I recently read On Beauty by Zadie Smith. It was layered and brilliant at every turn. I had read her most recent book Swing Time earlier in the summer and fell in love with her masterful storytelling. After a particularly poignant chapter, I found myself flipping to the back of the book to read a bit about the author.
Born in October of 1975. Published in September of 2005. I immediately started doing calculations and realized she was 29 when she wrote On Beauty. The same age as I am. It wasn't even her first acclaimed novel. She had published White Teeth at age 24.
I started to cry. I thought I could wipe away the tears and move on, but I soon found myself sobbing. Zadie Smith had lived my dream three times over by my age. She has three novels. I have three children.
I have three children. I kept repeating this fact to myself, urging the tears to stop. I chose a beautiful family instead of a reclusive life as a novelist. I chose to be a mother, and I would stand by that choice day after day.
Still, my love for my family doesn’t change the fact that I am sometimes painfully envious of other (usually childless) writers who are doing the very thing I swore I would have done by now — publishing a novel. Even after giving birth to my first child, my second, my third, that dream was always there. Surely, I thought, I could still manage a novel by 30.
I am staring down 30, and I can tell you right now, my hopes of completing that goal are waning.
I try to tell myself that it’s only a matter of adjusting my expectations and giving myself more time. My kids are young. My life is busy. My time is eaten up by freelance writing. I write daily, often thousands of words. It’s my full-time job. I try to remind myself that I am still a writer, just not the one I had imagined as I made lists of MFA programs before taking a fateful pregnancy test.
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Sometimes that makes me feel better; sometimes it makes me feel worse. I’ll tally up the freelance work I’ve done in a month, mentally calculate the word count, and realize I’ve probably put down a novel’s worth of words every couple months for the last year. It staggers the mind that I could write so much and still have three unfinished short stories sitting, neglected, in a folder. I keep telling myself I can and should make the time for writing fiction, but in reality, it’s hard to make that a priority.
It’s a lot easier to justify writing work that will put food on the table than writing work that feeds my soul.
So I keep pushing my novel deadline back indefinitely, feeling fine about it some days and gutted by jealousy and self-loathing on others. It is hard to come to grips with how long I may have to shelve my dreams while I battle through the early years of motherhood and struggle to carve out creative time for myself. It is hard to realize that I am not the dedicated fiction writer I always hoped to be.
I know in my mind that there is still time for me, that my self-imposed deadline of 30 is meaningless. Yet, I wonder if the years will eventually dull my dream until it no longer really matters to me anymore. What if I find myself with every available opportunity to finish a book five, 10, 15 years down the line, only to discover I no longer have it in me?
I guess that’s a possibility I’ll simply have to live with. It’s not an impossible goal, though the past seven years of motherhood have certainly made it feel that way at times. There will come a day when all three of my children will be in school, and I will have extra time. I will be able to corral my freelance work into a manageable corner of my life. I will be able to write a novel if I really, truly want to. I just have to keep faith that my time will come, and I will know it when it’s here. I will do the hard and rewarding work that I have left simmering on the backburner for years. Or I won’t, and I’ll have to make peace with that decision.
As for right now? I need to stop comparing my life to a life I didn’t choose and let my story unfold in its own time.