Friday, February 26, 2010

 

The Stephen J Gould Theory of Writing

Somehow I have managed 60 pages of a new novel. Of course, 40 of those pages were written last year, before I got pregnant, before I became perpetually exhausted and was hauling myself around the country with what little energy I had. But I still have 60 pages, and intend to have more. I think that most of the sentences are pretty bad and the paragraphs even worse, but I have a kind of hope that once the majority of the text is down, I can shape it into something.

It's supposed to be impossible to write while raising a small child. I'm supposed to have full time help. I don't. But at the same time, plenty of people I know wrote while raising children, so I think to myself that it ought to be possible. I've already learned that I can function with interrupted sleep. I don't think I'm 100% sane (though that's been a problem for a while). But, I manage to function.

I was thinking this morning about Stephen Jay Gould and his theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution. This was a somewhat revolutionary approach to evolution at the time that he put it forward-that is, unless you are someone who thinks that evolution itself is suspect, in which case you probably ought to stop reading. But anyway, Gould essentially posited that species remain somewhat static, and then go through sudden bursts of evolutionary change. That's when-looking at the fossil record-we can see one species branching off of another, or changing in some fundamental way.

Writers are told to commit to the computer/chair/desk every day, if they want results. Certainly that's been how I've worked for the last who knows how many years. And over time, I've found that I can sit for longer and longer and still get up in the morning with fresh energy. But if I am honest with myself . . . I remember these bursts . . . a week or a few days in which suddenly the book seemed to write itself. Or a week in which an essay just sort of fell out onto the page, almost fully formed. And then for weeks . . . tinker, tinker, tinker. And I wonder if there isn't some kind of punctuated equilibrium when it comes to writing.

A couple of weeks ago, the baby went through an awful spell. He fussed and fussed, but the doctor told me he didn't have colic. "Babies cry," she said. (No one told me they cried this much. My mother still swears I never cried at all). He didn't like eating. He didn't like swinging, or swaddling, or sleeping. We were both miserable. A baby's constant cry is even worse that the motherf*cking car alarms we have in Manhattan. It gets under your skin. It is the worst sound. In the end, the only way that I could do anything to remotely pacify him, was to slump back in the bed, and have him lie on top of me while I patted his back. This was how Gordon found us, hours later, in the dark, both clutching each other for dear life, and me sort of shell shocked and numb from having spent the day trying to stop the baby from crying. Gordon peeled the baby off of my torso and I went off and took a shower and cried and wondered what kind of fresh hell I had introduced into my life. A few days later, the baby was fine. In fact, he started to turn his head and follow me with his eyes when I crossed the room. A day later, he smiled at me. (Finally! Some gratitude!). He had had the classic 6 week growth spurt. (Another one is supposedly coming at the 3 month mark; I'll be more ready-or so I tell myself).

But there you go. I know he's growing all the time-we weigh him often. But occasionally, there is some kind of inner rewiring going on at the same time, and these are the ones that cause him confusion and pain, but also hallmark some kind of interesting change-the laughing, the recognition, the smiling.

When we say that writers have to write every day, I'm thinking it isn't because we make slow, steady progress everyday. I mean, maybe some people do, but I don't. I tend to write (novels, anyway) the same way that Ewan grows. I write so steadily I don't notice it's happening, and this is followed by some catastrophic outburst that upsets family and friends and then . . . a sudden shift. Maybe the thing to do is to keep writing, then, while the baby naps, or decides to amuse himself by staring at his reflection for a half an hour. Because eventually, there will be a growth spurt, a puncture in the equilibrium and something good will be there that was not before.

Comments:
Welcome to the discoveries of motherhood- poor little guy- I think sometime they just get over stimulated with the world and want back in to their warm safe place in your tummy!
Much of my writing/art was created hugely in my mind, when my arms were full of children or activities- and so when I went to the computer/drafting table much of it was already worked out- it use to be literally cause I was holding a baby- now because I am shuffling two teenage girls around-but while I am doing it- I am running my story lines- making decisions, etc. in my head
savor this time- there will be a time you think back and wish your kids were still that little!
 
Julia--That is such a great point. I also find myself "working" while I'm out for a walk, or holding the baby, or changing him. Then I try to focus whatever I imagined when I set down to work. Thanks for stopping by-and I love your avatar.
 
I agree with Julia ... I have two tiny ones, and all of my ideas percolate while I'm changing diapers and filling sippy cups. Then there's that moment when I'm tying my boy's shoes and my eyes suddenly glaze over. Something has clicked in my head -- something profound, a plot point or a characterization device -- and I have to reach for a sticky note to scribble the idea down, so that when they're napping I can adequately flesh it out.

And I don't know if this is your first baby, Marie, but I promise it gets better. The days are interminably slow, but the weeks and months pass quickly. I think nostalgia is the only good part about having such a tiny, helpless creature in your care. :)
 
I definitely subscribe to The Stephen J Gould Theory of, well, I'm going to say Creativity.

Those moments of epiphany are addictive. It's why I sit in the chair day in and day out...I want to be in the right place at the right moment.
 
Oh, thanks so much for the votes of confidence!AND for letting me know things get better after the first couple of months. I mean, I *knew* I didn't know anything about babies. But I didn't know what it would mean to know nothing . . .

I have to say, though, that this morning he was in bed with us, and was laughing and squealing and smiling (before the effort he exerted on these positive emotions tired him out and he got cranky and hungry), and I just thought: "Wow! Human consciousness developing! And he's happy!" It was pretty cool.

I've been reading this book on how babies brains develop. In my geeky way, this has been helpful. Like, of course the cerebral cortex isn't all fleshed out yet, Marie, and that's why this kid doesn't know who you are yet! And now he can see and the brain is developing. And *now* he can remember who you are . . . takes some of the mystery out of it, which I like.

Anyway, I'm so happy to hear from mothers who are creative. It gives one hope. And trust me, I know that others are lurking . . .
 
I am so happy to hear that you are finding time to write and very impressed that you are managing this with a newborn. From this post, I can see that you are writing well despite sleep deprivation. Hang in there it will get better in a few months!

My daughter’s colic was caused by lactose intolerance. When I eliminated milk from my diet, she cried less, and I felt better too. I hadn’t even realized I was lactose intolerant myself. So check if certain dietary items correspond with it while breast feeding.

Sometimes the best thing to do with a crying baby is to get out the stroller and go for a walk. The motion can work and fresh air might make you both feel better, but I do remember not having the energy to anything but lie there with a screaming boy baby on my chest. Now that baby is learning how to drive a car. Yikes!

I’m a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould’s nature writing. One of my best parenting moments was recognizing my old professor (I had audited his class) at the Museum of Natural Science and introducing my pre-schooler son to him. My son told the famous scientist that he wanted to be a paleontologist. SJG was impressed that he knew what it was and encouraged him. It was all about the dinosaurs. These days my son dreams about Astrophysics, and I write while the kids are at school.

My children grew in spurts and so do my works in progress as I juggle writing and parenting. I think about writing even when I don’t have time to do it and keep a notebook with me at all times. I don’t get writer’s block because my work time is limited, and I have a backlog of ideas. In the beginning childrearing took away from my creative time, but now since I’ve started writing young adult fiction, my 12-year-old daughter actually helps with my work.
 
Wow ... you've taken be back in time (to my own babies' days!) and given me a new term: punctuated creativity. I remember how gratefully I found a mere three hours per week to write when my first was a baby; now whole days and weeks unfold before me and that "baby" is getting ready to head to college in the fall. Julia is so right: savor this time! (Although it's hard to savor the screams ...)
I write novels now but back then shorter pieces ... essays and even creative fiction for radio, like the local NPR station ... had to suffice.
Louise Erdrich's "The Blue Jay's Dance" is in part about this stage of motherhood/writerhood. I remember wanting to hug her after I read it ... she understood what I was going through!
 
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