Written this morning in Inwood Hill Park:
When people ask me how long I’ve been writing, I’m never sure what to say. I’ve been creating stories since before I knew how to spell. Before I even knew that was what I was doing.
As a child of four, I’d climb the plum tree in our backyard (yes, apparently plum trees were common in Bushwick, Brooklyn in that era). I’d lay my skinny body on the branches and would imagine a different life where mom didn’t yank at my hair when she brushed it and didn’t call me ordinaria and retardada. In that world, she was tender and loving. Like my Millie.
I didn’t yet know what I was doing. I was just doing what came natural to me. What helped me survive. What gave me hope.
Today, as I sit in the park with my daughter, three days from her 8th birthday, I think about what it took for me to call myself a writer. To finally own who I am: a writer.
I’m reading the memoir Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the story of her 1100 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. What she was running from and to. A line stood out to me and got me thinking about my personal journey to writing.
“Of all the things I’d done in my life, of all the versions of myself I’d lived out, there was one that had never changed: I was a writer.”
I have journals from as far back as boarding school. Collections of writings from over the years. On napkins and newspapers where I scribbled on margins. Small journals that fit in clutches. Large journals for bigger bags. (To this day I carry a journal with me wherever I go.) I have print outs of online journals from websites that no longer exist. Ramblings written on steno pads, post-its. Whatever was available, I grabbed and wrote on. But it wasn’t until I was pregnant that I really began to own the label of writer, which I now say with pride, some angst, and an enormous sense of responsibility.
I had an incredibly difficult pregnancy. I threw up every day and cried everyday. For nine months.
At two months the amniotic sac my Vasialys called home detached from my uterus lining. Just a thin fiber kept her in my womb. I know this because the emergency room doctor showed it to me on the sonogram screen. I can still see his chubby finger, the nail bit down so far, it looked painful. “There’s nothing we can do. Pray and hope she holds on.”
I was struck by his calling my baby a she. It was too early to tell the gender but I knew, I’ve always known, I’d have a girl. That she’d be my Minnie Me.
I was put on bed rest for almost two months. That meant legs up, no walking or doing anything strenuous. And definitely no working out. This woman, the one who was at the gym at 6am at least four days a week. The one who loved to ride her bike and rollerblade and play handball. The one who loved anything and everything that made her heart pound and sweat drip. This same woman could do nothing but sit on her couch.
One day the cabin fever grew too much for me to bear so I went for a walk in the park with a friend who was also pregnant. I bled for two days. Thank God Vasia held on. I didn’t play after that. Bed rest meant bed rest.
It was during that time that I picked up the pen and started journaling. In the nine months of my pregnancy, I filled five journals. I was preparing to be a writer.
In those nine months I also made a decision that I didn’t say out loud to anyone but myself. I was going to quit corporate America. I was going to live this writing life.
I journaled about it. How miserable I’d always been in that world. The corporate world. The one place I found joy, reprieve, was in writing so that’s where I would head. To make a life of it. I wasn’t sure how but I knew I was going to do it. Somehow. It was 2004.
I thought and wrote about the lessons I’d teach my daughter. The lessons I would leave her. The greatest thing I could teach her was that she could be what she wanted to be. She could live her dreams. But how could I teach her that if I wasn’t doing it? I had to, still have to, live by example. So when it was time for me to go back to work, I wrote my boss and said I couldn’t. That I was having trouble weaning my daughter off the breast and would need more time. (That was a lie. I didn’t wean Vasia off until she was seven months old and bit my nipple.) I knew she would fire me. She’d always been callous and uncompromising. I was right.
I collected unemployment for the next year and started building my writing life. That’s when I wrote my first novel, Woman’s Cry. The type of book I’d never write again, and honestly makes me cringe when I think of it. But that book gave me permission. Writing that book is what it took to call myself a writer. I’ve never looked back.
Vasialys’s birthday is always an emotional time for me. Because my nena’s getting older and more fabulous and will in no time go out into the world without me.
And, because when I birthed my daughter I birthed a writer. This writer. Vanessa Mártir.