Today I put my baby in the mail.
This is how all novels enter the world.
I printed it up, all 374 official pages of it, squeezed it into two binder clips, trussed it up with a letter to my agent, a recent bio, and a very rough synopsis, and hefted it to the United States Post Office. The mail clerk was ever so polite and efficient. He showed me the correct box to pack it in and found the best price on Priority shipping to New York City, but he utterly failed to understand the significance of the moment, and hustled the parcel away before I could even say a proper goodbye. I had to be satisfied with standing for a moment on the sidewalk outside and knowing that, for the first time, my novel is out of my hands. It's out there, in the cosmos.
All it cost me was $12.70.
This is all new to me. I've been a "professional writer" for the last 8 years, at least if you count all the time I spent getting my M.F.A. in Fiction Writing at Boise State and my Ph.D. at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Boy, have I ever studied writing, anyway. And I've written loads of stories and even published a couple of them in decent, respectable journals and won some awards. Five years ago I started a fantastic novel that everybody was very excited about. I never finished it. I have excuses, of course. Lots of them.
But the truth is, I wasn't compelled to write. I clearly remember sitting in a classroom a few years back and the professor saying, "If you haven't written today, you're not a writer." And my mental response to this was: Well then, I'm not a writer today.
Times that by 1000. There were exceptions along the way, brief periods where I was forced to write to meet a deadline or when lightning seemed to strike me for a story every now and then. These lightning strike moments were rare. My husband, who's a rock star when it comes to writing, pumped out 2 entire novels and a book of poetry during the time we've been together, not to mention the gazillion poems that didn't make it into the book. Up to this March, I'd written 3 new stories and about 100 pages on a novel. Most of that time I worked as a research assistant at the Stanford Cancer Center while my husband, the rock star, was studying in the Stegner Fellowship, rubbing shoulders with the likes of John L'Heureux and Tobias Wolff. He dreamt of being a tenure track professor at some big university. I had dreams about lab rats undergoing radiation therapy.
And then we had a baby.
My husband was nothing but encouraging about my writing; in fact, whenever he brought it up his eyes were worried, like inside he was saying, I hope this is temporary. I hope that our life together has not killed your writing life.
But being a wife or a mother didn't kill my writing life. I just didn't want to write.
Ted Kooser once wrote, "There's an essential difference between being a poet and writing poetry. There are, in a sense, two poets, the one alone writing a poem and the one in the black turtleneck and beret, trying to look sexy." I spent a lot of time during my son's naps contemplating the idea that maybe I was not a writer. Maybe I'd only done all the school and the study because I wanted to look sexy. Because, I told myself, if I was truly a writer, I would want to write.
Which brings us to March, when one evening I was sitting with my husband watching a movie. During naptime that particular day I'd played video games, and my eyes were tired. We had the volume so far down on the movie that we had to turn on the subtitles for the hearing impaired, so we wouldn't wake my son. I had a dried piece of macaroni and cheese stuck to my shirt. And as I sat there, I became aware of something developing in the back of my mind.
This was not like a lightning strike. This was like smelling a skunk. You just get that whiff in the air, and you know there's one nearby.
I can't remember when the actual idea hit me. One moment I was watching Sesame Street with my two-year-old and the next I was frantically writing notes while I stirred spaghetti sauce for dinner. Ideas just poured into my head. I couldn't get it down fast enough. I finally convinced my husband to buy me the kind of recorder that reporters use so I could just dictate the flood into it. This went on for about a week, and then I set to writing. I wrote in the mornings, before my son woke up, I wrote during naptime, and I wrote after he went to bed. After a while I settled down to writing during naptime alone.
Nothing had ever felt so good. I never took a single day off. I was too afraid that if I stopped writing, even for one day, that I wouldn't start again. Something to do with how the object in motion stays in motion. In the middle of this period I spent an entire day in airports with my son, trying to get to Idaho after I'd missed our morning flight. We finally made it to Salt Lake City, where my mom picked us up and drove us the three hours to Idaho Falls. By the time I dragged my suitcases into the house it was after 9 pm, and I still had my son's bedtime rituals to undergo. By the time that was all done, it was close to 11, and I sank down onto a kitchen chair and set up my laptop.
"What are you doing?" asked my mother, appearing in the hallway in her nightgown.
"I'm writing on my novel," I said.
"You're exhausted. You need to sleep," she said.
Yes, I did. But first I wrote 35 words. My average per day on my novel was a little over a thousand, but that night all I could only manage a paragraph. And a crappy paragraph, at that. But that day I was a writer.
I finished a draft on July 14 and spent the next few weeks revising. I thank God again for sending me such a screwd, amazing editor for a husband. Then I told my agent. I didn't breathe a word about my novel to her the entire time I was writing, because I wanted to have the manuscript in hand before I sprung it on her. I wanted to say, "here's a novel I've just finished" rather than, "here's another novel I'm working on." I crossed my fingers and hoped she wouldn't be too wigged out by the fact that I had written an entirely different novel in an entirely different genre than what she was expecting.
She was surprised, she admitted. But she was also infected by my sheer enthuiasm about the whole project, and she liked the premise of the series, so she asked for the manuscript. She was eager to read it, she said.
Which brings us to now. Novel in a box sitting in a mail truck somewhere. Me with the perpetual sense that I am holding my breath.