The Imaginary Writer
When my husband and I hosted Thanksgiving for my side of the family, everyone showed up. There were 20 of us, siblings with spouses and kids, and my parents.
When the folks arrived, Mother dropped off her pies in the dining room, then came into the kitchen with the rolls she had brought.
“I finished reading The English Patient,” I told her while I mashed the potatoes. “I just loved the ending. The whole book seemed to be written for that one sentence about Kip.”
“Oh!” said my mother. She sounded as if someone had knocked the breath out of her. She dropped the rolls on the table. Her face lit up; her eyes glowed. I heard her draw in a breath. “I loved that ending,” she crooned.
I knocked the potatoes off the masher and spooned them out of the pan into a serving bowl. Mother slid the rolls into the oven and set the timer.
“I’m reading this Russian poet,” she told me. “A woman who lives in squalor. Dirt poor. She makes up all these poems in her head, and then she writes them down on scraps of paper before she goes to sleep at night.”
Here was a gift from my mother. If she can do it, you can, too.
My mother is a fiction writer. She’s published two books of short stories and two novels. A few years back, my father worked hard to convince my mother she should retire the electric typewriter and switch over to a computer. She had fought this for years but at his urging she finally gave in. My father is proud of his persistence because the computer works well for her now and makes revising much easier.
When she first began using her computer, she would complain of lost files. “I suspect this computer of harboring a diabolical sense of humor,” she wrote to me. After she encountered the message ‘read-only file: file already in use,’ she sent me a letter that read, “My computer says somebody else is working on this file. My only question is ‘who?’ Maybe he is doing a better job with it than I am.”
After the meal, I brought out my new laptop and set it on the kitchen table. I turned it on and showed my mother how it worked. I thought she might consider using one herself someday.
“Why, look at all the files you have already,” she exclaimed, leaning toward the screen.
“Do you have the Internet on there?” asked my father, eating a piece of nutbread.
“No,” I told him. “This is my writing computer. No internet. No email.”
“Good for you.” My mother nodded approval.
My sister Katie came into the kitchen, then. “I want to read one of your stories.”
I almost shut it up right there and then, but I didn’t. Every time I wrote a new story, I resolved not to give it to my mother to read because I felt my inferior work monopolized her time, time that she could spend on her own writing. I hadn’t shown her this story on my laptop, and I thought since it was Katie who had asked to see it, my mother might seize the opportunity to make a quick exit. But she didn’t budge when I put it up on the screen, and Katie sat down beside her, her blond, shoulder-length hair mingling with our mother’s silver-gray bun. Mother might finish a page first, sit back and watch Katie who, after a few seconds, would tap the keyboard and bring up another page. Sometimes Katie would look at Mother and ask, “You ready?” and when Mother nodded, shoot the screen up a few more lines.
I almost squeezed a chair between the garbage can and the basement door so I could sit across the room and watch them. But today was Thanksgiving. There were 17 people milling about. I had dishes to do and food to put away.
Once Mother raised her head to look at me. “I don’t like the looks of that raccoon.”
I met her eyes and smiled. I had used an obvious foreshadowing device with my main character finding a dead raccoon in the bushes, and Mother could already predict the ending.
When she finished, she rose and gave a little nod, her lips pursed. She approved—to a degree, at least. I knew she would write to me later and tell me what she thought. My mother always, without fail, zeroed in on what I was trying to say.
My sister waited until after the folks left to tell me what she thought.
“I’ve read two of your stories now,” she informed me, “and they’re just like Mother’s.”
She didn’t mean this as a compliment. “You still think I’m trying to be Mother.” I sighed.
“Libby, you are Mother.” She said this to me as one adult to another, with distance, sure of herself, confident of her choices and the life she had made for herself. I, on the other hand, remained dominated by our mother. I’d lost the opportunity to lead my own life.
“Have you ever thought of giving up writing?” she asked.
In the upstairs hallway, all the way through grade school, Mother reads to us every night, Katie, three years younger than me, and our brother Stephen, older than I am by one year. She sits on an old wooden chest. When I looked inside once, I saw it was filled with typed pages.
The chest sits in the hall between the bathroom door and the back staircase. Beyond the stairs, in a corner of the house, Stephen has a small bedroom all to himself.
I share a big bedroom with my sister at the other end of the hall. Katie always falls asleep as soon as Mother begins reading, almost as soon as her head hits the pillow. But I know Stephen is listening in the dark. Although his bedroom is closer, I am the only one who can see her. Mine is the only bed with a view of the hall.
Mother slips her hand behind the door to the back staircase, finds the light switch beneath the hook and eye, turns it on. She reads us fairy tales and poems. Her dark hair is drawn back in a ponytail. She wears my father’s shirt, untucked over pedal pushers. On her feet, as always, bobby socks and well-worn saddle shoes.
Once, when we are still small, she reads her own book to us. The Magic Plate rests in a typing paper box and as she reads, I watch her turn the pages over one by one and put them into the top of the box to keep them separate from the pages she has not yet read. She kicks her leg, the one crossed over the other. She leans forward. “Now you must listen carefully to this story,” she reads. And we do.
I know she’s written this book for Stephen because the main character is a boy named Alan. A younger boy, Leonard, lives down the street and wants only to play with Alan all day long. But Alan doesn’t want Leonard around. Who would, I think. Leonard is a pest. He should go home and stop bothering Alan. He should play with somebody his own age. Almost from the beginning, though, I can tell some punishment is in store for Alan because he’s so mean to Leonard. And I realize Mother has written this part for me, so I will be nicer to my little sister.
“I always thought it was a secret,” Katie said once, after she was grown, about Mother’s writing. And she was right. It was a secret, or seemed to be as we were growing up, an inside secret we could discuss within the family, but a taboo subject in the outside world.
This was the reason, in my mother’s own words: “It’s terribly egotistical for me to believe I can even do this—write so well that someone else would want to read it. But I want to save the world, and I can’t stand to be around people. Writing is all I can do.”
My mother raised four children and still found time to write. We’re proud of her, but that doesn’t stop us from sometimes joking about her writing. We still kid her about the way she used to prop the sewing machine up against her bedroom door to keep us out when we were children.
We kid her about the way she used to—and still does—disappear at holidays (too many people to talk to, even if they are family). Throughout my childhood I remember my father taking us out to play workup with a plastic bat and ball, out bowling, out to the movies, all so my mother could stay home and write.
As he grew older and his children became adults, my father would keep us informed about my mother’s progress with her writing. “She’s working on the bee story,” he might tell us with a smile for months at a stretch. Sometimes, though, she gets writer’s block and then Father must allow her to struggle through it on her own.
When I asked him how he spent his 51stwedding anniversary, he said, “I was going to take your mother out for dinner and a movie, but she broke down in tears and said she couldn’t go.”
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Isn’t she writing?”
“Oh, she’s stuck on Billy the Kid. She tries to work every morning, but she can’t do it. She’s a wreck.” A bark of frustration reached my ear through the phone line. “Life sure is better when she’s writing,” said my father. “Jesus.”
Most little girls, when they are small, aspire to be just like their mothers. I was no exception, but with me it was not just a passing phase. I have never really let go of this notion. Anyone seeing me in the context of my family would recognize right away my aspirations to be a successful writer like my mother. I realize full well that it’s not unreasonable for people to think—family members in particular—that I have simply not progressed to the point of finding my own direction in life.
This is what Katie thought the day she read my story, why she encouraged me to try something new, something besides writing.
But I also know Katie would not have told me what she did if she hadn’t sincerely believed it to be true. Katie is intelligent, and I respect her opinion. I have to consider whether she may be right. Do I have my own voice? And if I don’t, is it too late for me to develop one? If I never emerge from my mother’s shadow because I simply do not possess her talent, should I consider all my time and effort wasted? It doesn’t take me long to realize that I could waste a lot of writing time mulling over such questions as these. I’m afraid giving up writing itself, though, is really out of the question.
On Saturdays and weekdays, when we get home from grade school, and all summer long, she is shut up in her bedroom, my mother, where she has her desk, her typewriter, her bulletin board with inspirational quotes.
Stephen and I play by ourselves, passing notes to each other, he on the stair landing, me in the small bathroom closet downstairs. I stand on the toilet in the dark and reach up to the crack in the ceiling, then grab the scrap of paper when it appears, shutting out the light from the crack. I open it. The Black Spot. I am doomed. I make my own black spot and shove it up through the crack.
I run up to the landing on the stairs. Stephen has paper and pencils and the book Mother’s been reading to us at night spread out before him—Treasure Island. We climb the stairs to the closed door of my parents’ bedroom.
“Mommy,” I yell.
No answer. We try to open the door, but it won’t budge.
Katie comes up the stairs and listens too. “I don’t hear anything,” she whines.
“She’s in there,” Stephen says. He bends down to peer through the keyhole, then turns back to us. “It’s stuffed with toilet paper just like the bathroom door.”
“Why won’t it open?” Katie wiggles the knob and sounds close to tears.
Stephen gives the door a tiny shove. “It’s the sewing machine. She’s got it propped against the door.”
Downstairs, there are books everywhere, in every room of the house, the living rooms, the bedrooms, the bathroom. In the dining room, where it is my job to dust, a small collection of books sits on the corner mantelpiece above the fireplace. Mother says these are adult books and I must wait until I am old enough to read them. I dust them off and memorize their titles. One gives me a little thrill of fear—Lie Down in Darkness. Every morning, my mother sits for an hour after breakfast and reads. Every noon, she lunches with Proust.
Manila envelopes arrive frequently in the mail, addressed to my mother in her own hand. As a child, I never thought about what they were or why she had written to herself, and she never blinked an eye when they came.
Just once I remember finding her in her bedroom wailing in despair: “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
I know something is wrong, but I don’t know what. My mother sees that I am upset, takes my face in her hands, “It’s not you,” she says. “It’s not my family. I love my family. I’m very happy with that part of my life.” I feel relieved but not comfortable. Something is still wrong. “It’s my writing,” she admits. “I just can’t do it. I try and I try.” She sighs. She paces back and forth.
When I’m young, I feel only sadness for her. When I’m older, I say, “Why do it, then, if it makes you feel so bad?”
That’s when her eyes open wide as if I’ve knocked the wind out of her. “Oh, I have to.” Enthusiasm pours out in her voice. “I have to keep trying. I can’t help but do it.” She stops and looks at me, thinking how to explain it so I can understand. “Sometimes,” she says, “when I’m writing, I feel a light shining down on me. All the right words go down on the page. I feel . . . in touch with God. Just those moments are enough to make it worth all the effort.”
I know where God is. He’s outside my bedroom window, up in the dark sky. That’s where I pray to him at night. And if I turn my head, I can see my mother sitting on the chest, a book opened in her lap.
My mother’s first novel was published in 1998. I had birthed three children and my two boys were mostly grown by this time.
My family gathered that year at my parents’ house to celebrate my mother’s birthday. In the kitchen, I found my mother preparing a bowl of fruit for the meal. I helped her carry dishes into the dining room, and told her I was reading The Stone Diaries.
“Carol Shields is Canadian,” she told me. “That book won the Pulitzer.”
In The Stone Diaries, an enormous woman, dearly loved by her rather smallish husband, dies in childbirth.
“The author really seems to enjoy describing the mother,” I said. “She’s huge.”
Mother laughed. “She’s big so she won’t know she’s pregnant,” she said, pointing out obesity as a literary device.
“And it symbolized her husband’s love for her,” I said, “larger than life. My favorite part was when he built that tomb for her, that sculpture.”
“Yes. It’s a work of art, a tribute to her. It shows what sort of feeling creativity grows from.”
Here was another gift from my mother, the idea of creativity growing not out of anger, not from hurt or shame, but out of love—a reaching, a growing, a stretching toward the whole of what one feels for another human being, a grasping toward the truths uttered by one’s mother.
When Father lit the birthday candles, he turned to my mother and said, “Make a wish.”
Her eyes locked with his. “I don’t know what to wish for.”
He smiled. “Your novel got published!” My father is my mother’s greatest fan.
Quite a few years had passed since he told me she was working again at revising Winnie Clemmer, our working title for Mother’s first novel. I wondered if, after all this time, it was worth salvaging, this novel she’d been working on back when I was typing stories for her, twenty-five cents a page. I must have been in junior high school then.
And I suddenly realized what my mother must have wished for on all her other birthdays, all the while I was growing up. All the years she worked on that book, all the years it sat in the chest gathering dust, all the years of revising.
When Mother handed me the published version of her first novel, she pointed in her book to the name of a baby birthed by one of the main characters. This baby never grew up, was never more than just a baby in the novel with a name that had not changed from earlier drafts. But it was a name I had forgotten ever reading. I stared at it there in the book. It was the name of my own daughter.
I am the only one who can see her. Katie, a child of nine, is already asleep in her bed across the room. In his tiny bedroom, Stephen listens in the dark. But I am the only one with a view of the hall. I watch her bent over the book, my mother, the light shining down on her long, dark hair, making the gray strands shine silver. She is sitting on the chest. I can see her white socks through the holes in her saddle shoes. Her legs are crossed and she kicks one foot as she reads of Pip and Joe holding up slices of bread, comparing bites. When she reads the description of Miss Havisham, dressed in white, the wedding cake covered with cobwebs, she sits forward and locks one arm, her hand braced against the chest lid.
All the struggles of my day dissolve when she finally sits down and begins reading. I watch her lips move, her breaths between sentences, her sighs between chapters. Her pauses before portraying—in Oliver Twist—the voices of Fagin or Bill Sikes. I watch her enthusiasm and delight. And her reading is a comfort to me all day long. All my mistakes, my imperfections, my skip-roped skinned knees, my arguing with my sister, my breathless demands for mercy beneath my tickling brother. All this—anger, sadness, frustration and regret—as the reading hour approaches, I know will disappear. I will be forgiven all—because I believe, I feel, I live the book that is being read to me.
My desire to write might never become anything more than a dream. But what my mother has bequeathed me that no one can take away is the lure of the imagination itself. It is enough.
Elizabeth Lantz holds an MFA degree in creative nonfiction from The Ohio State University and currently teaches creative writing at Columbus State Community College. Her work has been published in Kenyon Review, American Literary Review, South Dakota Review, and others.