Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.
Marcia Aldrich, author of the new memoir Companion to an Untold Story, came onto my radar earlier this year via Ned Stuckey-French…and I’m so glad she did. As you’ll see below, this woman can write. She lures you to her world so gently and deliberately, it’s impossible not to follow.
You’ll see what I mean. Let’s go.
1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).
When I was in high school as other girls compiled lists of names for the children they dreamed of having, I wrote the titles of the books I hoped to write when I grew up. Most of my girlfriends aspired for a life fulfilled through marriage and children. I dreamed of a life that would begin and end in my solitary bed, with just enough room for myself, a book, and a writing pad. I might go out into the world for romantic adventures, I thought, but I would return to my narrow bed, where I imagined everything inside me would bloom.
In one of my life’s many ironic twists, that’s not how it turned out. I did not arrange my life along the solitary lines I had envisioned at fifteen. Among my friends I was the first to marry and had my first child in graduate school. My husband, also a graduate student, and I shared one desk and one bed and we took turns using the computer between shifts of child care. After teaching my morning classes, I’d take the bus home where Richard would meet me at the bus stop with Clare in his arms. He’d hand her off to me as I descended the steps and he got on to go teach his afternoon classes. It would have been comical if the timing hadn’t been so precarious. At the end of our first year of our first post graduate school jobs, we had our second child. If I was writing something autobiographical about those days, I’d call it Spillage because all our boundaries were overrun.
We tend to think of writers removing themselves from the thoroughfare of living, retreating to rooms of their own and closing the door. That’s how I located writers in my imagination growing up. But in my life there has been no sacred, solitary space except in my head. I have had to compose however and wherever I could, carving out a niche for myself in attics and basements and bathrooms if need be, by flashlight and candlelight and by the flare of a fire. I have not depended upon an ideal location or situation to make my writing possible even if at times I have yearned for a cabin of my own.
Still, within the particular demands of my life, I prefer to write in my bed, a bed I share, in my bedroom, a room I share, where there are no books in the early morning right after I have woken up and before I begin to attend to children or dogs, before the phone begins to ring and the noise of the living intrudes. Why no books, you might ask; wouldn’t they be inspiring? And of course certain books are inspiring and I want to have them near me, but not when I’m trying to write. At those times the voices in those books crowd me. I try to stir as little as possible reaching for my pad and pen on the night table where I keep them. I’ve been communing with the dead, listening to their wise counsel during my night of sleep. If I’m careful and lucky, I manage to keep my ear to the grave for a bit after I’ve opened my eyes.
Once I’m inserted fully into the day, it becomes difficult to keep the brain I woke with alive—what you call writerhead. In those early hours of the milky morning, my mind, body, and heart are on the same calm plane and working rhythmically together.
2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)
When I was embarking on my own writing life, the women writers I hungrily read were temperamentally and stylistically varied but shared certain defining biographical features. Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, and Edith Wharton did not have children. They were all wed to their writing above all else, for better or worse, until death did them part. Each represented a fierce intelligence and commitment to use all their ingenuity to arrange their lives so as to write and write they did. A woman must choose, I thought, unless she wants to be torn asunder by competing demands and desires.
Closer to my own time, Sylvia Plath has been another influential exemplar. She read the same women writers I had and noted the same stark fact: these women did not bear children. She was determined to try to have it all, to be the modern woman writer with marriage, children, and the literary career. We know what happened to her.
I’ve spent my adult life thinking about my forebears, going over their choices, what they gained and what they lost, wondering about my own imperatives and choices. Sometimes when I feel driven like a scourge by the life I’ve put into motion, it seems I haven’t made any choices, and that my life has just happened. Of course, this is false. I chose to have children before my career was launched. Many of my women friends chose otherwise. They chose to devote themselves to establishing their careers first and then to have children. I wasn’t orderly. I tried to do everything simultaneously with certain predictable results. Picture a woman whipping up a soufflé while vacuuming the living room while a baby bounces in the doorway while the phone is ringing and someone is at the door and a notebook is open on the counter with a pen lying quietly in the crease. That would be me. Oh and add a stack of student papers that need to be graded and a stack of books I’m teaching. Oh and a dog and three cats, maybe a few plants capsized on a bookshelf. And my glasses are sliding down my nose. Interruptions to my writing aren’t something that I can calculate a sum for; they have defined my writing life.
It has perhaps been impossible to know what would feed me, what would make my writing rich and so I have followed my instincts even if they seemed counterproductive. My inclinations were to try to have children, a complicated home life, a career and a writing life, rather than not to try. I accepted that I might come to rack and ruin by this method but that an orderly life wasn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself with a writing life but no children or a life with children but no writing. I knew I was rushing headlong into chaos and possible catastrophe and I just kept going.
Now looking back, I can say there were times I went under, that there wasn’t enough of me to go around, that sometimes I didn’t serve anyone as well as I would have liked, least of all myself. For whatever reason I could never give anything up. I couldn’t give up trying to write, I couldn’t give up being a teacher, and I couldn’t give up being a mother or a wife or a friend. I couldn’t give up having dogs and cats and a garden and dinner every night.
And yes there are times when I lose my equilibrium. I know when I have it and when I don’t: I tip like a boat about to capsize. I start careening through the world, slipping in the shower, tripping on the hem of my skirt, mistiming opening and closing doors, tea kettles are forever whistling waiting for me to remove them from the heat, papers scatter from my hands across my students’ desks like fast moving clouds just before a tornado hits.
And then I have to right myself—I have to divest myself from unwanted obligations, attachments, behaviors. I resign from committees and programs I run at work. I let laundry pile up, dirt gather in all the corners, peonies fall because I did not stake them, and emails go unanswered for a day or two. In general I try to stop accepting responsibility for the maintenance and success of the world, well not the world, but my small corner of it. It’s hard to see the dishes pile in the sink corroding and not pick up a sponge, hard to watch the grass die because I didn’t water it. The list goes on. I’ve had to school myself to say no. Friends said you must learn to say no. And I began. No felt funny to shape in my mouth and even funnier when I said it out loud. Saying no seemed the verbal equivalent of setting off a bomb, a kind of personal terrorism to reclaim the tiny principality called myself, my writerhead.
3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.
The closest companion to writerhead in my life is swimming. I am open to the lessons swimming teaches me—don’t try to dominate the water. Subdue yourself. Try to swim inside the water.
In other places and situations being a quiet person hurts me. In the water the quietest swimmer is the best swimmer. Working against the water is exhausting. I’ve known instinctually that water is the story—she suffers my presence.
BIO: Marcia Aldrich teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. She is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has had essays appear in The Best American Essays, The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women, and a wide range of literary magazines. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Distinguished Professor of The Year Award for the state of Michigan. Companion to an Untold Story was selected by Susan Orlean for the 2011 AWP Award in Nonfiction.