by Amanda Gibson

I’ve made a decision: this is the year of my novel. Until now I’ve written only short fiction and personal essays, a novel a chimera in the distance. But as I’ve grown more comfortable with the craft, the idea for a novel has taken shape, materializing as a story I am compelled to write. The protagonist’s story is one to which I’m drawn — a woman, who, despite the cultural and social mores of Victorian England, achieves a scientific first. I’ve formed a plan to tackle the challenge. First, I’ll research the history and setting, sketch characters, then outline.  In six months I’ll start a draft. With my plan in place, I’m ready…I think.

The hesitation catches, a hiccup in my resolve. My inner critic takes advantage of the pause. Who are you to write a novel? The critic laughs. How can you possibly know enough to pull this off? I’ve taken writing courses, read copiously, written reams of material. True, I don’t have an MFA, but that’s not a requirement. Admit it, even if you finish it, it will just sit in the proverbial drawer of gigabytes on your hard drive.  

Before I formulate a response, an image of my mother’s potting wheel looms in a decades-old memory. The inner critic is silent as we both survey the scene. Dust rimes the hulking metal body and spinning wheel, cobwebs stretch to the bare shelves in the greenhouse window. The machine once sat in the glass alcove of our barn basement on the way to the horse stalls. I don’t know why my parents placed the wheel in the barn, but there likely wasn’t a place for it in the house. Where it landed offered a nearby sink, shelves, and plenty of natural light. I expect my mother fantasized about the hours she’d spend in the sunny window making art.

I recall my mother using the machine just once. I was young, around six. I was astounded by the ease with which her fingers coaxed a symmetrical vase from wet clay. My attempts to mimic her failed, the clay collapsing in heap. I like to think she used the wheel often, perhaps when I was in school, but I don’t remember many ceramic pieces. One blue-washed vase she made graces my shelf. My mother also painted, sewed, and crafted delicate scenes in hollowed-out eggs to hang on the Christmas tree, but the demands of five children and an unhappy marriage whittled the time she spent on her art to almost none. Sometimes, on the way to the horse stalls, I’d pump the foot pedal to watch the wheel spin, but as the thing grew dirty, I’d avert my gaze when walking by. I was too young to understand why the dusty potting wheel inspired in me such a mix of pity and sadness.

This isn’t the first time the potting wheel has come to mind. I’ve summoned the image many times in recent years when I’ve shunted aside my writing to drive kids to basketball practice or to make dinner. Like my mother once was, I am a homemaker and semi-frustrated artist. I left my law career five years ago to care for our two children. My husband, the breadwinner of our family, has a stressful job and travels regularly. In return for giving up my career, my husband and I agreed I would take time to write, a passion simmering in me since I was young.

My resolve returns. I won’t be deterred. The inner critic hunkers down, like my dog at my feet when I sit at my writing desk. “If you’re not going to pay attention to me,” they both seem to say, “I’ll take a nap.” I will embark on this personal journey with the words of Ann Beattie as my mantra. “Writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock.” I will do this to honor my ambition, and my mother’s, too.  I’ll make it to the other bank, a bit wet perhaps, but firmly on solid ground.

Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.