This is an exercise I used to do with my students, to get the writing motor going. I took the name of it from an excellent book of the same name by Natalie Goldberg.
Here’s how the exercise works. Come up with three words or phrases, related to the same theme. Since identity and environment was a big theme of the 9th grade, I often used “My City,” “My Neighborhood,” and “My Block.” Having nothing in front of you except your writing utensil and a piece of paper (or your computer), write non-stop on the first phrase for 2 minutes. When time is up, write non-stop on the next phrase for 3 minutes. Follow that with writing for 5 minutes non-stop on the final phrase. If you get stuck, just write the same word over and over again until you get unstuck, or until time is up for that round, whichever comes first.
For awhile now, I have been trying to work out an essay on motherhood, in relation to my deafness. So, for this exercise, I am going to focus on the theme of “Motherhood,” using the phrases “Identity,” “Experience,” and “Value.”
Identity (2 minutes)
I am not afraid to say “I am a mother.” But I am afraid to think that will be my primary identity for the rest of my life. Of course, I will be a mother for the rest of my life but motherhood is a role. I am not so sure it can be an identity. Maybe I have no clue what it means to have an identity or how to define it, either in general or for myself. What else am I? I am a wife. That’s a role, too. I am a reader. I am a writer. I am a caucasion, Jewish woman raised in a middle-class family in the suburbs. That is where my identity find its source. Or does it?
Experience (3 minutes)
Motherhood is an experience. Experience. Experience. Experience. Experience. Experience. I can only relate to the experience in terms of how it makes me feel at any given moment. I feel frustrated a lot of the time. I feel tremendous affection. A lot of love. Some sadness. It’s a little bittersweet. Sometimes, I feel amazed and awed. Sometimes, I look at my children and think about how surreal it is that these little people were once inside of me. That I nursed them with nutrition from my own body, then I set them free to become their own people. This is probably the oddest experience of motherhood. It’s surreal to think about how primal it is, even as we consider ourselves an advanced civilization.
Value (5 minutes)
What is the value of what I do? What is it that I do anyway? I keep two small beings alive. I nourish them, heart and soul and body. I love them. I guide them. I teach them. I let them go. I bring them back to me. I scold. I admonish. I yell. I discipline. I shape. I mold. And I don’t do this alone, of course. I have a partner but for most of the day, they are mine. Some try to relate the value of motherhood to the value of gainful employment. Yes, I gave up my full-time job with excellent benefits but I did so willingly. I can’t even use the phrase “gave up.” “Gave up” implies sacrifice. It was no real sacrifice at the time. It was a luxury afforded to me by a generous partner. But maybe now, I realize that it was a little bit of a sacrifice. What did I sacrifice? I sacrificed my value as a worker. As a teacher, I had value in society. As a mother, I don’t have the same value. Never mind that because of my motherwork, my children will be productive members of society. Never mind that. No one sees it that way. I think most people think raising your own children is a selfish endeavor. And maybe it is. But selfish is not always bad. Sometimes, selfish serves a purpose.
I used to tell my students, “Don’t pay attention to spelling or grammar. Don’t try to be perfect. Just write.” But I have to admit, it’s hard not to correct myself and I did so here, most of the time. Though I see that I left my misspelling of “caucasian” as is.
The next step in this exercise is to choose one of these passages and expand it into a larger piece. I’m not sure which passage I’ll choose as none of them are speaking to me right now. Writing is pretty easy, but writing authentically is hard. A writer has to overcome self-consciousness and find the strength to be real in her writing, to put down words that are meaningful and not just fluff or filler. It has to be raw and can’t skirt around the edges. There is no power in that. But that kind of power is a little scary. So, I must summon up the courage. Maybe tomorrow.