Childbearing and I had an uneasy relationship from the start, and sometimes I think that my struggles in this area left me so perforated that post-partum depression had no trouble folding me up. Other times I think that what came before is irrelevant and I was just a rudderless boat on a high sea of hormones. My god, the hormones. But whatever the reason, after the birth of my son, sadness was a rabbit hole that I fell right into.
There are many adages about how big tasks are made up of small parts. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and so forth. And with depression, time itself is often the task that needs to be broken down. I was advised to take one day at a time, but even that seemed like too big a goal. A day could feel infinite with a screaming baby and a weight like a leaden stole upon my shoulders. So I broke time down into even smaller intervals. An hour, a minute, a moment, a breath. This moment is amazing. This moment is good. This moment is hard. And with this breath I survive it. Here is another.
Depression and art have a long relationship. Countless works of genius have been born from darkness. I wouldn’t say that’s what happened with me, but darkness did change my writing.
Just as a day stretched to infinite, my novel expanded to galactic proportions – far too big to wrap my head around, especially when I counted my writing time in minutes instead of hours. A chapter was monstrous. A scene intimidating. A paragraph daunting. A mere sentence could bring me to tears.
I had to adjust what I could ask of myself. I had to fall back on words. And what are words but the breaths of writing?
8/11/11: Twelve. Giggle. Bounce. Boat. Angel. Mother.
10/28/11: Kick. Clementine. Hair. Doctor. Drivel. Mother.
1/4/12: Sticky. Stack. Stars. Toothpaste. Mother.
It’s funny because I never was a writer particularly in love with words. Growing up, numbers or paintbrushes were always more comfortable tools of creativity. I’ve been drawn to writing in my adult life simply for my love of story. So falling back on words was more like discovering them for the first time.
And whether you’re studying syntactic and semantic trees or Dumbledore’s welcoming collection that transcends random, words are deep.
After my son turned one, I was able to leave him for longer stretches without disaster. But my novel still leered at me, too big, too bloated, too dizzying. I searched through my files and pulled out a few old pictures books that I’d experimented with back in graduate school. They were short enough that I could see them simply as a collection of words. I could throw all the words up in the air and not be afraid they would bury me when they fell back down. I spent the summer tossing the words around. In a moment of bravery, I signed up for an easy reader class. Slowly sentences made sense again.
Words, moments, these are the breaths that make up a recovery. In writing and in life. My son is turning two next month. Babies grow up. Wounds heal. And my words have made sentences that made paragraphs that made a story.
Nora Ericson received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2010. She lives and writes in Portland, OR, with her husband, Max, a first-year medical student; her son, Ry, avid pourer of water and builder of towers; and her two waggy dogs, Bean and Witchy. She has recently signed with an agent and has some exciting writing news that she is almost (but not quite!) able to share with you. In the meantime, she is about to take a very deep breath and dive back into her novel.