by Julia Buckley
These two things don’t always go together—at least not as smoothly as I’d wish. For one thing, boys will ask for all the attention you have, and then lots of attention beyond that. They want to wrestle dangerously near the coffee table, pick up the cat under his stomach right after he drinks milk, and see what happens when you blow in the dog’s face. (The answer to the last one is—he goes insane and bites your baby lip, whereupon you cry and leave gouts of blood all over the house like you’re auditioning for Macbeth). They want to tattle on each other and jump on the neighbor’s trampoline (blast the neighbor) and argue over one Lego even while they sit in a veritable sea of them, wave upon wave of unwanted Legos that are good only for adults to step on in the dark.
Naturally this does not allow one to sit at the computer for a long, leisurely time, at least not without yelling “Cut it OUT!” at regular intervals, and this rather breaks the concentration. So one must write when one can. And when one is me, that means I write in fits and starts. Not only am I sometimes called away by my boys; there is my mother guilt to contend with. It’s always been there, of course, ever since that first day when I allowed the doctor to circumcise my baby at the hospital and then felt miserable for weeks afterward at what I’d let those evil doctors do. By the time my first infant rolled off the bed while I was hunting for a pair of socks, my guilt was firmly and permanently in place. I called the hospital, weeping harder than the baby, and the doctor asked me in a bored tone if the baby was, perchance, vomiting. No, said I, and he said, “Babies have hard heads.”
Due to guilt, one cannot write all day long, especially not when cute children ask, “Can you read this to me?” You can’t ignore that, not unless you want Harry Chapin singing in the back of your mind all day about cats and cradles and silver spoons. Sometimes you can’t write at all. I’ve had a lovely leisurely summer, but soon I’ll go back to work and night school, which I call Panic Attack Season.
Ironically, though, when one is inundated with non-writer responsibilities, one can develop writer guilt. Similar to mother guilt, it niggles at the back of one’s mind (also, ironically, to the tune of a Harry Chapin song) and asks why there is no new project in the offing and why the old project hasn’t been polished smooth.
So when I lie next to the boys at night and sing them a few lullabies—yes, I do it, but not in as Julie Andrews a way as I’d like—I find that my writer guilt is there, saying ‘Get downstairs and type something.’ But there’s always a boy with insomnia, always, and he’s not that thrilled with the idea of my departure. So I become half sweet lullaby mother, half grumpy military mother who wants to leave. It sounds like this:
ME: (soft and lilting) Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling—
BOY: How can pipes call?
ME: (not lilting) No talking. From glen to glen, and down the mountainside . . . PUT YOUR ARMS DOWN! The summer’s gone . . . and all the roses falling . . . ‘tis you, ‘tis you—GET YOUR FEET OFF THE WALL!
BOY: Who farted?
ME: (Not even distantly related to lilting) That’s IT. I’m getting your father.
And the challenge continues. Not surprisingly, there are children in every book I’ve written so far. I’ve been told I write children very realistically. I guess it’s from being in the mother trenches. Does this help at all with writing mysteries? Well, writers who are parents deal with a daily mystery—how are they ever going to get anything done!
(Disclosure: I actually wrote this essay two years ago this summer. My oldest boy is now officially a teen, and he doesn't require singing at night anymore, which is most bittersweet. They allow me a lot more time on the computer, although they distract me in other ways. The new way to take Mom's attention is to fight like ancient warriors on the living room floor until maternal intervention is required. Brothers love each other, except when they hate each other.
I still write books with children in them, though. Some things will never change.)
Photo: My oldest son as a chocolatey Sherlock Holmes, in a distant past.