Joining us today is Kate Moses, the author of Cakewalk, A Memoir, just published by The Dial Press, about which Heidi Julavits says, “That Moses survived her storied past to write about it with such generosity, optimism, and affection is a miracle … her memoir attests not only to the tensile strength of her character, but to her crazy-beautiful talents as a writer.” Kate was a senior editor and contributing writer for Salon, where she co-founded the daily “Mothers Who Think” and co-edited two anthologies of essays on motherhood. Her lovely novel, Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, has been published in a dozen languages. Enjoy her post and her gorgeous website (designed by the amazing Ilsa Brink). And, of course, Cakewalk! – Meg
How do you be a writer? How do you start believing that you’ve earned your claim on so exalted and demanding a designation, the position of simply being an artist? I’ve been asking myself that question for forty-four years. I am still asking, after seeing four of my books into print.
I decided to be a writer when I was four years old, just learning to read and write, an avid audience to the dramatic family legends repeated by my mother and grandmother and aunts. The women in my family thought their stories were funny, but I detected something else, even if I was incapable of articulating such psychological insights back then. The story of the silk slip, say: the one belonging to my grandmother that my mother, a child herself at the time, cut full of holes with cuticle scissors to make herself a lace dress, sitting by the window to see better in the light while her mother took a bath. I imagined the distress of my practical schoolteacher grandmother, who had buried two babies and owned so few pretty things, when she saw my mother cutting her one fine slip apart … the silk slip as it floated out the second story window, the San Francisco fog blowing in on the same hazy currents of air … the lace dress my lovely mother, with all of her thwarted yearnings, would never have…
I wanted to write stories that made me feel the same way, aching with loss and compassion and staggered by odd, unexpected beauties. I had no idea if it was possible to become that person, a storyteller, someone who could transmit feeling onto a page — and if so what my own stories might be, or how to tell them. I wasn’t even sure girls – women, female persons — could be “real” writers at all, not merely family archivists or the authors of mild and cheering children’s books, until I read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings the summer before seventh grade. Suddenly one night in my suburban pink bedroom, in the comfortless home of our unhappy family, I was crouched in high saw-grass in the Florida Everglades with the boy Jody and his father, silently watching the mating dance of whooping cranes against a spring sunset, the wild cranes bowing in their instinctive circle, their white bodies stained coral and golden from the sky. I was there when Jody found the quivering orphaned fawn, and when crippled Fodder Wing’s grown, devastated brothers carried his little coffin to a raw implacable hole. So it could be done, I realized: your heart broken and broken open at once. And a woman had written the words.
That epiphany didn’t mean I had any better an idea of how to do it myself. I was lucky while in college to have had one English teacher who believed in something latent in me, and who encouraged me without reservation. My mother had wanted to be an artist as a young woman, but her dreams were considered frivolous by her parents, later foolish and irritating by my father. I had witnessed the damage she’d suffered as a result, and I was leery of opening myself up to the same kind of judgment. I kept my singular goal of becoming a writer almost entirely to myself, and rather than pursue graduate school, I decided to get a job in publishing, where I believed I could learn surreptitiously from other writers without openly admitting what was surely my outrageous arrogance in thinking that maybe someday I would be able to join their company.
As the low man on the totem pole of the small literary publishing house where I found a position in the editorial department, a big part of my job was managing the manuscripts sent by hopeful would-be authors, five or six and sometimes a dozen a day arriving by mail. Tacked over the threshold of my office was a quote by Auden: “Critics are the people who ride in after the battle is over and shoot the wounded.” Even when the manuscripts around my desk were truly terrible, I was still impressed that so many people had the vision and tenacity to write a whole book at all, let alone the courage to send it out into the world for strangers to assess.
I still don’t know how I summoned the nerve to do it, but I must have, because a letter came telling me that a short story I’d submitted was one of the winners of a contest, and it would be published. The judges said I wrote like a poet — the highest, most humbling of praise. It wasn’t a particularly notable contest unless you lived within a forty-mile radius of San Francisco, but there was a small cash prize, and my story would appear in the newspaper. It was the first story I’d written since college that anyone besides me had read, the first time I’d submitted anything. My first published story.
When I opened the newspaper and saw my name and my sentences and the photograph they’d insisted on taking, me squinting into the sun, overdressed and awkward, not knowing what to do with my hands, I felt as removed from all of it as my cat had seemed during my childhood, gazing indifferently at the kittens she was done with. Not that I wasn’t proud, stunned by a euphoric astonishment that I’d actually scratched the surface of the thing I wanted most. It’s just that in the transference from my bloodstream to the page, my story had turned into something else. A molten and kinetic thing, urgent for a shape, had cooled into an objective permanence I was no longer part of. I stood back and marveled.
A few days later I was at the grocery store loading carrots into a plastic bag to make a cake. A woman standing on the other side of the bin kept looking at me. Finally she spoke.
“Excuse me,” she said, “aren’t you the one who wrote that story? The one in the Bay Guardian? Kate Moses, right? I recognize you from your picture.”
I blushed, flattered that she’d taken note of my name, and she came around the bin and stood next to me.
“So where do you get your ideas?” she asked, leaning toward me and searching my face. “Did all of that really happen? I know that street— which shop sells the Indian puppets? Did you have the abortion after all?”
I was horrified. Everything that had been so fixedly discrete, the fiction I thought I had objectively shaped and was removed from, was suddenly edgeless and indistinguishable from me — not just to this stranger but to myself. She had poked her finger through the fragile caul, and there I was, standing naked in the crowded produce section of the Berkeley Bowl.
It would be years before I found the courage to send out another short story.
As I recovered from the shock of feeling so exposed, what remained was the sense that I wasn’t ready: wanting to be a writer and having something vital to say are not the same thing. I had to have something worthy of not just my own imagination, but of the imagination of a reader. Reading, I felt, was an act of trust and generosity that cut both ways, and until I had something to say that I cared about so deeply my investment would transmit itself to whomever read my words, I was not ready to claim my place in that pact.
I continued to write fiction, but as an apprentice to myself, not attempting to publish or show my work to anyone else for fifteen years. In the meantime I became a mother, and that was the experience that galvanized me as a writer. The complexity of emotions and bonds and responsibilities that arose for me as a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a woman, and the tension I felt as I tried to keep my inner life afloat at the same time became the subject I’d been looking for.
When I realized, after several years of stumbling around in fictional material I didn’t fully understand, that I was writing a novel about Sylvia Plath, everything started to make sense. By writing about Plath’s poetic breakthrough at the same time that she struggled to balance her life as a mother, a wife, a daughter and a woman – by writing about an artist who had finally figured out what it was she had to say — I was enacting my own struggle as a writer, and I had found the subject I cared about so deeply I could not bear to keep it inside.
In everything I’ve written since, what drives me is the mystery of the creative process itself, and the tension that exists for many women between their inner intellectual and imaginative lives and their external responsibilities. In itself this has been the most compelling reason for me to keep writing, because it’s not a puzzle I’ve yet solved.
I still feel a sense of somewhat disbelieving awe that I managed to complete an entire manuscript, let alone four, and closing in on a fifth. Rather than proving – as I once expected – that the writing of one book means you’ve figured it out, what I’ve learned is that every book is a reinvention of the wheel, made only slightly easier by the ruts left from the last cart that rolled by. As a writer I think of myself as similar to a musician who plays by ear – I can’t read a score, but music makes sense to me. Somehow, eventually, I find the notes; or so I tell myself as I enter the sixth year of work on my second novel. I’ve published and written enough to know that the process of writing, the time one spends with words riding a current into their right places on the page, is the most delicious, gratifying aspect of the whole spectrum of random and mystifying decisions that go into seeing one’s words in print. All writers dream of publication and what follows, but nothing can compare to the adrenaline rush of writing exactly the perfect sentence, of nailing the chapter, the character, the image that brings language into high relief. Of knowing in your heart that your dedication is your strongest claim on being a writer. To paraphrase a line from a Denis Johnson story, I go looking for that feeling everywhere. – Kate