Taking this down because I am totally going to use this scene in a book I intend to write … ONE DAY… maybe in a few years, but I’m gonna write it, and I need this. Tra la.
When my first son J was a few months old, he would only nap for any length of time if he was on my body.
Becoming a mother was disorienting and lonely. I didn’t know any other mothers and I didn’t know then that I needed to – that a community of parents was the thing that would save my sanity. I thought I needed to write. I would put J in the wrap tied firmly to my torso, dance around my living room until he fell asleep, and then I would stand at the bookshelf I’d cleared for my computer and type madly, swaying, until he woke up and I had to figure out what to do with him again. As you can imagine, the book I wrote this way was terrible. It is the worst thing I’ve ever written. However, it did feature a main character that I still feel tremendously fond of, and I hope I will find a worthier story to put her in eventually. The plot was so stupid I don’t even want to describe it but it involved a group of teenagers who can dream things into reality (pretty sure that has already been done, too).
It is strange and sad to think of now, the way motherhood panicked me in the beginning. I was so anxious all the time – was he really OK? Was he happy? Did he like being my baby or was it terrible, having only unsteady, uncertain me as his safe harbor in the world? I felt changed in ways I hadn’t expected and didn’t understand. I wondered if maybe I had post-partum depression, but now that I have a better idea of what that is I think I was just freaked out. I had no idea how to spend the time with him and the days felt endless. Whenever I put him down he cried, so he lived in that wrap and we just walked around a lot.
It was a bleak six months until he learned to sit up and crawl and I made some new friends and everything was different and better for both of us. I wrote the book like writing it could keep me connected to whoever I was before he was born, but it didn’t work, and I still feel very little connection to whoever I was before he was born. Now that I know him better, I think he probably hated being a baby. He was probably bored out of his mind. I wish I’d understood him better, and I wish I’d understood myself better. I wouldn’t have written that stupid book.
The book’s badness is not particularly interesting or instructive. I never came up with a title for it. It wasn’t badly written but the story is unoriginal and unexciting. It doesn’t offer much, besides a few nice moments and the fun main character. Next week, I’ll post a snippet from it that I actually like.
Here is a snippet from The Peregrina, the unfinished novel I ended up salvaging for parts. It borrows a few elements from my grandmother’s biography – the early fascination with Roma music and the enraged smashing of a toy fiddle when she was just five years old. None of this made it into the “new” book (my WIP), but the characters of Dek and Bianka did, in much revised forms (Dek is no longer a musician).
Dek’s most powerful memory of music was caught up with the memory of his mother and wolves. When he was five years old, he heard the gypsies playing in the hills one night. He left the Circus grounds and followed the sound to their campsite, where he spent the night sitting around the fire with them. They welcomed him, laughing, into their circle of music and dance. It was almost daybreak when Bianka appeared, haggard and furious, with an odd, unfamiliar smell lingering about her. She said not a word to the gypsies, who stepped away, looking down as she approached. She caught Dek by the hand and dragged him down the hill back to their own camp. The only thing she said to him was: “Didn’t you hear the wolves howling all night, you little fool?” When he was older, he thought he must have imagined the wolves that had watched them pass down the hill, dogging their steps yet never attacking the mother and child.
She spanked him soundly with her hairbrush when they got home, while Fru screamed and wept outside. But he did not regret his transgression. He was obsessed, now, with the music he had heard. He wanted a fiddle of his own. He begged and begged, while his mother put him off. Months later, Orlando the Great presented him with a funny little toy fiddle. Furious, he smashed it to bits against a rock. He did not want a toy. He wanted to make music as wild as the hills by night, music a person could not but dance to, music like watchful wolves, full of secrets.
It was his father who gave him the violin, after his illness. They saw him very rarely, but when he came, he came always laden with gifts from the city: wood-carved toys, or hair ribbons for Fru, jewelry and perfume and a packet of money for their mother. He took up too much space, with his shining shoes and his city clothes, his big voice. He towered in their trailer, hands deep in his pockets, an expensive watch chain dangling from his breast pocket, his handkerchief tucked just so. He rocked back and forth on his heels, smelling of cigars, and said things like: “Well, you all look fine, just fine! Country air, eh?”
On that first visit after his illness, when Dek met his father but could not see him, he was different. He was quieter. Dek, newly trapped in a world of total darkness, noticed for the first time how much his father seemed to shift about and fidget. But he brought him the violin, a real violin. Dek did not know much about violins, but he knew this one was finely made and must have cost a lot of money. He nearly wept when he first held it in his hands. It fit into his hands, it fit against his body, like a part of him that had been missing all this time. He taught himself to play with a little help from some of the musicians in the circus, as he could not read music of course. But he understood it instinctively. He held the violin and the bow in his hands and music flooded forth.
The Peregrina started with a conversation with my younger brother, a reimagining of history that involved an Anglo-Hungarian Empire. A strange new world started coming together in my mind, a vibe. It was going to be a middle-grade fantasy adventure like the Tian Di books but I had something quirkier, a little edgier and a little sillier, in mind.
I was pregnant with my first child at the time and I figured I had to write this book before Life As I Knew It was over. The protagonists were a pair of twelve-year-old twins, Fruzsina and Benedek, whose mother was a witch and whose baby brother contained in his DNA a fragment of magical text sought after by all the great powers of the world. The Peregrina was the name of a pirate ship they ended up on. (I was throwing everything into this book: witches, pirates, ROBOTS, seriously – all my childhood obsessions, basically). The gist was that these two kids would have to rescue their mother and their brother from the terrible beings that sought to make use of them. Rescue is always fun.
I wrote and wrote with great enthusiasm, avoiding articles about pregnancy and all the things I should and shouldn’t be doing / eating / drinking / standing next to / touching / inhaling / etcetera. Some friends gave us a crib. A homeless cat started sneaking into the house and sleeping in the crib, and we bought a carseat, and some days I would just sit and stare at that carseat, unable to believe that a miniature person would sit in it and I would have to take care of it somehow and wondering what we were going to do about the cat. I wrote and wrote, and the story started to flounder.
I got bigger and bigger, and the baby was breech. That Guy came home to find me in bizarre yoga positions, shining flashlights and playing music at my lower belly to try and encourage the baby to flip. I could feel his great big head wedged up by my ribs. I terrified the lifeguards at the pool doing deep dives while gigantically pregnant. (This was supposed to help the baby turn around, which he didn’t). I went in for an appointment a month before my due date and two burly OB-GYNs grunted and strained and tried with all their might to force the baby to turn around while I breathed into a paper bag and thought, if I can’t handle this, there is no freaking way I can get through labor. The baby didn’t turn. I looked at the 245 pages I’d written and thought, this story is going nowhere, I don’t know how to take it to the end, it isn’t working. I lay awake at night feeling the baby squirm but not turn, cold with dread at the prospect of a c-section, imagining lying there immobilized while a doctor cut into me.
I stopped writing. I scheduled a c-section but went into labor a few days before my due date, while sitting on the sofa eating raspberries. We raced into hospital, somebody gave me a shot in the back, I lay down, chatted with That Guy, and then the doctor said, “here is your baby” – and there he was.
When J was a year old, I got pregnant again. J was a fun, happy toddler and took a reliable nap every afternoon. By then, I had given up most of my freelance work except for waitressing. Naptime as writing time actually seemed plausible. I went back and looked at the unfinished wreckage of The Peregrina. I salvaged it for parts. The book I wrote (still undergoing revision, but without a doubt the thing I am proudest of so far) is an older YA but took a lot of its world-building from The Peregrina, and a number of the characters too. Everything that worked in that earlier, failed book found a home in a new story. So while it’s a failed book, it wasn’t a useless book.
What I learned: Beware of Too Many Characters and a Too-Complicated story. This is something I still struggle with. My word-counts tend to be a little out of control and I have to do a lot of cutting when I revise. I get excited about minor characters and they start to take over where they have no business. Some writers talk about that with great excitement, the moment when the character starts telling you what to do. But my characters are not good story-makers, they are just narcissists, and I need to keep them in line, remind us all that I am the boss.
Next week, a wee excerpt from The Peregrina. Stay tuned, or don’t. Kisses.