By Lauren Gordon
While reading about and celebrating Alice Munro’s recent Nobel Prize in Literature this year, I came across this quote in The Atlantic from 2001: “As a young author taking care of three small children, Munro learned to write in the slivers of time she had, churning out stories during children’s nap times, in between feedings, as dinners baked in the oven. It took her nearly twenty years to put together the stories for her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968 when Munro was thirty-seven.”
I love this heroic glimpse of Munro in this light; a harried mother sneaking away from the myriad of gendered duties to carve out something for herself. The fact that it took her twenty years to get enough of those writing scraps into one book is a testimony to perseverance, or how to manifest desire. It’s remarkable, simply put.
But I want to call bullshit on this. Or, I want to call her up and ask: how?
When my daughter was a baby, writing and reading poetry was easy. She slept often and for long periods of time. She slept through the night pretty early on (one of those kooky things you never tell other parents for fear they oust you from the village with pitchforks and torches) which freed up all kinds of writing time for me, especially in the morning when she slept late. It was a period of time where creating became very vital for me and I was able to find time to read and write. I would wake up at five or six, have coffee and type away at my laptop while still in my pajamas. I could jot down things in notebooks while my daughter had tummy time. This is what I think of as the “plant phase” of childhood; where you can plant a child anywhere in a room and they can’t move. Developmentally, there wasn’t much I could do for her that she couldn’t do for herself. It was easy to sit next to her on the ground and read a book while she looked at a plushy apple dangling above.
I feel I should digress a little here; there were days where I skipped showers, ate nothing but string cheese and cried from exhaustion. There were days I spent worrying about and discussing the texture and frequency of my daughter’s bowel movements as opposed to Rimbaud’s contribution to surrealism. There were days I showed up to the doctor’s office in slippers. But the first year of my daughter’s life was such that it allowed me some of that freedom of time to read and write. So I think of Munro, huddled and crazy in a whirlwind of three young children with a napkin scrap and the chewed end of a crayon, and I wonder how much of that quote is an exaggeration; because as my daughter grew older, the naps grew sparer. As my daughter became mobile, I could no longer read over her. When she was able to grasp a spoon, she was also able to grasp the pen in my hand trying to write a poem. The hands that give me high fives are the same hands that rip the pages out of books. The mouth that gives me kisses is the same mouth that screams in my face when I say “no.”
Welcome to toddlerdom.
Ironically, my laptop wants to change that phrase to “toddlerdome” – how apt is that? Yes, toddlerdom is just like Thunderdome. A mother and a toddler enter, only the toddler leaves. The next time someone comes out with one of those “Poetry Is Dead” articles, I’m going to comment my agreement. Poetry is dead around here and you know what killed it? My child. That sweet, beautiful, happy girl who inspires me to create is also the harbinger of the End of Days. Toddlers are time sucks in a way infants are not. Those cherished mornings I spent clacking away on my keyboard while my coffee steamed ended the day she learned how to stand on her own. Where I could once hand her a bottle for a self-feeding, I now spend time preparing meals made out of real food. The average two- hour twice-a-day nap is now a once-a-day thirty minute nap. The apple plush toy that used to swing above her face out of reach now gets scooped up and thrown across the room like she’s trying out for the Dodgers. Even the dog quivers when the toddler is near. Tell me how to write poetry in this environment and I will show you a mother who can’t go to the bathroom alone. Tell me how to “find” time and I will show you a mother whose back is hunched from hefting that twenty five pound child twenty five times a day.
How do you create in this space?
Well, if you’re Alice Munro, you sneak the time in between the chaos of motherhood. And ok, admittedly, this works. It’s not great. I have a notebook of abandoned poems; strong starts, good lines and then the record scratches. I mean, do I want to take twenty years to get a manuscript together? I’m already encroaching the age of thirty seven. I might not have that time. As I type this, I am listening to my daughter in her crib upstairs; she’s singing (or at least that is what we call that high pitched squealing thing she does) and by the sound of things, she is also bouncing… Or possibly strangling her teddy bear against the mattress– whatever it is, it’s violent. Just like Munro, I relish these nap times for the opportunity they give me to create.
Obviously the truth is, this “space” doesn’t allow me much time to create or read, so I came up with a pretty great solution. I joined a poetry workshop group. You’ve heard the expression “it takes a village” in regards to parenting? Well, it takes a village in regards to parenting and creating, too. I get two hours a week to talk about poetry, to read poetry, to workshop poetry and yes, when the output deadline is one poem a week, you definitely learn to “Munro it” in between naps and feedings and toy hurlings. I never would have considered a village to help me make space and time for my art; I have always treated writing as such a private, insular thing, ruled by inspiration, but this how poetry stays vital in my world. This is how poetry keeps me connected to the world, because if anything is insular and private, it’s being a stay at home mom. It’s so interesting to me how fluid writing can be; how it can be adapted and evolved to fit your needs in different stages of your life.
I think this is what that quote in The Atlantic was trying to capture, which I did not understand before becoming a parent; the muse is mostly myth. Not that inspiration doesn’t exist, not that at all – that quote paints a picture of Munro so inspired she is swept up in having to write in those stolen moments. It’s feverish. It’s romantic. It’s crap. That woman made the time. She didn’t find the time, that’s the difference. She made the time to write while raising three children and that is incredible. So I take my page from Munro’s book and I tip my pen to her, too.