Monica Wesolowska’s first book, Holding Silvan, was decades in the making, but when Monica was finally emotionally ready to write the story of her first child, the time she’d spent writing served her well. Kate Tuttle, writing in the Boston Globe, says, “In precise, luminous prose she chronicles an unbearable loss that nonetheless was filled with the joy she felt in being her son’s mother. ‘I’m trying to find the story of Silvan that I’ll someday tell myself,” Wesolowska writes. “I want it to be a story that I can bear to hear, a story of loving him well.’ It is.” Monica’s story of how she came to write Holding Silvan is filled with that love. – Meg
I began in earnest around seven or eight. I’d write a story, revise it, illustrate it, then add it to the collection I was writing for my sister, complete with a cover. From the start, I was setting myself up for disappointment—for it wasn’t just to please myself or my sister that I wrote. No. With writing, I hoped to heal the world. Unifying my stories were characters who were isolated, through bad luck, poverty, meanness, misunderstanding. Friendship would save them: a lonely rich family befriends a happy poor one; a scary dragon proves he’s nice; a sad coat finally gets a girl to wear him.
In fifth grade, I decided happy endings were cowardly. I started a novel about a gypsy who would die alone in a storm in a cemetery. But when I got to the death scene, I couldn’t write through my tears. Worse, this thing I called a novel was only a few pages long. In frustration, I hid my yellow legal pad in a drawer, and by the time I was ready to go back to the drawer, my novel seemed to be gone.
If I could go back to my younger self, I’d say, “Don’t take it all so hard. There’s no need to shoulder the pain of the world. You’re having a lovely childhood. Try having fun while writing.” But writing is a strange thing. Without knowing anything about the tortured artist, I acted like one.
After college, when my betters warned me that the “writing life is hard,” I shrugged and hunkered down for the duration. Like a gambler who sacrifices everything, I worked odd jobs, struggled over revisions, endured rejections, all for the occasional high of a good morning writing. By then I understood that good writing wasn’t the same as the earnest propaganda of my youth, but sometimes I wondered if my writing life wasn’t actually taking me further from the very world I’d once hoped to “heal.”
By my early thirties, I’d married but held off on having children in the hopes of “making it” as a writer first. I suppose I thought having a book out in the world would ensure I remained a writer even as a mother. But when I reached 35 without a book, I knew I shouldn’t wait any longer.
Those nine months of pregnancy were fecund ones for me. The torture of writing dissipated. I wrote with raw power. I sent a collection of stories out. Agents asked to see a novel. I began a novel. I sent that out. Ripe with confidence, I went into labor one night at dinner. My contractions soon became regular, we went to the hospital, I labored normally, and everything seemed fine. Until the worst thing possible happened. To me. To us. To our son Silvan.
In another era, Silvan would have died at birth. He would’ve been one of countless babies who didn’t make it. But with modern medicine, he could be revived and tested and we learned that some time during labor, for unknown reasons, he’d been asphyxiated. Now his brain was dying. To stay alive, he needed machines. But to stay alive with almost no brain didn’t seem like a life to us. So instead of machines, we chose to hold him, to love him, and to let him go.
While Silvan was still alive, my life as a writer meant nothing to me. Being Silvan’s mother meant everything. When a writer friend said, “You should be writing all this down,” I was horrified. What mattered more to Silvan, my words about him or my arms?
In the stunned and empty months following Silvan’s brief life, I thought I’d give up writing. If all I’d ever really wanted to do with my life was help others, why not become something more useful than a writer— like a hospice worker, a grief counselor, or a teacher?
But for myself, I kept a diary about Silvan. For myself, I recorded hundreds of pages. For myself, I painstakingly transcribed them onto the computer so I could read them later. Or was it only for myself?
Creation is mysterious. For years, I worked hard at my craft. I learned about scene and tension and climax. But rarely did a story come to me easily or satisfactorily. I revised my work into ruins. The tiniest fraction of my efforts got published. But still I wrote. Even after Silvan had died, and I’d grieved heavily and gone on to have two more children, when I went back to fiction, I still struggled to write anything that mattered.
And then one day, I was ready. It was time for Silvan’s story. By the end of the first day, I had 60 pages. By the end of three months, I had a first draft. Three more months to revise. Two weeks to get an agent. Six months to sell it. 18 months to hold my book in my hands.
10 years from Silvan’s brief life, 40 years from my first attempts as a writer, I have a first book. Though I may have worked hard at it, the truth is that Holding Silvan didn’t feel hard to write. I wrote it for Silvan, and I wrote it for myself, and somewhere between the two must lie the secret of writing for others. – Monica