Melanie Sweeney is the author of Birds as Leaves, a nonfiction chapbook on motherhood forthcoming from The Lettered Streets Press in May 2015. Her work has appeared in Mom Egg Review, Rougarou!, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Foundling Review, and others. She holds an MFA from New Mexico State University. She lives in Spring, Texas, with her husband, son, and dog -- and soon twin girls. Connect with Melanie at melaniesweeney.com.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
I'm primarily a fiction writer. I started writing stories when I was in elementary school, emulating the books I read. I don't ever remember choosing to be a writer, though my first fiction workshop in college was maybe the first deliberate step. From then on, writing stories has been more of a compulsion, a way of grappling with what confounds me about the world and myself, primarily themes like connection/disconnection, belonging/not-belonging, and identity. Post-MFA, my relationship with writing is thornier than it was when I was young. Though I have more tools and direction now, it is far more challenging, not as purely fun as it used to be. Maybe that's why the best feeling I get from writing is when I know something technical is working, but I also feel energized by a moment in the work that is unexpected and true.
What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?
I'm really excited about The Lettered Streets Press and their split-volume chapbook series. They publish a single volume that includes a prose chapbook by one author and a poetry chapbook by another. This is the format for my own forthcoming chapbook with them, and I'm so excited by the fact that I will share that space with another voice. For readers, it has the potential to be a really rich and interesting experience, how the works may cross the middle in terms of theme, image, etc. I like the thought that the two parts are distinct, yet connected, which is an idea I interrogate in my own work. Plus, it's nice to feel supportive of and supported by another writer in such an intimate space.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
My son was born a week past his due date. My health insurance expired the day before. In two weeks, I was supposed to start a PhD program. Having just graduated from our MFA program, my husband and I were unemployed, recently relocated, and burning through all our savings. I'd loved being pregnant, the slow bloom, the magic. I guess that's why I expected motherhood, despite how our lives were in upheaval, to be natural, easy.
Labor itself was manageable, but the baby's head was cocked at an odd angle, obstructing him. My midwives, my husband, and my mother supported me through nearly four hours of pushing. When I think of becoming a mother, it was there, in the final few hours of my labor, when my body and my son's body were at the slightest of incompatible angles, and no balance of controlling myself and letting go of control could free him. Looking back, this misalignment was an apt metaphor for my motherhood. When a final position change shifted our configuration just right, and he was born, it felt like chance, not something I had done.
The days and weeks that followed reinforced my sense of being out of control. We had multiple breastfeeding issues, medical issues, colic. Our house, for a time, was infested with fleas. I didn't start my PhD program because I felt far too overwhelmed, and I no longer lived near old classmates, my writer friends. I was in some kind of mourning. It took me a few months before I felt the first wave of breath-taking love for my son.
The first year of my motherhood was darker than anything I'd expected. But it got easier and richer over time. I started walking with my son at a nearby botanical garden. I couldn't fit in much formal writing time, but I wrote on my phone during naps, while my son slept on me. When he started laughing, then interacting, then talking, walking, I fell more and more in love with him. Moving my body in the world, returning to my creative work, and feeling like my relationship with my son was less one-sided all made a huge difference.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
I used to go to a cafe with my laptop or pen and paper and write for three or four hours. As a grad student, I had a lot freedom and flexibility. My husband and I were in classes together, on campus together, at readings together a lot, so it wasn't a problem for me to be gone like that, sometimes late at night.
As a stay-at-home mother with no babysitter or outside care for help, I don't get to go to cafés much anymore. My husband is very supportive of my work and wonderfully involved as a father, but when he's home, I am often torn between spending time with him and working. (After working and studying together for years, it is still weird to not see each other throughout the day.) My son has always had sleep trouble, so even now that he's nearly two, I lie with him for his nap and at night. I use this time to write the only way I can--flat on my back, in the dark, child sprawled across me, typing on my phone (as I am now). When I get to take an hour to myself, I write in the same big bed, albeit sitting up with my laptop, because driving to a cafe wastes time, and because our home office doesn't have doors. I used to think my process was rigid and that I needed everything just so. I've learned that the creative mind can usually find a way with even the stingiest limits.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
Most of my writing, as I've said, happens with my toddler on top of me, the rest in my home while my husband creates time and space for my solitude, so my family is inextricable from my process. But I also found, following childbirth, that fiction was difficult to write. I began writing from my life. Since I composed on a 4-inch phone screen, feeling boxed in and unable to see a bigger picture, I primarily wrote short pieces. I ended up with about a hundred manuscript pages this way, a sort of beastly essay in fragments about motherhood, sexuality, nature, swimming, and writing, which will be condensed and published as a chapbook next year. My experience as a mother gave me both the content and the form for my work.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
My attitude has become more complicated than it once was. I used to subscribe to a general belief in writing all the time in order to evolve, to complete projects, to be serious about my work. I write for fewer than ten hours a week now. Sometimes I really miss the old days of marathon writing sessions. Sometimes I hesitate to start a project, or I cut ideas off short because they don't feel like a solid enough gamble. I have less patience for the mess of writing--the unknown elements of it, the endless, seemingly directionless revision--even though I know the mess is where my best work comes from. But I also have a less narrowly focused life now, which allows me to step away from my writing and experience the world. I relish my writing time. It doesn't consume me as it once did, which is at once discomforting and a relief.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
My son is a main thread of my nonfiction chapbook, although the work is more about me. Because it deals with postpartum depression and motherhood intersected with my identity, it was unavoidable to include him. I wrote most of it in the moment, too, so I would write something like, "I want my son not to exist for three hours," and I felt guilty. But the hugest change I experienced as a new mother was the conviction to be honest about my experience. I never used his name in my work, which I never deliberately decided to do. Still, I reconciled fairly easily with writing about my son. When he's older and actually responsible for his behavior, I may feel differently.
Aside from the obvious need of more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
It took me awhile to see that my writing on motherhood was more than a personal project. I wanted my fiction to be my main work. I sensed a lesser degree of respect for mothers who write about mothering. I've learned to embrace this theme now, both in my nonfiction and in my fiction. It is my strongest work to date and feels the most important. Along with valuing this work came my willingness to ask for what I needed from my husband, and we’ve recently established a more consistent schedule for me to write alone.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
When I wasn't sure what exactly I was writing or could write with my motherhood fragments, I read several other mother-writers: Adrienne Rich, Jane Lazarre, Sylvia Plath, Carmen Giménez Smith, Carole Maso. Poetry, essays, journals, stories by mothers. I read books and essays as well on postpartum depression, maternity-related legislative policy, motherhood myths, reproductive rights. These little trails out from my own experience have shed so much light inward in addition to expanding my interests and my empathy. I felt less alone but also validated. I began to feel much more connected to others through my experience, which was a great relief. This identity, mother, sometimes felt like shackles, but I ended up belonging within a beautiful community.
How do you escape?
Rarely do I truly escape. I escape when I write and read. I also walk regularly for exercise. This is with my son in a stroller, so it's not alone, but something about getting outside, focusing on movement, and being with him in a more parallel capacity is restorative and close to the solitude I crave.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Talk to mothers who don't speak exclusively in platitudes. The best support I received was from moms who were willing to say, "Been there. It sucked," or "Here's how I messed up." I felt often that I was struggling far more than other mothers, but I know this was partly because people around me were constantly assuming that I felt blissful, that motherhood came naturally, that I was fulfilled enough from my infant to overlook other huge shifts in my life. So, honest, encouraging support. If those are also mothers who understand the particulars of your field/job, even better.
If you have less time, energy, or access for creating your own art, consider if there is a way to at least experience others' art, to keep you stimulated and connected. Reading was often easier than writing for me, and it influenced my work in wonderful ways.
If you have a partner and/or other supportive people to offer you time and space, or whatever it is you need for your art, ask them. It can be hard, and sometimes it feels like you are shifting a burden on to them, particularly partners I think, but it is equally a burden to stifle and put off the work that is central to your identity. Art can be restorative and healing. Making room for that is likely to make you a better mother.