won’t write a word. Did I mention I am a mother of two, one a child with special needs, was a full-time college professor, and a full-time graduate student, taking care of my kids, writing my butt off?
  3. The right response to the question about agents would have been, “Don’t worry about an agent while you’re still working out who you are as a writer.” Additionally, she might have said, “I can’t really speak to that, anyway, because the only reason I have an agent is that my famous friend did me a favor.” That’s the kind of honesty we can all get behind, isn’t it?

Here’s what my writing life looks like. My alarm goes off at 6:30 am, and I begin the long and torturous process of waking my teenager. That is, if I’m able to bound out of bed right away, which is unlikely, given that my nine-year-old has been in bed with us, kicking me all night. In the kitchen, we drink coffee and make lunches and feed the dog and discuss when the dog walked and how much he pooped.

When everyone is ready, and don’t mistake this as a simple process–there’s yelling and crying and demands for weird breakfasts and a lot of “has anyone seen my…?” before anybody is ready to head out the door. Husband and son leave first. Then I drop my daughter at her school and pray I don’t get a call ten minutes later asking me to go home to retrieve whatever she forgot. On a very good day, I go from there to yoga. Home for a shower, a dog walk, food, and then writing and reading. That all happens if I don’t have groceries to buy, other errands to run, appointments, cleaning, cooking, and other minutiae to tackle (a bad day). I used to do all this stuff while holding down a full-time job. And in all honesty, I don’t know how I did it.

If I’m very lucky, I get two hours that are all mine. In that time, I write, I do research, I read good books (right now I’m reading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, and it’s fantastic).

Then it’s time to pick up kids, deal with homework and dinner and extracurriculars. After dinner, there may be time to read some more, but now I’m too tired to write. Bed sometime between 9:30 and 11, ready to do it all again the next day.

And that is as much a writing life as the one this woman tried to sell us that night. It’s just a bit more firmly grounded in reality.

Next time: Rage vs. Outrage

I Miss My Daughter

My almost-thirteen-year-old girl still lives with us–at least I think so. Sometimes I’ll hear a sudden burst of laughter or a snatch of her singing emanate from the direction of her bedroom, so I’m pretty sure she’s in there.

I see so many images of the American teenager, jokes about their refusal to look happy in front of their parents, their retreat into the world of their headphones, cell phones, video games. It’s a stereotype. And it’s one I was sure we were avoiding. We have family time–Friday night dinners, movie night, post-Sunday-school lunches out, walks. We used to have a story time and a game night, but the kids couldn’t agree on the books, and now my daughter won’t play board games. So we have game night with our son.

But it feels wrong. She finishes her dinner before the rest of us, and she leaves the table, disappearing into her room in a hurry to get back to One Direction, FaceTime with her BFFs, her DS, her drawing. We’ll get home from school, and she’ll put her stuff down and disappear. When we are sitting in the living room reading or talking or watching something our son wants us to see on his iPad, she’s in her room. When we watched Cosmos as a family, she was willing to be in the room with us, but she was otherwise occupied.

I have confronted her, especially since she spends all that time in her bed. I know what depression looks like, and this has me worried. She insists she’s not depressed. Most recently she told me her room is the only place she “fits in.” But how could this be true? Her friends love her, her family loves her, we are always trying to get her to spend time with us. She’s smart and funny and fun to hang out with. I have even made a rule that she is allowed a certain amount of alone time after school, and then she needs to COME OUT OF HER ROOM.

This has been bothering me for a while, but tonight it really hit me. I was out with the dog and the kids, having asked them to come with me on a walk. My son insisted on riding his scooter, and my daughter insisted on bringing her phone and headphones. She could not hear me when I spoke to her, and she made such a show of pausing the music so I could repeat myself that I just said “never mind” and walked on. I’m the grownup. I make the rules. But I’m human, and this hurts. I was walking alone, the dog intent on squirrels, my son hell-bent on self-destruction, my daughter lost to the song Harry Styles was singing just to her. Maybe this is the way of things. She is growing up, separating herself from me, having opinions different from mine, wanting ideas just for herself.

I want her to be independent, to have thoughts and opinions. But I also want to guide her, to help her think about the world so that those opinions are grounded in something beyond a rumor spread on the internet. I want to help her negotiate friendships and middle school and puberty and mean kids. I want to make sure she knows what to do in moments of danger.

She is open with me about a lot of things that many kids are not. Her confidences give me hope that she sees me as a safe person, as someone who can be trusted with her secrets or confused pubescent sense of self. We share many happy moments, singing, lusting after Harry, joking, being gross, cuddling. But the spaces between these moments are growing wider every day. So I treasure them, because I know I’ll spend the rest of my life missing her more often than not.

Survival of the Mitzvah-est

My daughter became a bat mitzvah at the end of January. She killed it. She sings “like an angel,” my husband says. She gave a d’var torah (a lesson on scripture) about allowing people to be who they are, about suicide among LGBTQ youth. My pride in her knew no limit.

As she had requested, I learned a bit of Torah for the service. I was terrified, but I learned it, with the excellent help of the cantor, who has been (I think mistakenly) let go. I wore a hat, which I often do, but I also wore a prayer shawl, a tallit. I had no choice–the ritual committee would not budge on this point. Ya wanna read the Torah, ya gotta wear the tallis. I could refuse, and disappoint my kid, or I could suck it up. I sucked it up.

I felt a little better about it, because I was wearing a tallit that had been lent to me by the cantor; it was one he had designed and had made for his daughter. He was of a mind that the women’s garment should be a bit different, so the sides were partially closed to make arm holes. The blessing was embroidered on the collar by his wife. I was honored that he saw fit to lend it to me. It didn’t change my thinking that the tallit is a man’s garment; as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, I’m a fan of custom and tradition. I’m conflicted about the roles women play in the synagogue. My ambivalence is no one’s problem but my own, but I wish people would not treat it as though it were a simple issue.

I was asked afterward how I felt in the moment, wearing it. The truth is, I didn’t think about it at all while I was up there, and I got a kind of “Aha!” response. But there’s no “aha.” I didn’t think about it because I was emotional about my daughter’s big day, my family’s bizarre decision to sit many rows away from us, and my own terror about what I was there to do–sing a prescribed tune in Hebrew words that have no vowels.

I was moved and excited by reading from the Torah. I memorized well. I felt nothing from the tallit, but the act of reading–that made me feel like I really was a member of the community, an active participant. The real deal. An emes yid. But that lasted only a little while and was soon replaced by the sense of being a fraud.

The bar or bat mitzvah must learn the trop; that is, the series of marks on the page that tell the reader how to sing the words–how many notes, where the accent is, etc. They learn it thoroughly, hopefully, and once they really know it, it becomes much easier to memorize a piece of Torah. And when they read their Haftorah (a short reading from the Prophets), the marks are on the page, along with the vowels. But Torah scrolls are hand-written by scribes, and they do not include vowels or trop. I never learned the trop. What I did, basically, was memorize a song, the same way I have learned the words to One Direction songs. I listened again, and again, and again to a recording of the cantor singing it. I hadn’t learned anything at all. I was not the real deal.

But let’s get back to the tallit. It seems to me that the tallit should mean something. My reaction should not be the same as when I get a flu shot–“Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” Here is a ritual garment over which one must pray before dontalllitpom-miriam-karp-webning it, and I didn’t think about it in any way past “guess I’ll have to wear it.” I feel no grand conversion, no desire to buy one for myself. No amount of pink or purple or beads or sequins will change that. I do not scoff at other women for this–I admire their beautiful shawls and support their decision to wear them.  I do believe it to be a personal decision, and not one my synagogue should make for me. I do not like to be legislated, when it comes to my body, and that includes my clothing.

It doesn’t stop there. Another way that women are being included in the service is adding the names of “the matriarchs” to one of the prayers–one. These are women who really aren’t discussed at any great length most of the year, but they are now receiving acknowledgment during the Amidah, the standing prayer. I’m glad we’ve added them. But let’s be realistic. It’s the equivalent of “I have a little dreydel” at a school’s Christmas, oh, excuse me, “Holiday” concert. Throw it in there, and “they” won’t complain.

Judaism is patriarchal. It will take a long time to change. I am a Jew. I take a long time to change.