by Amy Cipolla Barnes
“Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night, must you write?” – Rainer Maria Rilke
When I was a kid, I didn’t know who Rilke was. I didn’t like sleeping and used my silent hours for reading and scratching down story ideas on paper scraps. It may have been the only time of my life when those hours were all mine. Silent. Creative.
When I was in my 20s, I luxuriated in Rilke. I revered his words. After all, he wrote to a “young poet.” That was me. I created words surrounded by library stacks, silence, and in my room with the door shut. I designated hours for writing, in between exams and late-night studying. The silence was broken only by my typing. Short stories and long ones poured out. It felt important to write at night – surreptitious, Rilke-like, writer-like.
When I was in my 30s I cursed Rilke, that somehow he was able to lecture me on not writing enough from beyond the grave. He only had one daughter. He lived in the time of kids being seen and not heard. What did he know about writing in the few silent parenting moments? When little kids are silent, that means there’s trouble. It means a bag of flour dumped in the kitchen or closet haircuts. It doesn’t mean sit down and write. The quote chased me as I had two kids, nursed them, read to them, sang to them, cleaned up their vomit, stayed up all night with them, helped them write their names and vocabulary words. The few silent hours of my night were designated for sleeping. That became my luxury: stealing sleep with a sleeping baby on my shoulder. There was little time for writing. But I still did. I wrote in my head – the daily things in the not-silent, super-loud moments. I recently found some of my early published columns with titles like these: On the Move; I am retro, see me pay; Orientation; The Not-So-Trivial Pursuit of Christmas or Santa Finally Gets a Break; The Kiss; and The Invisible Darth Vader. I remember those days when my assigned column was dashed out days past the deadline.
In my 40s, silent night hours for writing eluded me. I stayed up late with teenagers studying into the wee hours. I listened to tales of drama and stress. I helped with AP English. I managed to write. About 42-week pregnancies. About feeding kids. Finding activities for kids. I also discovered silent big kids can also mean trouble. I started writing short stories again. Many were about parents and kids. Flash fiction became my friend because I still only had brief moments for writing.
In my 50s (just barely) I’m back to being in love with Rilke. I think he might have liked the 5:00 AM writers club, even though it still feels impossible for me. I have more silent moments and often hours to write. And yet, I find myself longing for those busier, more tied-to-kids days. I know in 2 years, I’ll have all the silent hours and days I want when my youngest goes to college.
Beyond Rilke, I think about parent slash writers through history. How did they use their silent time? Mary Shelley struggled through postpartum depression and created a fictional monster. I imagine Frankenstein being the monster under her toddler’s bed. Her silent night hours may have felt tortured as she scrawled down story notes.
One of my favorite writers is Kate Chopin. When you read her 1908 short story, “A Pair of Silk Stockings”, it feels like it’s about a woman shopping but it’s so much more. Chopin writes about a mom who finds $15 in a coat pocket and agonizes about whether she should buy her kids new coats and gloves or have a day of self-care. I imagine Chopin would be my friend. A found $20 bill in my pocket, at Target – do I buy a pack of kid’s underwear and a jar of peanut butter or a candle and Starbucks only for myself?
In Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost, there is mother/daughter conflict at its finest or worst. A daughter is trying to save the world but her widowed mother, on a shoestring budget, won’t buy her a new dress she wants desperately. It sounds like any modern teenager who wants to go to the mall and get the latest style of shoe/dress/jeans/perfume/jewelry. Porter couldn’t write that angst without a teenager slamming a turn-of-the-century door in her face.
Mark Twain as a parent? Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn. Becky Thatcher. Memorable and irascible characters. I knew Twain was a kindred parent when I read his anecdote on putting tweens in a barrel with a hole to feed them until they turn 13 and then plugging up the hole until they turn 18 and are bearable again. There is also sadness to his parenting. His only son died at 19 months. One daughter was a writer that died at twenty-four. Another daughter also wrote and was the only one to survive her parents. The fourth died young too. Putting that parenthood lens to his writing makes me wonder if he created his books’ characters because his own children didn’t survive to adulthood.
Rick Riordan is a more modern example of being a parent first and writer second. I took my tween to one of his book signings and heard Riordan speak of writing his book series with a main character that has dyslexia and ADHD. His son has dyslexia and ADHD and he wanted him to see similar book characters and want to read more.
Danielle Steele wrote seven books a year, nearly 200 romance novels – as the mother of nine kids. There’s no way she wrote surrounded by silence. I’ve seen interviews where she says she doesn’t need much sleep. That tracks with at least half of Rilke’s plan of writing at night.
The truth is my writing is affected by having kids and being a kid. I wrote my first chapbook (even after purposefully trying to avoid the theme) about mother/daughter relationships. My mother wasn’t a writer but I do wonder what she did with her precious silent night hours.
As I move into 2022 as a parent, I don’t have a baby. I have an adult and a teenager. College application and essay-writing season is approaching. There is drama. There are tears. And different kinds of silent hours and minutes.
I propose an update to the Rilke quote for parents.
Ask yourself, must you write?
It takes some of the pressure off. There are times when spare silent moments have other purposes. There are times when we write when everything is loud, for five minutes on a Tuesday, in our heads, on CVS receipts and not at all in the collicky months. Reading further, the ending of the Rilke quote tugs at my parental and writer heartstrings.
“Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.”
My goal is to say and write what I see and feel and love and lose. It just so happens it’s all encompassed in the loud and silent moments of life, and in being a parent. It’s a reckoning that’s taken me two decades to be comfortable with. The truth is that I (and all the other writer slash parents) have been writing the entire loud silent sleepless waking hungry crying laughing time. All the days. None of the days. Silent days. Loud days. For five minutes. Not for five years. Somehow, I think Rilke would approve of it all: the writing and not-writing and the parenting.
Read more of Amy’s work here at Reckon:
Fiction – “Casual Savior”