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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

it's alive!

We had our twelve-week check-up on Friday and heard the little bugger’s heartbeat. Such a relief. Of course, I have a slew of other worries about the pregnancy, but after an early miscarriage in January, it was a relief to hear that minuscule heart pumping away.

And did I mention that I love my doctor? She played a large role—in a saving-our-lives kind of way—in my first pregnancy, and it’s so comforting to see her again. I grew up going to an HMO, and I never saw the same doctor more than twice. How different it is to be treated by a doctor with whom I share a history, who knows me. And she’s no-nonsense. She never makes me feel stupid for worrying the way I do, but she does try to nip my neurosis in the bud. On Friday, when I mentioned that I was worried about the small jump in my blood pressure, she just smiled, said that the small increase was normal, and added, dryly, “Kate, you’re pregnant.”

“But—” I started.

“Kate, you’re pregnant.”

She then turned to D. and told him he could pull that line out if he needed to, just as a reminder. Okay, fine. I’m pregnant. She also said that I shouldn’t worry for TWENTY weeks. Since I presented with preeclampsia symptoms around 30 weeks, she said that even if I get it again, it’s not likely to happen before then, so I should put it out of my head. (Imagine, 20 whole weeks without worrying!) She also said that because I made it to the third trimester last time, she wouldn’t recommend that I take baby aspirin everyday (which has been shown—in some studies—to lower the recurrence of preeclampsia).

So, it was a good report, and hearing the heartbeat made the pregnancy feel real to me.

After the appointment, we picked up Stella at my sister’s house and told her that she was going to be a big sister. Have I mentioned that for the last few months she has been having tantrums for a baby sister? A friend of Stella’s recently “got one,” and since then, she has been throwing herself on the floor weeping and yelling, “It’s not fair! I’m never going to get a baby sister. I’m never going to get one. I want one right now!” (We have had discussions about the fact that she might get a baby brother instead, but she’s not believing that for a second. She’s got her mind made up.)

When we told her about the baby, she first said a long, drawn-out “no,” as if she didn’t believe us.

“Yes, sweetie, there’s a baby in here,” I said, pointed to my belly. “You’re going to be a big sister!”

Then she began to laugh maniacally. I’m not sure what was going through her head. It’s a lot to process.

But on Saturday morning, it had definitely sunk in. She looked at my belly as soon as she woke up. “It looks smaller today.” Uh, yeah. That’s because it’s morning and not full of food.

Then she wanted to see what the baby looked like, so I found a picture of a 12-week fetus.

“Oh, cuuuuuuuutttttttie,” she said, and then decided to write the baby a note, which included an almost-4-year-old drawing of a 12-week fetus. It was lovely, if slightly inaccurate.

Later that day, she was washing her hands in the bathroom, and I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub waiting for her. She was seeing how much froth she could create between her palms when she turned to me and said, “I’m excited for the baby, but I’m a little scared.”

“Oh, what about the baby scares you?”

She began rubbing her hands together again. “Well, I’m mostly excited,” she said again, as if to reassure me, “but I’m a little scared about changing diapers.”

How serious she seems sometimes. She had been practicing putting diapers on some of her bears, but I hadn’t realized it had been a challenge or something she was worrying about.

“Oh well, don’t worry about the diapers,” I said. “I can take care of that, and you can just play with the baby, if you want.”

“Okay,” she said, and rinsed her hands.

I’d been feeling nervous about the pregnancy, and I’ve actually been very nervous about reliving those infant months, which were not easy for me the first time. But being able to share all of this with Stella has somehow made my worries fade a little. Her excitement and questions and anticipation are contagious. And again, I have that overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am so lucky I have her.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

how hard must you look?

On Sunday afternoon I went to see The Mother Project at the Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis. It was a six woman production, directed by Augsburg College theater professor Darcey Engen, in which the women’s stories about motherhood, relationships, identity, grief, their careers, and how they balance art and work and motherhood were woven together on stage. Their stories were often funny and often moving, and the response to the performance was so heartening. The darkened theater was packed, and after the show, Nanci Olesen, one of the performers and MOMbo founder, conducted a Q & A. So many of the audience’s responses began with “I could totally relate to this...” and “Thank you for your honest portrayal of motherhood.” Over and over again people said how much they appreciated the actors’ honesty and nuanced look at parenting and life.

What I came away with was a great sense of validation: yes, people need to hear the real stories of motherhood—the dark ones, the ambivalent ones, the deliciously touching ones. (This selfishly translated into: see, there is a market for my book.)

How disappointing it was to then read the recent Newsweek article by Kathleen Deveny. A friend had mentioned the article to me, saying that the author had bagged motherhood literature, and unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. How harsh critics are when the personal becomes public, when women write against the norm and debunk those glorious myths of motherhood. Blah.

In her article, Deveny seems to trash all motherhood literature, all at once. She says, “I am bored to death with talking, hearing and reading about motherhood.” Oh gag me with a spoon, Kathleen.

She bags researched nonfiction and the summer's "mommy-lit" novels (her language, not mine). She doesn't mention memoir, specifically, but you get the impression that it's included in her rant, as well. But this is where Deveny's article really falls short. Is she not reading the same literature (and I spell that word out, dammit) that I am?

Almost all the motherhood literature I’ve read (and though I certainly haven’t read it all, I’ve read enough to make some generalized statements about it), is about more than the minutiae of daily life with an infant or toddler or teenager. It is about more than what an average parent does on a day-to-day basis. Most of the motherhood literature I’ve read, like the pieces in The Motherhood Project, deal with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy (the things of life). These pieces are about transformation and how we see ourselves in relation to the world in which we live. Oh I’m sorry, did it sound like I was talking about something universal, like I was talking about “regular” literature? Uh, yeah.

Finding in one’s own experience something universal and being able to turn that into art is not narcissistic (which is how Deveny characterizes women writing about motherhood). It's the work of writers. I love what memoirist Patricia Hampl says: “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”

But when your subject has do with motherhood, people assume that there is no story other than changing diapers, nursing, and tackling toddler challenges. This reminds me of what the poet Deborah Garrison said when I interviewed her for mamazine. When I asked her whether she thought her second collection, which is focused around parenting themes, was taken as seriously as her first collection, she said, "I think that motherhood as a subject can blind people. They are distracted by it—they have ideas about what motherhood poetry should or shouldn't be—and sometimes they can't get past this to really see the way a poem was constructed." I'm afraid the same thing is true for all motherhood literature. People have ideas about what it is or will be and dismiss it out of hand.

But how hard must you look to find really amazing writing that has to do with motherhood? Um, not very far. If you've read 1/4 of the essays or stories or poems I've posted about on this blog, you know. And I'm wondering now, should I send Kathleen Deveny the essays of my favorite mama writers? Could it be that she hasn't read them?

Sadly, she would probably stack them with her other "mommy-lit," thinking, erroneously, that she'd read it all before.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

restfulness and reflective awards

We were up north at my mom's cabin all week last week and I DIDN'T WORK AT ALL. I didn't check voice mail or e-mail or even post (obviously). I read two trashy-ish novels (I will not reveal their titles, not even if you bribe me with chocolate) and made bead necklaces with Stella and napped. I felt nauseous a couple of days, and though this was uncomfortable, it wasn't horrible. It forced me just to sit (or more accurately, lie down), and I hardly ever do this: just lie on the couch doing nothing.

But as is often the case in the aftermath of a vacation, I am now scrambling to catch up at work, and I have two freelance jobs on my plate, and well, I'm tired. There was a huge thunder storm last night and I couldn't sleep because I was convinced that the tree in our back yard would come crashing through the ceiling and smash Stella. I actually got out of bed and took Stella's sleeping noodle body downstairs with me. D., who was still awake, tried very hard not to roll his eyes, but I knew he wanted to, and that was almost as bad.

Okay, enough complaining. I'm pleased to say that I get to dole out some blogger awards. The lovely, talented Mardougrrl tagged me with a Blogger Reflection Award. I'm honored, and would tag her right back, but that would seem ass-kissy. But please check out her blog. She's thoughtful and insightful and so talented.

So now I get to pick five bloggers whom I think worthy of the Blogger Reflection Award.

This Mom: Kyra's prose is so lovely, her posts honest and true, and she has a wicked sense of humor. Sometimes I fantasize that we're the best of friends, but of course that makes me sound like a stalker.

Better Make It A Double: Emmie writes beautifully about her twins and life as a progressive parent. She is never afraid to write what she thinks. I have a great deal of respect for her.

The Little Zygote That Could: Sheri keeps it real. She has been through a lot and always writes about her life with humor and grace.

Moonlight Ambulette: Moonlight is a fiction writer of inarguable talent. Her first novel will be coming out next year, and she does wonderful book reviews on her blog. Lovely Moonlight.

Breed Em' and Weep: Jenn's blog has been around for a couple of years, but it's new to me. We actually went to college together for a bit (before I freaked out at hot-tailed it out of that small Iowa town), but I didn't know she was a mama-writer-blogger until recently. Funny and touching. Check her out.

Monday, August 6, 2007

writers revealed

Last night I participated in writers revealed debut virtual book club, which was so much fun. There were about eight of us, and we all read Meredith Hall’s wonderful memoir, Without a Map, and then we called into the show for a Q&A with the author.

Hall became pregnant at sixteen, was completely shunned by her family and community, and was forced to give her son up for adoption. Her memoir is a story of struggle and loneliness and shame, and eventually, a story of healing and forgiveness. She comes back again and again to the ideas of abandonment and love, what it means to be loved. Hall’s prose is lovely and her story is compelling. (I read the book in two days, which rarely happens these days.)

I actually had read a couple of the chapters of the book when they appeared as essays in Creative Nonfiction, but I didn’t realize this until I began reading Without a Map. The book and her writing felt familiar to me, which I loved.

One of my questions for Meredith was about her use of the present tense. The whole book, with the exception of the prologue chapter, “Shunned,” is in present. For me, this had the effect of stacking time and memory, which made a lot of sense because she was constantly living with her memories and the knowledge of what she had lost. She says late in the book, “I carry the past each day.” She also says, “I am memory.” I was very interested in whether she chose to use the present for this reason, and she said in part, yes, but that she had originally written the book in past tense, but that past tense created a filter. It diffused some of the pain of her story, and she wanted the pain and longing and loneliness to be more palpable, more alive. She wanted the immediacy that present could offer. (This is my paraphrasing of what she said. Please listen to the podcast for her word-for-word response.)

I thought this was such a fabulous answer, and I totally agree with her. This is the same reason that I put Ready for Air in present tense. The story feels so much closer, more immediate.

So, do check out Without a Map, and also check out writers revealed, which does weekly podcasts with authors.

Friday, August 3, 2007

a thought for minneapolis

I'm sure all of you know about the I-35W bridge collapsing into the Mississippi River on Wednesday night. It's a bridge that I drove over from work to Stella's daycare. It's a bridge that countless people drove over every day to and from work. No one I know (that I know of) was injured or killed in the tragedy, but still, I feel so sad. I can't stop thinking about the victims and their families and friends, all those mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and partners.

Last night, I dosed off putting Stella to bed, so I decided I should just go to bed, as well. (It was 8:30.) But when I climbed into my own bed, I couldn't get the bridge out of my mind. I kept thinking, what if I had been on it? What if Stella had been with me? If we plunged into the river, would I have been able to get her out of her car seat? Out of the car? Safely to shore? I really started to panic, my fear so consuming that I got out of my bed and climbed back into Stella's bed and held her sleeping body, kissed her dear face.

We are cities divided by a huge river. In our daily lives, we must cross the river over and over again. How vulnerable we are, how unpredictable life is. Please keep our sad cities in your minds. Please send up a thought for the victims and their loved ones.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

on talent

First, thank you for all the supportive comments on my last post. I really appreciate it, and I actually feel much better this week (if the sensation of having vomit at the top of my throat can be considered "better.") But, the nausea and tiredness are good things, clear signals that I am, indeed, pregnant. I'll keep you posted on that front.

Over the last few days, when not thinking about the pregnancy, I’ve been thinking about talent. Last week in class we were talking about fiction versus nonfiction, and I told my students that if they have an extraordinary story (and there are a number of these in my class), they should definitely write it as nonfiction (rather than fiction.) Now, I’m biased, of course, because I primarily write nonfiction and I teach nonfiction, but I also know that nonfiction is more marketable. Literary memoirs are not exactly easy to sell, but I imagine they are easier to sell than literary novels. (This would be the reason, of course, that James Frey decided to sell his not-selling-novel as a memoir.)

As a part of this discussion, I also said something like: “If you have an amazing story and the talent to write it…” One of my students latched onto this, and said, when we later workshopped her piece, that she wasn’t sure she had the talent to write a book.

Other than the fact that I can be an idiot, I don’t know why I mentioned talent at all. You don’t need talent to write a book. It helps, certainly, but writing (and selling) a book takes perseverance more than anything else. And along the way, hopefully you become a better writer.

I actually started writing in a class at the Loft, ten years ago, and I sucked. Really. I was “working on a book,” but I rarely wrote. Instead, I thought about writing. (Totally annoying, I know.) Then, in 2000, I decided I really did want to write, so I applied to the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. I still sucked because I had done very little actual writing, so how I got into the program, which I just barely did, is still a mystery to me. (Know that I am not being modest here. I really was that bad.)

But while I was in the MFA program, something crazy happened: I started writing. At first, I didn’t write very much (other than assigned pieces for class), but when Stella was born at the beginning of my third year in the program, and I had to stop writing, I missed it desperately. So, after I was able to breathe (and think) again, I began to write whenever I had the chance. Partly, this was because I needed to turn in my thesis (the first 140 pages of my book) in six months, and partly it was because I finally had a story that felt worth telling. (I abandoned my earlier thesis topic and started writing Ready for Air.)

There was also something about having a child that made me stop procrastinating. I didn’t have time for writer’s block. When my dad or mom came over to babysit, I went straight to the coffee shop and barfed something onto the computer. Sometimes it still sucked, but sometimes it didn’t. I just kept writing. And a year after I finished my MFA, I finished a full draft of my book. Throughout, I read a ton—James Baldwin and Rick Moody and Jhumpa Lahiri, to name a few—and I paid attention to what they were doing, how they used dialogue, created scene and emotion.

I don’t know if I’d call myself talented yet—I hope to be some day—but I am persistent. I will keep writing and I’ll keep submitting pieces and I’ll keep getting rejected until someone likes what I’ve done.

I know a very talented writer who has written a couple of unpublished novels. She’s really good. But when she was querying agents about her first novel, she heard (from two agents) that there were too many novels with a mother-daughter story, and that her book wouldn’t sell. She took their word for it, and put her book in a drawer (or so I imagine.) And I wonder, how many great novels sit in drawers because the authors lacked persistence?

Five people told me that there is no market for my book, but I don’t believe them. There is a market. I am the market. And so I kept going. (And now I have an agent, and she believes in the book and the market, which helps.)

The thing I will say in class tomorrow (the last class of the summer) is that persistence is more important than talent. (And I should mention that there is already a ton of talent in my class.) I will say: read and write as much as you can. Pay attention to what your favorite writers are doing; it will rub off. But most importantly, don't give up. The talent part develops along the way.