“The Pie Shell” by Jenny Williams


We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there. (15)

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces


By two o’clock on a February afternoon, the sediment of the day sits on every surface in the house—coloring books on the kitchen table, plates and cups on the countertops, mail and papers half-sorted on the dining room table.

I have been in want of words for months now.

I am halfway through my first year at home with my kids, without the full-time job I left so I could spend more time with them and write too.  When my husband and I tell people about my decision to quit my job, I say it was for the kids.  He says it’s so I can write.  The confidence in his assertion makes me squirm.

The cold rain has kept the kids and me inside for days.  Organization and order are not my strong suits. I am calling this my adjustment period. I wonder if I am too forgiving of the mess.

I am happier than I have been in years.

From the living room, picture books, small plastic animals, two assembled floor puzzles and a cushion fort spill out into the front hall.

“How much longer?” My husband wants to know.

“It’s a process.” I tell him.  “I’m learning a new job.  I need at least a year.”

I should pick up, at least fold the laundry piled on the couch and finish sorting the mess on the dining room table, but with my in-laws here to play with the kids for the afternoon, I decide to make a run for it. My thesaurus is missing, tucked in a box somewhere in the attic eaves, and I want it back. It’s one more thing we don’t have space for.  Finding it will be inefficient and add to the clutter—I will see the reaction on my husband’s face when he gets home, and I feel like a teenager sneaking out of the house as I climb to the attic to look for it.

* * *

Three years ago, as we prepared for the birth of our second child, we converted our third floor from walk-up storage to playroom and guest room with closets in the eaves.  The space is full of light with large windows to the south and avocado walls.  Our children’s names, stenciled in bright polka dots and stripes at the top of the stairs, remind me that I am the adult.

I am an adult, and I want my books back.  This is neither practical nor rational, given our current reality—two young children and no office space.  I understand priorities; I comprehend a-time-and-a-place.  The children are only young once.  My books, my papers, make clutter.  Organization and neatness are not my strong suits.  More often than not, I leave clothes strewn across my side of the bedroom and forget to make the bed.

My husband and I joke that some parts of my brain did not develop beyond adolescence. Even so, I believe a tidy house is important.  When the dining room table is clear, the washing done, the counters wiped, and the cabinets full, daily life ticks sprucely by. We are calmer.  There is something to feng shui. My clutter begets a storm. My husband huffs. We fight.

Dave got rid of most of his books years ago.  For him, most are read once and done. He supports my aspirations to write but has trouble understanding my relationship with books. You haven’t looked at them in years, he says.  Do you think you’re going to start looking at them now?

He is right.  I have left them in limbo.  I cannot bring myself to part with them, but it would not be practical to pull them out again.  They are clutter to everyone but me. So they sit in boxes, waiting for the time and the place and the next phase of my life.


I try to imagine a world in which I could ride my horse across uncharted land. (8)

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

I have always liked to write.  In second grade, I had my first story published in my elementary school’s literary magazine.  I sat with my teacher after school and revised.  I had trouble spelling because and didn’t always recognize when to end a sentence.  I liked the attention. I liked being good at something. It became a cycle.  Looking back, I don’t know what came first.

But finding the right word has never come easily.  During both of my pregnancies, I developed minor aphasia.  It is alarming to reach for a word in the place that you left it just yesterday and find that it isn’t there.  Am I losing my mind? I wondered, but after I had my son and the words came back, I saw that it was hormones that had stolen them.  This, in itself, is both bothersome and comforting.  The human brain is not magic but machine, gray matter oiled by hormones.  Wrong ratio = trouble.  But studies show that the brain is also elastic.  It can be trained.

Even when I’m not pregnant, I struggle with vocabulary.  Images and scenes that appear in my head exceed my capacity for language. I do not read enough.  I do not write enough.  My sentences need sharpening. When I write, I aspire to draw blood without leaving a gash, but I hear myself sawing away, grinding up a reader’s patience when all I want to do is make a clean incision, insert a line without beating up the vein.

I bought the thesaurus during a burst of writing fervor a few years before Teddy was born.  My husband protested.  Why do you need a book, when it’s online?

It’s not the same, I said.

It’s exactly the same, just without the pages and cover.

But the computer is to the real thing what the neighborhood park is to the Rocky Mountains.  It will do in a pinch, but when you really want to get out there and find your Zen, you have to tie on your boots and get above the tree line.

I want pages to thumb through and lists to run my fingers over.  I want to let my eyes fall on entries I wasn’t looking for.  Computer searches are too narrow.

I need more help than that.  Words give ideas muscle and bone, pull them from the nether, wrap them in flesh and set them on the earth.  Athena sprung fully formed from Zeus’s brain.  I am not Zeus.  When I try to lift inspiration from my brain, Athena crumbles, turns to dust before her feet touch ground.

I had only owned my thesaurus for a few years before I packed it away. My books have been in retreat since 2007, when we first heard Teddy’s heartbeat in the doctor’s office. I had miscarried twice the year before, and when we learned that the third pregnancy would likely stick, it was creating the nursery that captured my imagination—our baby would need a bookshelf and books and puzzles and bright pictures on the walls.  My books would go to the attic.  They didn’t bear mentioning.  A baby was coming!

I have heard writers compare writing a story to bearing a child, but for me, truly, childbirth was easier.  My labors were short and intense—hard cramping from rib cage to knees.  No one had to tell me when or how to push.  I made guttural screams.  I’d never made sounds like that before, but I couldn’t stop. The baby was coming, the body knew.

The nurse frowned. It will be easier if you focus on breathing in and out.  It doesn’t help to scream.  You’re frightening the others.  

When the OB held him up, our screaming, wriggling pink baby boy looked like a large bird—skinny with long talon fingers, reaching—and he did not turn to dust when the doctor put him in my arms.

* * *

My office became Teddy’s nursery.  Two years later, when Lucy was born, we gave her the nursery and converted Dave’s office into a bedroom for Teddy.

Because I have forfeited my writing spaces to my children, in moments when the children are at school or with their grandparents, I look for any space in the house with sunlight to begin—the children’s playroom in the morning and on the floor in the west-facing front hallway in the late afternoon.

Usually though, I write before sunrise, sitting at the dining room table, hoping to make it to 7:00 before small feet tumble down the stairs.

Mommy, Mommy, it’s light out.  The sun is up.  It’s morning time!

Then my children are in my lap, and I am swept up in the current of the morning.  I work around their little bodies to slip my journal and computer into the bag I carried to work when I was still a teacher and lead the children to the kitchen for breakfast.  Later I return my bag to its spot behind the dining room bookshelf that holds children’s games and puzzles and our biggest, best looking hardcover books, many of which I have not read.  If I can find my thesaurus, I will have to stash that too.

When I use the playroom to write, I set Teddy’s pirate ship, which sits on a wide window seat, on the floor and replace it with two 12”x12” foam alphabet squares then I sit pretzel legged across F and 2 or A and 7.

The clutter of dress-up clothes, wooden blocks and alphabet letters brings comfort on the days when words won’t come and on the ones when they tumble out like an avalanche, dragging and tearing their way through the descent.  Sitting in the sunlight that falls through the large playroom windows helps me forget the fear. Lose track of time. Put words on the page.


In addition to her skills in Latin and Greek, she could handle a horse expertly, but never had she made a journey into a region as remote as the one that lay before her.  (3)

John McPhee, Rising from the Plains

I step into the attic and go north.  My approach will be systematic, start at one end of the long closet, which is enclosed by a series of three-foot-high sliding doors, and work my way across.   Kneeling at the edge, I open the first door and begin.  I pull out the items in front first, the large orange and green gear bag that holds everybody’s ski clothes and a box filled with pictures from college, theoretically bound for albums—Dave and me, unwed, round-faced, softer.

Next to it, I find the first box of books, the last put away, in it lie my old favorites, my home-on-the-range books—The Solace of Open Spaces, The Meadow, Rising from the Plains.  Writers I go to for help.  When I had an office, these books were at my fingertips.

I open each for old times’ sake.  McPhee: This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist.  I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West. (3)  

Ehrlich: It’s May and I’ve just awakened from a nap curled against sagebrush the way my dog taught me to sleep—sheltered from the wind. (1)  

And James Galvin, whose words I ought to be able recite from memory: The real world goes like this: The Neversummer Mountains like a jumble of broken glass.  Snowfields weep slowly down.  Chambers Lake, ringed by trees, gratefully catches the drip in its tin cup, and gives the mountains their own reflection in return.  This is the real world, indifferent, unburdened. (3)

I must have read this opening passage a hundred times maybe, and it is hard to put away.  When I reach the bottom of the box, I realize I have lost track of time.

I must move on.

But it feels impossible to resign so much open space to a cardboard crate, so I stack a few books off to one side.  For reference, I tell myself.

I crawl farther into the closet to reach the next box and twice bang my head on the low ceiling as I struggle to open it.  It is filled with remnants of my 20-something angst, books offering wisdom on stilling the mind, finding the soul—the kind of book with an eye at the center of a triangle filling the cover.  I made it through a few chapters of one or two of them.  The nonfiction titles I read now all have the words “happy” and some synonym for “child” in the title.

Stuck in these books, I find The Guide to Chiang Mai Rock Climbing, written by my elementary school friend and his wife, who have set up shop in Thailand, and whom we visited in 2006, when we were living in China because Dave won a fellowship that allowed us to wriggle out of adulthood for a year and live in Shanghai.  I hauled my thesaurus with me and wrote a novella while he worked.  We traveled every weekend and sometimes for weeks at a time, knowing that when it ended we would return to our professional lives and start a family.

I kneel over the open box as I flip through the maps and route descriptions to the tourist guide in the back, which includes simple Thai phrases and the best places to hang out. I remember the dinner we ate on the river, the bright yellows, oranges and greens of the food market, the restaurant with the mountainside deck, the coffee plantation where we sipped hot brew in the steamy jungle.  We traveled to Chiang Mai carrying only backpacks.  We weren’t quite 30 and even though our packs were small and heavy, we carried two or three books each and actually read them.  There was time for that then.

I remind myself of my quest, return the book to the box, and push it back into the eaves.

I know the next section well.  Clear plastic crates filled with outgrown children’s clothes and toys that no longer entertain.  So I move past the stairwell to the south side of the closet, where my son parks his large trucks.  In order to get to the boxes, I must first extract an old fan and a changing table that I have wedged in behind the Tonka crane and bulldozer and ahead of the old boxes of books.

The first one I open is full of unused journals, some still in their wrapping.  Two are leather bound, three covered with flowers. One has the Chinese character for “imagination” on the cover, and another, a moon below the word Imagine.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when my third-grade best friend gave me a grown-up, soft-covered journal for my ninth birthday.  The outside fabric was covered in tiny strawberries on vines.  She was the same friend who insisted that I “be realistic” when we played house and banned all monsters, fairies, aliens, and giant insects from our games.  There would be a mother and a father and two children.  The father would go to work; the mother would take care of the children. She would be the mother. I would be the father or the baby.

Upon receiving this journal, I immediately set out to write my first book.  It was nine pages long, and the main character’s name was Crystal.  It was not realistic.  I never let anyone read it.  After that, I used the book as a journal.

And though my journaling became more sporadic as I grew older, people have continued to give me books filled with empty pages.

I write when something gets caught inside me—won’t go down, can’t come up.  I can’t shake it loose, so I write about it.  Often when that happens, I grab the nearest journal and start scribbling.

From the box, I lift a few of the journals that look familiar. Inside the one with the Imagination character on the front, the first entry, dated 12-9-97, begins, “Dave got infantry today—he will be commissioned an officer of the U.S. Army in June… He is ecstatic.  I don’t understand guns.”  I write about my feelings for two old boyfriends as I try to put Dave, the man who would eventually become my husband, behind me.  We were graduating from college.  He was joining the Army.  I was moving home to become a teacher.  Everyone knew that kind of thing never worked.  It wasn’t realistic.

The next entry comes almost three years later.  I am feeling flat—struggling with life in Clarksville, Tennessee, where Dave is stationed, while my friends explore the single life in San Francisco and New York.  In the “Imagine” journal, the first entry is dated 5/31/02, one day after my 26th birthday and one month before I married Dave.  It begins, “I feel somewhat overcome by fear of being a grown-up.”  I go on to write about how I am unsure of everything, except my desire to have children.

In one particularly angst-ridden entry, I wonder if someone will publish my journals “when I am famous” (really?) or if my grandchildren will find them in the attic.  I am embarrassed at my own self-consciousness.  On 2/17/03, almost ten years ago to the day, I wrote, “In order to become a writer, one must write.”

I put the journals away and close the box.

I am running out of boxes now, and time.  When I flip open the next box, I am sure I’ve found my thesaurus—the old brown cover is in my hand.  The book is familiar.  It is what I imagine when I think of my thesaurus.  I pull it out to look, but the cover reveals the truth—my old Webster’s dictionary stamped with a gold Brown University logo.  I have carried it with me through every move for the past twenty years, the Brown Book Award, given to one junior for excellence in writing.

Once a year at my high school, everyone gathered in the auditorium for the junior and senior awards ceremony.  I sat in one of the old wooden seats among my friends, who I knew would win awards.  I knew with equal certainty that I would not.  This did not bother me.  I imagined myself a bystander, and I was comfortable there.  I was likable enough, easygoing, not a standout.  My closest friends and my sister were award-winners.  They had impeccable skills, grades, memories, and ideas.  I, on the other hand, was intimate with the A minus, very good, not exceptional.  And then they called my name.  Someone elbowed me, “Go, Jenny.  Go up.  That’s you.”

I know I should put the dictionary back in its box.  I am comfortable using the one on my computer, but I can’t put it away either, so I add it to the pile with my Ehrlich, Galvin, and McPhee.

In the next box, I find my thesaurus.  It is not brown as I remember it, but wrapped in a black jacket with green, white and purple stripes, flashier than I imagined, but still full of words.

I sit down cross-legged and open it, cradling it between my knees.  Scanning pages 438-439 takes me from individually and ineffable to ineffective and inexplicable.  I read some words aloud, allowing tongue, teeth and lips to share in the piles of sound—drony, lackadaisical, insuperable, pertinacious, operose, perky, bombed, boozy, empyreal, ethereal, unutterable—all there together on the page.  Oh, the stories we could tell!

But the sun has moved into the Western sky, and its yellow rays are fading to pink.  It is time for dinner, baths, and stories.  I stack my thesaurus with the books I set aside, including the dictionary and find myself believing that they’ll help.

Before returning to the main floor where my children are playing with their grandparents, I slip the books, except the thesaurus, into the space between my nightstand and bed within arms reach of where I sleep.  Downstairs, my thesaurus slides in perfectly between a few how-to gardening books on the dining room shelf.

Two weeks later at Costco, I find myself ogling the bunk beds.  At three and five, my children are surely ready to share a room.  On the drive home, I reimagine our house as a slide-tile puzzle—my daughter into my son’s room, houseguests into her old room, and, voila! room for my desk in the attic.  As I unload six gallon jugs of laundry detergent and crate-sized packages of paper towels, I am already decorating.  My imaginary office is quiet and full of light with postcard pictures and sticky notes pasted on the walls and books at fingertips’ reach.

For a moment, the house cracks open to let in the sky.

I tell Dave about the plan just before bed.

It’s perfect, I assure him.

What if you fill another office with stuff? Dave wants to know.  I can’t take it if you bury another desk.

It’s different now, I assure him as he peeks over my side of the bed to see the layer of clothing covering the carpet.

It can’t be forever, he says.  The kids will need their own space. 

Just for now, I say, taking him by the shoulders.  For me.  

He is shaking his head, but I know I have him.  Is this really necessary?

Trust me, I say.

I am ready to reclaim some territory.

Jenny Williams is a writer from Salt Lake City, Utah.  Her essays have appeared in “The Modern Love” column in The New York Times, the “Family Matters” column in Psychotherapy Networker and The Schulykill Valley Journal.  She currently resides in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two children where she teaches in the Young Writers’ Day program and writes with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio.  Find her on Twitter @jswilliams76.

Read Jenny Williams’ comments on Sam Grieve’s “Blackwood.”

Notes from K. Anne Unger, 10ktobi editor

Although “The Pie Shell” is a personal journey of one writer struggling to reclaim her writing life after a few years of raising children, the story easily resonates with any writer who has found him- or herself aching to crack open a good book when free time is nonexistent in the throes of childrearing. A poignant glimpse into the writing life of those with families, “The Pie Shell,” reminds us of how important it is to stake our claim in what we do, in who we are as writers.

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