When I moved to Vermont in 2011, I was doing thirty hours of editing per week as a long-term contract employee for a communications company based near Indianapolis.
The hours were flexible, meaning that I not only worked remotely from my home, but I was also able to complete some of those hours while my then toddler sons (one and two years old) napped—never at the same time of day, of course.
It was an ideal situation for a new mother who both wanted to work and be present during her kids’ early years.
I’d considered myself a “writer” since college though I had never spent much time developing that craft. But after working as an editor for several years, developing other people’s drafts into finished works, I’d grown antsy.
I wanted to write, too.
With a full editing workload and a husband who traveled 100 percent of the time for his job as an airline pilot, generating additional time and motivation to spend more hours with words that my fingers needed to wrangle was unimaginable and logistically impossible.
I was already giving up needed sleep to earn a living, often working from eight at night until midnight after caring for my kids all day, then up again at six a.m. to do it all again.
I approached my husband with this dilemma. I had just turned thirty, a milestone birthday that felt equally youthful and ancient. I felt I could still do anything with my life, but that time was suddenly ticking by faster. We agreed that I would scale back my editing hours by half and fill the extra time with writing. Neither of us had any idea whether I had any real talent at writing. But I needed to find out.
So I endeavored to write a book.
Over the next year, I joined a few writing groups whose members gave me feedback on my work.
I knew my writing was “voicey” and had potential, but it wasn’t good writing. At first, that didn’t much matter to me. I was happy to be writing at all, trying different styles and forms. But I learned pretty quickly that book writing was exponentially more difficult than it sounded.
A composer, after all, did not simply sit down and churn out a full symphony. She must score the percussion separately from the bass, woodwinds, and strings. Preparing for such a feat takes time and practice. In fact, it is usually one’s career. Not something done on the side, for fun.
Through the writing groups and my own study and practice, I built on my undergrad education in writing and learned to wield writing techniques first separately, then later together in concert.
I also learned about the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont, and applied with enough naivety about the program’s prestigious history that I believed I had a chance at acceptance. When I was waitlisted in the spring of 2013, I was satisfied with the “almost” achievement and set a personal goal for myself of being fully accepted the following year.
To my surprise, two weeks before the conference someone dropped out and I was offered a position. My husband and I scrambled to pay the conference fees and adjust our schedules so that I could attend. He called off work for part of the twelve-day trip and we flew my mother in from Indiana to cover childcare for the rest.
It was an expensive addition to my experiment.
The pressure, generated by both me (Was I good enough?) and my husband (Would I turn this interest into a career at some point?), was on.
What I believed I still lacked writing ability, I made up in socializing with conference guests. I met editors, publishers, and agents, each of whom sounded interested in the novel I’d been working on for the past year. I promised to send it to them when it was finished, unsure when that would be. Unsure, too, whether their interest was earnest or just part of their job. The conference boosted my confidence in my writing and motivated me to redouble my efforts.
Translation: I needed to spend even more time writing.
Either paid work or time with my kids would have to be sacrificed. I simply couldn’t do all three at once. In the end, I sacrificed both without being emotionally comfortable with sacrificing either. I worried that leaving the workforce for an undetermined amount of time would make it difficult to reenter it.
I worried that the time I was spending writing instead of bonding with my still young family would have consequences I couldn’t anticipate and couldn’t reverse.
I quit the now part-time editing job entirely (the company couldn’t employ me at any fewer hours than what I was already working—they wanted me to work more hours, not fewer) and spent some weekends writing at a cheap LaQuinta Inn only ten miles from home.
My husband and I relied on a tag-team approach to parenting. He would get home at midnight from a work trip, and I would leave in the morning to write for a few hours while he stayed with the kids. The loss of my modest income was felt immediately, as we stopped saving for the future altogether.
I gained weight, which I’d thought an impossible feat in beautiful, outdoorsy Vermont. I resented myself for moving to a state where I’d intended to hike, bike, and boat and instead doing nothing but sit in front of my laptop.
Simultaneously, the need for my own writing space arose. Even cheap hotels were too costly and I wasn’t in a position to attend a writing residency due to my family’s circumstances. (But, Yaddo, how I yearned for you…and still do.)
The kids were getting older, louder, bigger, and needier, and I could no longer find any peace at home among them. Neither could I bear the mommy guilt I was faced with when working from home—it was easier for me to be gone if I was truly away. If I couldn’t hear my children crying or laughing or discovering the world around them. If I didn’t know what I was missing.
I found a few other artistic parents to split the cost of a small, run-down workspace that I could easily bike to from our condo. Because my husband was already gone several days a week, I tried to only work when the kids were sleeping so they wouldn’t notice my absence as much. It hadn’t occurred to me that my marriage would also suffer, but to be sure, it did. It does.
The work and sacrifices paid off when I contacted one of the publishers I’d met at the writers’ conference.
I hadn’t yet finished the novel, but I’d compiled a collection of essays and stories that examined the place I was raised—on the banks of a river in rural Indiana. The publisher agreed to read the manuscript, so I sent it off to her. Six weeks later, we met again at the Breadloaf conference, where she informed me that she wanted to publish my manuscript.
Within a week, I had an agent and a book deal in the works.
But the book wasn’t done. Once contracts were signed, a third of the book was gutted and replaced with brand new writing. Then that draft went through a significant revision. Then that draft was revised. I spent the summer of 2015 putting endless “finishing touches” on Riverine, which had morphed into a memoir I had no idea I’d been writing all along in six months flat.
More time gone. More sacrifice. More missed days at the beach. But I had sold my first book and maybe even created a new career for myself. I had gone through a grueling editing process that was both visionary and taxing.
I had discovered what I was really capable of, what I suspected I was capable of all along.
I not only achieved what I’d set out to accomplish, but also had been awarded the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, a coveted literary prize for an emerging nonfiction writer. I had reshaped my life.
I missed out on some important family time and some gorgeous Vermont weekends. I won’t get that time back. Any minute now, one of my boys will wipe my kiss from his cheek or shrug off my hug.
But I find some solace in the fact that my boys watched me work for what I wanted. I delight in hearing them tell their friends that their mom is a writer. I hope that I have shown them what is possible. I know that the next book will require the same time commitments, the same compromises. I will face the same challenges.
I know now that my family is capable of enduring this process and that I would rather my kids be comfortable in their independence from me than cling to my thighs in tears as I head out the door for my office.
I know that this time around, I need to take walks more often and check my cholesterol. I need to take a day off when the weather is warm. I need to savor the sweet mornings with my kids even when I am too tired and maybe, even, would rather be reading or writing.
But I also need to continue to claim my own time and space to create. I need to spend time with other artists and sometimes stay out too late. I need to do it all again, as soon as possible.