I’m frequently asked if I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and the answer is that I’ve always liked to write but no one ever told me I could grow up to be a writer. In the time and place I grew up (1950s rural Oregon, blue-collar family), smart girls — girls who wanted to go to college — were encouraged and expected to grow up to be teachers or nurses while they waited to marry and have children, after which time they were expected to be housewives and mothers. Which is what I did, to a point. I taught only long enough to realize and admit I was bad at it and hated it (I was 21, looked about 14, had a wee shy voice, these were 7th and 8th graders — you get the idea) and then I took a correspondence clerk’s job at a freight company where I worked only until I had a child. From there on out, I planned to devote myself to mothering. During all this time, I was writing, yes, but I never had finished anything, never had shown my writing to anyone, probably never had written anything very grounded in the real world. And no, I never had imagined that I would or could actually become a writer.
Still, and yet, my life as a writer began with motherhood.
Motherhood isn’t trivial; its activities may be trivial, but they put you in touch, deeply and immediately and daily, with the great issues of Life: heavy duty things like Love and Loss, Growth and Tolerance and Dignity, Control and Conflict and Power–which are the issues, incidentally, that make serious novels. I might have become a writer eventually without first having become a mother, but it’s hard for me to imagine it.
Of course, at the time, I thought I was writing to escape the trivialities and redundancies of mothering. I was finding a coherent space for Molly, now that I was always and only Mother and Wife. To give birth and bring up a child is to be about as awash in Life as you can be, and I was swimming hard, looking for a log to hang onto. I took to writing while my baby was sleeping, and later when he was in nursery school two mornings a week. I wrote a rather desperate journal, at first, and as I became a little less desperate I wrote short fictional anecdotes, bits and pieces of things, beginnings, middles or ends of imitative novels and stories. (Frequently these scenes involved a mother sitting up late at night with her colicky baby, counting the change in her purse and calculating how far out of town it would take her.)
In August, 1980, the year my son was six and registered for Fall kindergarten, I read about a competition for the best Western novel by an unpublished writer. I was certainly unpublished. And I’d been a Western reader since I was 12 — it was my dad’s favorite genre. I had begun with Ernest Haycox and Luke Short and worked my way up to H. L. Davis and Willa Cather and A. B. Guthrie, Jr. So I undertook to write a novel for this competition. The deadline was March 31st. For five months, I wrote about four hours a day — a couple of hours in the early morning while my son slept, another two in the afternoon while he was learning the alphabet at kindergarten. In the last month, March, I rented an electric typewriter and began to spend 6 and then 8 and finally 10 and 12 hours every day madly typing the thing up, rewriting as I went, while my son learned to be his own playmate and my husband learned to make his own lunch and answer his own questions. And I mailed the novel on the afternoon of March 31st.
It was a perfectly awful book. But everything (almost everything) I know about writing, I learned from writing that novel. The best way to become a writer, I discovered, is to practice writing a lot. And after that winter of steady writing I always considered myself a writer. When strangers asked me what I did, I sometimes had the nerve to answer that I was a Writer, even though their inevitable next question was “Are you published?” and when I had to answer “No” I could see them placing me in a certain category — perhaps a drowning mother who scribbles anecdotes about her children and sends them off to the Reader’s Digest like desperate notes in bottles.
But I knew by then, just by the act of daily writing, and the accomplishment of finishing a whole, a true novel (and even though it wasn’t very good, there were good things in it: fine paragraphs, beautiful pages, lovely scenes) that I had, in fact, grown up to be a writer. For a while, it was difficult to take any pride in that — no money was being paid to me. We all know, in our culture, how little respect is attached to work that is unpaid. And by then — 1980, 1981 — people were expecting women to be something more than wife and mother. By then, with my son enrolled in first grade, I should have been thinking about heading back into the work force. But my husband was unbegrudging, willing to go on being the sole bread-earner, willing to put up with fifteen year old cars and a skin-tight budget, while I went on writing — which for a mother and a writer and a wife is the most fundamental and valuable kind of affirmation. So I kept at it, and in another year or so I sold a story for $35, and half a year later another one for $100, and after that I sold regularly, as they say in the business world, “in the low three figures.” And by the time The Jump-Off Creek brought in heady sums — “low five figures” — not only my husband but all my friends and relatives had begun to believe that I was a writer, and to describe me so to others. They even began to avoid calling me during my “work hours,” for which I was deeply grateful — though they persist, to this day, in asking me “Are you still writing?” as if it might be a mere phase I’ll one day be finished with, or a temporary job I’ve taken until I can decide what I want to be, now that I’m all grown up.