Jane and Michael Stern Book Signing

Jane’s Diary: On Books and Babies

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Michael and I never had kids. It was not a formal decision, it was more like that classic cartoon that shows a woman looking in the mirror exclaiming, “Oh my God, I’m forty and I forgot to have children!”

The funny thing is that when I review my life, I feel like I have had dozens of children; albeit ones with pretty covers and paper pages. Along with Michael, I have reproduced the best essence of myself through writing. In forty books and countless magazine columns, we found creative ways to tell the world that we fully lived our lives in a way that did not involve diapers and college tuition.

Michael and I were married at age 21– ridiculously young by today’s mating standards. We had all the time in the world to start a family. But we never did, at least not in the traditional way. Instead, we made books together and brought dogs, parrots, cats, horses into our lives as tangible love objects.

As our years of marriage sailed into the double digits we still did not have babies for the same reason we did not have real jobs. We were square pegs in round holes; we could not navigate normally.

Fresh out of college, it dawned on us after attending a few job fairs (at the vehement suggestion of both sets of frustrated parents) that if we each took a job we would not be able to hang out together all the time. A real job would take time away from getting in the car and finding great places to eat. It would be an obstacle to going to the movies in the middle of the day, shopping at flea markets for macrame owls and silly paint-by-numbers paintings, or endlessly revisiting the advantages and disadvantages of various breeds of dogs, or basically anything that happily occupied us 24/7. Real life simply did not fit our schedule.

Because we needed to put a leaky roof over our heads, we did give real jobs a try for a while. We both earned solid F’s.

Michael drove a cab on the night shift in crime-ridden New Haven, I sold fountain pens at a stationary store. Briefly, I worked for a hoity-toity gift shop that specialized in snooty objects that I had never heard of. “Mrs. Van Pelt needs a new bobeche for her lamp,” the owner summoned me.

One summer I worked in the un-air-conditioned bowels of Yale’s Sterling Library, where my job was to clean unspeakable crud out of books with a large gum eraser. Michael taught film studies at an inner city Community College where the course was offered for credit to the school basketball team because watching a movie was deemed the apex of their intellectual capacity.

At one desperate point, I tried a paper route where I stuffed flyers into rural mailboxes until I burned out the car’s brakes by stopping every twenty feet. Michael and I took out an ad in a little town gazette offering our services as wedding photographers. No one called.

And so, failing at everything else, we came up with the ludicrous notion of being writers. We had never thought of writing as a career. We never studied English or journalism. This may sound very Zen, but I think we became writers because nobody told us we couldn’t. We were also unhindered by not knowing any writers nor anything about publishing. Blissfully ignorant, we blundered ahead. Like little kids who declare themselves cowboys or astronauts, we called ourselves writers. And so we were.

As it turned out, we were well suited for the job. Becoming writers gave us the precious gift of mutual creation, probably akin to what parents feel about producing a child. The more books we wrote and the more our pregnant friends shared their experiences, the closer the two seemed. The gestation process for both involves living dreamily in your head knowing that deep inside you magic is being made. You are certain the world has never seen anything like that which you will soon bring forth. From a glimmer in the eye to a dramatic march to the point of fruition, the baby/book grows.

After your creation emerges into the real world, you feel both high and mentally and physically exhausted. You are at once proud and fearful for the innocent thing you have tossed into a disinterested and often cruel world. You want people to look at what you made and exclaim that it is the most singular and perfect thing they have ever seen. This will rarely (if ever) happen, but you love it anyway, imperfections and all.

You will always want to protect it and defend it, but the cord has been severed and it is now out there on its own, carving a solitary path, finding its destiny.

The world is a playground filled with bullies, literary and otherwise. The best you can hope for is that no one will not kick its ass too hard. You will viscerally feel each sting or pat on the head because whether baby or book, it is forever a part of you.

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