Accidentally on Purpose: A One-Night Stand, My Unplanned Parenthood and Loving the Best Mistake I Ever Made.
Of the questions I've gotten repeatedly while on book tour for my memoir of unplanned parenthood, Accidentally on Purpose, there is only one that stumps me. How did I write a book while working full time and raising my toddler as a single parent?
I have to stop myself from blurting out, I have no idea.
What I'm usually thinking, behind the podium, is, am I awake? Maybe it's still spring 2007 and I've fallen asleep on the keyboard in the middle of the night. This isn't summer 2008 or book tour at all, but a particularly seductive dream, one in which I'm clutching a finished Tiffany-blue hardcover book that is allegedly by me.
Then I remember it has to be real, because there are -- if I'm lucky -- about a dozen people looking at me expectantly. If I were dreaming, wouldn't I be drawing Sedaris-style throngs? And wouldn't Joan Didion be in the front row, smiling proudly?
So how did I do it? Well initially, under ideal circumstances. I was on leave from my job as a movie critic for a Bay Area newspaper, taking part in a year-long fellowship at Stanford. I was being paid to take classes and join my fellow fellows twice a week for such strenuous activities as eating and talking. Both of which I excel at.
Free from normal work stress, I began to envision a memoir along the lines of Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott's seminal motherhood book, but with more angst/panic about being a single mother. It would also have to include something Lamott hadn't, the tricky territory of negotiating a co-parenting relationship with my child's father. We'd had a very fruitful one night stand when I was 39 and he was 29. I'd discovered joy in an untraditional life. I wanted to write a book that might encourage others to do the same, but that could also stand on its own: one woman's funny, sometimes sad but ultimately happy story.
Halfway through the fellowship I committed to teaching a class in movie criticism at UC Berkeley the next fall. I knew it would be hard to take on a second gig on top of my movie critic job, but I wanted to diversify. And the book still seemed like only a vague possibility.
Mostly motivated by fear of being beaten to the punch by some other writer, I left Stanford that spring with about five chapters written. Then I got lucky and found a great agent who sold the book on the basis of that chunk of the manuscript. My deadline was seven months away.
Something had to go. The first step I took was to try to weasel out of the Berkeley teaching gig. The university said no. Firmly. So I steeled myself for the most absurd workload I'd ever agreed to. I wanted to cry. I did cry.
So what happened? It turned out that returning to my job wasn't half bad; motherhood has made me a sharper, more efficient critic. And teaching itself was invigorating. In those very few spare moments that fall, I chipped away at my own story, as Lamott says, bird by bird.
When the class ended at Christmas, I took a few weeks off from my day job and managed to finish a rough first draft. It was a mess. For the first time ever, I missed a deadline. Asking for another month made me feel guilty. Taking another month after that made me feel like a criminal. Then my editor sent me an 11-page critique of that draft. Back to the trenches.
The following months passed in a haze. I stopped drinking wine or watching television (except for Entourage and The Sopranos). I rarely went to bed before 2 am. I stopped seeing friends. My mornings were for my son, my days for the newspaper and often evenings too, since I was going to screenings. After Dolan's bedtime and doing the dishes (oh how I longed for a dishwasher), then I had time for the book. I'd caffeinate at 11 pm, grimly reaching for coffee after a lifetime of just tea.
I hit a point where I was actually gaining energy as the night went on (almost like that exercise high that makes you crave more). A few times, I worked until 5 am and then woke, bleary eyed, to my boy at 7:30. On the weekends, Matt, my ever-supportive co-parent, would spell me from Dolan-duty on either Saturday or Sunday and I'd head to the library or a cafe. Twice I checked into cheap hotels.
I took away a few important lessons from the experience. The first is that missing deadline is occasionally a necessity, especially when you've set unrealistic goals for yourself from the beginning. The second is that endurance for work can be built, in the same way a marathoner builds strength (Mentally, I'm all flab again, sadly.)
Finally, there is nothing like working so hard you can barely remember the pain to make you think, I can do this again. So while in some ways it is true that I have no idea how I did it, I take comfort from knowing that somehow I did. That, along with some discipline, is what is going to get me over the mountain of that next book.
Mary Pols is the author of "Accidentally on Purpose" (June 2008, Ecco/Harper Collins), a memoir with one of those long subtitles ("A One-Night Stand, My Unplanned Parenthood and Loving the Best Mistake I Ever Made") that give away a lot (but not everything). A native of Maine, Pols has spent most of her professional life as a journalist in California. For the last eight years, she was the film critic for the Contra Costa Times. She and her son Dolan, 4, live in Northern California. She is working on her next book, a novel.