What I Learned About Writing from Life, I Learned from Life

The first time I held an infant in my arms I was eleven years old. My mother had offered me over to watch the son of a client while they toured the woman’s home and my mother advised her on preparing the property for sale. She’s wonderful with babies, she told the woman when we arrived, and I’d nodded dumbly, terrified. The child was five months old and large for his age. He had cloudy blue eyes and a puckered chin and took my pinky finger into his wet mouth with a quick shake of his head. He could roll from his back to his stomach and eat mashed vegetables, though I didn’t know that at the time.

I held him in my arms and paced the living room. Then we danced in circles, my feet gliding easily on the wooden floor. He was warm and heavy, heavier than I had expected. I could hear my mother down the hall speaking to the child’s mother with her realtor voice, explaining something about feng shui I knew to be untrue. She had a habit of speaking authoritatively on subjects she only vaguely understood. I didn’t realize, then, that this was a habit most adults shared, this veracious need to seem well-versed in something, anything, and how such deceptions provided comfort and sustenance to a lifetime of small failures. I just thought my mother was a liar.

I sat down on the sofa with the child in my arms. I do not remember his name, though I do remember lifting him to my flat chest and watching with wonder as he suckled the fabric of my sweatshirt, his jaw working mechanically, and then the little yelp of frustration as he realized I had nothing to give. The child simpered and I tried to put my pinky back in his mouth, but by then he had figured me out.

Down the hall, the women laughed and bedroom doors opened and banged shut. Wallpaper, I heard my mother say. Neutral colors.

I laid the child on the sofa. He had lost his sheen. He mewled and rubbed his nose with his doughy fists. I covered him gently in his white blanket and moved toward the hallway to find someone else to do the job.

It must have happened before I reached the doorway, because I remember the women sliding open the pocket doors. I must not have been looking when he tumbled the three feet from the sofa to the floor, because I only remember the sound of his skull thumping twice on the wood, and it was as strange a sound as I had ever heard. I remember his white blanket open and empty and draped over the edge of the sofa cushion. I remember thinking about an unspooled cocoon, and the way a moth will slowly beat its black wings in the sunshine for long minutes before evaporating into the sky.

I remember feeling euphoric with new purpose. I remember scooping up the child and staring into his face and silently begging him to cry. Instead, he stared through me, his blue eyes blank and wide, his mouth a cavern of silence. I shook him gently, cry, and his chest rose and he took a deep audible breath and bellowed, unholy sound, bellowed into my face. My mother appeared and I told her everything, that I had been walking with the baby in my arms and tripped over the edge of the sofa, catching myself before I fell, but the baby, poor nameless baby I would never see again, had been startled by the sound.

“I didn’t let him go,” I said. “Thank goodness I didn’t let him go.”



I once babysat for a three-year-old boy named Rory. His father was a “Wall Street guy,” though I had no idea what that meant. His mother wore a shattering expression most of the time, which meant, my mother explained, that her husband was screwing other women. I was a kid who liked to know what words meant, and learned early that grown-ups almost always speak in code. Off the wagon meant my father would not be home for some time. On the wagon meant breakfast at eight. Saturday could mean Sunday or Monday or never, depending on nothing I could control.

Rory and I watched a movie called Big Rock Candy Mountain every afternoon from four to five. Afterward, we liked to draw. I drew the faces of people he knew: mommy, daddy, Jessica, Rory. When I finished, he would have me start over, drawing each face again, their names printed neatly below their chins, and “this time no hair.” If I drew his daddy’s mustache, he’d get upset and make me erase it. Rory liked to crawl up my shirt, lay his head on my bare stomach, close his eyes, and suck his thumb. He liked this most of all. What to make of a boy so tender, a tuft of hair would send him reeling?

I remembered that boy fifteen years later when my first lover called me a cunt, then lay his head on my stomach and slipped his fingers inside my body, half asleep. Such creature comforts are not easily forgotten, I thought. Men, I thought. I was new to writing then. Done well, I thought, art is violence and clemency both. I was feeling precocious.

The next morning, I shattered his glasses on the kitchen floor.



The cabin was a loan from a friend, but it had been sitting vacant for months. We were cleaning it out. It was fall. We were giddy. It is possible we were playing out a fantasy, something utopian and wild. It smacked of naivety and Theroux, our being there. I grabbed the trashcan to clean it out, screamed, and dropped it on the floor. Inside, a mother mouse had shred an entire roll of toilet paper, cardboard included, to make her nest. We laughed. “Little mice!” he said, “Babies.

“I was just surprised,” I said. Twelve black eyes stared up at us, frozen. It looked cozy. My friend took the trashcan back into the woods and left it there, the mother and her five babies. He wouldn’t evict them from their home, but the home itself had to go. In the morning, we crept over in our sweatpants and reckless hair. We clutched coffee mugs and shivered. We sipped and sipped.

When I tell you she took mercy on her children, it means their heads were chewed off. It means most of their organs were gone, eaten, their fur in bloody clumps, the toilet paper damp and black. It means she panicked and chose to save herself. It means she was gone, baby, gone. When I say it was a gruesome scene, what I mean is that five tiny skulls were shattered, and all the bones picked clean. She was wretched with mercy.


Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir in essays, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press, January 2014). Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines including The Threepenny Review and Carolina Quarterly and has been featured as Notable essay in Best American Essays 2012 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Burlington, Vermont, edits Green Mountains Review, and recently co-founded the Renegade Writers’ Collective.