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Thursday, May 28, 2009

upcoming classes

There is still room in my summer online Mother Words class! Don't be shy. For more information, click here or e-mail me at katehopper[at]

I'll also be teaching a one-day workshop on July 11th from 9 am - 1 pm at the Loft Literary Center called Writing Parenthood. If you've wanted to take Mother Words, but haven't been able to manage a 12-week class, this is your chance for a crash course. To register, click here. I'd love to meet some of you face-to-face!

Monday, May 25, 2009

honest scrap

Okay, I have been meaning to do this for weeks and weeks and weeks. The lovely Shannon at It's Never Too Late...To Be What You Might Have Been passed the Honest Scrap Award on to me months ago, and I’m finally passing it on, as well.

The Honest Scrap Award is given to blogs that are found brilliant in content or design. (Thank you, Shannon!) I’ve given awards to a number of my favorite bloggers over the last two years, but I am consciously passing this award on to blogs that are new (or old, but new to me.) I am passing the award on to 4 bloggers I admire. Then I am supposed to list 10 honest things about myself, but I’m going to skip that part because if you read this blog, you probably know more than you ever wanted to know about me. (See my previous post about what happens when I begin to cough uncontrollably.)

Play School: Adventures in Family Learning — This is Carrie Pomeroy’s new blog, and it’s really wonderful. Her writing is lovely, and I always find myself nodding my head when I read her words. (She also has a wonderful essay in the anthology Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers.)

Mind Body Mama — Well, Lynne Marie is really amazing. She articulates so many of the worries I have about raising daughters. What a pleasure to know her.

The Blue Suitcase — My dear friend and extremely talented writer, Bonnie J. Rough, has just started a blog about her family’s travels. Bonnie is an essayist at heart, so if you love the essay form, you must read her blog. You won’t be disappointed. I promise.

Maggie World — I’ve only been reading Sally’s blog for about a month, but I’m loving it. There is so much tenderness in her writing about her children, but underlying her tenderness is a steely determination that I admire very much.

Check out these wonderful blogs! And thanks again, Shannon. I’m sorry it took me so long to post this!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

two masters

Just in case you’ve been worrying about my cough, wondering if I made it through Bernard Cooper’s reading on Friday night without hacking up a lung, I’ll tell you right away that I did. I *did not* begin to cough so hard and relentlessly that I threw up, as I did, say, earlier on Friday, when I cashed in on the precious pedicure portion of my Mother’s Day gift certificate, and, halfway through the foot soak and leg massage, felt that dry tickle in my throat. My water bottle was in my purse on the floor, and sadly, by the time I reached it, it was too late; the coughing had begun. The very kind pedicurist handed me some tissues, into which I promptly vomited. With dread, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to stop coughing—and if I couldn’t stop coughing, I wouldn’t stop barfing—so I jumped out of the chair, wet feet and legs dripping all over the floor, and ran to the sink along the wall, where luckily there was also a trash can. I slurped water and tried to catch my breath, but couldn’t quell the hacking. I vomited—over and over—into the trash can. Oh please let them not realize I’m throwing up, I thought desperately. (I was clearly experiencing some kind of oxygen-deprived delusion, because of course they realized I was barfing. How could they not?)

When the coughing finally subsided enough for me to stop throwing up, my face was red, my eyes bloodshot, and tears were running down my face. I returned to my chair, apologizing profusely to everyone. (I’m sure I ruined the relaxation of the poor woman next to me, but kindly she didn’t let on.) I coughed my way through the rest of the pedicure (sans vomit), and then stopped on my way home for several bags of Ricola. These things saved me this weekend, and though I’m certain I ingested more than is recommended, I don’t care. I didn’t vomit at the Memoir Festival.

I realize this may be TMI for some of you, so I’ll move on to the real subject of this post: how much Bernard Cooper and Patricia Hampl rock. Really, if you ever have the opportunity to see either of them read or talk about writing, go. They not only know their sh*t, but they are both so engaging that it is a wonderful treat to sit back and listen to them talk about memoir.

Cooper read from The Bill From My Father and from a chapter of a work in progress, which was recently published as “The Constant Gardener,” an amazing essay included in Best American Essays 2008. I’ve probably read this piece twelve times, so it was interesting to hear an un-cut version of it. I’m very interested in what comes first—an essay or a book—and how a writer is able to condense part of longer work into a manageable essay or expand an essay into a much longer work. This is very challenging for me, so I’m always in awe of someone who seems to do it effortlessly.

But though Bernard Cooper’s writing seems effortless, Cooper is very forthcoming about how challenging writing is and how sometimes even a simple sentence can take an incredible amount of energy. On Saturday morning during his keynote speech he described how, while he was working on The Bill from My Father, he sat in front of his computer for hours one day, trying to write a scene in which he was in a laundromat and saw an article in the paper about his father’s divorce. He described the clothes spinning in the drier, tried to recreate the feel of being in the laundromat, but he couldn’t find the sentence he needed to get the paper into his hands. After hours, he finally wrote: “I noticed a copy of the Herald Examiner lying on the empty chair beside me.”

Cooper is charming and funny and down-to-earth. What more could I want in one of my literary heroes?

Patricia Hampl is no less charming. On Saturday afternoon, the wonderful Brian Malloy (whose latest young adult novel, Twelve Long Months, just won the Minnesota Book Award!) interviewed Hampl, the mother of modern memoir. (I’m not sure if I’ve stolen that descriptor or not. Regardless, it’s true.) Hampl described how, when A Romantic Education was published in 1981, there wasn’t even a category for “memoir.” Can you imagine?

There are two things I want to highlight from Hampl’s conversation. The first is about form. Hampl said, “Memoir has as much to do with reticence as revelation. The one who spills the most beans does not get the prize. Form is about what you leave out.” I think this is so important for memoirists, especially beginning memoirists, to remember. You can never—and should never—try to “tell it all.” Choose the information that is important to the story you’re telling, and let the other details fall to the side.

The other thing she said that I love is this: “’Me’ is not the subject in memoir. ‘Me’ is simply an instrument. But in describing the world, you also render yourself.”

I will keep you posted about the next memoir festival. It might be worth a trip to the Twin Cities! And if you live here, you’ll have no excuse!

Friday, May 15, 2009

a cough, a festival, and a few words about stories

I mentioned in my mother’s day post that Zoë was sick and that—after being on the receiving end of her croupy cough—I was getting sick, as well. Well I did get sick—head-exploding, coughing-until-I-puked sick. I had to take Zoë into the ER early Monday morning because she was barking like a seal, poor dear, and by the end of the day I was coughing uncontrollably, as well. And then, after Zoë wiped her snotty hand across D’s face—she thought this was very funny—he got sick, too. (Stella, so far, is fine. Knock on wood.)

I’m feeling much better now, but as a precaution, I’m going to stock up on cough suppressant, cough drops, and antibacterial hand gel so I’ll be ready for the Memoir Festival this weekend. As a mother of a former preemie, I know as much about hand hygiene as anyone. I will douse myself in antibacterial gel before I shake even one hand. I promise.

My fear, however, is that I will begin coughing loudly during Bernard Cooper’s reading tonight, and I’ll have to leave the auditorium. That would really suck. I have been waiting for this too long to have to banish myself into the hallway. Keep your fingers crossed for me. (And if you want to attend the memoir festival, there’s still time. You can register online today or in person tomorrow morning. Cooper’s reading is open to the public, as well! For more information, click here.)

I’ll report on the festival next week (and maybe even this weekend if I can squeeze in a post), but until then, I want to mention a wonderful thing I read last night.

I have had the anthology Love You To Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs on my shelf for a few months. (If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that this is, sadly, my habit. I just don’t have very much time to read non-teaching writing right now.) But last night, I was drawn to this book. I had just posted a lecture for my online Mother Words class about structure and Penny Wolfson’s wonderful “Moonrise”—which I’ve posted about here and here—and I was thinking of the ways that so many of the mother-writers I know write about their children with special needs. So I opened Love You to Pieces. This is what Suzanne Kamata writes in the introduction:

I’m the kind of person who looks to literature to make sense of life, so when I learned that my daughter was deaf and had cerebral palsy, I sobbed for a while and then logged onto I was looking for deep and sustaining stories to guide me on the long path ahead, and while I found many cheery volumes offering hope and inspiration, that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I needed to know that others had felt the same kind of pain, fear, and anger that I was feeling, and I wanted a better idea of how my daughter’s disability would affect my marriage, my son, my work, and other aspects of our lives. The best novels, short stories, and memoirs can pull us into the lives of their characters and provide a deeper understanding of others, while poetry can distill and illuminate moments that longer essays gloss over.

She ends the introduction with this: “…literature eases loneliness and helps us understand and empathize with those unlike ourselves.”

In my online class, we have been talking about this very thing—the way stories, as one of my wonderful students said, “can humanize us.” Reading a wide variety of voices—those of mothers and non-mothers alike—makes me a better person, helps keep life in perspective, helps, as I said on Sunday, not take my life or my family for granted.

I read the first few pieces in Love You to Pieces—Vicki Forman’s amazing “Coming to Samsara” about the birth of her twins at 23 weeks gestation; Hannah Holborn’s “Without Strings,” the heart-wrenching story of a mother dealing with her daughter’s diagnosis of Angelman’s; Ellen Bihler’s poem about the mother of a baby with spinal muscular atrophy falling into hopelessness; and Marcy Sheiner’s “A Homecoming,” the story of a mother isolated from her friends because of her son’s brain damage. This was all I could manage. My heart felt too heavy to continue. But underneath this heaviness was something else: gratitude. The words of these writers are brave and necessary and life-changing, and I want to send out a shout of thanks to these wonderful writers and to Suzanne, who pulled this book together.

I also want to make sure everyone knows that Vicki Forman’s memoir, This Lovely Life, will be released this summer. And also this exciting news: Vicki has agreed to come to Minnesota this fall to be part of the 3rd Annual Mother Words Reading, which will also feature the wonderful local writer Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers. I will be bombarding you with details as the date approaches, but I want you to put it on your calendars now: September 24th, 7 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Everyone is welcome!!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

happy mother's day!

I slept in late this morning, which—and I’m serious here—means I slept until 8:30, at which point the loving parade of my family came in, bearing a bowl of strawberries doused in sugar (one of my favorite things), a steaming cup of coffee, a small potted rose plant, cards, and a gift certificate for a manicure and pedicure. Whoo-hoo! Stella was all smiles, but Zoë was crabby, pounding on my chest, impatient to nurse. She’s had a cold, which, as usual, she has given to me.

I went for a run anyway, and then all of us went to the garden store to buy some new plants for our very-slowly developing garden. Later, we’ll go to my mom’s for dinner. Maybe I’ll even get a nap in. It’s been a lovely day.

I hope you’re all having a wonderful day, as well. Tonight I’ll be raising my glass to all of the wonderful mothers I know (and even the ones I don’t know).

And in honor of mother’s day, I want to share with you these two short excerpts from The Maternal is Political. The first is from Violeta Mendoza’s wonderful “Of Volcanoes and ruins and Gardens,” an essay about adopting her daughter from Guatemala:

It’s the opposite of pregnancy, maybe. If I had given birth to her, her birth would have begun a slow process of releasing her into the world; having adopted her, we’ve begun the process of letting each other in, of allowing ourselves to become inextricably linked. We were born six thousand miles apart and share not a single genetic secret; we share only circumstance, a chain of moments. It is enough. I’m in awe of the way the perceived boundary lines between us fall away. The space that carries my love for her is so vast, it feels like a cove carved out in me; so big, it’s startling what else it lets me carry.

I love this: “the space that carries my love for her is so vast, it feels like a cove carved out in me.”

And from Judith Stadtman Tucker’s “Motherhood Made Me Do It Or, How I Became an Activist”:

I’m always reluctant to make sweeping generalizations about the psychology of motherhood, but I think it’s safe to say that the process of becoming a mother can alter a woman. Some changes may be superficial and transitory; others are more lasting. Sometimes the process of becoming a mother works into the deepest cavities of the self and fundamentally transforms a woman’s worldview.

Indeed. It’s sometimes difficult to even know that ways that motherhood has changed me, but I know that I’m different. I know motherhood has made me celebrate small, seemingly insignificant moments, moments like Zoë curled into me, nursing, or Stella bent over a piece of paper, drawing intently. I know motherhood has made me feel gratitude so intense that I never would have guessed at it. I know motherhood has made me a more serious writer, has underscored the importance of stories in my life.

So here I am on this mother’s day, feeling grateful, and wondering how motherhood has altered each of you. What lasting changes have been wrought in your heart and mind as a result of being a mother?

Tell me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

mother words online - summer session

I'll be teaching Mother Words online again this summer. It will be an 8-week class (with no class the week of June 29).

Here is a description of the class:

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 a number of short creative nonfiction pieces and one long piece. You will receive feedback from your peers and from me through online workshops.

For more information, click here. To register or if you have questions, please contact me.

This class is open to writers of all ability levels! Join us!

Monday, May 4, 2009


I’m not a patient person. I’m just not. And unfortunately, impatience isn’t a helpful character trait for a writer. So much of a writer’s time—at least this writer’s time—is spent waiting, thinking, revising, waiting. Did I mention waiting? I wait for letters to come back from journals. I wait for responses from editors. I wait for calls from my agent. I wait and I wait and I wait. And as I wait, I often become discouraged. I keep working on new writing—or re-writing—and I keep teaching and thinking about craft. But still, I always wonder if the waiting will ever pay off.

Lining the windows of our dining room is a small collection of orchids. Most were given to us by dear Mimi, an older woman with whom D and I lived just after we were married. For three and a half years, we lived in a small apartment next to Mimi’s garage. In exchange for rent, we took Mimi on errands and performed small and seasonal tasks around her house. One of my jobs was to water her greenhouse every Sunday morning. I would step into the glass room and groom and water her large collection of orchids. In the winter, the greenhouse made those long cold months bearable. After I had sprayed all of the plants, I would run my fingers along silky petals, breathe in the scent of dirt, and know that spring would come, eventually.

Mimi gave us most of the orchids we now have in our house. But one of them—the largest—I chose for myself. Mimi died almost four years ago. By that point D and I had moved into our own house, and a new couple—friends of ours—had been living with Mimi for two years. When we went out to her house for the memorial service, I stared at the greenhouse where I had spent so many hours, and which was so very important to Mimi, and I began to cry and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t imagine those flowers gone, her collection sold or given away. Finally, between tears, I asked her daughter-in-law if it would be okay if I chose one of the orchids. She kindly agreed, and I chose one of Mimi’s favorites: the hanging Vanda Rothschildiana. Its flower, when it blooms, is three different shades of lavender and as big as a hand.

The last time this orchid bloomed was February of 2004. (Mimi kept track of this.) I have watered it carefully, re-potted it, covered its roots in new wood chips and fertilizer. But it never bloomed for me. I assumed it was because our house wasn’t humid enough. I have a number of other orchids that haven’t bloomed in years. But then the other day, I took the Vanda to the sink to spray it down, and saw, peeking from beneath its narrow leaves, a long, thin bud. I gasped. The Vanda, finally. I called D and squealed the news into the phone. “We just have to be patient,” I said, my eyes full of tears. “It’s a reminder that things will happen when they’re supposed to.”

I’ll admit it—I totally cheesed out. But it was just what I needed, just when I needed it. And I know Mimi would be thrilled, as well.