Fathom Mag

Writing Saved Me from Drowning, and Other Tales of Creativity

It’s hard to write with your feet on the ground when you’re meant to fly.

Published on:
May 1, 2018
Read time:
6 min.
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I sat in a plastic chair with a spiral notebook in an old house-turned-classroom hugged between California oaks and the glory of the Pacific. I’d written some half good, mostly bad poetry for years and cut my teeth on the five-paragraph essay. But this creative writing class opened up like the ocean; it exposed all the waves of unknowing, all the skills I didn’t possess.

Like feeble first steps, I faltered, fell down, and tried again. But I produced sentimental, tie-it-up-with-a-bow stories—the type one imagines freshmen at Christian colleges would produce, the type that someone who’d prided herself on her intellect was loath to own. The only cure for sentimentality is, of course, immersing oneself in the concrete, learning to listen well, and allowing oneself to fail and get up again.

Instead of failing and practicing, I became good at writing about writing. It was safer there.

Instead of failing and practicing, I became good at writing about writing. It was safer there. I clutched professorial remarks about following up on a reference letter for a job as a critic. I didn’t consider myself a writer, but I could write about writing. I could slice apart a Shakespearean sonnet, tease out setting and atmosphere in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and properly cite my research in MLA format. 

So a few years later, my husband and I flew away to a new home in Scotland where we walked the ancient streets of London and Edinburgh for seminary and a PhD. Our time there smelled like milky tea, the hops brewed on the west end for Scottish ales, salty and malty vinegar and chips, and always, the dusty and slightly dank pages of books in libraries and archives.

Something rose up in me as I watched my PhD supervisor dance through vast swathes of knowledge, holding books gently like babies: this is what I want. I want to flit between ideas, making connections like improv comedy. I want to race alongside the thoughts of dead theologians, literary critics, and colleagues. I wanted to fly.

But instead of flying, I fell flat to the ground, into the stuff of earth, into my body and the bodies of others.

I became a mother. Suddenly what I ate (or didn’t) mattered. In secret and unseen places, a child was knitted together and I desperately wanted to parent perfectly. After nine months and more than a day of labor, my body would not do what it was supposed to do: birth a baby. So the doctor prepped me for surgery, wrenching my intestines aside to deliver my son. My body had failed me.

My husband held him, bathed him. I wallowed in my first maternal failure. There would, of course, be millions more. And there would be more babies.

One son arrived quicker than we anticipated—both in relation to his older brother and delivery time. He came flying into the world a few minutes after we arrived at the hospital. We conceived our third son in Eastern Europe, dashing our dreams of international work and forcing us, again, to stay small, to stay put—to birth babies and college ministries.

And our last baby, a girl after three boys, she would be the joy. She would carry the name of my PhD supervisor. She, too, I knew, would fly. 

I wallowed in my first maternal failure. There would, of course, be millions more.

But what of me? I was learning what it meant to be a body, but I’d lost my mind a bit in the process. After ten years, my PhD diploma that sat rolled up in a brown paper tube with Scottish postage on it. There was a beauty in pouring oneself out again and again in milk and blood. But something was missing and I wondered if it would ever return. Could I capture light and graceful sentences when I was covered in spit up for yet another year?

My creativity had turned into sleep schedules and feeding schedules, watching what my children ate and how it affected their behavior. Trying desperately to help them to read, imagine, play, believe, all the while the daily stuff of earth began choking me.

I had no story for a liturgy born from the body, for words that started and stopped, for grace that could drip, drip, drip even amongst dirty diapers and endless laundry. I felt guilty. So many women longed for babies and my cup runneth over.

But I was drowning.

So, a few years into motherhood, with four children aged six and under, I sat on our old greenish couch and began writing into the ether. I started a blog. There was no pressure: no grade, no one telling me what I’d forgotten, no one reading or looking over my shoulder. My husband bought me a Wordpress theme and a domain name and booked me a seat on a plane to a writers conference—all to find that girl who longed to fly.

A writing conference felt like extravagance because my time away meant a host of people watching my children, my husband reordering his work schedule, and so much prep work just to leave. It meant money that could be used to fix the car.

In the space of a conference, I began to dream of a creativity measured in book deals, business cards, and invitations to events. Things that would warrant the reshaping of our life, the things that might mean I would come back to life.

I’d learn how to market creativity: I’d be the mommy blogger, I thought, but the smart one, the one with a PhD. So, I put on my heels and made friends. My little ones didn’t need me at a writers conference. Amongst writers, editors, and friends I could take in all of the ideas, shuffle them like cards, and have a quiet moment to simply let them take form.

I didn’t have to manage anyone’s emotions or bodies. And my wings unfurled.

What started as a conversation at that writers conference grew into a book in the swirling confusion where all good things are created—in passion and darkness. At a moment of creation, there is only presence. The book began with my own story, the intoxication of my own sentences, my small efforts to reclaim the creativity of a scared and drowning woman who had neither the words nor the resources for an ordinary life. I endeavored to craft my own extraordinary while I lived my ordinary one.

At a moment of creation, there is only presence.

But in the book’s gestation, it took on its very own life, as both babies and books are apt to do. I’d walk my suburban walking paths to learn how to be in my body, to be present to my children and my neighborhood, and I knew that I would learn how to love a place only as I felt the concrete ground beneath my feet.

I never considered myself a writer. But here I was putting words I created together, step by step. Here I was maternally sheltering and gathering ideas. At times, it felt like flying, but often it felt like plodding bleary-eyed at 5:00 a.m. to write the most infantile words and ideas. But these were baby steps. It was okay to fail, so long as I’d show up.

As I arranged my words, the book became less about me, or business cards, or invitations to events. The book became about my reader—all of the named and nameless faces in the suburban tract homes down my hill. Running along my neighborhood’s path, I crested the top of a hill and raised my hands to the sky broken up by power lines. I realized that my words, if they were to have any power, could not be for me alone. I could never be their only subject.

Stories, if they are true, must always be broken open and given.

Perhaps faith is always found in the paradox, in the failures, in the delightful turns of both a phrase and of our stories.

I needed this book not only to save me from drowning, I needed it to also speak hope and life for neighborhoods like mine where other people spent their days drowning too. Neighborhoods that have become so inward-turned that we have lost compassion, kindness, and holy imagination for a world made new. I needed a God who would wake all of us from our torpor and give us life. So, I prayed for this book, for my place, and for my own self-absorbed heart.

As Finding Holy in the Suburbs approaches its due date this fall, I’m sure this new creation will surprise me again. As its vernix is scrubbed off, I’ll suddenly realize what I’ve created looks both exactly like and not at all like me.

And isn’t that the way? For, ideas, books, and children take on a life of their own. This is the gloriously mundane way we experience life: by giving up, by giving away, by sticking tirelessly beside people, places, and things. Perhaps faith is always found in the paradox, in the failures, in the delightful turns of both a phrase and of our stories. As we’re tied to the stuff of earth, we’re flying.

Ashley Hales
Ashley Hales (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is a writer, speaker, and host of the Finding Holy podcast. She is the author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs and A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits. Ashley is married to a pastor and the mother to four children.

Cover image by Bob Lamotte.