Sunday, August 17, 2008

Novels 1, Me 0

(portrait of me after a library visit from here.)

(Ed note: I felt such a shift after the last post. I think I finally made peace with my worst impulses, and hope that I can finally forgive myself and learn from my history. Thank you so much for being there. I wish I could tell you how much it helped. Believe me, it did. Thank you!)

Much as I love them, sometimes I think novels and I are in a type of war.

Picture it: I sit down with a much awaited new tome, ready to sit down and drink from the wisdom and technique of another writer, one who reached the holy grail. A complete novel. Publication. Cue champagne corks and violins.

Before I start to read, I decide that THIS time, my reading experience will be different. I will be reading to learn. I will keep track of scenes, notice clever plot points, unravel subplot ribbons for further examination. In short, I will crack the code. Read like a writer, not like a fan.

Ah, but then...I start to read the novel, and like Circe, it starts to croon its song. “Pay no attention to the writer behind the curtain...aren't these characters fascinating? Don't you want to know what happens next? Fall in...the water's great.”

And just like that, I'm in it again, swimming in the blue ocean of the book. I'm absorbed, compelled. Under the spell.

And it's all absolutely wonderful. Until I finish, and try to return to my own story. A novel...trying to be one, anyway. But it lacks that wonderful thickness...that verisimilitude.

A bad angel voice whispers that perhaps I am best served by continuing to write short stories. Maybe short stories are my default format, but...I want to write novels. I dream of writing novels. I prefer to read novels. I have to believe that its a skill I can learn.

I shoo her away, again.

“How did that writer DO that?” I mutter to myself as I peck words slowly across the white screen. “How do you create such a rich world? Lots of scenes? But which ones? And how many scenes, anyway?”

Shouldn't someone who reads as much as I do have an answer to these questions?

So, I put it to you—all you writers. Do you have certain novels you use as models for your own work? Do you take notes periodically? Re-read? Outline favorite novels to get scene counts and the like? Or do you just trust (as I used to) that you are absorbing all of this through the pleasure of osmosis?

(Yes, I am doing That Novel Dance again. Madam is about to start preschool, and suddenly I'll have open hours in the middle of a couple of days a week. If I am disciplined [ha, more in a future post on THAT], I should be able to make significant headway of a work. I don't want to talk too much about it, yet, for fear I'll talk myself right out of it!)

(PPS: And there it 200th post! *throws confetti* I'm so grateful to have this place, and now that I am myself again [more on that bit of strangeness later] I hope it doesn't take me forever to write another 200. Thanks for reading me.)


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Monday, August 11, 2008


I have never really written about the events surrounding Madam's birth. I've written around them—about how that endless second before I heard her cry, the way that silence screamed through my aching, red insides. I've talked about that first year which felt like one long sleepless night (thank goodness for Law and Order reruns and TLC).

It's something I've never wanted to write about. Perhaps hoping that if I didn't pin the events down in words, then it's like they never happened.

Of course, they did.

When Madam finally gave her weak cry, they put her on my chest for a second before whisking her away to the neonatal unit. I remember whispering something to her, perhaps simply, “Hey you.” She made me speechless.

After they took her away, I lay back, tears of exhaustion and fear leaking from my eyes. I remember how they evaporated into salt as soon as they fell into my parched mouth. My mother was alarmed, told me sternly not to cry. She was probably more afraid that I was. She was remembering my niece, who suffered complications at birth and is now profoundly disabled.

I was wheeled into my room, stared at the sun slanting through the blinds. It traced patterns on the wall that looked like a message. But I didn't understand.

TEG was with Madam. I am not sure where my mother was. Hospital chapel, most likely.

What I felt wasn't fear, not yet. It was a disbelief as strange and strong as if I had been deposited into another person's life. This simply could not be happening. I couldn't imagine a world where this was true. I clung to the assurance of that lie.

A doctor came in and informed me, kindly, that Madam would have to travel to the closest NICU—another hospital, about 30 miles away. He brought me a polaroid picture of her, her small hand pressing itself against the edge of her incubator. Already fierce. Was she looking for me?

I nodded dumbly at the doctor's words and he left. TEG would go with her.

I lay back in the bed, wearing my makeshift diaper full of ice for the pain. I propped her picture carefully against my lamp, but somehow it kept ending up back in my hands. I traced her face so often that my fingertip smeared her. Superimposed over her whole face.

I am sure I slept.

TEG came back eventually, full of stories about the NICU and the doctor's various diagnoses.

This was all my fault. I couldn't push hard enough, and she suffered some trauma in the birth canal. I came down with a fever while in labor. But he never said any of that.

I tried to read. Watched the sunset. Tried to sleep. Tried to feel like a mother, or else remember what it felt to have her inside of me. Neither was quite possible.

The next day, I begged the doctor to discharge me a day early so I could go spend time with Madam at her NICU.

That's when the story becomes strange, even to me.

When I look at pictures of myself as I left the hospital, one thing strikes me. I am smiling. I am happy. What the hell was I so happy about?

That evening, I went to see her for the first time. Wasn't allowed to hold her. So I just sat and watched her sleep. I was so tired, all I wanted to do was go home.

Mothers should want to keep vigil at the NICU bedside. Mothers should tear themselves away only for meals, the occasional rest room break.

I did not spend the night with her there. Not one.

Oh, I had a million reasons. My recovery from the birth was slow and painful (I was taken to emergency care two times while Madam was in NICU). I was dealing with a war exploding between TEG and my mother.

But. None of this should have mattered. I should have BEEN there. I should have WANTED to be. Not just for a few hours every day. But the whole time. The nurses were surprised at me. I could tell. When we called in the morning for her overnight, I could feel their coolness.

And there were moments, even during her NICU time, when I could...forget. Laugh. Watch MTV as I pumped breast milk and feel almost...content.

I carry this guilt inside of me, and I don't know where to lay it down.

When Madam cools towards me, sometimes, I don't immediately see it as the natural separation between mother and child. I think, “She knows. She knows I wasn't there.”

Didn't we bond enough? Will it always be so imperfect between us?

I am obsessed with missing her windows of time. I am obsessed with getting it wrong again.

(Are these words communicating the horror of me? I am not sure. I don't want to protect myself anymore.)

Today, while I sat in a hushed garden with Jessie, I told this story. I am not sure why. She is the kind of person you tell things to, I suppose. Jessie realized that the place where my manuscript stopped was while my main character's newborn was in the NICU. I tried to write around it, then tried to move to other stories. But I couldn't. This is the story I can't tell. This is the story I need to tell.

I needed to finally admit the truth about me. When my daughter needed me the most, I was selfish. I didn't want to go to the hospital, and so I showed up late, left early. I didn't want to sleep there, so I didn't. Not once.

I am so, so sorry about that. I couldn't rise to the occasion. This all showed me the kind of person I really am, after all.

And I can't forgive myself.

(Thanks to Jessie, who encouraged me to get this out and be brave.)


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