Friday, December 28, 2018

Chaya Bhuvaneswar on Writing Under Difficult Conditions

In the 34th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books), discusses continuing to write while in labor and in the aftermath.

Writing on the day I went into labor for the first time wasn’t hard. There were strange sensations, sure, but nothing to get panicked about. Eventually, after nearly an hour of moaning while writing (and not even because what I was writing was erotic, per se), my partner convinced me to call the Ob-gyn, who in turn laughingly convinced me that I might want to “come in.” The labor itself, thanks to providence, wasn’t hard either. By then I was already far along, also quite adrift in my own head, satisfied with a denouement of a novel in progress that felt so natural, I was confident of never losing iteven if it would be hours before I could write again!I thought, all naivete. (It would be weeks). My active labor lasted fewer than ten minutes, and joy was mine, long, wet and slightly quiet on my breast, those eyes regarding me, so deep, my partner turning back from the window, where he had retreated, scared, to look at this darling. I never wanted to stop holding this baby. I wondered how I could be so selfish as to ever want to write again.

Prompted by reminder emails, calls, voice messages, weeks later I tried to return to the page. By then the task of “turning in” (a manuscript under contract, to a publisher) felt utterly beyond my reach.
“Baby’s sleeping” became words that might allow me to write. So was the imperative to “lose the baby weight.” These two activities competed, vicious, for my waking life. In the lobby of our building, though in theory only: happiness. A glossy gym. A lockable conference room, with pad for laptop and laptop charger, where I could sit for “hours” undisturbed, if I could bear the guilt of the nanny being without me, with the baby.

I tried and cried, tried and struggled, also on the phone negotiating a move to another Northeastern city. Between the three activitiesmoving, working (full time, as a doctor), and the unpredictable, often terrifying process of learning how to be a mother (with my spouse traveling much of the week, to that other Northeastern city, where he worked full time)I don’t know how I wrote.

But I have words, pages, lingering from that time. Ideas. Structures and reworkings of myths. Short stories I wrote in bursts, then revised over several coming years, including into my next pregnancy, which was only slightly easier (and followed, again, by a second attempt to “finish that book” by a deadline that fell six months postpartum, while I was going through still another city move, and still working full-time, this time in public health rather than clinical medicine). I couldn’t really finish any project, during that time. But I still wrote every day and thought about writing most of the minutes and hours that I spent watching other small people claiming my body, drawing from it, needing me.
What I learned most, about writingit can make postpartum insomnia (a disruption of sleep borne of waking up so many times to nurse, then sleeping lightly so as to hear the baby monitor) thrilling. It’s a fun thing to do if you happen to be waking up at 4 a.m., after a night of very little sleep, to pump milk anyway.

I wrote while crying and alone, in dreadful little lactation rooms that were really janitor’s closets. I wrote when we struggled through bad latching experiences and even worse-tasting formula. I wrote when conflict with extended family stressed out our little family even more; when we had moved and exhausted postpartum, my partner did all of the work and shouted at me, to where I sat with the baby in the bassinet, rocking it while writing in a notebook on my lap. I wrote. I knew I didn’t have a choice, per se, and gloried in that fact, and glory still. I wrote.

“Words alone are certain good”especially when you’re singing, as I did, to small children. Yes, I never again had, nor will have, the same kind of guilt-free, peaceful writing “studio”like the converted closet where I sat, so content, writing through the earliest stages of labor, when I was pregnant with my first. I know I have to write, and that is all. I know that even when my postpartum body had so many other tasks (as my current self does, years later) I could not stop writing.