by Melissa Hart
Ten years ago, when I began writing short humorous essays in earnest, I received a phone call from an editor at Womanâ€™s Day. Iâ€™d sent her an 800-word piece about how my great-aunts purchased the front of a crazy-quilt at a thrift store, sewed a velvet backing on it and proceeded to exhibit it at county fairs, winning blue ribbons and cash prizes for a handicraft theyâ€™d contributed to only marginally. The New York editor struck me as elegantly brusque. â€œWeâ€™d like to publish your essay,â€ she said. â€œWill two thousand be acceptable?â€
â€œWords?â€ I asked, already considering how to lengthen the piece.
She sighed with the world-weary patience of Manhattan confronting a country-mouse. â€œDollars,â€ she said.
Thus I realized that an essay–penned in an hour over a mocha at my favorite coffeehouse and then revised in another hour a week later–could earn me a monthâ€™s income. Since then, Iâ€™ve sold short humorous essays to The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, High Country News, and numerous other publications in a process that requires a quick burst of focused energy, a dedication to equally swift and relentless revision, and an understanding of the numerous magazines and newspapers that publish this genre.
But a few years ago, when my husband and I decided to adopt a toddler, I believed my writing career was over. I didnâ€™t know how I could possibly concentrate while learning to care for a child. Finances mandated my continued work as a journalism teacher at the University of Oregon and a memoir teacher for U.C. Berkeleyâ€™s online extension program. Deeply in love with my husband, I wanted to remain devoted to hiking and traveling with him and our new daughter.
â€œThereâ€™s just no time to write!â€
I wailed this to our long-suffering counselor at Eugeneâ€™s Artistsâ€™ Counseling Service. Peggy merely laughed and took out her giant pad of paper and a purple pen. â€œWeâ€™re going to break down each day into chunks,â€ she told my husband and me, pre-adoption. â€œYouâ€™ll see that Melissa gets several blocks of time each week to write, and Jonathan gets the same amount to devote to his photography.â€
In theory, she was right. We looked at her seven-column grid and saw how we might structure each day so that we could spend time with our daughter, time with each other, write and/or photograph for a reasonable number of hours, and retain our day jobs. In actuality, once our daughter came home, I cringed at the thought of leaving her, even for two hours, to engage in something as indulgent as writing essays.
â€œLove, itâ€™s your work.â€ My husband handed me my notebook. â€œGo get a mocha. All you have to do is produce a rough draft.â€
I knew he was right. Reluctantly, I walked down to my favorite coffeehouse and sat there for an hour, staring dismally at the blank pages. I returned home an hour early. â€œPerformance anxiety,â€ I explained.
After several false starts, I did begin to find my rhythm as a writer and mother, thanks to my practice in writing short essays. Now, I can whip out a rough draft between university classes. If I wake early, I sit up in bed and reach for my notebook and pen. If my daughterâ€™s at preschool and I find myself inspired by a current event or trend or family memory, I sit down at the computer even if I have a stack of papers to grade, bills to pay, and the kitchen floor to mop.
Iâ€™m learning to view the chapters of my memoir-in-progress in the same manner as I approach short essays; I just have to remember that the chapters, longer and sometimes more literary, require multiple revisions.
These days, I receive enough editorial acceptance to keep up my confidence. But money earned from my essays and memoir represents a secondary reward. My husband is right–writing is my work, and I love the process of crafting essays and books almost as much as I adore my family.
Itâ€™s difficult to juggle my roles as wife and mother, teacher and writer. Sometimes, I collapse in exhaustion. I tell myself during those down-times that I could let the writing go . . . but then what would I be teaching my daughter?
Early Sunday mornings, she pads out to the living room to find me bent over my computer, much as my mother used to bend over the short stories composed on an electric typewriter. I hope that the sight of me writing–even if the dishes sit unwashed and the windows need scrubbing–will inspire my daughter to dedicate herself to a passion that, along with beloved family members and friends, makes life worth living.
Melissa Hart is a journalism teacher at the University of Oregon, and a memoir writing teacher for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program. Her new memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal Press, 2009), is a coming-of-age story about growing up white, heterosexual and boring in multicultural Los Angeles with a lesbian mom, a brother with Down syndrome, and a deep desire to be a Latina.
The Oregonian notes, â€œHart, who teaches writing at the University of Oregon, has crafted a well-balanced tale that forgoes blame in favor of poignancy.â€
Booklist says, ” “LGBT families and immigrant kids will want it for the honesty, humor, and love. Every lively chapter ends with a detailed recipe that mixes food and feelings.”
Kirkus Reviews says of Gringa, â€œ”The book is filled with detailed conversations and particulars of dress, mannerisms and facial expressions that give it the feeling of a novel. A quirky narrative of artfully reconstructed memories.”