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Maya Sonenberg on Recovering the Muse

Maya Sonenberg, author of Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters, the most recent winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, discusses losing her inspiration and finding it again.

After my son was born, and then my daughter, I stopped writing for ten years. 

Oh, since I’m a professor and was then director of the creative writing program in which I still teach, I wrote comments on my students’ stories, annual reports, countless memos and emails to my colleagues, my department chair, and my dean. And of course, I also wrote birthday cards, letters to loved ones, to-do lists, and shopping lists. I even made books for my kids that included some brief text alongside photos of their favorite toys, but I made no progress on the book I had been researching and drafting for years, a complex mosaic-like text including fiction, memoir, history of the anti-war movement, and movie reviews centered on the tumultuous year 1968. All that survives of that project is a personal essay about attending the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, and the story “Return of the Media Five” included in Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters. While I still dream of writing about how the movies The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy frame 1968 and illuminate the changes that took place in the US during that turbulent year, the project stopped speaking to me—or I could no longer speak through it—once I became a mother.

During that ten-year writing hiatus, my father suffered a debilitating stroke, and we bought and remodeled a house, but somehow I could not write about my children, my father, or the house. It felt invasive to do so—and honestly, I just didn’t know what I felt about any of those things, or perhaps I was afraid to dive too deeply into what I felt. The emotions all seemed frightening and contradictory. How could I feel enamored with and bored by my own children simultaneously? How could I long to be with my father, to care for him, but itch to get away as soon as I stepped into his apartment? Unbeknownst to me, I had absorbed the idea that only positive emotions associated with caregiving were valid, but I also knew that to write only about those would be a lie. At the playground, mothers sometimes shared the more frustrating aspects of parenthood, but those conversations quickly ended in a dismissive chuckle. And other women shared the difficulties associated with caring for aging, ill relatives, but always posed these difficulties as challenges to overcome—a feared diagnosis or the cost of hiring live-in help—not deficiencies located in themselves. If I was going to write about these things, I wanted to include all of it, even the things I felt guilty about or embarrassed by; I just didn’t know how.

First, I tried to write memoir but found the looseness of that form did not allow me to focus—I could not stop from crying and gushing on the page—and my own allegiance to truth led to dull musings rather than engaging drama. Next, I tried to write traditional short stories. This allowed me to invent events and dramatize my conflicted and terrifying feelings—by bringing my father into a museum which he had never visited, for example, or creating a scene in which I abandoned my father in that museum, something I like to think I would never have done in real life, but the material kept pushing back against all my attempts to wrangle it into place. Apparently, a neat plot that culminated in a climax during which one emotion “won out” over the others was also inadequate for telling these stories.

Only once I turned to the flatness of the fairy tale, to forms borrowed from other sorts of writing (sonnet, sestina, or haiku; newspaper stories, birth announcements, and report cards; academic articles), or odd constraints I set for myself (In “Painting Time,” every sentence contains a reference to time, however oblique) could I write productively about the everyday pleasures, wistfulness, and disappointments of caregiving, and about the very human emotions of boredom, fatigue, annoyance, frustration, resentment, guilt, and duty—not as feelings to hide or power through but as normal experiences to be acknowledged. I hope that in reading these stories, other women (and men) will be able to travel through the playfulness of a fairy tale and wind up seeing themselves whole.

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