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Lite-Brite Times Square: Heather O’Neill on Writing and Mothering at the (Exact) Same Time

“Whereas I might have wished for fellow intellectuals, I instead had a very little girl.”

There was something about having a baby at twenty that made me wake up from childhood with an abruptness none of my friends experienced. It was like having a cold glass of water thrown in my face. I was all alone, with no help from my family or the father’s family. I had to figure out how to support myself and the little baby I had named Arizona. I did not want to be on welfare like the rest of my family was, because then I would be a third-generation welfare case. If you grow up on welfare, you know how hard it is to get off.

I went to meetings for young single mothers in the upstairs of a church. I sat in a circle of folding chairs around a pile of donated clothes we were allowed to root through while the guest speaker lectured about birth control, or locating a baby daddy, or how allowing illegal activity in your apartment might result in you losing custody of your child. One day a woman lectured to us about the dangers of being on welfare.

“It is a proven fact that once a person is on welfare for five years, they will almost never get off,” she said, looking around the circle to see whether her words were sinking in. The young mothers pulled on the cords of their hoodies, pulled out compacts and applied makeup, or nodded off from exhaustion.

I felt a surge of horror flood through me. I knew empirically that those words were true. I was going to do something with my life. Not only for myself, but for my daughter, too.

*

I was raised during the eighties when child psychology took a sudden shift and regarded events that happened in a child’s upbringing as responsible for their later characters. A cover story in a 1983 TIME magazine called “What Do Babies Know?” by Otto Friedrich stated:

The current discoveries about how much a baby sees and hears and knows at the very moment of birth make the parental responsibility seem even more formidable. Most important, in a way, is that these findings are changing the way people actually see their own children, changing how they talk to them, what they expect of them.

Any faults an individual might have were attributed to events in their childhood. There were articles that said your baby’s personality is fully formed by the time they are three years old. And there’s nothing you can do about it afterward. This was very alarming news. Imagine the consequences of every minute action. Were an orange to roll off the table and land on her head, she might hate Florida. If you played heavy metal at breakfast, a child might grow up and always wear their bangs in their eyes. Say you allowed a barking dog too close to your baby’s stroller—they could grow up to be a verbally abusive boss.

I would have to give her a wonderful childhood if I wanted her to be a wonderful person.

But part of her having an incredible destiny meant that I had to have one myself. Wasn’t it true that in order to ensure a happy childhood for a little girl, her mother would have to be happy and successful herself? It seemed obvious to me that it was.

I decided I would be a writer.

*

The one thing about my life that made me believe I was destined for more was that I wanted to be a writer. My writing had always set me apart in some way. It was the only thing I remember teachers in elementary school and high school praising me for. I had a small shelf of dinky trophies I had won from short story contests that meant the world to me. I had a pin for having the top grades in English at my high school that I liked to wear on my leather jacket. It was the only thing in the world I could imagine doing that would make me happy. I spoke to a social worker about educational programs for young single mothers like myself, with the baby reaching for the pen on the counter.

“I would like to study to be a writer,” I said. “A writer?”

“Yes, like novels and poems and such things.”

“Oh, no, no,” the social worker said from behind the glass partition. “I’m so sorry. But you can’t choose to be a writer. Here is a list of options you can choose, though.”

He slid me the pamphlet underneath the glass, looking genuinely sorry for spoiling my dreams. I didn’t even look at the pamphlet’s list of jobs. I was too intent on being a writer.

Never mind school, then, I thought. I’ll go right into the field.

I worked on freelance gigs, copy editing, anything. Then I wrote a screenplay that was produced by the CBC, much to everyone’s, including my own, surprise. It was about a teenage girl who wanders around Montreal with a suitcase, doing drugs and sleeping on the sidewalk.

The film garnered very mixed reviews, but it was the beginning of a theme I wanted to develop. And, more importantly, it gave me a paycheck that allowed me to take some time off to work on a novel.

*

There is nothing more isolating than staying home with a baby. I lived in the cheapest, most rundown apartments in the city. I could never call the landlord if there was something wrong with my apartment. If they did repairs, they would raise my rent and I wouldn’t be able to live there anymore. I once experienced a moment of Beckett-like absurdity when I found myself holding an umbrella over my head as I had my morning pee to protect myself from the water dripping from the ceiling. I later fixed the hole with duct tape.

People wanted to equate me with graffiti written on the wall of a decrepit building, whereas I wanted to see myself as a small bird painted on the wall in Versailles.

I could not work at home. Instead, I would set off to the library. I was quite adamant about carrying a briefcase around with me in those days. I thought it made me look like a professional. I hoped it might make people consider me differently, although it probably didn’t. I was in my mid-twenties and wore extravagant suits from Goodwill and pleather high-heeled boots. I wore my hair in a ponytail on my head, and regularly passed for a teenager and my daughter’s older sister. Much of the time, I had to bring my daughter along to the library with me. Arizona also had a briefcase of sorts. She had a large plastic tool box with a bright red handle that she would fill with art supplies. We both headed off with our briefcases in tow.

Being in the library requires a certain level of decorum and quiet. In the adult section of the library, the patrons arrived generally by themselves. They communicated with no one. They found themselves a chair and remained huddled over their newspaper or book or tax forms for hours. If they did something as human as nodding off, they would be kicked out immediately.

Arizona and I were able to be quiet, but we lacked decorum. The children’s section was a little more lenient when it came to rules. A child would be splayed on the floor staring at the ceiling with their mittens and boots lying around them as though they were pieces of them that had broken off. There were children playing Battleship. There would be a child sitting in a chair shaped like a giant hand, reading up on the increasingly absurdly horrific circumstances of orphans while eating a box of Goldfish crackers. There would be a child who was so indecisive about which Asterix comic he was going to check out that he seemed quite mad. So we would set up in the children’s section of the library. It was unclear which world I was a part of anyway, that of adults, or that of children. I felt very much like a teenager who was exceptionally mature for their age.

I would take out my notebook and pens. I would also have a binder filled with inspirational prompts for the novel I was working on. I would cut out photographs from fashion and art magazines, ones that captured the strange, daydreamy, insouciant look of people on the margins, ones who translated the hidden beauty of that world. I wanted to translate what was beautiful about my life, in an attempt to prove my humanity in a novel—in a metaphorical language—despite the fact that everyone around me seemed hell-bent on telling me I was a pathetic loser who was contributing to the world being an ugly place. People wanted to equate me with graffiti written on the wall of a decrepit building, whereas I wanted to see myself as a small bird painted on the wall in Versailles.

Arizona had very different skills than I did. She was extremely crafty. She would take out her sketchbook and markers and begin making drawings of frogs who wore bowties and burped out thought bubbles filled with odd statements, replete with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. “Healp me mother. It is not I am frog!”

The writing of a novel takes several years, and as she became older, she would take out felt and sewing needles and thread and make extraordinary donkeys. Other children at the library would regularly come to see whatever project Arizona was working on. They would stand as near to her as possible, leaning forward on their tiptoes. They wouldn’t speak to her. They regarded her as a master engaged in her craft and they knew better than to disturb her.

They were not at all interested in what I was doing. There is very little that is objectively interesting about a writer scribbling in a notebook. From the outside it looks as though you are engaged in the same activity, year after year.

*

When we got home from the library, we would read the books we had taken out together. Arizona loved being read to. I loved children’s books, too. This was a good arrangement because that was about all I liked to do in the house. She handed me paperback novels and we would lie in bed and read them from cover to cover.

I had gone to school to study literature which, more or less, means learning to read in a critical, thoughtful, engaged way. I was a master reader. I could tear through philosophical texts while riding on the subway. Before I had my daughter, my evening reading consisted of writers like Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Wole Soyinka, Frantz Fanon, and Angela Davis.

Once a critical reader, always a critical reader. Now I found myself doing close readings of texts by Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, Ludwig Bemelmans, Beatrix Potter, and Astrid Lindgren. We went through the histories of giraffes with height complexes, bears who suffered from depression, mice who were tired of their feet.

The contrast in reading material was such a strange juxtaposition that I found it inevitably infected my writing with a syntactical preponderance for childlike phrasing and absurdity. There was now something in my writing style that was a cross between Jean Genet and Dr. Seuss. It encompassed both the lurid sexual desires of adult outsiders and the awkward pronouncements of curious children for whom all words are new and have multiple meanings. It brought to my writing a joyful idiosyncrasy and playful transgression I’m sure might not have existed there otherwise.

*

It is so hard to balance having a child with doing anything. You have to look for every free moment you can. If I waited to have alone time, it would never come. I didn’t only write that novel in the library. I wrote whenever my daughter was playing or distracted or engaged in something else. I wrote that novel everywhere.

I wrote at a plastic table under a red-and-white-striped sun umbrella at the amusement park. I wrote on a bench in the zoo next to a tiger who carefully imagined me lying in a giant hot dog bun with relish on my head. I wrote in the playroom of a McDonald’s. I wrote in the cafeteria of an Ikea. I wrote on a long-stained chesterfield at the Salvation Army. I wrote in the corridors of a ballet studio with skinny ballerinas going to and fro. I wrote at the cafeteria in the museum while eating a small slice of lemon pie balanced on a plate. I wrote at intermission during a play about a clown who was depressed and did everything on roller skates. (It is hard to wash dishes with roller skates, let alone take a bath or put pants on. But it is very, very beautiful. Hence, his depression.)

I wrote in notebooks and was in desperate need of a computer. I met a single mother who was running a scam. (Single mothers, you can’t trust any of them!) She said the government was giving single mothers who earned under a certain income $800 to buy a computer. She told me she knew a guy who worked in a computer store. He would give me a receipt for a computer and I would give him a hundred dollars, while keeping $700 from the government.

It is so hard to balance having a child with doing anything. You have to look for every free moment you can. If I waited to have alone time, it would never come.

I was very pleased at this proposition. But I did not want to scam the government. I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. I asked the computer store guy for the information and paperwork, and took them home to fill out and send to the government. When I did receive the voucher in the mail, I was thrilled. Naturally, I took it to another computer store. I didn’t trust the scammer to sell me a computer. I might buy a computer from the scammer, take the box home and open it, only to find a Lite-Brite toy in there.

My friend’s brother gave me a lift home from the store with the computer in the trunk. I typed and typed and typed. I gave up everything I had once believed would characterize my twenties. I gave up on travelling. I gave up on getting more schooling. I gave up on the idea of living in New York City. I gave up on being a fixture on the club scene. I gave up on having fabulous boyfriends who were mad about me. I definitely gave up on having a husband. Instead, I typed and typed and typed.

Then one day the computer blew up. The monitor made a banging noise as though it had just been shot. And smoke began to escape from it.

I decided the novel was done.

*

I was now going to try and get it published. I had gone into credit card debt to finish writing it. If I did not sell it, I had no idea what I was going to do. I would be completely ruined and destitute. I was turning thirty. I had banked everything on having a successful novel. This was, of course, the most hare-brained money-making scheme. Being a single mother working on a novel is like asking a clairvoyant to book a ticket on the Titanic. No, no, no, it’s a bad idea. But when you have a calling, you have a calling. There’s nothing you can do except listen to it.

I was wary about the cost of printing the novel at the copy store. I decided to get it printed while I was in the CBC building, recording a story. The second floor was empty except for one producer. He was hunched over his computer. “Go and distract him,” I told my daughter.

Arizona turned immediately and went down the hallway. She stood inside the door of his office, as though that were a perfectly natural thing to do. And she began chatting adorably with him.

I had a floppy disk in my pocket. I went into an empty office. I slid the disk into the console, pulled the file up on the screen and pressed Print. I closed the file, got off the computer, slipped out of the office and hurried over to the printer, which had already begun spitting out pages. I kept saying, “Come on, come on, come on,” to the printer.

At that point something rather dire happened. The producer Arizona was talking to decided to print something as well. He poked his head out of the office, and saw I was in queue for a printing job, so he went back into his office and continued chatting with Arizona.

“What is your mother doing,” he asked. “Printing a novel?”

“Yes,” Arizona answered. “As a matter of fact, she is.”

“What? Really?” he said.

I started scrambling to pull the last pages of the novel out of the printer. I shoved the manuscript in my oversized briefcase and slung it over my shoulder. I walked down the hallway, took Arizona by the hand, waved at the producer, and headed down the hallway. We picked up our pace and didn’t stop until we had pushed through the heavy CBC doors.

I was now out on René Lévesque Boulevard. The sun was down. We walked through the sordid little Montreal streets around the area. It was filled with homeless people and drug addicts holding out their paper coffee cups for change and their pieces of cardboard on which they had written their sales pitches in magic marker. Some claimed to need the money for things like their children or their dogs. Others claimed they were saving up for an evening hamburger or a bus ride back to Nova Scotia. Their demands were so small.

What was it that saved me from that fate? Was it the baby, having to straighten out my life, so that I couldn’t continue the self-destructive spiral that would have led me to sitting on the curb with a sign in my hand, an unpublishable poem on it in Magic Marker? Or was it my desire to write that made me crystallize everything into one goal?

This book had been a Northern Light that I was following this whole time. I had been in such a desperate lost place with no direction, I had looked to it as though it were the North Star. Any action that diverged from that star, I avoided.

Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

We turned onto Ste-Catherine Street, in what is known as the Gay Village. The streets were lit up in a million colors, shining from the different restaurants and nightclubs. People sat at tables drinking wine and eating and laughing. It made it seem as though everyone were bathing in the glow of a Christmas tree, in the living room of a perfect family. A family in which you really felt included. A family in which you felt as though you belonged.

I walked with Arizona under all the colors of the rainbow. And we had indeed finally found our pot of gold. I had a novel in my purse. Now I just had to find a way to sell it.

*

I had written a few essays for an editor who ran an online magazine in Canada. He then took a job at The New York Times Magazine. He had told me one of the editors he worked with was married to a literary agent. Here was my chance! I would pass my book to this editor, who would give it to his colleague, who would then give it to her husband… the agent! The agent would love it and ask me for a meeting. It was still an era when it seemed normal to do things in person. I had heard you had to network. That was how proper adults did things.

So the next week I bought two Greyhound bus tickets to New York City. That was where people went to be artists and have their dreams come true. I knew this from Kermit the Frog’s Muppet movies. He was the only one of the few male figures in my life who was decent. Even his foibles and flaws were decent. My life would have been so much better if only I had met a man like Kermit the Frog.

On the bus ride, I pulled out my manuscript. I had forgotten to print the numbers on the bottom corners of the pages. I handed it to Arizona and gave her a pencil to write the numbers. “I got this!” she said. When I looked over several minutes later, she was at 203. When I looked over several minutes after that, she was at 147. Well, who was to say page numbers had to be chronological? Weren’t they in large part decorative? I hoped no one would notice. (Reader, they would.)

As with everything I did, it had to also be an activity for Arizona. This was because she needed to have a wonderful childhood. She needed to be exposed to the world and culture so she would grow up lovely. When we got to New York I was so excited for her to see Times Square. I had gone to New York City with her dad when I was nineteen years old. I had always thought Montreal was such a big giant city filled with the most beautiful nightlife and signs. But I was in no way prepared for Times Square. I had just stood there blinking at it. I felt like I was a fetus that had just been born and was squinting at the hospital room and its mother’s face, totally bewildered that the world could be so much more enormous than they thought.

I thought I could experience it all again through Arizona’s eyes. I tied a blindfold over her face when the bus became stuck in traffic driving into the city. She sat there next to me in the enforced darkness. When the bus reached its destination, I took her hand in my one hand and the suitcase in the other. She stayed very close to my body as I navigated the bustling bodies that were all around us. Some people moved out of our way when they noticed this odd couple, but it was New York so most people didn’t pay us any mind. I yelled at Arizona that we were going up a flight of stairs. And then once we were outside, I didn’t have to say anything. The air was filled with so much noise, honking, footsteps, construction, voices. Then when we were in a spot on the sidewalk in the middle of Times Square, I pulled off her blindfold and yelled, “Behold!”

Arizona stood there, her eyes wide open, looking around, in obvious awe. She did not say anything for a moment and instead she just looked and looked. She looked so incredibly small. And isn’t that how we all feel: tiny in the face of wonder? And yet in the enormity of the world and all its billions of people and its infinity of windows and doors and things, we had our own people to whom we are the most important thing, and who are the most important thing to us. Arizona and I were already the main characters in each other’s lives. But now we went to see whether I could be of relevance in anyone else’s.

After we dropped the book off at the New York Times building, a few blocks away, we stood next to each other in the elevator going down, rather nervous.

“We’ve been writing this book forever,” Arizona said. “I feel like we’ve been working on it my whole life.”

I found it funny that Arizona spoke of the book as something we had collaborated on. But when I reflected on it, I realized she was not wrong. She had been my constant companion, always physically nearby when I was writing, and the ideas and imagination of people who surround you, for better or worse, affect the tenor and composition of your inner narratives. Whereas I might have wished for fellow intellectuals, I instead had a very little girl. She had forced me to write in playgrounds and zoos and had odd speculations. And weren’t her illustrations and felt donkeys influence for the tender, broken, vulnerable world I was creating in the book, which I had called Lullabies for Little Criminals?

“I know. But let’s not think about it anymore for a while. I don’t want to sit on a bench and worry about it. Let’s go see the sights!”

*

We went to Coney Island. We went to the freak show and watched a woman with tattoos all over her face eat live insects out of glass jars. We went to the American Museum of Natural History and saw walls covered in butterflies and a replica of a whale so big it looked as though it had swallowed the ocean from a water fountain and was now worried about the consequences of spitting it out. We went to the Strand bookstore and spent the entire afternoon wandering farther and farther away from each other in the stacks and then finding each other as though we were both looking for opposite paths through a labyrinth.

We stayed at different friends’ apartments. One day, we went to the Tenement Museum where they showed the type of apartment a family had to live in at the turn of the century. As the guide lectured on the tight confined space of the oppressive apartment, Arizona and I turned to each other and shrugged. We would have taken the apartment in a second, if we could ever afford such a glamorous space.

Whereas I might have wished for fellow intellectuals, I instead had a very little girl.

Afterward, we walked on the Bowery together. I told Arizona about how this was a famous street, noted for its historical abundance of hobos. I was pulling my suitcase and was dressed in an American Apparel dress that was really just a long undershirt. I had once tried to dress more conservatively. But I had looked awkward. Like a criminal at a murder trial who was wearing a suit for the first time in their life. So, instead, I wore what I felt pretty in.

A man lying on a bench looked up at me passing and said, “That’s a beautiful dress.” Well, I thought, if man who has been so damaged by the world that he is lying on a bench notices that I am beautiful, so must everyone else. It put a skip in my step.

We walked to Washington Square Park. Arizona immediately ran toward the playground, hoping to make some friends. I went to the pay phone to make some calls. I called my friend Starlee. She told me an agent had been calling around looking for me. The whole time I had been wandering around the city, he had been looking for me! I took down his number and called him. He asked where I was and when I told him the park, he told me to wait, that he’d be right over.

I changed in the phone booth. Just like I was Superman. Finally! I was a position where I was called on to use my superpowers in the outside world. Instead of going around in my bumbling, inept, inappropriate role of mother, I now had to switch into my writer persona. I had a cheap pinstriped suit rolled up like a danish at the bottom of the suitcase. I had brought this along in case such an occasion might arise. I shook it out. It was made of synthetic material, so I didn’t have to worry about any wrinkles.

I pulled the suitcase into the playground and gave it to Arizona. “Keep your eye on this,” I said. “I’m going over there to meet the agent.”

“Okay!” she said.

I went to find a bench in plain view, a little ways from the playground. I sat there waiting. I looked over to Arizona. She was on the other side of the gate, watching, and she gave me a thumbs-up. I winked back.

 

_____________________________________________________________

“Lite-Brite Times Square” © 2022 by Heather O’Neill, excerpted from Good Mom on Paper: Writers on Creativity and Motherhood, edited by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee. Used with permission of Book*hug Press.

Heather O'Neill
Heather O'Neill
Heather O'Neill is a novelist and essayist. Her works include Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, and When We Lost Our Heads. She lives in Montreal.





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