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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

merry christmas

I'm hunkering down, preparing for the big snow storm forecasted to hit Minnesota tonight. We don't have to drive more than a few miles to celebrate Christmas, so I'm fine with the snow, but I hope all of you who DO have to travel arrive and return safely.

Stella and D are out ice-skating for the first time this year--Stella was beside herself with anticipation all morning--and Zoë is napping. The house is quiet, so I'm sipping a cup of tea and thinking about the year, about the ups and downs, the good news and the bad. I'm thankful that we made it through each challenge, and now I'm ready for a little celebrating.

Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it. May the next days be filled with family and laughter and lots of love.

Thank you for reading Mother Words!

Friday, December 18, 2009

nap

It’s been difficult for me to keep my eyes open this week. I’m fighting another cold, a cold I will continue to get—over and over again—because I’m always tired. I never get enough sleep.

But what is the solution? Go to sleep at 9 pm? Then I have no time to unwind after the girls are in bed. Some day, I’m told, my daughters will want to sleep until noon, and I’ll have so much time that I will be well-rested, glowing. I’ll be so well-rested, in fact, that I won’t be able to focus on my writing. I will be paralyzed by the hours stretching before me, and I will be rendered absolutely useless.

Bring it on.

Seriously, if Zoë would sleep even until 6:30, I could get up two or three mornings a week to write and I’d still be getting more sleep than I am now. But regardless of what time we put the adorable little shit to bed, she wakes up singing at 5 am. (Sometimes it’s the ABCs, sometimes it’s “mama, mama, I luff uuuu.” I know, how can I complain about that?)

If the girls didn’t share a room, I’d let Zoë sing and sing and maybe she’d fall back to sleep. (I doubt it, but I’d try.) But that's impossible. If Stella gets up that early—which she sometimes does despite our fastest retrieval efforts—the level of whining in our house reaches an unbearable pitch.

So there’s that—the unbelievably early riser.

Then there is an addiction to television series on DVD, which makes going to sleep at nine out of the question.

Then there are the errands I need to run for my grandpa, who is holding steady, but not getting better, not returning to normal (and by this I mean his abnormally spry 100-year-old self). He keeps saying to my mom: “Well, what if I don’t feel better? It would be too bad if I felt like this all the time.” His body is not doing what his mind wants, and this—the failings of his skin and bones—is hard for him to handle. So I make his Christmas cards, go over a couple of days a week to do his dishes, which, he told me this morning, didn’t inspire him.

Then there is the book proposal I’ve been working on, which I love. I really do. I love working on it. I love thinking about it. But still, I wish I didn’t think about it during the only twenty minutes all week I have to lie down, to close my eyes. I wish I didn’t think about it on the mornings D is on Singing Zoë Duty. But I can’t turn it off. So I can’t fall back asleep. I can't nap. Which is why I’m tired. Why my head feels heavy.

And I have work to do. I have things to check off Christmas lists. I have cards to get in the mail. I have presents to wrap. I have books—more and more books piling up on my shelves, on the edge of my desk—to review. Hell, I have cookies to bake.

But all I really want is a nap. Well, maybe a nap on a beach, a nap at the edge of ocean, with the sun beating down on me. Yes, that's what I want.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

working, living, and a note about structuring chapters

I thought I should check in about how my writing is going since the serious truncation of my work time.

It’s, um, not going.

I was on page 156 two weeks ago and I’m still on page 156. It’s clear I’m not going to make my December 31st deadline. I go to the coffee shop on the weekends now, and that’s something, but it is much more difficult to get into the rhythm of the narrative with only two days of writing a week.

The flip side—the bright side—is that my mornings are less hectic. I have more time with the girls, and we can run errands and vacuum and play. (More playing and a cleaner house are good things, no?) On the mornings Zoë is in school, Stella and I sometimes go to the coffee shop together. She eats a doughnut and draws pictures with stories, and I can get a little work done. But not memoir work. I cannot immerse myself in a chapter when my dear girl needs me to help spell the words that make up her narrative. So I check e-mail and do class prep and update my website—all things that need to be done—and help my budding writer create fiction. It would be difficult to complain about that.

But I am anxious to get back to the memoir. I met with my writing group—my wonderful, smart writing group—last night and they got me thinking about the structure of my chapters. There is a lot of narrative urgency in my book—it’s inherent in the subject—but I’m at a point where I need to think more closely about the shape of my chapters. The book is chronological, very chronological, and I realize that this could become tiresome, plodding, in the middle of the book. (Which would, in fact, reflect the nature of having your baby in the NICU.) But still, I don’t want the reading to be so plodding that it becomes boring. God, no.

One of my lovely writing group members suggested a more thematic approach, that each chapter in the middle of the book tackle a theme. I was actually moving in that direction in later chapters, but oh, the thought of going back to these “finished” chapters and rearranging—again—and rewriting—more—makes me very tired. I’m getting so very sick of this book.

But I do love to think about structure. It is, perhaps, my favorite craft issue. What structure will best serve the subject, the story? How can structure change the way people absorb the narrative? These questions, and the care with which most nonfiction writers take as they work on the structure of their writing, make it clear—yet again—that memoir is not mere transcription. It is, like fiction, like poetry, crafted.

I can’t do anything about the structure of my chapters today, of course, or even tomorrow. But I’ll think about it—“noodle on it” as one of my wonderful students says. I’ll noodle on it as I cut out Curious George paper dolls with Stella, as I run to Target and the grocery store, as I put Zoë’s clothes back on her for the ninth time (I swear that child wants to run free), as I sauté vegetables, as I cuddle in with D to watch Mad Men (our latest series addiction). And in a few days or even a few weeks, I’ll find the time to make the changes. I will, right?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

mother words writing retreat

I am so excited about this! The first Mother Words Writing Retreat!

Join me for a weekend retreat for mother-writers. We’ll write, share our writing, discuss challenges with craft, and have time to connect with other mother writers in the luxury and quiet of Faith’s Lodge. (There will also be plenty of time for writing in front of a fireplace and exploring the outdoors on skis or snow shoes.) Group meetings and individual conferences will help support you as you delve more deeply into your writing and learn to take risks on the page. Come immerse yourself in the writing life with other mothers who write.

When: 4 p.m. on Friday, February 26 – 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 28

Where: Faith’s Lodge, Wisconsin

Faith’s Lodge is located on 80 picturesque acres in Northwestern Wisconsin near the town of Webster, less than a two-hour drive from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, less than one hour from Duluth/Superior and about four hours from Madison. The mission of Faith’s Lodge is to provide a place where parents and families facing the serious illness or loss of a child can retreat to reflect on the past, renew strength for the present, and build hope for the future.

But you need not have experienced the loss of a child to attend the retreat. This retreat is for all mother writers. (But proceeds from the Mother Words Writing Retreat will benefit the children and families served by Faith’s Lodge.)






Cost: $300 -500 (sliding scale) – includes lodging, food and beverages, and writing instruction

The Lodge has eight guest suites. Each suite features a private bath, fireplace, balcony/patio, flat screen TV, DVD player, small fridge, and coffee maker. Participants will be sharing rooms, but everyone will have their own bed.

To register: Contact Evelyn Nyberg at ENyberg@FaithsLodge.org or 715-866-8200.

Please contact me with questions about the Mother Words Retreat.

To learn more about Faith’s Lodge, visit http://www.faithslodge.org/.

Friday, November 27, 2009

respecting differences

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday and didn't eat beyond capacity, something I seemed to do. Two meals, spaced five hours apart = too much food.

I’m sure many of you have read Lynn Harris’ Salon article “Everybody Hates Mommy,” in which Harris tries to unpack why there is so much anger and downright hatred directed towards mothers, particularly white, middle-class mothers (and particularly those that live in Park Slope).

Whoa, people. The comments that this article elicited are incredible—so many are full of such vitriol that I stopped reading after two pages.

But I’m interested in what Harris has to say. I think one of the important points she makes is that mothers are judged no matter what they do or don’t do. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a “good” mother, and if the mother in front of you isn’t fulfilling the role, well, hell, let her have it.

Another point she makes has to do with the fact that women—and especially women who are mothers—are supposed to be invisible. She says, “Women—still—are not ‘supposed’ to take up space. Mothers, in particular. We are—still—supposed to remain in the background, doing whatever it is mothers do, smiling. We grow a belly, we need a seat, we say ‘excuse me, please,’ we speak up (or, God forbid, blog), and we’ve crossed the line, said or asked too much, become ‘entitled.’”

The reason I do what I do—write about motherhood literature, teach my Mother Words class, host an annual Mother Words reading, work for Literary Mama—is to help create a space where literature (and yes, it is worthy of that word) about motherhood—the varied and complex, often stunning and often heartbreaking writing by women who are mothers, is taken seriously as art. Because of course it’s often not taken seriously for the very reasons that Harris states in her article. Women are still supposed to be quiet. Mothers, especially, should be quiet. We should not write about the truth of our experiences. We should definitely not write against the myths of motherhood.

Motherhood writing is often discarded (or ignored or not published at all) because of its subject matter. But memoir is never so much about its subject matter as it is about, as Brett Lott says, the relationship between the writer and the subject at hand. I don’t like boxing, but I love Toure’s “What’s Inside You, Brother?” and Gay Talese’s “Ali in Havana.” William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, says, “Ultimately, the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life?”

But it’s funny—and not in a ha-ha sort of way—that when the subject is motherhood, people don’t seem to be as willing to read, to let themselves be drawn in.

One of the people who commented (early, before I stopped reading) on Harris’ article posed this question: “When are people going to start treating respect as if it mattered?” When indeed?

I forwarded the link to Harris’ article to my current Mother Words students, and one of my wonderful students responded with a link to an article in the new online literary journal Candor.

It was Women Writer + Writer Mother: A Conversation Between Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker, and in this conversation, writers Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker discuss what they have in common and what they don’t, and both are very honest about what kinds of stereotypes they’ve bought into and what kind of judgments they’ve made about mothers and women who chose not to be mothers. This is a long conversation, but it’s worth the read, and I think it adds another dimension to Harris’ article about the way mothers and nonmothers are pitted against each other. (Which on some level has to do with the cultural myths of motherhood still perpetuated in our society…)

I very much like the way this conversation ends. Rachel Zucker says, “I had assumed that what we had in common was what would bring us close, but of course this is not necessarily true. In our case what brought us closer was a shared interest in exploring a difference between us.”

I wonder what would happen if people were truly interested in exploring differences and similarities rather than pointing fingers and slinging insults at one another. Could we come to some understanding? Could we learn to be kind, to respect each other? Could we—please—learn to respect each other’s writing?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

thankful

Over the last year, I have tried to be very deliberate about being thankful. We have continued are pre-dinner ritual of going around the table and listing things for which we’re thankful. D and I, especially in the last few weeks, have been thankful—very thankful—for his new job. But even when there wasn’t that prospect, that light at the end of a tunnel, we were able to find something for which to be thankful: our house, the generosity of our families, our health, our beautiful girls. When we go around the table, Stella almost always says: “I’m thankful for our family, and that we’re here together eating.” Sometimes she’ll throw in something else—that Christmas is only a month away or that she gets to play with a friend the next day or that her Auntie Sara is visiting. Even Zoë babbles away when it’s time for her to speak: “Nanana and Stella and Zoë okey okey okey.” And then she laughs her infectious high-pitched gremlin laugh.

Today I am thankful for you, for my community of writers and readers in cyberspace. This fall, which has been long and challenging, was made less so because of your words of support and encouragement. (My grandpa is doing okay and we’re all hanging in there with him.) It was also made less hard because of your stories, the journeys and struggles you share on your own blogs.

Being a writer can be so lonely, so isolating, as can being a mother. But I don’t feel isolated because I can always turn to your words, immerse myself in your stories. Or I know you’re there, reading mine because you have left a comment or sent me an e-mail. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this.

I have a blog award from mummy mania and cath at musings in mayhem that I’ve been sitting on for months. (Thank you both!) It’s time to pass it on.


I am supposed to list seven things about myself and then pass the award to seven blogs. Instead of seven facts about me, though, I’m going to list seven things for which I’m thankful (in addition to the things I’ve mentioned above):


  1. The matter-of-fact way that Stella tells me stories, her eyebrows raised, her blue eyes wide: “Really, Mama. That really happened.”

  2. The way Zoë runs from one side of the house to the other and back again, legs and arms pumping like a miniature linebacker.

  3. That my parents both live nearby and that they love to spend time with my girls.

  4. Friendships old and new, virtual and in-person. What would I do without my friends?

  5. That my daughters know their great-grandfather.

  6. Teaching and my students—my wonderfully smart, talented students.

  7. D—for everything.

Okay, I’m going to pass this on to a few blogs I’ve been reading for a while and a few that are newer to me:

hatched by two chicks: dispatches from the nest — Erin is a really wonderful writer whose essay “East Wind” was in Creative Nonfiction a few years ago. We connected in June around the time I was weaning Zoë.

Louise Kinross writes the wonderful new blog Bloom— Parenting Kids with Disabilities, in which she highlights the stories of young people with disabilities and their parents. You don’t want to miss this amazing blog. It never fails to touch me.

mama sweat—Kara’s blog always makes me laugh, though it does sometimes make me feel guilty for not running. (I haven’t been running. Why haven’t I been running? Oh, yeah, I forgot that I don’t have time to run. Kara somehow manages it, though, and she has *four* kids.)

finding joy in simple things—Mary is wonderful, and her blog makes me think, sometimes makes me cry, and always makes me appreciate the small things in life.

heart-heal-hope is Sara’s blog about loving and losing her first child, Henry, and living with and loving her second child, Kathleen. She writes about her journey with incredible grace.

lisa romeo writes is full of wonderful author interviews and writing discussions. This is a must-read for writers and readers.

the motherhood muse blog—this is the blog associated with the new online journal The Motherhood Muse, which will launch in January. Check this out.

Thank you all!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

fight for preemies

I am half-way through my revision of Ready for Air, which is both exciting and daunting—exciting because retyping it has forced me to cut unnecessary paragraphs, to put pressure on my prose, and to never let the narrative threads slip too far from sight; daunting, of course, because I still have 150 pages to go, and now that I’ve lost my morning writing time, I’m not sure how I’ll make this happen. (My deadline, which now seems impossible, was December 31st.)

It’s been interesting to retype this story, to dive into a present-tense narrative six years after the fact. I expected the time away from the manuscript to allow me to see it more clearly, which it has. But I also thought I’d be so distant from the material that it wouldn’t affect me. This has not been true. I find myself tearing up suddenly at the coffee shop as I rewrite scene after scene.

It has been six years since I developed severe preeclampsia, six years since Stella was born at 32 weeks, six years since we spent a month in the NICU. But, like most preemie parents, those memories are never far from reach. I have blogged about this before, here and here and here.

But today I want to post an excerpt of Ready for Air for the March of Dimes' Fight for Preemies. November is Prematurity Awareness month and today, November 17, is the MOD Fight for Preemies. Over 400 bloggers are posting about prematurity, posting their stories. You can read them here.

From Ready for Air, the first time I see Stella, who is three days old:


On the counter next to Station 5, there is a can of something that looks like hair mousse. D sprays some into my hands and then his own. Antibacterial foam, he says. It’s sweet, floral, and I realize that this is the source of the sweetness, the scent of the NICU. I watch how he rubs it into the grooves of his knuckles and up his wrists. I do the same, then stare at the monitor, which hangs above Stella’s bed. It flashes numbers and jagged lines: red, blue, yellow, green. Red, blue, yellow, green.

“Kate,” D says. “Look at the baby.” He nods at Stella.

I don’t want to look at her. I don’t want to look at this tiny thing. I don’t want this tiny yellow thing to be my baby.

D’s hand is on my back. He presses it gently.

I look at Stella. The phototherapy light is off and her goggles hang, limp, from her temple. On the other temple is a circle of Velcro. Velcro on her temple. Glue and Velcro on her temple! I look at her eyes, which are closed—yellowish red lids over bulbous eyes—then take inventory: toothpick ribs shudder, wires snake away from her chest.

D cups the top of her head with his palm—dwarfs her head with his hand. “You can touch her,” he says.

I nod and reach for a foot. Wrapped around one foot is a cuff with a red light on it, so I go for the other one. I close my fingers around it, and I can’t get over it, how small it is, impossibly small. How can a foot be this small? And hot. She’s been baking under the light and the heater, which blows hot air down on her, and now her feet are on fire.

I remember the videos from birthing class, how the babies, still covered with the white slime of birth, were pressed to their mothers’ chests. How the babies rested in their mothers’ arms. How the babies nursed, latched on right away. That’s how it’s supposed to happen. But here I am, touching my three-day-old baby for the first time, and nothing is as it should be. I’m covering her foot with my fingers, rubbing her hot ankle with my thumb.

Suddenly she stretches her arms and legs and pushes against me with a force that surprises me.

“I think you’re tickling her,” D says.

I look up at him.

“You’re tickling her.” He nods at her foot, at my hand on her foot.

“Oh.” I lift my hand away, irritated. How does he know I’m tickling her? Maybe he’s tickling her. But as soon as I’m no longer touching her, she’s still again. She settles back onto the fleece blanket. Oh. I was tickling her. He was right. He knows her better than I do. I have a baby too ticklish to touch and I didn’t even know. I feel like crying, but don’t want to cry here. “Take me back,” I say. “I’m ready to go.”

I say nothing on the way back to my room. D keeps asking, are you okay? and over and over again I say fine, because I don’t want to talk about our tiny baby. I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t prepared for how small she would be. I knew she was small. Three pounds is small. But I didn’t understand it, not really, what a three-pound baby hooked to a ventilator looked like. I couldn’t see her mouth. I don’t know what her lips look like. I’m not sure why this seems important, but it does. This is part of my problem, I think, not feeling prepared. But the other thing that’s bothering me is the fact the D does seem prepared. He’s taking this—our tiny baby, the move to the NICU—in stride, as if it’s no big deal. I am failing as a new parent, and he is passing with flying colors.

20 million babies worldwide are born prematurely every year. Half a million of these births occur in the United States. Many of these babies die. Many have disabilities. According to the March of Dimes, 25% of the youngest and smallest babies who graduate from the NICU live with long-term health problems, including cerebral palsy, blindness and other chronic conditions. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 found that children born prematurely were at greater risk for lower cognitive test scores and for behavioral problems when compared to full-term children. For babies born at less than 500 grams (1 lb, 1 ounce), the mortality rate is 863 deaths per 1000 live births.

There are success stories, of course. Huge advances in technology and medicine have given countless premature babies a chance at life. But still, having a baby born prematurely is devastating. It’s not the way it’s supposed to happen.

What can you do? You can donate to March of Dimes or to a local hospital NICU. You can help spread the word about the dangers of premature birth. You can sign up and write a post about prematurity today.

I volunteer at the hospital where Stella was in the NICU, and tonight our committee will tour the new unit, which has just been completed. And I know that as I walk through the shiny new NICU, I will be thinking of the babies who will soon reside there. In a few short weeks, each of the private rooms will be filled with the beeping and whirring of machines, with the forced breath of a small life, with the heartbreak and hoping of parents. This post is for them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

milkweed

I’m sitting here in my small office, that tiny room of my own, staring out the window. The wind is scattering the fluff of milkweed across our lawn, and I know that next spring it will pop up everywhere, pushing through grass, undeterred by the mower, which will plow it down, again and again.

I want to thank you so much for your words of support, and for keeping me—and of course my grandpa—in your thoughts. He’s doing okay: not as bad as he was last Thursday, but not altogether better. And this bothers him, I know. He has never *not* gotten better.

Yesterday he handed me a medical book, which he had bought at a garage sale for 25¢, and asked me what I thought caused the fluid in his abdomen, his discomfort, and his inability to sleep.

I paged though the book, but even if it had a chapter on congestive heart failure, which it didn’t, I don’t think I would have been able to tell him. And really, it’s not my place. This is something his doctor should tell to him, a doctor trained in doling out disappointment and hope. (I’m not even sure which one is order here.)

“I don’t know,” I said slowly.

“Don’t tell me it’s because I’m old,” he said.

“Well, Grandpa,” I said. “You are one hundred.”

He snorted, disgusted with my lack of imagination.

The man has been healthy his whole life. He’s had a couple of surgeries on his knee. He’s had his gall bladder out, but he’s never taken a daily medication, not ever. And he’s not ready to die, or even to begin to die. He is undeterred, and he plans to be here in the spring.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

not ready

Maybe you remember my grandpa. He’s 100 years old. Maybe you remember the post I wrote about him last January, before his birthday. Maybe you remember my post about the hectic nature of our weekly errand days, when I drive him and my girls out to West St. Paul to the grocery store, where, after we shop, we sit at the deli and eat hard rolls and butter and, as Grandpa says, “chicken drumsticks.” During these expeditions, Zoë is up and down in the shopping cart, chicken grease smeared on clothes; both girls are generally whiny; and there is always a harried rush back to the car—me trying to get the girls and the groceries in before my grandpa pushes his cart into my car or the car parked next to us.

Often Grandpa will push his own cart around the store, picking out items himself. Sometimes, he follows me around, so I can put the items in his cart for him. But on Monday, he decided to go straight to the deli and drink coffee while Stella and Zoë and I did his shopping for him. Other than that, he seemed fine.

As we drove him back to his apartment, which is in my mom’s finished basement, I asked him if he remembered the Flu of 1918. He would have been nine years old. He did remember, of course—the man remembers everything—and he described how he and his brothers would sit up on the hill overlooking Granite Falls, Minnesota, where they watched the funeral processions go by, day after day. “No one in my family got sick,” he said. “Funny. Almost every family lost someone.” He proceeded to name the doctors who had succumbed to the flu, and then added, “Your grandma’s mother was very ill, but she survived.” Apparently, my great-grandfather brought out a nurse from this Twin Cities to care for his wife, and she recovered. My grandparents didn’t know each other then—they began dating in high school—but he remembered how scared my grandma had been.

Yesterday afternoon, my mom told me she had taken Grandpa to the doctor. He hadn’t been feeling well the last few days—trouble sleeping, trouble catching his breath when he lay down, fluid in his abdomen. His doctor—a wonderful doctor, the kind of doctor I wish everyone could have—said he had a rapid heartbeat. He prescribed some medicine and said for Grandpa to check back in a week.

But this morning he was up at 5 am, trying to sleep in his chair, unable to. His symptoms point to congestive heart failure, and I know what it means, sort of. I know it could mean the beginning of the end. But this is the thing: I’m not ready for that. I am not ready for him to go. Please don’t tell me how lucky I’ve been to have him around so long. Please don’t tell me how lucky he’s been to be that healthy, to “make it” to 100 years old. I know all of this. I know. Still, I need a little more time.

This last year has been so stressful, and I’m tired; I’m worn down. It’s as if the constant stress has removed a barrier, rubbed away my skin, and now there is nothing left to protect me.

This is an odd post, not the kind I usually write, and my only excuse is that I needed to get these words down. So often I can write my way out of darkness. So often I can write my way into some kind of understanding. This is what I had hoped I could do today.

But writing and blogging are different things, aren’t they? I blog for specific reasons: to promote motherhood literature, to encourage dialogue about motherhood and art, about writing and life, about where all of these things overlap and intersect. But I’ve found that your words, your comments, also ground me, keep me tethered. I actually don’t know what I’m asking for today. That you think of my grandpa Spencer? That you know how much I love him? That if you pray, you’ll pray for a little more time for him, for me to be with him? I don’t know.

It's obvious that I haven’t written myself into any kind of understanding today. Nothing seems clearer to me. But still, here I am at my computer, and somehow I feel a little less alone.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

a change

D got a new job, which is, of course, a huge relief. It begins in a week and a half, and it means health insurance and a regular paycheck, a paycheck that will actually come when it’s supposed to come, a paycheck that won’t be a week late (or two weeks or six weeks late). It means summers together and no travel.

But this very good thing also means that I will lose my morning writing time because D will have to leave early every day. I don’t know if you remember how crazy I felt a year and a half ago, after Zoë was born, when D was traveling a ton and working twelve hour days. I felt desperate. I had no time that was my own, no time to put words on the page.

When D’s schedule let up a little, we agreed that things needed to change. I starting going to the coffee shop from 7-9 am, and he started going to work late, after I got home. That consistent time to think, to play with words, to write an essay and begin my revision of Ready for Air, changed my outlook on life. I felt like a person again, a writer again, finally.

I’m nervous about giving that up now, nervous that I’ll become irritable (or more irritable). I’m nervous that I won’t get the revision finished (even if I spend Saturday and Sunday mornings at the coffee shop). Will I get out of the groove if I only have two days a week to write?

I know this is the best thing for our family—the best-case scenario. So I’m trying to roll with it, to Stay Positive. I guess I also better write as fast as I can.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

looking up

Things have been hard around here, which you've probably gathered from my last few posts. It's amazing how easy it is not to think about money when you have it, and how it's all you can think about when you don't have it. Ah.

But things are looking up. I hope. I'll keep you posted on that front when I know anything for sure. (Sorry to be so vague.)

For now, I'm trying to stay focused on the classes I'll be teaching this winter and spring, and on my revision, which is moving along and with which I'm actually quite happy.

And I want to let you know about a two-hour workshop I'll be teaching on November 14th. I'd be grateful if you'd pass the word. Here are the details:

Memoir for Mothers

In this workshop, you’ll learn how to capture your funny and heartbreaking motherhood anecdotes on paper and bring them to life with sensory details and strong characters. In addition to in-class writing, we will spend time discussing how to fit writing into your busy lives. You will leave the workshop with a page of exercises to try at home.

When: November 14 – 10:30 am – 12:30 pm

Where: Mother’s Day Inc., 521 Lake Drive, Chanhassen, MN

Cost: $32

For more information, visit Mother's Day. To register, contact Mother’s Day at 952-937-8200 or mothersday@usfamily.net.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

hungry

“What are we going to do?” Cooper said to his wife. They were lying in bed at sunrise, when they liked to talk. His hand was on her thigh and was caressing it absently and familiarly. “What are we going to do about these characters? They’re on the street corners. Every month there are more of them. Kids, men, women, everybody. It’s a horde. They’re sleeping in the arcade, and they’re pushing those terrible grocery carts around with all their worldly belongings, and it makes me nuts to watch them. I don’t know what I’m going to do, Christine, but whatever it is, I have to do it.” With his other hand, he rubbed his eyes. “I dream about them.”

“You’re such a good person,” she said sleepily. Her hand brushed over him. “I’ve noticed that about you.”

“No, that’s wrong,” Cooper said. “This has nothing to do with good. Virtue doesn’t interest me. What this is about is not feeling crazy when I see those people.”

“So, what’s your plan?”

from “Shelter” by Charles Baxter


These are the facts:

36.2 million Americans - including 12.4 million children - don’t have access to enough healthy food to thrive. They are food insecure and at risk of hunger.

In Minnesota, an estimated 1 in 10 children lives in poverty and 1 in 3 qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Since 2000, food shelf use in Minnesota has increased by 70%.


I know people are struggling right now. Hell, we’re struggling. But this is the truth: I can’t imagine having to put Stella and Zoë to sleep hungry. I can’t imagine telling them that there is no more food in the house, that there is nothing left to eat. I can’t imagine listening to them cry because their stomachs are empty.

But it happens every day across the country. It happens every day in Minnesota.

In 1984, an organization called Share Our Strength (SOS) was started by Bill and Debbie Shore with the belief that “everyone has a strength to share in the global fight against hunger and poverty, and that in these shared strengths lie sustainable solutions.” Working with Share Our Strength, creative writing programs at universities across the country began to give readings to benefit the fight against hunger. One night a year, hundreds of writers shared their words and raised money for Share Our Strength.

Twenty-five years later, there are only a handful of writing programs still hosting readings to end hunger. Some still raise money for SOS, some raise money for local food shelves. But for the most part, these readings have disappeared.

Charles Baxter, author of novels Feast of Love, Saul & Patsy, The Soul Thief, and numerous collections of stories (and whose writing I’ve discussed here and here), was the national Co-Chair for the SOS reading initiative at one point, and he wants to continue the fight against hunger here in Minnesota with the second annual Benefit for Hunger Reading at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 27th at the University of Minnesota Coffman Memorial Theater.

Host Charles Baxter will be reading with Michael Dennis Browne, M. J. Fitzgerald, Ray Gonzalez, Patricia Hampl, and Madelon Sprengnether, all University of Minnesota Creative Writing Program faculty.

It’s free, with a suggested donation of $5 (or more or less, whatever you can afford to give), which will benefit the Second Harvest Heartland foodshelf.


I’m pleased to say that Charles Baxter is here at Mother Words today to talk a little about the benefit reading:

KH: Can you tell me a little about Share Our Strength (SOS) and the involvement of writing programs across the country in the fight against hunger?

CB: I don’t know whose idea it was to come up with autumn harvest readings for hunger relief, but I DO know that at one time there were upwards of eighty readings nationwide for this particular cause. And there was even an anthology of stories, the proceeds from which went to SOS. (These anthologies are titled Writer’s Harvest and are available, used, from Amazon.)


KH: Can you talk a little about why this issue is important to you?

CB: In my third book of stories (A Relative Stranger), there’s a story called “Shelter,” about homeless people. For some reason—who knows why?—I’m particularly disturbed by the sight and the fact of homeless people and people who are hungry. There’s so much wealth in this country, you’d think these problems wouldn’t exist at all. But they do. The main character in “Shelter” is named Cooper, and even Cooper’s wife isn’t sure why he is bothered so much by the existence of misfortune in others. Sometimes I think: well, it could have happened to anyone; it could have happened to *me*.


KH: You mentioned that a few creative writing programs are still doing benefit readings to help end hunger, but that the coordinated effort has dissolved. What made you want to renew it here in Minnesota?

CB: A couple of years ago, I was constantly angry at the state of affairs in this country, and I realized that I could remain angry or I could DO something.

Hunger in this country is a huge problem, but people don’t like to talk about it. In Minnesota, more than half the people who benefit from food shelf donations are children, 15% are senior citizens, 35% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family has visited a food shelf, and 15% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family went to bed hungry during the previous month.

Part of the problem with the readings in the 1980s was that all the money went to the national organization, which then distributed the money to places in the US where hunger or malnourishment were worst. But this reading will benefit local organizations.

On the 27th, I’ll introduce the event, speak about 2nd Harvest Heartland, and introduce the speakers, each of whom will read for about 5-7 minutes. We’ll also have a speaker from 2nd Harvest Heartland. My goals are to raise consciousness of this problem among the U of MN student body, and to raise money for hunger relief.


KH: I’m curious about the connection between art and social justice. What obligation do you think we have as writers to make a difference in the world, either through our writing or other community service initiatives?

CH: Well, that’s a tricky question, because I’m not sure that artists are obligated to do anything, as far as their art is concerned, except to create the best art they can. But as human beings, we are all obligated to each other, and if I can use what I can do, or show, as an artist to raise some money for a good cause, then that’s what I’ll do. If you’re a bricklayer, your only obligation is to do a good job, but in the rest of your life, all the great wisdom literatures say that you should practice charity in your life and hospitality toward the stranger. Artists don’t have any greater obligation than anyone else, but they surely don’t have a lesser obligation, either.

Thanks for talking with me, Charlie!


If you’re here in the Twin Cities, you can come out to this wonderful reading, and have the chance to put food in a child’s stomach. If you are outside of Minnesota, maybe you could think about donating to your local food shelf or to Share Our Strength.

So, what’s your plan?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

porous

Last week I was reading Elizabeth Alexander’s The Antebellum Dream Book, a stunning collection of poems about race and gender and identity and motherhood. Alexander is really brilliant—she’s brilliant in her poetry, but she’s also clearly brilliant in person, in interviews. (You can visit her website if you’re interested in reading some of them.)

On Friday afternoon, after my book group’s discussion of Alexander’s collection, my mind was buzzing, and in my head I wrote a companion post to my post last week about seeing. If you read Alexander, you’ll know why I wanted to post about her ability to see, about the necessity of seeing clearly.

So I had this post in my head, but I never sat down to type it up because everything—the weekend and the weather and my continued cold—got in the way. And now it’s no use; the post already feels worn, old, and it doesn’t fit in with the thoughts and worries that have been churning in brain for the last few days. I suppose that’s the problem with blogs; in order to provide a true reading of my state of mind, my ponderings, I would have to post every day. Of course, that’s never going happen, which is probably a good thing; you’d get really sick of me.)

But today—after a hard couple of days, the kind of days when tears are near the surface, when it feels as if any moment I’ll crack open, when it seems impossible to put a thought down on paper, impossible to string together words to make a sentence—I went back to the Alexander interview I read on Friday afternoon, and the quote that most interested me then isn’t what caught my attention today. (A good reminder of how much we bring to what we read.)

I didn’t even notice these words on Friday, but today they made me nod my head, and think yes, yes. Alexander says:

I wasn’t able to write prose for several years, right when my children were being born. I found that that took a space that was just too wide, and I couldn’t find it, and it also distracted me for too long. I’m interested in how poets like Lucille Clifton, who had six children, talk about having a room of one’s own. She says, “For me, the ideal circumstances for writing a poem are at the kitchen table. The kids have the measles, and everything is going around.” What I love about that, and what I think is really useful and important is that idea of being porous. How can you stay porous at the same time that you have your bubble, in which things can exist or stay safe?

Maybe I’ve been too porous of late. Maybe I’ve forgotten about the bubble.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

my yaddo

Last weekend I went to see one of my oldest friends, Claire, who recently had her first baby. I developed a bad head cold just before I left on my trip, and though it was a drag to be snuffling and coughing, and I wasn’t as helpful with the baby as I wanted to be, the trip was lovely. Claire and I talked and talked and talked, the way you talk when you’re reunited with a long-distance friend. On the phone we give updates, cover the big stuff, but we miss out on all the little details of each other’s lives. So it was a treat to immerse ourselves in each other’s stories, in the little things.

It was also a lovely trip for the writer part of me. I had grown dull, had let the stresses of life press on me so much that it had become difficult to see. And seeing, for a writer, is key, isn’t it?

As I waited for the train into the city, and people began filling in the space around me on the platform, I thought, Oh my God, all these people and their stories are right here, in front of me. I stared at the security guard who leaned against the window in the stairwell across the platform, and I was struck by the sadness and boredom in his eyes. I stared at him, and all of the sudden, a short-story unfolded in my mind. I pulled out my teensy weensy notebook and scribbled it down on those tiny pages. I noted the slope of the woman’s shoulders next to me, the way she kept tucking her brittle hair behind her ear.

There is something about riding public transportation and being in the same space with so many people from so many different backgrounds that jump-starts my senses.

Natalie Goldberg has the short chapter in Writing Down the Bones about being a tourist in your own town. She describes the need for a writer to look at her life and everything in it with fresh eyes, the eyes of a tourist. But between dropping the kids at daycare and the school bus, making grocery lists, constantly picking up of toys, trying to fit work into the two hours Stella is at school or Zoë is napping, making dinner, and paying bills, this is challenging. And do I even want to look at my day-to-day life with fresh eyes? What would I see that I hadn’t already seen?

Sometimes I actually need to be a tourist in someone else’s town in order to see again. And I did see, took in everything—the people, the noise, the way the pigeons on the roof of the building next to Claire’s pecked at the dirty puddles, groomed themselves on a bag of abandoned garbage.

And in the mornings, before Claire and baby Agatha were awake (they slept incredibly late), I made coffee and snuggled into my bed, reading over the first hundred pages of my manuscript. Reading in the morning in bed! It was heavenly. I mentioned to Claire how decadent it felt, and she said, “It’s like your own version of Yaddo.”

I can’t ever imagine applying for a residency that would mean a month away from my kids. Even a weekend away from them was hard. (All weekend I kept thinking, oh Stella would love this! Or when I saw a toddler who walked or laughed like Zoë, I missed them both desperately.)

So I’ll take a few mornings in bed in a different city, reading and editing. The real Yaddo couldn’t have been better.

Monday, September 28, 2009

mother words reading -- a recap




I want to thank everyone who came out on Thursday night to the 3rd Annual Mother Words reading. There were about a hundred people there, and it was so incredible to look out at and see all those familiar—and unfamiliar—faces. If you weren’t able to make this year, don’t worry. I will inundate you with details as the “who” and “when” become clear for next year's reading.

The Loft, for those of you who don’t know, is situated in the Open Book, a wonderful space with a lovely auditorium—wood floors, brick walls and warm lighting. I can’t imagine a better place for a reading, and I’m grateful to the Loft for allowing us to use it. And, as I said in my opening comments on Thursday night, I am also very grateful to the Loft for taking a chance on me in 2006, when they first approved my Mother Words class. As many of you know, I developed Mother Words to create a place where women could come and have their writing about motherhood supported and critiqued and taken seriously as art. And it’s really from that class that this blog and the annual Mother Words reading were born. So I feel I owe a great debt to the Loft Literary Center.

After a warm welcome on Thursday from Jocelyn Hale, the executive director of the Loft, I introduced the reading and kicked it off with a section from Ready for Air. I went back and forth that afternoon, trying to decide whether I should read a chapter from the book or read a more recent and more intense essay. In the end, I went with the excerpt from the book, and I’m glad I did. People laughed, and I’d rather look up and see smiling faces than faces that are totally freaked out. (There will be a time for this essay, though; I promise you.)

Kate St. Vincent Vogl read second, and she read from the beginning of Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers, beginning with the phone call she received from her birth mother late one night, a few months after her mother died of cancer. Vicki Forman read third, and she read a section late in This Lovely Life, the heartbreaking and also very funny scene in which she and her husband are searching for a gravesite for Ellie’s ashes. Kate and Vicki were wonderful, and I felt honored to share the stage with them. And it was amazing to finally meet Vicki in person!

One of the questions asked during the Q & A had to do with humor and how Vicki and I both used humor in situations of crisis. I think it’s true that when you are in the midst of crisis, sometimes the only thing you can do is laugh. But as a writer, it’s also our jobs to give the reader a break sometimes. Vicki said that if you are working with particularly intense material, you need to be on the lookout for situations/moment/scenes that will bring levity to your writing.
I’m curious how other mother-writers incorporate humor into their writing. Does it come naturally or do you feel you have to craft it?

Here are a couple of photos from the night:






Thanks, again, to everyone who was there and to everyone who wished they could be there!!


Monday, September 21, 2009

Thursday, September 24 - 7 pm

Don't forget that this Thursday at 7 p.m. is the 3rd Annual Mother Words reading!

Where: The Loft Literary Center, Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis

I will be reading with Kate St. Vincent Vogl (Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers, North Star Press, 2009) and Vicki Forman (This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

Free. Refreshments will be served after the event. Please bring your friends! You don't want to miss these wonderful writers!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

six

Maybe it is the weather, which is hot and humid, so much like the weather six years ago when she was born. Maybe it is because I am thick in the revision now, typing as fast as I can, absorbed in the narrative of our own lives. Or maybe I will always do this on Stella’s birthday, see the then and now, check the clock throughout the day and remember, yes, this is when the incident with the rice sock happened, this when her oxygen began to dip, this when the nurse handed me a plastic mask to place over my face, when the doctor said I needed a C-section. Later tonight, after I have tucked my big girl into bed, I will look at the clock and remember the minute the doctor pulled her from me, the way I vomited after she was safely out of my toxic body. I will remember the nurse, a man, who held the lima bean bowl to my chin. I will remember D at my side and then gone, following the isolette to the Special Care Nursery. In the following days I will also remember the other parts, the room spinning with mag sulfate still thick in my veins. I will remember the call from Special Care, the respiratory distress. I will remember that first time I was wheeled into the NICU.

And after I am done remembering (for now, at least), I will turn to my big girl with her long shiny hair, the girl who said to me on Friday: “Mom, do you know what the best thing in the whole world is?” And I said, “What?” And she said, smiling her toothless smile, “Kindergarten.”

I will turn to her and listen to her stories, the stories she narrates, and nod my head and smile, even when I can tell she is exaggerating. I will hold open my arms and tell her I’m sorry when I snap, and I will ask her whether she knows how much I love her. I will smile into her hair, when she obliges me, still, her arms stretched wide: “Sooooo much.”

Happy birthday, Stella. I love you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

heavy

Beware: I'm a downer today.

I’ve been feeling low the last few days—sensitive. The kind of sensitive that makes my feelings easily hurt, the kind of sensitive that makes it difficult to fall back to sleep if I wake up in the middle of the night. The kind of sensitive that makes me read too much into e-mail messages or a look from D. The kind of sensitive that makes me snap at my children.

Is it a delayed reaction to Stella starting kindergarten? A couple of people have told me that often a new kindergartner will revolt after a couple of weeks, after the excitement of the school bus and the new teacher has worn off. Am I going through this kind of thing? Maybe, or maybe my heaviness has to do with the fact that half-day kindergarten means that my juggling of schedules and calendars and snippets of work has become even more frenzied than usual.

Or could this heaviness have to do with how fast Zoë runs, and how funny she thinks it is to dart into the street? How amusing she thinks it is--a huge smile on her face--when I jump up from the front steps to dash after her, my heart in my throat. Hilarious. (But it keeps me awake at night, this image of her getting hit by a truck. It plays over and over in my head, and I can’t stop it.)

Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the reality of the troubled economy is inching closer and closer to home, and this financial insecurity sizzles under the surface of our lives. Or maybe it has to do with how hard I work—how very hard—and how this doesn’t seem to matter. Or maybe it has to do with how often D is out of town these days. Or maybe it has to do with my computer, which froze on me yesterday, and which just cannot break right now. Cannot.

These are the times, I suppose, when a little meditation (or a long run or a heavy dose of Paxil) would go a long way. But none of these things is going to happen. Instead, I’ll continue typing away and hope Zoë will take a longer-than-usual nap so I can get a little more work done before we have to walk down to the end of the block, where we will wait for Stella to descend from the bus after her two hours and forty-five minutes of kindergarten.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

on the radio

I wanted to let you know that I'm going to be a guest on the Good Enough Moms show on FM107.1 tomorrow, Sunday September 6th. I'll be going on about 1:30 p.m. and talking about teaching and the upcoming Mother Words reading. Listen if you can. (It will be streaming online, as well.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

the first day


The bus was late this morning, on the first day of kindergarten, and for a while I thought we would have to drive Stella to school. Riding the bus has been the thing about which she has been most excited, and I knew she would be disappointed if it didn't show up. When it arrived a few minutes later and the driver opened the door and called out her name, we gave her a big hug, and she smiled, waved, and walked right up those steps.


I now understand what "my heart swelled" means. My chest, for the rest of the day, has felt full. I'm so proud of her, my Stella.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

the debate goes on

The other day, a friend e-mailed me the link to Patricia Cohen’s New York Times article “A Mother’s Memoir, a Son’s Anguish,” which discusses how British author Julie’s Myerson was “pilloried” after the release in Britain of The Lost Child: A Mother’s Story, a memoir about her son’s drug addiction. Apparently the press in Britain accused Myerson of exploiting her son and exaggerating her son’s drug problems. It didn’t help matters that her son, as well, accused his mother of doing so.

I’ve posted before about the ethics of writing about one’s children, and since presenting at AWP last February, I have been particularly interested in how parents who write about their children navigate this issue. I really like what Julie Schumacher, author of the Black Box, had to say in my interview with her:

“There’s an ethical dilemma in being a parent and a writer of realistic fiction (or nonfiction), that is, a person whose real life and relationships can be a starting point for creative work. When your children are very young, you’re free to comment on their behavior—as well as your own parenting skills—in their presence; as they get older, they don’t want to be the subjects even of positive conversation (“Look how she’s grown!”). That said, I think writers can model responsible self-inquiry — Who am I? What does my life mean? — and demonstrate to their children that creating art, and asking difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions about relationships, families, and societies, is part of living an examined life.

When I have published nonfiction about my children (as in the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times), I’ve gotten permission from them first. (In fact, the editor at the Times pointedly asked if I had done so.) Fiction offers a bit more of a cover; still, I’ve asked my children to read each of my young adult novels — including Black Box — before they were published. I think my kids understand what are for me the two enormous truths of this parenting/writing experience: 1) I love my children wildly, unreservedly, and 2) I can’t live my life without writing things down.”


One of the things that I always ask myself, whether I am writing about my children or someone else in my life, is whether what I’ve written feels true—is it as accurate and true to memory as possible?—and whether or not it will be hurtful. Sometimes, I’ve written a scene that feels honest and true, but still, I know it might be hurtful. A couple of years ago, after I finished a full draft of Ready for Air, I handed it over to my mother.

I knew there were some scenes that might hurt her feelings, so as I put it into her hands, I said, quite simply, “Mom, I know there were times during this period when I was a brat. I just wanted to warn you.”

I felt nervous over the next few days, knowing she was making her way through my manuscript, but when she finished it, she said she loved it. “It’s true, though,” she added, “you were a brat. But, you’ve written it how it happened.” I can’t thank her enough for this.

When I’m writing about my children, however, I am even more careful. They don’t have the ability or maturity to separate the purpose of my writing with how it would make them feel. Someday they will—I hope—but still, it makes me nervous. Hurting them is the last thing I want to do. And perhaps this is why I don’t write about them that often; I write about me, about my role as a mother. I write about early motherhood, about my shifts in perspective. But at some point, this might not even feel okay to me.

I haven’t read Myerson’s memoir yet, though I plan to. And maybe when I do, I will take issue with some of the things she writes. But that wouldn’t mean that I think she shouldn’t write her story. I think there needs to be a place for women and mothers to write the hard stuff, the stuff that so many people don’t want to hear. And I am very sensitive to the fact that women are treated much more harshly than men when they write something controversial about their kids.

Cohen’s New York Times article addresses this very issue, quoting Susan Cheever, who wrote a parenting column for Newsday, and Michael Greenberg, whose memoir Hurry Down Sunshine, detailed his 15-year-old daughter’s first psychotic episode. Cohen writes, “Both Ms. Cheever and Mr. Greenberg mentioned that the ferocious attacks on Ms. Myerson would probably not have been so vehement if a man were the author. ‘I do think that a mother is a very ripe target,’ said Mr. Greenberg, who was in England when Ms. Myerson was being filleted by television and newspaper commentators. ‘I felt it was very predatory.’”

I’m very interested in whether any of you have read Myerson's book and/or the article. What do you think? Where do you draw the line? Is there a line?

Monday, August 31, 2009

mother words this fall

There are still a few spots available in my fall Mother Words class at the Loft. Here are the details:

MOTHER WORDS

When: Tuesdays, 1-3 pm, September 15 - December 8 (12 weeks, no class Nov. 24)

Where: The Loft Literary Center, Open Book, Minneapolis

Course description:

Whether you are a new mom or a veteran, whether you gave birth to or adopted your child, in this class you’ll learn how to take birth and motherhood stories and turn them into art. We’ll talk about the use of humor and explore ways to capture funny motherhood anecdotes on paper. We’ll also discuss and write about the heartbreak and loss that are part of motherhood. Weekly writing exercises will focus on telling details, character development, and strengthening your reflective voice. You can expect to generate two to three creative nonfiction pieces. The instructor will provide feedback on up to 10 pages of student writing (typed and double-spaced) in addition to pieces shared and workshopped in class.

Cost: Sliding scale. Visit the Loft for more information.

Registration: Visit the Loft to register. Contact me with questions.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

this lovely life

Oh, what to say? How to begin? Vicki Forman’s memoir, This Lovely Life, is so close to my heart.

When I initially started reading Vicki’s blog, Speak Softly, I didn’t realize that Evan had been born prematurely. I was caught up in Vicki’s lovely writing and in her voice as an advocate for children with special needs. It wasn’t until I read her archives and her column at Literary Mama that I realized Evan was a surviving twin and had been born at 23-weeks.

23-weeks is on the cusp of viability. If you are not a preemie parent, you may gasp and shake your head, but it is difficult to imagine what this means. If you are a preemie parent or have spent time in a NICU, 23-weeks means something else: it means either death or months in the hospital—months of good days followed by devastating days. It means brain bleeds, retinopathy of prematurity, severely underdeveloped lungs.

The Lovely Life is one of the best motherhood memoirs I have read. It details the first years of Evan’s life, the ups and downs that Vicki and her husband, Cliff, lived through after the twins’ birth: Ellie’s death after four days and Evan’s intensely long and heartbreaking stay in two hospitals. It’s the story of how Vicki overcomes her grief and learns to love her son. It’s a story about a different side of motherhood, a story of how one woman learns to become a different kind of mother.

For preemie parents, this book is a must-read. My story is so different from Vicki’s. Stella was born at 32-weeks, and didn’t face the intense challenges that Evan and Ellie faced. But still, I have marked dozens of pages in The Lovely Life where I nodded my head in agreement, where I saw my own experiences and thoughts reflected on the page.

One of the things I respect so much about this book is the fact that Vicki does not sugarcoat anything. Vicki lays bear her emotions and is not afraid to let the messy stuff—the raw grief and sharp anger—onto the page.

Brett Lott has a wonderful essay called “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. (You can read a condensed version of his essay here.) In it, Lott says that to write successful creative nonfiction, you must: “be ruthlessly honest about how you see yourself in relation to others” and you “can’t be self-righteous or self-serving.”

Vicki is both ruthlessly honest and not at all self-serving. The ethical questions of how early is too early, and what kind of life is a life are in the book, in the details of Vicki’s story, but it’s clear that she is not writing with an agenda in mind.

Vicki graciously agreed to an e-mail interview, so I'm honored to have her here at Mother Words today:

Kate: Can you tell me a little about how you began writing the book?

Vicki: The book started as a series of journal entries I began a few weeks after the twins were born. I didn’t know at that point that I had a book, or that I would write a book about this experience, but I suspected I might and I knew that if I did, I would want to have a record of specific details from that time--things like what doctors said, or what I said in return.

I continued to keep that journal as Evan’s hospital course became increasingly complicated. In the end, the journal was about nineteen single-spaced pages that constituted the original backbone of the book. Some of those entries worked their way into the book. The rest became notes that helped me construct the narrative.

My first attempts to craft a story beyond those notes became the essay, “Coming to Samsara.” That piece was published in the Santa Monica Review and then reprinted in Suzanne Kamata’s anthology, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child With Special Needs. I’m a big believer in getting smaller sections of a longer work into print whenever possible: it allows a writer to keep going with the project, while also permitting pieces of the work to leave the house. That’s good for the writer, and good for the writing.


Kate: Your present “now” self is always close to the surface in This Lovely Life. You reference events and challenges that arise in the future and reflect on your emotional state at the time with your “now” sensibilities. I’m curious about whether this style arose organically for you or whether you made a conscious effort to craft this perspective into the story.

Vicki: The first drafts of the story were a straightforward, chronological telling. As I began to revise, I saw that I would need what you refer to as the “later” voice--one that I called my “reflective” voice—as a strategy for commenting on the events. It felt important to me to give the reader a sense that amidst all the hard news and setbacks we encountered, we had found a way to mend and heal as a family. I could only offer up that perspective by flashing forward with voice and point of voice, into that “later” person you so rightfully notice.


Kate: Your honesty is really breathtaking and so very brave. Was it difficult to get to a place where you could be this honest on the page?

Vicki: I’m laughing at the question, because in fact I had a sort of the opposite difficulty: I knew the material was tough and my feelings were quite honest, so I focused on making the tough stuff more bearable. I worked a lot on voice and narrative distance so that even if the facts and details were honest, the reader had something of a filter, via the narrator, for that honesty.

Above all, I knew that I did not want to elicit pity, because I’ve come to see that often explicit honesty can generate pity within the reader. So I tried to tell it like it was, but in a way where readers might recognize examples of honest feelings within themselves, but also understand that honesty can be processed, or incorporated, and amid the honesty life and perspective and good humor do go on.


Kate: What was the most challenging part of writing This Lovely Life?

Vicki: I had a rare kind of grace accompanying me during the writing, in which I felt very connected to the material, the goals of the book, its urgency and purpose. That sense of purpose and urgency carried me along so effectively that my typical writer doldrums (self-doubt, confusion, procrastination) were mostly pretty far away. I don’t know why the writing came to me the way it did, but I’m eternally grateful.

My biggest challenges came not in writing the book, oddly, but in selling it. When the book was done, I thought I had done a decent job. There was a narrative arc, and a cohesion, and the writing was more or less something I could feel proud about. Then my agent was unable to sell it.

We received the most heartbreaking rejections, with editors reporting that they loved the writing but had no idea how to market the book or find its audience. After a dozen or so of these, I withdrew the book from submission and told my agent I wanted to figure things out on my own. I had to regroup in a pretty fundamental way. The first decision I made was to submit to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize. While I waited to hear, I began to proceed with other options, like small presses. Before I had to figure out my next steps, the book won the prize.

But not being able to sell the book shook my confidence in a way that had not happened in the actual writing, so that was an interesting twist for me, and reminded me too that writers have to be made of steel from start to finish. The job doesn’t end when the writing ends.

Kate: What would you tell other writers about this process?

Vicki: My path to publication was certainly not orthodox, nor would I recommend it, but for me, thankfully, it worked, presenting a once in a lifetime event that I don’t expect to repeat itself. Next time around, I’ll have to figure out how to convince an editor. That’s the way most writers do it, right?


Kate: I’m a very interested in the revision process. Between the time you won the Bakeless Prize and This Lovely Life was ready to go to print, your dear Evan died. Did his death affect how you reread and revised your manuscript? If so, how?

Vicki: I was scheduled to revise the book the summer of 2008, with a fall deadline. There were some scenes to include, and some deeper characterization to work on. Then my son died, and all bets were off. My editor told me to take all the time I needed, my friends offered to help in whatever way they could, and I simply felt my way, in my own good time, back to the writing.

The first change I made to the book was to add the epilogue, which I had drafted as my last piece (“Saying Goodbye”) for the column I wrote at the time for Literary Mama. After I wrote the epilogue I knew I could reapproach the book, that I had to, that my job wasn’t done and that as a writer I would have to find a way to do that job. It was not easy, but the book itself seemed to provide an actual physical solace and comfort. The phrase, “all we have are our words,” certainly took on a profound and resonant meaning for me.


Kate: Now that This Lovely Life is published, how does it feel to see your lives in print and have people react to your experiences? What are some of the responses you are getting?

Vicki: I like to say I wrote the book I wish had been there for me when I was going through these events. Now that the book is in print, I do find myself hearing from readers for whom this statement resonates. They recognize themselves in the events, the emotions, and the grief. Many of these emotions and reactions are in fact universal. And while I can see why mainstream publishing felt the story was too hard, it is unfortunately the case that grief and loss and death happen over and over in our culture, we just don’t get to read stories about it. We like happy endings, and miracles and so-called success. To put a face to a life like Evan’s, or to render honest feelings of imperfect motherhood like mine—it’s a gift for me as a writer to even approximate that goal.


Thank you, Vicki, for taking the time to answer these questions! Don’t forget that you can see Vicki in person on Thursday, September 24th at 7 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center in the Open Book in Minneapolis. I will be reading with Vicki and Kate St. Vincent Vogl. Free and open to the public!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

mother words week

It's Mother Words week at the Star Tribune's Cribsheet this week! Go check out some of the writing from my wonderful online Mother Words students. I'm so proud of them!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

fall

Fall is bittersweet for me. I love the cooler weather, the oranges and reds of the changing maples, but I hate what fall portends—those long, cold months trapped inside. Fall also makes me feel melancholy, heavy with the sense of time passing. I’ve been feeling this a lot in the last weeks, probably because I can’t deny time’s passing this year—Stella is starting kindergarten. We were up north at the cabin again last weekend, and when we arrived home on Monday afternoon, I looked at the calendar and realized she would be starting school in just over two weeks! I felt almost panicky—there were the school supplies and new school clothes to buy, the forms to fill out, etc. It all seemed like too much. It didn’t help, of course, that D was out of town.

D has been gone a week, and I’ve had it with single parenthood. The saving grace has been the two full days of childcare. On Tuesday morning after I dropped off the girls, I tied up the last piece of a seemingly endless freelance article, then dove into my manuscript for an hour. I met a friend for lunch, then spent the next couple of hours working on an editing project. Today, I plan to work on the book, go for a run!, and then back to editing in the afternoon. Heavenly.

In a week, however, these long days will be over. Stella will be in half-day kindergarten (it’s a lottery system here in Minneapolis), which is about, oh, two minutes long. So for the next year, I will write in the morning, come home to be with Stella (and Zoë on the days she’s not at toddler school). Then when Stella gets on the bus, I’ll have another few hours to work. Stella will be home early afternoon, and we’ll have a little time to do errands or crafty projects before we go get Zoë. I won’t have big chunks of work time, but I will still have more time total than I’ve had in the last year and a half. I’m gearing up to roll with it.

Yesterday morning Stella and Zoë and I went to Target and checked off the items on the kindergarten supply list, and this weekend, we’ll go shopping for Stella’s new school outfits (a ritual I remember fondly from my own childhood and teen years). Then in two weeks, I will have a kindergartner! How is it possible that my 3-pounder has become so big and tall that it is difficult for me to carry her? How is possible that that tiny baby, her fingers unable to close around my pinky, has grown into a beautiful, responsible girl, all sass and spunk? I suppose I will continue to ask these questions indefinitely, with every new milestone.

Do you ever stop marveling at this, how fast they grow?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

changes

Last week, Zoë started “school.” It was awful. I should have known it would be awful, but I didn’t. D and I dropped her off on the playground with Stella, and she was fine until she realized we were going to leave her there, and then she burst into tears—wailing and pointing to the door. Stella was a dear, holding her hand and talking in that really high voice she reserves for Zoë. But as we drove away and saw Zoë screaming, I felt sick to my stomach. Why was I doing this to her?

I thought the transition would be easy because she had been to school so many times to drop off and pick up Stella. She knew some of the teachers. She recognized the other “babies.” I thought she’d be fine because she’s such an extrovert. She thrives on attention and activity and being surrounded by other people.

Who was I kidding? Had I forgotten that I had been with her almost every moment of her 17 months? Had I forgotten that she was a momma’s girl? Apparently.

She cried 90% of the day, and when I went to pick her up, she was standing in the corner on the toddler playground, staring dazedly at the other kids, her eyes red and her face mottled. The poor thing wouldn’t let me put her down for the rest of the day.

But, and here is the flip side—I got a ton of work done that day. I sat in my office and typed away, did research for an article that feels like it will never be finished. I stared out the window, wondered about my little ones. I had a conference call with my co-editor at Literary Mama. (Yes, I’m now on board at Literary Mama, co-editor for Literary Reflections! I’m thrilled!)

I got a ton done that day, and Zoë’s second day was better: down to 15% of the day spent crying. And I’m hoping that soon she will be jumping into the car on school days. (I guess I shouldn’t hold my breath for that one.)

I know I need this time to work, but I do miss the little bugger. And since last week, Zoë has been less into mom. Last weekend we were up north at the cabin, and she only wanted Grammy. Lord knows I’ve been in this situation before. I understand what it feels like not to be the favorite. I also understand that these phases pass. (And then they return and they pass again.)

I’ll be patient with her and patient with myself. Now if I could just tie up all my freelance work so I can get back to my book!!