In 2015 I had a baby named Clara and published my first novel called Escape Plans. I connected everything I read to each of those events, hoping to assuage or at least validate any anxiety I felt about them.
After giving birth on January 1, I started small. When I read, I chose cookbooks or Dr. Sears’ Baby Book. I read Lydia Davis stories from Can’t and Won’t out loud to the baby because they were short. When I realized it was easier to read on my phone while balancing a newborn, I skimmed Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, and then purged some clothes, but not much else. I don’t recommend reading the book within three months of having a baby. When it came to writing, I ignored my book and wrote text messages instead. I think the amount of words tapped out via text message over the past year is probably the same as the amount of words in Escape Plans.
I picked up speed again around April, and the books I read after that point were published no earlier than 2014. In retrospect it was my subconscious way of reassuring myself that even with a baby I could stay on top of things happening in the world, that I could hold my own in a conversation about contemporary literature, never mind that those conversations were infrequent and that anyone who would actually judge me on it is likely insufferable. But still, this is why I read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and another volume of Knausgaard’s struggle and cried my way through Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I enjoyed these books, but I’m not sure I would’ve pushed myself to read them in quick succession in another year.
I was lucky, though, that many of the most talked about books were about motherhood and the particular way it scrambles you: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness. Camilla Gibb’s This Is Happy, which is a memoir about how to fashion a life when the unexpected happens, was a reminder to persist and cry when you need to. Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock was probably my favourite read of the year, and while it deals with motherhood, is more about a life lived that encompasses many things, including children, but also writing and relationships and objects and places. I read these books and took notes.
Eventually I got wrapped up in editing Escape Plans. With my nose so close to the page, I sometimes couldn’t remember how a book came together. Stare at anything long enough and it will look wrong, which is a disconcerting feeling when you know your own book is going to be sent to the printer in a few months. I turned to novels for help. I fell hard for Elena Ferrante and will associate the Neapolitan novels with my last stage of edits because I used them as rewards for getting work done. They weren’t just lessons on writing (plot and characters) but also on life (complicated relationships, oppressive childhoods, the burden of family). I read Books 2 and 3 in Greece, sometimes on hot afternoons while sitting directly in the sea, and those were the most luxurious reading experiences I’ll probably ever have.
But sometimes novels were too much. Too long, too involved, too heavy to carry around. When that happened I could only handle poetry, the smallest fragments, although poems were often the things that stopped me in my tracks with a sudden thud. Lucas Crawford’s Sideshow Concessions starts like this: My dad was in the hospital cafeteria/eating lasagna when I was born./I was making lasagna at home when he flat-lined./Symmetry. Liz Worth’s No Work Finished Here was plaintive and raw (Do you think people lie?/I’m just here for a/sip of laughter,/digging out from under/all this.) And I suppose maybe I did read something written before 2014 because I read George Seferis and Sappho too, Greek poets that I turn to often. It was George Seferis’ poem “Thrush” that helped me firm up the structure for Escape Plans and whose words make up the epigraph. And finally, this poem by Sappho, which I read before Clara was born, soon after she was born, and still think of today:
I have a small daughter called
Cleis, who is
like a golden
take all Croesus’
kingdom with love thrown in, for her.