Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Adrienne Celt writes about The Daughters from Liveright.
Her Ambitions: how my mother helped me write my first book
My mother told me that she was going to be an artist, but had been convinced by my grandmother that she really loved children, and would be happier as a teacher. Even at ages six, seven, eight, I couldn’t believe that she’d bought into this: my mother painted, she collaged, she judged the regional elementary school art competition. At one point she took a stained glass course; at another, she lent me her camera for my photography elective, which I promptly dropped and cracked. It was clear that the compass of her heart pointed towards creation, and I guess it was just her bad luck that she gave birth to so many children before she tried to create something else. Something other than us.
I don’t mean to imply that she didn’t love us. She did, she does. She was a very good mother. But you could see how she bounced off the contours of her existence, always surprised when a new direction repelled her. Sometimes, she took one of the comics we read together – The Adventures of Tintin, Calvin and Hobbes – and meticulously re-created a panel. First in pencil, then in paint, finally layering ink over the top and miming every idle scribble of the original cartoon. It was easier for the artist, she’d say, blowing hair off her forehead in frustration. For them it was just a squiggle of the pen. For me, it’s – this way! That way! No, the first way again! She wanted to do it exactly as the cartoonist had, but that was hard.
For her own work, she created a signature, distinctive and witty. At a glance you could appreciate the economical use of space, each letter extending off the last – nothing wasted – spelling out her first name (not her given name, but the one she chose and legally adopted), which is the Chinese word for little sister, shortened. She wanted that signature to appear in newspapers and on billboards; I’m not sure she ever told me so, but I knew. It’s too bold an image to have been dreamed up for refrigerator doodles, sketching chatter. It’s signature that declares itself. A signature with ambition.
When I decided I wanted to be a writer, my mother encouraged me with her natural confidence and over-enthusiasm. “You could be a prodigy,” she said. I remember we were at a gas station, and I was standing outside the car with her, wrinkling my nose at the fumes. She told me: “You’re only eleven. If you write a novel now, everyone will want to talk about it.” That seemed like a delicious possibility. Now that I’m older, I know that publicity is not the point of art – though they do tend to get muddled. But I was a middle child. Why wouldn’t I want everyone to talk about me?
My mother sent me to science camp. She bought me music lessons, and drove me to soccer. She was always on the lookout for something that would mark me as distinctive – although I don’t think it was a conscious effort on her part, and I only see it now, in retrospect. I never felt pressure to get good grades or perform in plays or read the huge stacks of books she brought me from the library – I did those things because I wanted to. But I couldn’t forget the story of art school, abandoned. The rueful and disbelieving way my mother laughed when she told me, “Yeah, I dropped out and majored in developmental psychology, so I could get a job in a school.”
You’re never too old to pursue your passion – I believe that completely. But I sometimes wonder if time accrues like plaque, putting an extra barrier in your way when you do at last begin. When the youngest of us (I am the second of four children) was finally in school, my mother took night classes, picking up where she left off with painting and photography and jumping with great verve into new forms like video editing and digital media. She never lost the manic confidence that told her she would be famous soon, that recognition was right around the corner, but she took a job at her community college and never left it until forced to by circumstances beyond her control. It was a good job. I get it. No matter your age it’s hard to leave something comfortable in pursuit of that big destiny that’s supposed to find you, any day now. Any day. But she seemed to want more. She still talked about it. She still does.
I don’t know if my drive comes entirely from this fear – not the fear that I’ll become like my mother, who I admire, but that I’ll regret like my mother. I write every morning. I am hungry for what I can get. My daily happiness is measured mostly in minutes lost to beautiful sentences (which of course is no loss at all) and the gasp that comes with a new idea. If my mother hadn’t dropped out of her art program, would I still have this fuel? I think so – I hope so. But I can’t be certain.
This is the story my mother told me about teaching – the only one I can recall: she was working with a kindergarten class, and they had a terrarium full of baby chicks, which the students had observed from eggs to hatchlings. The children weren’t supposed to touch the chicks without direct supervision, which is the kind of rule you can completely understand, and also completely expect them to try and break. Most of the time, the height of the terrarium and the level of adult supervision in the room did the trick. But not always.
A particularly empathetic girl named Kristen decided one day that she really loved the chicks – really loved them a lot – and she pushed a chair over to their cage and reached in and picked one out. As my mother told it, she stroked the chicken’s soft little head. Stroked it again, softly, with the back of one finger. She was trying to be gentle, but little children don’t always know. On the third or forth stroke, she snapped the chick’s neck, and for a second she stood there. Horrified, mesmerized. But then another kid saw her and figured it out.
“Kristen killed the chicken! Kristen killed the chicken!”
The taunt caused the little girl to drop the lifeless chick to the ground and sprint outside to hide in a tree. My mother found her there a few minutes later and had to coax her down, quieting her sobs. I remember the taunt vividly, the way my mother delivered it, borrowing the other children’s mournful glee. She thought she was telling me a story about how kids can be cruel. After all, she knew that Kristen hadn’t meant any harm. But what I remember, mostly, is that she always seemed a little bit impressed with Kristen. Not because of the way she weathered the teasing, or stood up to the other kids once her tears had died away. No, she was impressed because Kristen wanted something, and reached out to get it. It wasn’t easy. It didn’t go well for her. But she reached out, and she tried.