Writing & Laziness: An Apologia

And who ever died from not writing?

I cut-and-pasted my previous post, about success and the myth of the writer who never stops writing, on my Open Salon (OS) page, and I got some interesting responses. One of my connections at OS–the always-thought-provoking Skypixie0–then emailed me to say he had posted something new he wanted me to see, about writing & obsession, and that garnered quite a few comments about how writing is an unstoppable force, an inescapable pull, for those who are “real writers.”

The whole concept of a “real writer” is a little tricky for me, at base I think causes more insecurity than is worth it, so this is what I wrote back to my friend Skypixie0, and I’ll post a copy of it here, too:

In response to the wonderful Skypixie0, his OS message to me in response to my earlier post about writing & success, and his latest post about writing & obsession.

Hi Sky,

Thanks for pointing me to your post in your message about being a “blog-whore”–which totally got a laugh out of me! I love your humor.

I do have to respectfully disagree slightly with one of the assumptions underlying your post, though, or maybe it’s more with the idea of the whole concept of “being a writer.” I don’t think a writer is writing all the time, just like I don’t think a doctor is doctoring all the time. No one does everything all the time. And sometimes I think we are concerned with figuring out what a “real” writer is in the hopes we can then label ourselves one (and I include myself in this concern too–as my previous post that you responded to shows, this was a concept I struggled with, and still do, a lot!). But I’m wondering why we can’t see writing like any other endeavor. There are people who write. When they are writing, they are writers. When they aren’t, they aren’t.  If they write for money and they do this as a career and continually, then the are writers by trade. But that’s not so different from any other profession (or passion, or hobby, etc), is it?

I know before I got my book deal and I was going through the hard time I mention in the post you originally commented on, I really tormented myself with the fact that I must not be a real writer because I wasn’t writing all the time, or b/c I couldn’t fit into the mold that said “you write b/c you must,” you can’t survive without writing.

(And on that topic, who ever died from not writing?)

Then I just said, screw it, who cares what I am. I’ll write when I feel the pull to and won’t when I won’t, and I’ll live with being a writer some days (or weeks, or hours), and not others. And I feel much better, and more normal, about the whole concept now.

Or maybe this is all just my way of justifying when I’m lazy and don’t want to write! As I said to one of my friends after my book deal came through, maybe my next book should be “Writing & Laziness: An Apologia.”

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Busting the Myth of the Writer Who Never Stops Writing

And the Motherlode Pitch that Started the Essay that Started It All

In the comments to my post here, about how I actually got my book deal, Philomela asked how I ended up getting in touch with the Motherlode editor at the New York Times, KJ Dell’Antonia (who’s great). Here’s the story (with a rather long intro, which I explain at the end)!

Honestly, I hadn’t written anything for almost a year, given the rigorous treatments I was undergoing, the stress of the 2 miscarriages, not being able to travel back home to the US b/c of it all, the month after month of being crushed, etc., etc. I felt like I had no energy to do anything but just get up, go to the clinic almost daily (in Japan, most clinics don’t allow women to give themselves the hormone shots, so I had to go in for my daily shots), keep writing for my regular part-time freelance job (I write content and overviews about faculty research for US universities) and function, at least externally, like a relatively normal person. I felt awful about it, like I was going to go through me early 40s with nothing to show for it but a bunch of failures and heartbreaks, and no career or writing advancement at all. But one night, on one of the infertility forums I used, I saw a post mentioning a previous Motherlode column (which I mention in my pitch below), and it gave me an idea for a pitch. So I sat down and tried to start a brief pitch, and the whole thing just came rolling out of, and I sent it that night, and KJ kindly responded right away saying she really liked the idea and wanted to post my piece. And the process (the piece being posted on the NYT site, the Putnam editor reading it and getting in touch, etc.) just rolled on from there, taking me totally by surprise. Once I had some sense that at least a few people might be interested in what I had to say, it became much easier to write (although it was still hard while I was going through treatments, but at least it was now manageable). It was just too much, though, to write into the vacuum of not-knowing-if-anyone-would-read-it, while I was dealing with the alienation of 4 years of trying, and failing, to get pregnant.

Anyway, I belabor this point a bit because as a writer I’ve heard a lot of people say that what makes a writer a real writer is that they just write, no matter what–they just keep going. And that just hasn’t always worked for me. Maybe I’m not a real writer; maybe I’m just someone with something to say who managed to interest an editor at Putnam and hopefully will interest a few more readers. But either way, I’d like to reassure people that sometimes (or at least this time), it’s not only the people who manage to write faithfully every day who get a book deal. Sometimes (or at least this time), it’s the people (or person) who fails miserably at that but who still has moments where they (or she) pulls through and it ends up working. For me, they key was to never give up completely, but to recognize that sometimes, with writing, things move or succeed when you least expect them to, and go nowhere when you most feel like they should be moving.

OK, now for the copy of the Motherlode pitch, in case it’s interesting or helpful to anyone:

Subject line: Motherlode pitch – Closed to Adoption: A Moral Failure?

Dear Ms. Dell’Antonia:

I know from reading your Motherlode posts that adoption is an issue close to your heart and that you are interested in blended families. Ours is culturally blended—in more ways than one: liberal American Jewish writer (me), and traditional Japanese salary-man (my husband).

We’ve also been blended, to some degree, on the issue of adoption, and I’d love to write a post for Motherlode about this topic, “Closed to Adoption: A Moral Failure?”

I was originally open to adoption and my husband, in whose culture adoption is extremely rare, never has been.  Now, as we near the end of 4 years IVF and other fertility treatments (all done in Japan, where we live, and where I don’t speak the language…stories for another time) and my 44th year, we are preparing to move on and live childless.

I’ve accepted, without even too much of a fight, my husband’s feelings that adoption just isn’t for him.  But my willingness to accept this—to prioritize my marriage and being a wife over the possibility of being a mother, to admit that I also to a great degree feel a much stronger urge to have our biological child than to have a child at all—makes me call into question a whole range of issues.  Chief among them is: Am I less entitled to mourn not having a child if I am not willing to do anything it takes to become a parent?  Is it some sort of moral failure to long for a biological child but not an adopted one?

Been thinking about this issue for years, ever since my first IVF round ended in a lost heartbeat at 9 weeks. But I’ve been thinking about writing about this issue for a while, too, ever since I read the blog’s “A Roadmap for Life Without Children” by Shelagh Little, or more accurately, since I read the passionate responses Little’s article engendered, especially her statement, “After not being able to have children for so long, I am ambivalent about adoption and parenthood in general. I admire people who have adopted children, but it is not for me.”

At 444 comments, her piece—and this statement in particular—was one of the most hotly-debated posts on the blog.

Would you be interested in a post written by me that explores this issue more fully?

More about me, and links to clips of mine, are @ http://www.fourstories.org/about_tracy_slater.html

Many thanks for considering this, and warm regards,

Tracy Slater

Biology & Longing: The New York Times Piece that Started It All

In an earlier post, I explained that this piece, which appeared in the New York Times Motherlode blog, was the catalyst for my book deal:

Biology & Longing

I’ve always respected rationality, mistrusted pure instinct. But when I fell in love with my husband, it was visceral: a deep, other-worldly kind of burn. It was also illogical.

We had spoken just a few, broken words.  I knew none of his native Japanese. While he could read English well enough to earn his Executive MBA in Boston, he was far from fluent. My mother, whose own logical plan for me included a nice Jewish doctor, helpfully pointed out the irrationality of our relationship.  My life was centered on writing and literature—in English. I was left of liberal. How could I possibly marry a traditional Japanese salary-man who barely spoke my language—and who would surely return to Asia, post-MBA?

Almost eight years later, I’m still absurdly in love with him, we still share neither linguistic fluency nor political leanings, and I still cannot logically explain our bond.

A year into our marriage, after numerous tests certifying his reproductive perfection at 36 and my dismal potential at 41, other dissimilarities emerged. I had always been uncertain about kids, but my love for my husband transformed my doubts into a longing for our child—a different kind of other-worldly burn. I had also always believed genetics were irrelevant, that to become related by choice was one of the loveliest human acts. In fact, one of my own parents never bonded with one of my siblings, who found home with a foster family. I knew first-hand that DNA doesn’t equal love.

My husband also deeply wanted a baby—with our genes. When he told me this, it made sense: adoption is very rare in contemporary Japan, where bloodlines are usually held sacred. (When Japanese children are orphaned, they are almost always taken in by extended family. Even donor eggs are banned here.)

My reaction to my husband’s feelings surprised me, though: relief. Once he articulated them, I realized that I too had faith I could love a child if it came from inside him and me, but not necessarily through other means.  My beliefs about genetics, apparently, did not hold up when facing the terrifying leap into parenthood.

Now, after over three heartbreaking years of trying to conceive, two miscarriages, and countless injections to compensate for my poor procreative profile—all endured in Japan, where I barely speak the language—my feelings have not changed, despite frequent prodding by well-meaning loved ones that “perhaps we should just adopt.”

At times, I’m slightly horrified by myself. What kind of person, I wonder, goes to such lengths over DNA? In my harshest moments I think, doesn’t the obsession with genetics underlie some of our worst human catastrophes? If I love my husband—surely no biological relative—so deeply, couldn’t I love an adopted child just as much?

I’ve found comfort from women in my “Over 40 and Trying” online groups who face similar struggles, including much confusion from others over why they “don’t just adopt.” But occasionally, it feels like in these forums, too, there’s an unspoken hierarchy of who’s willing to go the furthest to be a mother. Who’s open to donor eggs, sperm, or embryos? Who will pursue adoption after one failed IUI?

One friend found something similar in the adoption community: are you willing to adopt an older child? Another ethnicity? A special-needs kid? What does it say about you if you’re not?

Another friend explains, it’s just “instinct.” Some people have the instinct simply to parent, with or without a partner; some to birth a baby; some to have a child genetically theirs and their beloved’s.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to meet our baby.  I have an inexplicable but strong, clear sense that our baby exists, that this is what it has asked us to go through in the effort to meet it, and that this makes it all worth it—even, strangely, if our baby never actually arrives. Perhaps my sense is just the remnants of a heartbeat lost at nine weeks, or of embryos that never grew past the brief first sparks of life. Perhaps it’s just my imagination.

Maybe, in nine months, when I reach the age at which my husband and I have vowed to stop trying, I’ll feel differently. Maybe I just can’t conceive of trying to adopt while trying so hard to conceive. But I don’t think that’s it. My longing, so fierce that sometimes I can barely move, is not necessarily to be a parent in the abstract, but to love and parent our biological child. Irrational? Perhaps. Shame-worthy? Sometimes I think so. But still deeply, instinctually true.

—-

PS. In case readers are interested, I just posted the pitch that preceded this essay here.

How’d You Land that Book Deal?

And the Essay Version Submitted Vs. the Version Accepted

People have been asking me lately how I actually landed my book deal, especially since the book is still only partly written, so here’s the basic story:

Mostly, I just got incredibly lucky!

Other than that, the story is that last year, I wrote a short piece for the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog, and an editor from Penguin’s Putnam imprint read it and contacted me, and invited me to submit a memoir proposal. After my heart resumed beating from the shock, I worked my tail off for a few months, took a MediaBistro’s online course in both the nonfiction book proposal with the incredible Jill Rothenberg and memoir writing with the incomparable Kelly McMasters (both so worth it!) and then submitted the proposal. Putnam then asked for more sample chapters, and I produced the first 4 chapters of the book. Then they offered me the deal!

Stay tuned for the announcement in Publisher’s Weekly, forthcoming later in January. In the meantime, here’s the New York Times online piece that started it all, in the version I submitted to the Motherlode editor, and in the version the New York Times published (but please forgive the title – it wasn’t the one I chose!).

About the Good Shufu

What happens when you meet the love of your life, but being together means you must give up almost any plan you’ve ever had? When you fall head over heels for someone from another world, and then must forfeit your entire way of life for his?

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West is a true story about finding love, meaning, hope, and self in the least likely places in the world: the places we always swore we’d never go. It’s about what we gain, and lose, when we forfeit our plans, goals, and even sometimes homes for that age-old cliche, love.

The book The Good Shufu is forthcoming from Penguin’s Putnam imprint.

In the meantime, here’s how the story begins:

On a typical morning eight years ago, I would wake in my studio apartment in the South End of Boston, with the sun streaming through my large bay windows, and take stock of the life I had planned so carefully over my 36 years. Lying content in my soft white sheets, I’d think gratefully of the PhD in English Literature I had earned at 29, the academic career I had painstakingly built, and the fierce independence I cherished.

On most mornings, I’d linger a while, no complicated marriage or crying child to claim my attention, and luxuriate in the stillness, watching the early light bathe the brownstones of my city. Then I’d climb out of bed, shower, dress, add a swipe of mascara and lipstick, kick on my heels, and dash to my neighborhood café for the chai-soy latté that would fuel my day teaching writing at a Boston-area university.

Before leaving my apartment, I might stop a moment at the bookshelf by my door, run a finger along the spine of my feminist dissertation on gender and sexual violence in early-20th Century literature, and feel thankful once again that I was a woman in contemporary urban America: safe, independent, and yes, over-educated. On my way out, I’d pass the mezuzah my mother had insisted I hang on the doorframe, its tiny Old Testament scroll shrouded in silver, ignored by both me and all my gay neighbors.

Once a week, my ritual differed somewhat. I’d wake at dawn, forgo the makeup and the moment communing with my dissertation, slip into plain scuffed flats, and drive the barren highway to Norfolk Corrections Center, a men’s medium-security prison. I’d have to reach the barbed-wire enclosed complex early, then pass through a series of electric gates before arriving at the classroom, where I’d spend three hours teaching college-level seminars in gender studies to male convicts considerably less feminist than I. Either way, though, whether I was headed to lockup or the Ivory Tower, I’d always begin my morning grounded in the knowledge that I was living, for the most part, the exact life I had planned, in the city I always had—and believed always would—call home. Each aspect of this existence felt like a kind of bulwark, a sturdy negation of the things I swore I’d never do: take blind leaps of faith, move permanently from Boston, become financially dependent on a man, build a traditional nuclear family like my parents, or, perhaps most importantly, cook dinner on a regular basis.

But all this changed the day I fell desperately in love with the least likely partner in the world: a traditional Japanese salary-man—who could barely speak English.

My husband and I met when his company sent him to earn an Executive MBA at the university where I taught. Within three days of meeting, I fell in love, T’s calm movements and thoughtful eyes somehow snaring my heart more completely than any man’s eloquence ever had. Within three weeks, T said, “Lub you” (which I made him repeat three times before realizing this was “love” with a Japanese accent), and we were contemplating a life together across two hemispheres. Within a year—when the sudden death of his mother sent him home permanently to Osaka—I found myself in an entirely new existence, deeply entwined with T, yet utterly lost in his world.

Japan proved both fascinating and profoundly alienating, a place where I could neither speak the language nor read the simplest cultural clues: where I was completely dependent on T to give me money, answer the phone, and order my food; where “yes” only meant yes depending on the tone of its utterance; where, when T’s aunt welcomed me to the family with a full-on kneeling bow, I crouched to the floor alongside her, thinking she had dropped a contact lens; and where, when a doctor first diagnosed my infertility, it was with the words, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tracy, but your own hormones are out of range.”

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West traverses this unexpected journey I took from proudly independent, Jewish-American, skeptical academic living a perfectly planned existence in Boston, to illiterate housewife (or shufu) in Osaka, trying desperately to build the very nuclear family I had always disdained—only now with a Petri dish and an army of doctors who barely spoke my language. In the U.S., my mother (whose own meticulously mapped plan involved me under the chuppah with a nice Jewish doctor) fretted over my marriage to someone from, she helpfully pointed out, a former Axis Power.

Meanwhile, in Japan, when I made my first foray into cooking for my future father-in-law, I learned two shocking lessons: 1) most Japanese houses lack ovens, so I had to try stuffing chicken Parmesan into a 3”-high fish grill, and 2) even with breaded Italian cutlets, my new family expected white rice. In my Japanese-language class, I was the only non-Asian and the only woman who did not introduce herself as a “shufu,” or housewife, although this is what I had essentially become, except now I was also completely unable to drive a car (since they drive on the other side of the road), dependent on my husband to handle all my finances (because I could neither communicate with the bank tellers nor read the Japanese ATM screen), and considered an eternal outsider in an utterly insular country.

But through it all, T’s calm, quiet love sustained me. “I feel proud you,” he’d say, beaming, every time I tried to take a new challenge, or embarrassment, in stride. “I love you first in world and always will,” he’d assure me, and somehow that felt more like home than anything ever had. Perhaps more surprising, it made me, at age 41, optimistic enough to want to start a family with him, even though I had no idea how to manage that in a bi-hemispheric marriage, or how I, once a confirmed critic of modern motherhood’s demands on women, could have come to want such a thing—and then undergo four years of rigorous hormone treatments in its pursuit.

Eventually, I find myself still half a planet away from home, and still childless after two miscarriages, hundreds of injections, and countless heartbreaks. But I’m also still deeply in love with my husband, grateful for our life, and more grounded, even hopeful, than I have ever been—not despite all the challenges, but somehow because of them.

Japan will never be easy, but it proves endlessly fascinating; Perhaps, I come to realize, a life worth living doesn’t always have to be easy, comfortable, or a happy reflection of one’s intended plan, as long as it’s filled with wonder and love.

Stay tuned for more posts about the book and its story of clashing cultures and identities within our increasingly global world, but also, ultimately, of unexpected joys found amidst these very collisions, and of traveling to far-flung places only to discover essential truths about self and home.