Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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Comments Jan Ellison

My memory of those first moments after the news arrived is decidedly vague, but I suspect I leapt around and made a lot of noise, that I was, in general, an embarrassment to myself. I know that when I came to, my children were gathered around me, their faces raised in alarm.

What, mommy? Mommy, mommy, what?

I'd been reading the 2006 O. Henrys only the day before, taking apart Alice Munro's starkly beautiful story, "Passion," paragraph by paragraph, and the book was sitting right on the kitchen counter. I picked it up and waved it around, trying to explain.

But what did I win, the kids wanted to know, what was the prize?

What is it they wanted for me? A great deal of money, perhaps. Or some heavy golden thing. A trophy that could be displayed on a mantel. A medal that could be hung around my neck. A game ball, famously autographed, that could be shown off to friends. Something redolent with authority, celebrity, mastery.

I tried to explain that it was, for me, all of that. That I'd been reading the O. Henrys for years. That I'd studied those stories, I'd savored them, I'd taken them apart--over and over--with awe, with envy, with fierce pleasure. I'd kept them near, on my bedside table, as if through osmosis my own writing might achieve something of their grace. I tried to explain that for my first published story to appear amidst these others was beyond my wildest aspirations for myself as a writer.

They listened intently. They nodded gravely as I spoke. They smiled encouragingly. They said: "But what is the prize?"

(author photo © Courtesy of the Author)

Writing Tips

Before I became a parent and a writer, I was other things--a child, of course, a student, a newspaper carrier, a housecleaner, a temp, a wanderer, a marketing director for a financial software start-up. But it happened that the writing began shortly after the onset of stay-at-home parenting, so the two have been inextricably linked. And in the beginning, I couldn't work it out: Was I meant to feel guilty when I was writing, or when I was not writing? When I was abandoning my children and shirking off my domestic duties, or when I was tossing aside, like so much garbage, what might turn out to be my only real talent? Was I first and foremost a mother, or first and foremost a writer?

Like other mothers I know who write, I seemed to be first and foremost a writer in my mental wanderings, but in the actual physical motion of the day, in the bulk of the hours, I was, I am, a mother. And so the writing is, has always been, a guilty retreat, the thing I've slunk off to secretly, furtively, greedily, as if to a lover. Two or three or four times a week I've done it, for a few hours usually, sometimes for a day and a half. I've left my children in the care of others and I've slunk off--to a café, a hotel, a room rented by the month. Sometimes, when leaving was not possible, I went away in my mind, attending to the children's physical needs but otherwise greeting their demands with what they have come to refer to as an input error.

It became more difficult as our third, and then our fourth child was born. A week would go by and I would have written for an hour, or not at all, the precious babysitting hours having been used up in other ways. I'd try to squeeze in a few hours on a Saturday morning. I'd pump whatever milk I could get with the electric pump and leave the house. I'd turn back at the base of the driveway and there he'd be, my husband, holding in one hand the still-warm bottle and in the other our fourth child, an infant daughter, her face enraged, his own face competent, willing--and ever so slightly bitter. And who could blame him, stuck as he was with the entertainment of four children under the age of eight.

It was only a few hours, but leaving seemed a kind of madness. An unnatural betrayal made necessary by my own absurd desires. It would have been madness, too, to have let the sentiments of those years come and go undocumented, to have pressed down inside me the few stories I've managed to put on the page, the fewer still that have made their way into print.

Still, I have to believe that if I'd been on my own with the whole day stretching ahead of me, I might have done just that. I might have ignored those stories. I might have read the paper, or walked down to the market, or tidied up. But the negotiations had been completed, the arrangements had been made, the milk had been laboriously, ridiculously extracted. I had to go through with it. And it was not until I'd backed the car out of the driveway that the compulsion to write would turn to fear, doubt, even dread. That I would wonder whether any words would come.

Sometimes they did not come. But those occasions were fewer, I think, than they would have been if the writing had been the main thing, the pursuit around which expectations revolved. If the hours had been given instead of stolen I might have wasted them. I might have resented the writing for holding me back from something else.

About the Author

I grew up in Los Angeles and live in Northern California with my husband and our four children. My stories have appeared in New England Review and The Hudson Review and have received honorable mentions in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. I have an undergraduate degree in history from Stanford and an MFA from San Francisco State University. "The Company of Men" was my first published story.

Writer's Desk

  • I'm three years and two-hundred pages into a novel, and still fumbling in the dark.

  • Writer's Desk

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