In the fall of 2004, I participated in a faculty development workshop at Simmons College, where I then worked and taught, on the teaching of writing. There were about 15 of us, and it was led by Lowry Pei and it was great. We got together weekly, we talked about students (in general, not gossipy), we puzzled over how to teach academic writing, and we did some writing, too. Some of it was formal and academic; some of it was free.
I’ve been digging in my archives from that workshop, looking for material. Here’s an excerpt from a 30-minute freewrite I did at 7:30am on a Sunday in November, 2004. Eli was 12; Lydia 8; and Grace 4. As I wrote, I tried to let family interruptions become part of the writing, and so I documented them along with my train of thought. Eventually, the interruptions became the train.
I often wait for the perfect conditions within which to write (quiet, long stretch of time, well rested) and those perfect conditions present themselves to me, or I’m able to make them happen not –
–interruption. Lydia is doing some algebra problems, for fun, that I created for her. She doesn’t get “2x = 24” – that “x” is unknown and that multiplication is implied. She thought that “x” meant “double the number” and she came up with 4. I explain. She says, “so two times twelve?” That’s right, because value for x in this instance is 12.
And I only get perfect conditions about two hours per week. That’s not a lot of time in which to do much. So, doing things on the fly has to work for me. I’m attracted to the short form for this reason, or that’s what I want to believe. I read once that Raymond Carver told a reporter that he started writing short stories because it’s all he could concentrate on when he and his first wife were raising two or three young children. He wrote in the car, sitting in the car in the driveway for an hour, after he came home from work. Or something like that. Nice myth. Poor Carver.
–Grace is changing out of her bathing suit (she wore it to bed last night). She’s putting on a dress. —– I just helped her wriggle into this too small pink dress. I heard her ask Jimmy for help; I heard him say “Mom knows about dresses.” So, apparently this is my province.
Elizabeth Gaskell, according to her biographer Jenny Uglow anyway, wrote in some room at the center of her house. Like an atrium, or a dining room, with arches open onto it, through which her children and husband and possibly a servant (probably a servant, even
–Lydia: “I’m going to write 2x like this: 2 x X.” That works.
Even a poor minister’s family, which the Gaskells were, had a servant. A servant I do not want, although we do pay people to come and clean our house once a week. This is a fact I do not broadcast. Morally better to do one’s own housework. Oh, I do want a cook! Note to self, for when Wealth knocks on our door.
Grace saw Lydia doing algebra so asked me for some problems in her notebook too. I wrote:
1 + 1 = ________
2 + 2 = ________
G + R + A + C + E = _______________
She hated these problems. She wrote some back to me: “This is what I want!” She wrote:
And so on. My job is to fill the blank lines with numbers.
Lydia: “Mooooom, I need some help!”
Eli: “Give her a break, it’s not homework.” He’s watching Japanese cartoons. Manga, they’re called?
Lydia’s getting jammed up on this: “What’s half of x?” (x=12) She is enormously frustrated and mad at me. I ask her, “Do you want me to help you, or do you want me to write some new problems for you?” She answers: “I’m taking a break.” Fair enough. It is Sunday morning.
A minute later Eli reports: “Lydia’s playing solitaire on the computer.”
[end of excerpt]
That was then. This is now: life is easier. The kids are older and generally self-maintaining and self-entertaining. We don’t have a cook, but there is more uninterrupted alone time. As Jimmy pointed out, the last time I was skating with the girls, “Hey, no one needs you to hold their hands anymore.” Indeed.