Szilvia Molnar on Knowing When to Kill Your Darlings
“I sometimes pulled back on reality. But, on the page, I gave close to everything.”
Almost instantly after giving birth for the first time I felt a wave of shame wash over me. This wasn’t on my birthing plan (not that I had one) and I couldn’t escape it for weeks and months because I was lodged underneath it. And while it had consumed me, I was also not getting much sleep. And while I was not getting much sleep, I was also healing from giving birth, I mean hurting. And since shame was involved, I turned to literature instead of seeking an outward kind of help, like therapy.
But in my newfound state, I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for. Few things comforted. So, while I was home alone with my newborn I came up with a story about a woman who doesn’t want to leave her apartment after the arrival of her baby. The idea felt Kafkaesque, claustrophobic in its smallness, but it kept me entertained late into the blue nights and white mornings. This was going to be my novel.
But I couldn’t write because my arms were holding a baby. I would just spin and spin an idea around in my head until I got a moment to put the baby down. I jotted a few sentences down on my phone before she began crying again. I had a snack. Maybe a nap. I nursed. I submitted to my new state with great reluctance. I went on repeat. This was crafting.
In order to create some conflict to drive my novel forward I had to add a second line to the summary: Someone knocks on my protagonist’s door. This someone is also unhappy.Time makes it eventually possible to write about the impossible.
Once I had my surprise visit, I had some scaffolding around the themes of postpartum depression, which is one of the main themes I wanted to explore in the book.
But this wasn’t enough. If I have two mopey characters bonding over their separate grief, I need a third person to shake things up a bit.
There’s a husband, I thought, while hooking up to a breast pump. He is loving and loves my protagonist—and he needs her to leave the apartment. Because if she doesn’t leave, there is no marriage, no future for them. Is she ready for that? I asked myself while the pump began its monotonous extraction sound.
I drank some water. I took a few notes. I had another snack. I logged my daughter’s last soiled diaper. I put the milk in the fridge. I had another nap. I had another glass of water and emptied the diaper pail. I kissed my real husband goodnight, or was it good morning?
This was my new normal.
I spent about two years collecting notes, pages, and scenes. I put out little feelers in my writing group or with my agent, checking to see if they felt I was on the right track. They were encouraging. But then the pandemic happened and for a summer it was impossible to write. If you let time pass, though, time makes it eventually possible to write about the impossible. It also felt possible to have another baby.
This is crafting.
If you take an hour of your day and write for five days a week for say two years, you can accomplish more than you think. I always took my hour in the evenings because of my day job. I usually wanted to take more, but my husband asked for at least one evening a week where I wasn’t writing (this was only fair) and I left one day open for friends, events, or just to rest.
Sometimes I still revolted from our agreement and stayed up too late and tried to quietly sneak into bed at night. The next day he would bark at me because he was right, we did have a deal, and I barked back with the promise to be more present. I also needed more sleep.
During this time I missed out on some good TV, plenty of zeitgeisty articles, and many thick books, but I was crafting so I didn’t care. I was also running up against time because of Baby #2.
So, I took help from Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer and arranged writing “sprints” with fellow writing friends. From the comfort of my own home, I attended Lenka Clayton’s “An Artist Residency in Motherhood”—twice. I deleted social media on my phone certain months of the year. Again, I often missed out, but kind friends kept me in the loop.
After some time of braiding, building, and strengthening the scaffolding, I had to take some steps back and start listening. I sent a more solid draft to four or five friends. I went for many long walks while I waited for their response. I heard their feedback and agreed with most. I went back to my desk at night with Baby #2 keeping me company, tickling my insides. By now, my husband and I had a small home office setup next to each other in a shed he built in our backyard. Some would say, this was the new normal.
Ten days before my son arrived, my agent sold my book. As I started my recovery in the hospital bed, I sheepishly felt like I was doing research. Making the distinction between my craft and my real life was becoming impossible but pulling the two apart would perhaps also hurt both worlds.
It’s here that I decided to pause for a bit from the writing itself, even though the crafting was still happening underneath. I had to, my family needed me. So, while I was waiting for edits from my editor, I took many many naps with a beautiful round boy on my chest.
I am probably on draft fifty when I find the love story in my dark little book. This is when it started feeling like I was done with the book. But I had to make sure that element stayed subtle in order to not reveal too much too soon. Sometimes lived experiences are more on-the-nose than fictional ones.
There was, for example, a scene I wrote between my protagonist and her husband where he cleans the sticky residue she has from where the epidural needle was taped to her back. Maybe in the real world there wouldn’t have been much more thought given to this simple gesture, but I ended up cutting this kind act, however simple the gesture is, because it becomes too loaded as soon as you describe it on the page. And with this edit, what is normal (the everything, the nothing) and what is crafting came together.
Hold still he says
I’m trying I say. It hurts.
Man, how did you get these marks anyway? They’re impossible to get off.
From the epidural, they taped it against my skin.
At the hospital, they told me that baby oil would get the stickiness off. That’s what John is rubbing on my back. He is wiping it off with a cotton cloth. He is focused on what he is doing.
There’s also some gray tape residue from the catheter that they put on my arm. I show John the underside of my arm. He moves on to that place next.
We are sitting at the edge of our bed. Button is sleeping in the nursery next to our bedroom.
In my mesh underwear, I’m naked from the waist up and as I bend forward, my breasts droop down low, almost touching my belly button. The veins on my breasts branch out across my chest, long and wide, giving off a lilac hue. Soon enough the milk bar will open.
The apartment is quiet. We are also quiet.
It’s coming off, John says after a quiet minute of wiping my back with his right hand. The other is on my shoulder.
If I had given all of myself into this book, I probably wouldn’t be here writing this piece on how it all came together. There wouldn’t have been anything left of me. So, I sometimes pulled back on reality. But, on the page, I gave close to everything.
These pages comfort me now, I hope they will comfort others too.
The Nursery by Szilvia Molnar is available from Pantheon, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.