The year my first daughter was born, I wrote my dissertation. I had spent the previous nine months researching and then making an excruciatingly detailed outline of the project. The outline consisted of a complex system of index cards arranged by topics, sub-topics, and sub- sub-topics, each one bound by a rubber band and grouped with others in its category by a larger rubber band.
Having heard that babies could be time consuming, I figured that if I had just fifteen minutes to spare, I could remove the rubber band from a single sub-topic and write a paragraph or two before the next diaper change.
Besides the baby, I had a temporary part-time job teaching in a private school. Thanks to my rubber bands, I nevertheless managed to write all but the last chapter of my dissertation. Since by that point my daughter was no longer nursing every five minutes, my mother came up one weekend and babysat while I went to the library to finish the job.
I found a carrel in a quiet corner, took out the final batch of index cards, snapped off the rubber band and looked around. This being Saturday morning, the stacks were empty. There was no one, not even a mouse, to disturb me. I could concentrate to my heart\’s content….
Except I couldn\’t. Somehow I was unable to sustain mental effort for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch. Motherhood had worked a weird kind of interval training on my brain, so that I needed frequent interruptions in order to function.
Despite the weirdness of those two silent days, I did manage to sweat out the last chapter–but, ironically, it was the only one that my advisor asked me to rewrite.
In Silences, her heart-wrenching book about why writers don\’t write, Tillie Olsen says,\”More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, and responsible.\” These days, fatherhood may in some cases get in the way of writing as well, but it\’s still mostly motherhood that keeps writers from writing.
No matter how talented the writer, it\’s hard to produce a masterpiece in fifteen-minute stretches. A middle-class mother may well have a physical room of her own, but where to escape the moral obligation, let alone the inborn desire to satisfy a child\’s endless need for food, company, stimulation, love?
The German poet Rilke was so leery of the drain that affections impose on a writer that he could not live in the same house with his wife and baby. He couldn\’t even bear to have a dog: \”Anything alive that makes demands, arouses in me an infinite capacity to give it its due, the consequences of which completely use me up.\” (Rilke quoted by Olsen, in Silences.)
For me, the days of index cards and rubber bands were followed by decades of further interruptions, by growing children, work, and life in general. But my present schedule is one to make struggling would-be writers faint with envy: I could, if I wanted to, write uninterruptedly from dawn to dusk, every single day.
But not quite. For as soon as the opening fanfare of Windows announces that I\’ve sat down to write, the cat Telemann comes rushing up to investigate. He sits on the desk, rearranges my papers, sniffs my coffee, and reaches out his white paw to tap on the keyboard (he\’s been known to delete important stuff). Is he bored, I wonder? Hungry? In need of affection? Poor thing, he never gets to go outside–I should play with him a while.
My little red dog Bisou, less intrusive now than in her youth, is content to sleep in the room while I write–until she starts to wonder when we\’re going for our walk, or if it\’s almost dinnertime. She\’s been with me through thick and thin for the past decade, her entire tiny life. How can I deny her?
My two goldfish and my houseplants are less vocal in their demands, but I can\’t bear to see them languish. The fish must be fed breakfast and dinner, and the water in their tub changed regularly. The plants need water–not too much–and food and grooming, and carefully placed full-spectrum lights.
Clearly, my brain is still on its old schedule. After fifteen or twenty minutes of writing, it looks around for interruptions. What–no phone calls, no emails, no appointments, nobody at the door? It must be time to walk the dog.
Short of infants of my own, I have hobbled myself with a set of living beings that arouse in me that infinite capacity to give them their due. Rilke would say I\’m committing creative suicide.
And so I walk the dog, and play with the cat, and I try not to beat myself up about it. Fifteen or twenty minutes of writing is better than nothing, after all. Despite his richly emotive poetry, Rilke strikes me as a little cold. Besides, who\’s to say that a well-loved creature is less precious than a great poem?