And just in the right moment, I heard the melodious voice of my daughter. “Mama writes,” she said, and the idea sparkled in front of my eyes like her favorite light-up shoes. I didn’t need a marriage of two nouns to define myself. I needed a noun and a verb. I needed a sentence. One straightforward and true sentence. The Hemingway sentence. “Mama writes.” – Alexandra Panic
It is 6.15 am on Monday morning and I get to choose a window seat in the local coffee shop where in any other hour during the day this privilege isn’t possible. The window faces east from where the sun is shyly rising to join me in the scene. This coffee shop had become my office when I challenged myself to pursue the master’s degree in creative writing, and even after I graduated it remained my “writing space.” The room of my own that is only seemingly occupied by so many people. The humming of espresso machines, the splatter of empty plates, the baristas’ calls to their customers whose smoking hot double-shot lattes with various choices of milk are ready on the counter. All these sounds grew to become just a background noise for me, and surprisingly comforting. Like the hums of the white noise machine that, inside the body of a fluffy sheep, lived in the corner of my daughters’ cribs, soothing them to sleep. A mother can find silence in any room emptied of her children’s sounds. And in that apparent silence, she can hear the shy voices from her heart and write.
I have always been a writer. In Serbia, were I was born and lived until 2009, I had three collections of poetry published, my articles appeared in various magazines, and I worked full-time as a copywriter. As all writers, I often doubted my words and tore and threw away many pages, but I kept writing. Never had I thought that I could lose my voice until it happened.
In the fall of 2009, my husband and I moved to Seattle. After we settled down, I felt the overwhelming need to rediscover myself. The continent-swap gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted; to be whoever I dreamed of becoming. I could change my identity; I could even change my appearance because the life I had once identified with had already been transformed.
However, even though exploring new possibilities seemed thought-provoking, deep in my soul I was confident of my vocation. I was a writer. But, at a time I was a writer who lost her language. I became mute, wordless. The world seemed completely erased as if someone had accidentally chosen the option delete all. I took creative writing classes, but I found little sense in my effort: what was the purpose of knowing the elements of the craft when I couldn’t use them without a language?
My first pregnancy changed everything: the baby I was carrying inside me transformed my body and my brain. I found a new purpose. Or I just hid from my disappointment under the pile of parenting books, trying to prepare for motherhood by studying parenting like I studied philology and literature. As I stopped reading fiction, I stopped writing as well. And I felt relief. I had been a writer in my past life, and now I was a mom.
The days and months ran by at full speed. I had my hands full when my daughter was awake, and I was busy cleaning, cooking, and even ironing her tiny clothes while she napped. I stressed about every step we made as parents, mindful of any mistakes that could ruin her development.
And I hadn’t realized how unhappy I was before my daughter made first friends at the playground, and their parents asked me what did I do, and I couldn’t tell. I wanted to say that I was a writer, but I could not pronounce the words. It had been a year or more since I last wrote, and it seemed that I had no occupation other than being a mother. Although being a full-time mom was the hardest job in the world, and I physically had zero time to do anything else, I was tortured by the recurring nightmare of fall and failure. Every night I would wake up from a dream in which I had taken a plunge from a high point. Water, grass, rocks, or asphalt interchanged underneath me while I kept falling and failing. I used to be a writer and now I was a mom. And even though becoming a mom was the most wonderful experience of my life, I still had to answer the what do you do question. If to nobody else but to my own daughter in a few years. I knew I had to claim myself back and to recover my voice. Also, I had to adopt English as my literary language.
When my daughter was nine-months old, I enrolled into a Creative Writing Certificate Course at University of Washington in Seattle; the class offered me structure and a supportive community of writers among whom there were other moms. I was inspired to fight for my voice. A few hours a week at the beginning, in a coffee shop in my neighborhood, or at a bench on the playground when my daughter napped. In those months, our diaper bag was often out of necessities but there was always a book inside and a pen and paper. A wet diaper wouldn’t harm her, but a great sentence, if not written in the moment, would be lost.
Slowly, I got back to writing, but I still couldn’t say that I was a writer. I treated writing as a hobby. Fortunately, my daughter didn’t. Every time I picked up my big tote bag, containing my laptop and my books, and headed out to write, she would acknowledge me, saying “Mama writes.” In those two simple words, two-year-old Jovana defined her mother. And it took me more than three years after I had heard the sentence the first time, and another pregnancy, to comprehend it and to adopt it as a defining essence of who I was—a mother and a writer. For a long time, I tried to separate those two. But separated, the different parts of me suffered.
When I made the best and the crazies of all decisions—to apply for an MFA program in Creative Writing, and my husband supported me unreservedly, we didn’t know I was pregnant again. But we both knew that, at that point in my life, writing became inevitable. I had to write NOW, or my voice would be forever lost. So, I became a pregnant graduate student with solid deadlines, which propelled me to write more and to better organize the little time that I had. Because of the intensity of the program, I hadn’t stop writing not even for my semester-long maternity leave. Once my story was conceived, it started to grow and develop like a human life. And it was unstoppable and so natural.
In my third semester, when my daughters were five and one, I was required to design and complete a teaching practicum. I had taught languages before, and I was looking forward to teaching again, but I didn’t know who should I teach. And just in the right moment, I heard the melodious voice of my daughter. “Mama writes,” she said, and the idea sparkled in front of my eyes like her favorite light-up shoes. I didn’t need a marriage of two nouns to define myself. I needed a noun and a verb. I needed a sentence. One straightforward and true sentence. The Hemingway sentence. “Mama writes.”
A couple of weeks later, I proposed my plan for teaching moms to write, to my neighbor, the owner of a children’s clothing and toy store, who had a classroom built on the second floor of the venue, intending to start an educational program for moms and children. She was happy to offer me her space. As simple as its name, Mama Writes Creative Writing Course began last April on an unexpectedly warm Tuesday night and welcomed eight moms who for a long time harbored a dream, but didn’t dare to act upon it.
The first class was the hardest. I had names of the women who answered my ad, but I didn’t know anything else about them. It was impossible to come up with a structure for the first session without knowing who they were and what were their interests. But my biggest fear, in fact, wasn’t the teaching. It was the sentence I had to articulate in front of my class. “I am Alexandra Panic, the writer.”
I relaxed when my students entered the classroom. I could clearly see on their faces that they were at least as nervous as their teacher. To break the ice, I offered them chocolates and told them about my path to becoming a writer. What I noticed later when they introduced themselves was that almost all began with “Before I became a mom, I was a lawyer / a copywriter / a journalist / a scientist…” The structure “before I became a mom” resonated for days in my head. As if each of them was a different persona before stepping into motherhood. A separate character that now felt left behind.
While I was preparing my practicum, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, so I brought up the idea of having a room of one’s own, which in our case could be the classroom, or metaphorically—half a day each week dedicated to writing. We talked about our daily routines and our schedules and priorities as mothers, trying to figure out where we should pin down our writing hours. In all their answers, I recognized the undercurrent that I knew well—the sneaking feeling of guilt. One student pointed out that mothers wouldn’t even try to do something if they doubted they could do it well. Her thought made me realize what my mamas needed. Most of all—they needed encouragement. They needed to feel at peace when leaving their toddlers with young babysitters, so they could come to my writing class; they needed a strong push to resist the terror of the blank page and to put their first words on paper, and they needed a supportive group of women experiencing the same thing. I left my first class with an exciting determination. MAMA WRITES should inspire and encourage women to start writing, give them enough knowledge so they could write well and create a supportive community they could count on after the class was over. Unexpectedly, with the help of one simple sentence, I found another purpose: I would help women make their way (back) to writing.
By the third class, eight mamas got to know each other better. They came to the classroom ten minutes earlier and jumped into a conversation about their kids, and their challenges in parenting. They exchanged ideas and asked each other for advice. But at five o’ clock precisely, someone would open a discussion about the craft. After each woman had given her answer, they turned to me, waiting for my thoughts. As the classroom filled with an unexpectedly good energy, I acknowledged that my students started to perceive this space as the “room of their own” where they can focus on what interests them. They opened themselves to the wonders of fiction, and they started to think how to implement what they learned so far. They also brought up their concern about their progress. They wanted to do their best because they still felt guilty for claiming time for themselves. I reassured them saying that the greatest reward at this point should be their delight while writing.
When they asked whether they should write only about the things they knew well, like about motherhood, I considered what Robert Frost had said, that a fiction writer should be able to tell what happened to himself as if it had happened to someone else, and vice versa. And Virginia Woolf wrote in A room of One’s Own that fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction. But what I saw as the most important and what I decided to tell them was the premise that a writer should approach a theme with excitement. Therefore, we should write what we are passionate about.
When I came home that night, I thought about the purpose of writing, and this is what I have been sharing with my students ever since:
“Writing should be your outlet; your stress relief, your fun, your go-to thing when there is both internal and external pressure in your life. There is an immeasurable freedom in fiction that, when we embrace it, can change our lives in so many ways. In fiction—you can be and do anything. Isn’t that intriguing? Relax, don’t over think, and write. Create a character and let her be.”
Many times, I came across the statement that writing is a journey of self-discovery. We learn about ourselves as much as we learn about our characters. Teaching creative writing proved to be a daring journey of discovery for me, and quite different than teaching a foreign language.
It has been a year since I accepted a role of a writing instructor, promising to be there to support the moms from my neighborhood in their journey into the land of writing, and during this time I didn’t only grow as a teacher, but as a writer as well. I graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing, and I wrote a novel. Every question my students raised resonated for days (and some still do) in my head. I tried to answer their questions primarily to myself, applying what I discovered to my work in progress, and ultimately, I gave adequate answers to them. A creative writing teacher is a guide who carries a flashlight. But there isn’t a right or wrong way. And there isn’t a rule that we cannot break. In teaching creative writing, a teacher should never think that writing is what she knows best. Every step she takes leads to another discovery. Just like in parenting. We can’t teach our kids happiness, but we can light their paths.
As a writer and as a woman, I inhabited many characters, trying to give the best performance in each of my roles: a caring mother, a loving wife, a thoughtful daughter, a supportive sister, a trusted friend, a humble daughter-in-law, a diligent student, a kind and patient writing teacher. Some days are bright yellow, and I think I got it all. Some days are gray, and everything seems to be falling apart. On a gray day, I take my own advice, and I embrace the one role that never weighted on me—the role of a writer.
It is 7.55 on Tuesday evening and the coffee shop where I write and prepare my classes is about to close. My daughters are waiting for me to read them a story before they go to bed. My husband is waiting for me too. And after my family falls asleep, I may have one more hour to write. Or I will continue my journey tomorrow in small increments of time that I have, and that, after I embraced all parts of myself, have become just enough.
Alexandra Panic lives with her family in Seattle, Washington, where she writes, teaches creative writing, and edits fiction for Pif Magazine. She is originally from Belgrade, Serbia, although her soul is Italian. She holds a BA degree in Italian Language and Literature from Belgrade University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Want to write with her? Check out her workshops in Seattle.