JIll Christman is the author of the essay Leading the Children out of Town, which appeared in our October 2015 issue. We connected with her about the writing process. Here are her answers.
What inspired you to write this essay?
The interaction with the running-loose baby, his silent father, and my own non-judgmental mother that day in the street wouldn’t let me go. Images from that afternoon persisted in spinning through my mind, so I took a hint, and wrote down everything I could remember, but I still couldn’t figure out why that moment nagged me or what felt so complicated. That’s where most of my essays begin: with something I can’t figure out.
What was the greatest challenge in writing it?
This essay took years to finish—in and out of the proverbial drawer—primarily because I couldn’t put my pencil on what the essay was about. Now that I know the baby-alone-in-the-street scene was fluting me toward the dark cave of my own childhood abuse, I realize why this essay was such a challenge: it was leading me to a place I didn’t want to go—not so much the abuse itself, but my mother’s failure to protect me. As I say in the essay, I have long forgiven my mother, but being a mother has forced me to reconsider many of the questions I thought I’d put to bed.
How do your children inform your writing?
I teach and write literary nonfiction of all kinds, and while having children has indeed affected the way I write, I would argue that rather than being an obstacle to writing, my children—and by extension, all children—are the reason I write. Here is a question I ask of my students and their writing, over and over, day after day: What’s at stake in this essay? Why does it matter? For me, the urgency behind nearly everything I write can be traced back to the kids, the world we will leave them, and the preparation we are giving them to make their own journeys. My mother once sewed a wall hanging with this beautiful line by an unknown author embroidered into the cloth: Children are the message we send to a future we will never see. When I parent, and when I write, I look hard toward that future message.
In a recent presentation, I was speaking to MFA students about our necessity as writers to stay engaged with the world around us, the absolute imperative to really look. I showed a slide of my then five-year-old son, Henry, in that easy squat position of small children, poking his finger along the waterline at the beach. Think about the last time you saw a child arrive on a beach. Or in the woods. Or the edge of his own backyard. What did he do? Children drop to their knees, I told my students. That’s what I want you to do when you write. I want you to go out into the world and drop to your knees.
How do you balance writing and motherhood/fatherhood?
On a pragmatic level, having children has changed my writing habits. I don’t waste time, because there is no time to waste. I no longer require the smooth expanse of clean desk, the perfect cup of tea, and a matching set of impeccably sharpened pencils. I schedule time to write and I stick with that schedule. If I can grab an extra moment, I take that, too—even in the days when I had to balance my notebook on the head of a nursing baby, or now, when I steal a few minutes during tennis or tap class. (And, yes, sometimes I take on nursing or dance as my subjects, as well as my opportunity. This is my motto: love the one you’re with. And I do.)
As a mother and a teacher, I already have two full-time jobs before I sit down to write, but writing is the only way I know how to live in this world—with my children and for my children. My job as a writer is to pay attention to our complicated world—as my children do—and to interpret that world on the page, to make some sense of it all by locating patterns and connections through my work with scene, character, metaphor, image, and language.
Do you share any of your writing with your children (if they are old enough of course)
I’ve thought a lot about the question of writing my children, and in fact, published a whole essay on the subject’—”Chewing Band-Aids: One Memoirists Take on Telling the Truth”—in Joy Castro’s fantastic edited collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (University of Nebraska Press, 2013). The answer to your specific question is absolutely yes—I let both my children (eleven and seven) read my work (in fact, they often help)—but I don’t let them read everything. Yet. The bigger question you’re asking here might be answered by a quotation from “Chewing Band-Aids”:
This might be the most important thing I know to be true: secrets help no one. Maybe it’s because I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and I know the danger of a well-kept secret. I saw how the secrets of my childhood mutated, dividing and growing into malignant cells of shame and isolation, multiplying until I had the choice to cut them out or be consumed.
Writing Darkroom [my first memoir] was healing for me, and to a lesser degree for my entire family. I’m finished with secrets, and I know my determination to live in the light of full exposure has led me not only to the writing of nonfiction, but to my children themselves.