Even now, eight years later, I cannot tell you if I traveled down that road as a whole person, held intact by my own convictions, or if I went there as a broken woman, mechanically following my husband’s lead. I can tell you only what it is like to be riding in that van, on that mango road, rolling past dense fields of brown and green. It is to be a thirty-six-year-old woman, a mother and a wife, who is willing to do anything—anything—to help her child.
Mi vida. I will tell you. This is how it feels. As if my life is lying across my lap and I am bringing it into the jungle, to the man who speaks with spirits, so it can be healed. – excerpt from The Possibility of Everything
Something new on Mothers of Invention this time around — a Q & A with author Hope Edelman, who just came out with a new memoir, The Possibility of Everything. Many of you may be familiar with Hope’s book Motherless Daughters and the several books she wrote after receiving an outpouring of interest in the topic. The Possibility of Everything is a departure, as it’s straight memoir, focusing primarily on a weeklong trip she took with her family to Belize about nine years ago.
Her then-only child Maya had an imaginary friend named Bobo, who was not a particularly nice guy. He hit Hope and their Nanny; he scared Maya; and he refused to go away. Creepier still, Maya could see Bobo and the hundreds of other Bobo-like creatures with whom he lived. As Hope struggled with what to do about this, she also tried to hold on to her sense of herself as a writer and to her marriage which was faltering. Her husband was working insane hours while starting a new company, and was also entering a spiritual path – one with which Hope, a self-proclaimed pragmatist and cynic (how often those two go hand and hand) wasn’t entirely comfortable.
All of this led to the need for a family vacation. Once they chose Belize, Uzi’s (her husband’s) interest in the country’s shamanistic traditions and their nanny’s belief that Bobo needed to be dealt with through native healing techniques led them to enquire about seeing a shaman during their trip. Everything up to that point of the book is wonderful writing – pure Hope, who has a clear, witty and self-deprecating voice that reads on the page just as it sounds in person. But once there in the overgrown, uber green, musty-musky world of Belize, the pages start flying.
As someone interested in how mothers get the work done with their kids around, I was very intrigued by the fact that Hope had written so openly about her daughter, who is now an adolescent. My first question to her was, “How does Maya feel about this?” to which Hope responded: “Can we start with a different question? When you’re a 12-year-old girl, any kind of attention is anathema, but especially for something that happened when you were three.” Fair enough.
Another third of the book was written on stolen weekends away, when my husband would take care of the kids for a night or two and I’d check into an inexpensive hotel and binge write for as many as 12 or 15 hours straight.
Me: Can you talk, then, more about the HOW of writing with two kids?
Hope: My daughters were 10 and 6 when I started writing the book, and 11 and 7 when I finished. They were both in school full-time, so ostensibly I had those hours free for writing, but I’ve never been the kind of writer who can compartmentalize my work hours that neatly. I managed to write maybe 1/3 of the book during their school hours, working from a small office I rented in Topanga Canyon (the town where we live). It’s on the grounds of an outdoor Shakespeare theater, so I’d be writing about touring through Belize to the background sound of swordfight rehearsals in Elizabethan English.
About another third of the book was written late at night, after the girls went to sleep. I spent much of that year and a half extremely sleep deprived, since no matter how late I stayed up writing I still had to wake up at 6:15 to get the kids ready for school. And another third was written on stolen weekends away, when my husband would take care of the kids for a night or two and I’d check into an inexpensive hotel about an hour north of our house–strategically chosen to be close enough that I could make it home quickly in case of emergency, but far enough that they couldn’t drop in for dinner–and binge write for as many as 12 or 15 hours straight.
I took three trips to Belize to research and fact check the book, one in 2008 and one in 2009. That was probably the hardest part of the writing for both me and the kids. The first trip was for twelve days, and it was by far the longest time I’d ever been away from them. I think five days had been the record at that point. Before 2008, I felt the girls were just too young for me to leave for that long. The second and third trips to Belize were a little shorter, nine days and ten days, but still meant I missed some of their important events, like my younger daughter hula hooping to “Crazy Frog” in the elementary school talent show. Internet connectivity and phone service was a little spotty where I was staying, but we did manage to IM a few times and I sent them emails whenever I could get on line.
Me: You were a journalist and then got your MFA and sold a book coming out of the Nonfiction program at the University of Iowa. Is writing with two kids – one on the cusp of her teenage years – what you would have imagined it being then? I guess the cop-out version of this question — and coming from the mother of younger kids: Does it get any easier?
Hope: “Easy” was being 28 with unencumbered daytime writing hours, and the ability to stay up long past midnight in pursuit of the perfect paragraph. Each day was an endless vista of potential writing hours. I remember when I was first dating my husband, a slightly older friend of mine who was an editor and author with one child said, “Now is the time to concentrate on your writing, because once you have a child you’ll never have the same focus on work again.” I thought, Wow, that’s interesting. I wonder what that’ll be like? It was still pretty academic at that point, since I didn’t know if I’d ever have children, but I trusted her and paid attention to what she said.
“Once you have a child, your art never occupies the center of your life again. The child takes over that spot. So my advice to you is to go ahead and have a second one.”
After my older daughter was born, I was pushing her in a stroller in Soho on a visit back to New York and walking with a friend’s mother, a fine artist who’d raised three children into adulthood. She told me, “Once you have a child, your art never occupies the center of your life again. The child takes over that spot. So my advice to you is to go ahead and have a second one.”
Between those two shared insights, both of which I took to heart, I think I had a fairly good idea of what to expect moving forward. Intellectually, I understood I’d have less time and perhaps less inclination to write once children came along, and that I’d have to learn how to write within carefully circumscribed childcare or school hours. Still, that didn’t wholly prepare me for the times when I nonetheless felt like pulling my hair out, because it seemed the only time for me to write was is in the scraps left over after everyone else’s needs had been met.
It’s absolutely gotten easier as the kids have gotten older. They’re now in seventh and second grades, and both are in school for full days. (Half-day kindergarten was a killer.) Today, for example, was my older daughter’s first day of school for the year, so I brought her there and stayed for the parent-student assembly. Then I grabbed a quick coffee with a friend and was home by 11. I don’t have to leave the house again until 2:45. And nobody needs me in between. After a whole summer off, this feels like a bounty of riches in terms of uninterrupted writing time.
Being a mother cracked open a new place of tolerance and intolerance inside of me, of patience and impatience, of hardness and compassion at the same time.
Me: What does it mean to not have your art occupy the center of your life? You work with a lot of writers – as a teacher, a reader, and a writer – how do you see it affecting people’s work when they are or aren’t parents? I remember a mutual friend — an accomplished writer — once describing a pretty well known poet’s work to me; “It would be better if she’d been a mother,” was the gist of what he said; meaning, I think, that it would have been softer, less self-involved.
Hope: Interesting comment, from a father of two daughters who’s experienced the transformative nature of parenthood. Also interesting because so many successful writers that I know do not have children, either by circumstance or by choice. And their body of work is more prolific for it, I believe. There’s an Israeli writer, a woman, whose name escapes me right now–maybe Savyon Liebrecht?–who once said that every book a woman writes is a child she doesn’t have. The American twist on that statement would be that every child a woman has is a book she doesn’t write, which has certainly been true for me, though without a single regret. But your questions was about quality, not quantity, right? I can’t make a blanket statement about all women writers since the work of each one is affected by so many influences, motherhood among them. But I do know that being a mother cracked open a new place of tolerance and intolerance inside of me, of patience and impatience, of hardness and compassion at the same time. Before I had children, I was capable of feeling great compassion for others in circumstances similar to mine, which I think shone through in the Motherless Daughters books. After becoming a mother, I felt capable of feeling compassion for others in many different circumstances, whether I’d personally experienced them or not. The world was suddenly full of people who’d once been someone’s child. And I hope that will shine through in all my writing from this point forward.