Portrait of the author as the baby of an author.
by Kate Maruyama
The summer after I first had my son, when he was three months old, my mom sent me a check, in the memo at the bottom was scrawled, “babysitter.” I called her, a bit miffed, we had just had the kid, were just getting used to him, how could we hand him over to a stranger? Besides, we were doing just fine, thank you, we didn’t need a handout.
Pardon the crankiness, I was a bit sleep deprived. The kid wouldn’t stop crying. Like, at all.
My mom knew this, and she said calmly, “While they’re small, you need to buy writing time. Find a teenager or a nursing student. You don’t even have to leave the house. But buy yourself a few hours a week.”
My mom was a writer too and, despite raising three kids, had written over thirty novels by the time she was through. I don’t even have a final count on her books including collections and anthologies. She relied on her morning stream of local student babysitters until we were school age. I remember a number of them fondly, and I’ve been told I went to a university sit-in demonstration against US interference in Cambodia when I was two, but that’s another story.
It took me a few years to hire a babysitter. That check sat on the mantel and I carved writing time out of nap time, or bed time, and burned the candle at both ends as I was working in the evenings reading scripts for money. That check was still on the mantel when my second kid was born, but then she was eighteen months and my oldest was in preschool and there was no such thing as nap and I was at the end of my rope by the end of each day. I had met other parents by then, so I called around and found a local teenager to babysit in the house while I shut myself in a room. I carved myself out three hours of writing once a week.
What a gift. Three hours in which, because I was paying someone, I was forced to stay in a room and write. Three hours where I couldn’t do the millions of other things calling to me: the house, the kids, the job. That first morning I felt downright wicked, alone with my computer, writing the only task in front of me. I don’t remember now what I was working on. Likely a screenplay, but possibly my first ever (and yet unpublished) novel that earned me my training wheels in fiction; that eventually got me into the MFA Program at Antioch University Los Angeles where I found my people, my voice and my profession.
That specified, paid-for time was everything.
After graduate school I went on to teach writing to grown-ups. People who wanted to write but had not found the time before. My first class was a Saturday morning workshop with a local community college extension program. I asked my students to share with the class why they were taking this workshop. Obviously, they wanted to write, and this class was a gift to themselves. Three hours, one morning a week in which they would sit down and honor their oft-neglected writing selves. I adored the work that came out of these fledgling students. Writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, we used prompts, and, as my hesitant group became more comfortable, the words began to flow.
There was one older gentleman in his early seventies, Cesar (not his name) and he always arrived at the same time as a younger white guy in his thirties, Bob. The two were obviously not related, but Bob (not his name) would always call Cesar, “Pops.” They always sat separately. Bob at the back of the class, Cesar at the front. Cesar wrote non-fiction, hilarious and moving stories about growing up in Los Angeles with a “gang” of friends of all different races. He brought to life a vivid and vibrant Los Angeles neighborhood in the 1960s that was undivided along racial lines. The kids would travel in a pack, get in trouble together, and were parented together by each other’s families. It was beautiful writing.
Cesar and Bob were always cracking jokes and funny with each other and only in the last class did Bob take me aside. He told me that he had gotten the class for Cesar as a gift. “Pops” had always talked about writing down his stories, but wouldn’t sit down and do it. So Bob bought him the classes and drove out to Whittier every Saturday morning to pick him up and bring him all the way back to Glendale for class. They stopped for breakfast on the way.
It turns out that Bob had been abandoned by his drug addicted mother when he was about thirteen after years of abuse. Cesar lived across the street and had befriended the boy when he sensed he needed someone. When Bob’s mother died, Cesar adopted him. The “Pops” part was real and Bob said he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Cesar. And the gift was real. Bob was writing some beautiful pieces of fiction himself, but he was also getting those stories Cesar kept telling written down in scene in gorgeous detail. The gift of the class ended up paying off for both of them.
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