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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


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


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?