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Friday, February 27, 2009


I am so humbled by Cribsheet's post today. Kay and May have been such stalwart supporters of my students, my teaching, and my writing. I am honored. Thank you, ladies! Thank you.

Monday, February 23, 2009

mother words essays on cribsheet

Hey, I wanted to let you know that it's Mother Words week over at the StarTribune's Cribsheet. May and Kay are featuring essays from some of my lovely and talented Mother Words students. Bravo, ladies!! A new essay will be posted each day. Check it out!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

one small place

Do you know those evenings, those very long evenings when you look at the clock at 5 p.m. and can’t believe there are still two whole hours before you can realistically put the kids to bed? Tonight, both girls were overtired—whiny and tantrum-prone. And there is nothing like a wailing, possibly-coming-down-with-something baby and a huffy, desperately tired, smarty-pants five-year-old to distort the passage of time. To almost stall the passage of time. I glanced at the clock a dozen times, wondered if it was possible for the second hand to rotate any more slowly.

But now both my darlings are asleep and I have poured myself a glass of wine. The Oscars are on, but the television is muted, and I was just re-reading my friend Francine’s new chapbook, Like Saul. This quiet and this poem (and okay, and this glass of wine) are enough to bolster my good humor:

One Small Place
by Francine Marie Tolf

My mother believed Eden was the whole earth.
Then we sinned, and “our intellect darkened.”
That phrase seduced me as a child:
I pictured tracts of water and land
suddenly dimmed, like sky before storm.

Tonight, I sit on a bench
watching a couple push their children on swings:
the mother, their toddler,
the father, their baby,
who is whooping and gurgling,
his hair bright as duckling’s down.

A boy of fourteen
is swinging too, as high as he can,
no friends around to witness this lapse of cool.

I hear we’re due for a storm.
I think it will be a terrible one.
You would never guess it from the gold
lingering in this park,
wind combing cottonwoods
until they swell like distant surf.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

why write?

AWP was amazing and exhausting. When D and the girls picked me up at the airport Saturday night, I squeezed myself in back between Stella and Zoë, and I gave Stella a huge hug, kissing her repeatedly. She went on and on with “Mama, I missed you,” and “I love you,” and “I’m so glad you’re back,” and she happily rattled off the details of her day. But little Zoë refused to look at me, even after I practically gobbled her up. She turned her head to the window, and would not be wooed. We were almost home before I convinced her to smile at me. But as soon as we were inside, she was pulling at my shirt and nursing greedily, as if she had been starving (which she wasn’t). And she nursed on and off all day Sunday and yesterday. (As if she wanted to get her fill before I disappeared again.) Poor thing. But maybe she’s nursing continually during the day because I’m not nursing her at night anymore! D did it! She’s sleeping in her crib ALL NIGHT LONG! On Saturday night, she cried out a few times, but she fell back to sleep on her own, and the last two nights she cried out only once. Hopefully soon she won’t cry out at all, and Stella can move back into her bed. (She’s currently sleeping with us, which is a little tight.)

But even though it was difficult to leave my kids, and especially my nursing eleven-month old, I’m so glad I went to the conference. I finally met some of my virtual friends, like the amazing Susan Ito (whose writing I’ve discussed here), and all of the talented and wonderful Literary Mama folks. I went to their reading Friday night, and it was so lovely to finally hear their voices! They rock!

It’s incredible to be able to be in the same space with so many of my literary heroes! I accosted Scott Russell Sanders in the book fair on Friday, and he was even more gracious and lovely than I expected. Whenever I meet one of my heroes, I always worry that I’ll act like an excited puppy, and that in my effusiveness, it will seem like I just peed on their legs. But Scott Russell Sanders took my admiration in stride, and we talked about what he read at the Loft Mentor Series reading and about the Parents as Writers panel. He said how much he wished he could have been a part of that discussion, and he talked about how having children was one of the things that made him move from writing fiction to writing essays. Being a father heightened his need to make sense of the world, to question what kind of world we were leaving for our kids. And becoming a father made him question why he wrote. (I’m paraphrasing badly here.)

This question—why write?—came up again and again over the weekend, from different people in different forms. Some people write to try to change the world. To change a perspective. To expose our violent history of racism. To help us rethink war.

I’m thinking of Wang Ping’s amazing poem “Dust Angels,” which is about migrant workers in China who only last a year or two in the factories that make jewelry because the dust from metal and stones poisons their lungs. I’m thinking of Shari MacDonald Strong’s essay about raising sons in a time of war in The Maternal is Political. I’m thinking of Eula Biss’ essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” from her new collection, Notes from No Man’s Land, which won the 2008 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. You can read an excerpt of this essay at Harper’s, but I wish everyone could hear Biss read it aloud. I sat among hundreds of people Friday afternoon, and I felt as if I was being kicked repeatedly. I felt as if I would vomit. She’s that good.

I write to discover what I know. I write to survive. I write to make sense of the world around me. And always, I hope that something I have written will help someone, even if it is only one person.

A few weeks ago I asked why you blogged, and now I want to know why you write. Are the reasons the same? I’d love to hear what drives you to your computer or to the coffee shop with a pad of paper and a pen. Why do you write?

Friday, February 13, 2009

reporting from awp

I slept for six and a half hours straight last night! Heavenly. I wish I could have slept even more, but I had to get up and pump. I’ve been pumping and pumping and pumping, which, I’ll admit, has surprised me. I knew still Zoë nursed a lot at night, but I didn’t realize how much she was nursing during the day. I can go only four hours without serious pain. And yesterday I accidentally washed one of the pieces of my pump—one of those critical white flaps—down the sink in my hotel room, and now I can only pump one side at a time. I realize this is TMI for some of you, but being strapped to this thing for hours a day complicates the conference a little. (I’m late for everything and missing some things altogether.)

On the home front things seem to be going well. Zoë turned her nose up at formula and has taken only sips of the whole milk D has tried to feed her, but she’s eating her usual fare: burritos and fruit and peas and pretty much anything else. And she gets one bottle of pumped milk at night. Those meager bags were all I had. It seems silly that I’m dumping bottle after bottle down the sink a few hundred miles away. Ah, well. I miss my girls, but still, it’s good to be here.

I went to the Loft Mentor Series 30th Anniversary reading yesterday afternoon, and it was so good: Charles Baxter, Barrie Jean Borich, C.J. Hribal, Scott Russell Sanders, Sun Yung Shin, and Wang Ping. The Mentor Series program pairs established, nationally-known writers with emerging writers, and it was so cool to see that the once-emerging writers featured yesterday (Barrie Borich, C.J. Hribal, and Sun Yung Shin) are all now successful writers in their own right. And I have to say that it was also a thrill to hear Scott Russell Sanders read about a miscarriage and then about the birth of his first child. He was actually supposed to be on our Parents as Writers panel, but he had to back out because he had agreed to participate in too many sessions, and there is a limit of three (I think) per person. But it felt like his reading was a nod in our direction, and I appreciated that. Oh, and I also adore him.

The mix of voices and subject matter at this reading was perfect, and I think this is a testament to the work of the Loft. Go Loft!

I’ll post more about the Parents as Writers panel in a few days, after I have had a chance to sit down and reflect on it. But I will say what an honor it was to present alongside such talented women!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

over at motherlode

Hey, we're reporting from AWP (and by "we" I mean me and the Medela Pump n' Style--more about that later). I'll give you an update on the panel later, as well. It was so fun!

But I wanted to let you know that I'm also over at as a guest blogger on motherlode today. Check it out.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

gearing up

AWP is only five days away, and I’ve been thinking of little else. It’s not just the writing conference that’s on my mind, of course. I’ve been thinking about getting on a plane alone, without anyone I need to hold or rock or calm. I’ve been thinking about sleeping through the night and having three glasses of wine if I feel like it. And of course I’ve also been worrying about leaving my girls for three nights. Stella will be fine—I’ve been away from her for that long before—but I haven’t been away from Zoë for more than a few hours at once since she was born. I realize it’s time—she is eleven months old after all. But she still breastfeeds and still wakes up several times a night to nurse, and that’s the part that makes me nervous. Ideally, when I return, she will be weaned from night feedings and be sleeping through the night. (Is that too much to hope for?) But I’m worried that in the process, she will feel abandoned, and when I return, she’ll give me the baby cold shoulder. I can see her doing that.

I am excited for the actual conference and for our panel, “Parents as Writers: Our Children as Subjects,” which will be moderated by Jill Christman, whom I adore. (I’ve posted about her essay “The Allergy Diaries” here.) The panel is studded with mama writer stars: Shari MacDonald Strong, editor of The Maternal is Political and frequent columnist for Literary Mama and mamazine; Sonya Huber, author of Opa Nobody and frequent contributor to Literary Mama; and Jennifer Niesslein, co-founder of Brain, Child and author of the memoir Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help and Back. I'll be sitting next to those ladies. How exciting is that? And we’ll be discussing what happens when we turn our writer’s gaze on our children: How does the writing change when we are responsible for more than our art? When parents write about children, how are the ethical considerations different than when it’s the other way around? When do our children’s stories become theirs to tell, not ours?

I’ve been preparing and thinking about this for a few weeks now, and I’ve come across some interesting articles that deal with the topic. I especially like Emily Bazelon’s article “Is This Tantrum on the Record?” which was published in Slate last June. Bazelon challenges writers (and particularly bloggers) to consider whether there are (or should be) ground rules when you write about your children. She says, “When I write about my kids, I’m not only thinking as their mothers. I’m also thinking as a professional writer. Those two identities don’t always align—they just don’t. I like to think that when there’s tension, I err on the side of protecting my kids’ interests, steering clear of any material that’s too embarrassing or private.” But Bazelon admits that she doesn’t trust herself to always do this, so her husband vets all of her writing about their kids.

I’m careful when I write about my kids, especially when I write about them on this blog. I do it infrequently. Partly, this is because the blog isn’t really about my kids; it’s about motherhood and reading and writing and teaching. It’s about how and where these things intersect, how they work together and sometimes against each other. And partly it is because in the face of the confessional, tell-all nature of blogging, I want to be especially careful. I post the occasional anecdote about Stella, list something funny or adorable that she said. But in the back of my mind, there is always a flashing red light reminding me of the potential Googling power of a gaggle of 12-year-olds. At some point, she may want to read what I write about her, and I don’t want her to feel exposed or betrayed when she does.

I feel a little freer when I’m writing for a print publication, when I’m working on an essay or my memoir. It’s true that pieces of this writing could end up online and easily accessed, as well, but still, it feels different, safer. But maybe I’m just fooling myself.

I’d be very interested to hear about your ground rules…are there things you will or will not write about your children? Is there an age at which you think you will (or should) stop writing about them, at least online? How do we balance our need to express ourselves through writing with our children’s right to privacy?

Anyone out there going to AWP? I’d love to meet some of my virtual friends in person! And if you are there, please join our discussion on Thursday morning!

Monday, February 2, 2009

mother words online

Okay, so I'm finally doing it. I'm launching the online version of my Mother Words class in March. Here is the description:

Mother Words Online - March 19 - May 21

Whether you are a new mom or a veteran, whether you gave birth to or adopted your child, in this online class you’ll learn how to take birth and motherhood stories and turn them into art. Weekly lectures, reading assignments and writing exercises will focus on telling details, character development, emotional distance, strengthening your reflective voice, and revision. You can expect to generate two creative nonfiction pieces, and you will have an opportunity to revise and expand one of these into a longer piece. You will receive feedback from your peers and from me through online workshops.

For more information, visit my website. You can also leave a comment below if you are interested. Space is limited.