Friday, December 24, 2010
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Stella was home from school both Monday and Tuesday because of the snow and sub-zero temperatures. She was thrilled beyond description. We swapped childcare with friends. Forts were built. Movies were watched. Popcorn was eaten.
It all makes me want to pull out the crock-pot and fill the house with meaty goodness, then curl up on the couch with a book and read all day. I’m currently caught up in Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine, which contains two alternating stories—one set in postwar London, one in present-day London. I’ll write more about this book as I make my way through it (if I get that time on the couch), but I’m excited that I’ve discovered O’Farrell’s writing. Her prose is exquisite.
So I’m reading. And in those few hours of the night when Zoë isn’t flipping around next to me, I’m sleeping better. The Christmas tree is up, sparkling in our living room. And I’m back to work on the memoir—a little tweaking based on the insightful comments of my fabulous agent. Things are a little easier. And soon, soon, the days will be getting longer rather than shorter. Oh, I realize that winter will go on forever this year, but at least there will be light, a little more light.
Monday, December 6, 2010
When: 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 24 – 1 p.m. on Sunday, February 27
Where: Faith’s Lodge, Wisconsin
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. Group meetings and individual conferences with me 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.
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.
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: $650 (single room) or $550 (shared room, separate beds) – includes lodging, meals, and writing instruction
To register: Contact Marquetta Nickols at Faith’s Lodge at email@example.com or 612-825-2073.
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.
Please contact me with questions about the Mother Words Retreat. To learn more about Faith’s Lodge, visit www.faithslodge.org.
Monday, November 29, 2010
D and I spent lots of time playing with the girls and reading in bed as they played. It was heavenly. I read two wonderful books: Toni Morrison's A Mercy and my friend Alex Lemon's raw and stunning memoir, Happy. I highly recommend both.
And today my interview with the wonderful Bonnie J. Rough is up at Literary Mama. Check out her memoir, Carrier, if you haven't already.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
It’s been a dark fall for me. Even the sunny and warm days that stretched into November couldn’t pull me up and out of myself. And when the more typical cold and gray November weather set in, I could feel my energy sink further. It’s only in the last few days that I have felt a little lighter, and I’m hoping this will continue.
But even when I’m feeling low, there is so much for which I’m thankful. So on this Eve of Thanksgiving, I’d like to list the things for which I’m grateful:
* A long weekend with family and friends and nourishing food.
* Reading—There is nothing like a wonderful novel or memoir to transport me, to remind me of how big the world is.
* My girls—I love those moments when they’re playing together, decked out in sunglasses and beaded necklaces, walking arm in arm around the dining room table laughing and singing, their bodies swaying as they scream, “We’re rock stars! We’re rock stars!”
* D—What else can I say?
* My parents, whose love and generosity never cease to amaze me.
* Friends—in person friends and those I know only here in the blogosphere. Thank you.
* Physical therapy—I’m finally taking the steps I need to take to be able to run again, and I’m so relieved.
For each of these things—and many, many more—I’m grateful. What are the things for which you’re grateful?
I hope you all have a lovely long weekend. Travel safely if you’re visiting friends and relatives. And thank you for being out there, reading and writing and living.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
In honor of the Fight for Preemies, I am posting another short excerpt from Ready for Air. This section comes just after I have seen Stella for the first time. D has wheeled me through the long tunnel back to my hospital room, and we’ve decided to use BabyLink, a system that allows you to watch your baby on the television from your hospital bed.
D calls the NICU and then turns on the television. For a moment there is only static, but then Stella appears. At least I think it’s Stella, but how can I be sure? It’s a baby, naked except for a miniature diaper and goggles over her eyes. Her skin is mottled—yellow, red, purple. She writhes on white blankets, thrashes back and forth, pulling at the tape on her mouth, like a wounded animal in a trap.
D climbs onto the bed next to me and pulls me to his side, but I’m still cold. He draws a blanket over our shoulders and we sit there, legs dangling over the edge of the bed, transfixed by the small creature that has been transported through wires and satellite signals into the square of our television. It’s as if we’re hovering above her, floating through the warm air of the NICU.
No sound comes from the television. That’s not part of the deal. But we wouldn’t be able to hear our daughter anyway; the ventilator has reached its slender arm down her throat and fitted itself snuggly between her vocal cords, so she cannot scream or cry.
D and I lean closer together. “Oh no,” he says, and presses his face into my shoulder. And for a moment, I’m reassured by his distress. This is hard for him. I’m not the only one.
Stella arches back, struggling. She can’t see because of the goggles, but even if she could see, she wouldn’t know that we’re here, watching her. She wouldn’t know that she’s not alone. And I wonder whether she will remember this. Somewhere deep in the folds of her brain, etched into her neuromuscular reflexes, will she remember this? If she survives, will she remember thrashing under the lights in the NICU, alone?
Dr. Anderson said Stella was better off out here, but how can that be? How can my daughter be better off on a warming bed, baking under phototherapy lights, a ventilator tube taped to her mouth? How can she be better off beamed through a television rather than inside me?
You can only watch your baby for twenty minutes at a time. I don’t know why, but those are the rules. But after a few minutes, I’ve had enough. I don’t want to see our daughter, not like this. “Turn it off,” I say. “Turn it off.”
I still—not often, but occasionally—wonder whether this or that thing that Stella does is a preemie thing or just a Stella thing. I watch her and wonder if somewhere, deep in the folds of her brain, that month in the NICU exists for her as an absence.
I know I’m not alone. One in eight babies is born prematurely in the United States. Some of these babies die. Some survive with disabilities, varying in degree from mild to severe. Some preemies end up doing just fine. Regardless, every year hundreds of thousands of parents across the globe hover over their tiny babies, wondering what the outcome will be. They hope and pray and fall apart. They grow numb to the beeping of alarms. This is no way to start life and no way to enter into parenthood.
What can you do?
Donate to March of Dimes. Donate to a hospital NICU in your community. Volunteer. Raise awareness. Write a blog post.
This is dedicated to all the preemie parents I know. For their bravery and their love.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Today, I'll be talking with Maria, Darcey and Nanci about their show, which you can see on Thursday, November 18th at 7:45pm at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 2561 Victoria Street North, Roseville, MN.
This performance is free and open to the public.
Kate: Darcey, tell me a little bit about how “I’m Telling” started.
Darcey: The beginnings of this piece started 10 years ago when my oldest son was born. At that time, I was an actress and newly hired professor in the Theatre Department at Augsburg College. With a newborn and career to build, I realized that opportunities for me to perform were forever limited. I wasn’t able to go to evening rehearsals so I began to invent ways in which I could perform that that wouldn’t take me away from my children.
I was dealing with a whole new world. The way in which I worked in my job at Augsburg changed. I worked around childcare. I juggled my need to breastfeed and my need to work using student babysitters off and on during the day. I hired someone for three hours in the morning—ran home to breastfeed and then hired another student for three hours in the afternoon. Just dealing with that was tremendously challenging. I began to wonder if I’d ever perform again. I was a performance teacher and couldn’t imagine that part of my life going away. I was vexed by my inability to juggle full-time career, artistry and motherhood. I realized early on that the only way I could perform was to do a one-woman piece. I started writing about the death of my mother to cancer because it was such a significant part of my journey as a young woman and then realized that it was this balancing act (motherhood, artistry and work) I was doing that was the real story I needed to perform. As I worked I realized that I could manage to pull other mothers in to my process. I made the goal to create an hour piece from a diverse group mother stories and mother performers.
I received a research grant from Augsburg and began Saturday morning workshops that took mothers through a writing and staging workshop. Originally I worked with maybe 5 to 7 mothers. We met every other Saturday morning for six months (seemed like a reasonable schedule for mothers) and used several writing methodologies to generate text. Periodically children and babies would be with us in rehearsals…sleeping, watching, or playing. Eventually our stories were staged and performed at Open Eye Figure Theater in the fall of 2007. After that performance, Maria, Nanci and I decided to work together on a three-mother piece. We wrote and staged additional stories, incorporated music, and constructed the piece so that it could travel easily to where mothers are: ECFE meetings, community centers and church basements.
After we generated material we performed our three-mother piece at Illusion Theatre in the summer of 2008. We hired a director who helped us interweave our stories, we had our husbands watch—Maria’s husband Razz is a musician—he helped with music—Nanci’s husband, Steve, and my husband, Luverne, are both performers. They helped us periodically with editing, performance ideas and the general shape of the piece. Recently, Steve has been helping us hone our work even further.
Currently we are touring this piece because of a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant. We are so enjoying continuing to work on this piece and bringing it to communities! This fall tour we have performed in a college Women’s Studies course, an ECFE meeting and two church basements—PERFECT!
Although we began to write about our experiences as mothers, the pieces that we generated focus on many different subjects that reflect larger issues around relationships, identity, parents, grief, artistry, career and many more. We are driven by these rich stories and believe that performing them will encourage deep reflection and conversation about the personal and political importance of parenting in our culture.
Kate: Nanci, you produced the MOMbo radio show for many years. How is working on “I’m Telling” different (and/or) similar to your work on MOMbo?
Nanci: “I’m Telling” is storytelling and theater—dealing with some of the same subject matter as I did on both MOMbo and in “How’s the Family?” on Minnesota Public Radio, but in a theatrical way. This is first person narrative, and we are enjoying using our acting skills and the little splashes that come with telling a story live as theatre. This piece comes first from our writing, but because we have theatricalized it, we’re able to tell the stories in a broader, more entertaining way. There’s one piece in which I talk about maternal depression, but I don’t deal with the topic the way that you would in an informative, fact-based radio show.
And the live-ness of this production is so fun for us. I did radio for 15 years and I loved it dearly, but I was first trained in theater. I remember feeling sort of silly years ago, when MOMbo was new, and I’d step out of the radio studio into the black night and not have any idea if anyone had heard what I said and had poured my efforts into. In live performance, you know right away if people are with you or not. But it’s also ephemeral in that way. You can still hear pieces I did 10 years ago on MOMbo, but “I’m Telling” just exists every time we do it.... and it’s always slightly different.
I am also impressed to remember how hard it is memorize lines! I haven’t had to do that in years!
And I love the camaraderie. We really love being together and doing this show, come what may as we roar into it on stage. We have a great friendship and a great time working together on and off stage. I like that. I’ve always been close with the people I work with in radio too, but it’s more immediate onstage.
Kate: Maria, I’m very interested in collaborative arts, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how your pieces are crafted. Do you each come to rehearsals with ideas or already fleshed-out pieces? How do each of you influence the content of your show?
Maria: We started out meeting as a group for writing sessions. Each of us was given similar prompts then we would write, read and give each other feedback. Sometime we brought in pieces that we had already worked on and then edited them for the stage. The piece took a big shift when we performed for the Fresh Ink Series at the Illusion Theater. It gave us a chance to work with the director Lisa Channer. She really challenged us to take our pieces and make them less of monologues and look for way to incorporate the other performers’ voices. Some of the pieces lent themselves to this more easily than the others. On a personal note, we are aware of the complexities of each other’s lives and encourage each other to write about new mothering challenges and delights.
Kate: Nanci, you’ve been committed to telling real stories of motherhood for the last twenty years. How have the focus of your interests and stories changed over the last two decades. Where are there still gaps in art about motherhood?
I chose to stop producing MOMbo in 2007 to make way for the work I began at MPR, first with “How’s the Family?” and then as a reporter for the family desk in the MPR newsroom. I used to wonder what it would be like if I had continued MOMbo all the way through now. Now I have a 20-year-old in college, a 17-year-old in France studying for a year, and a 15-year-old at home. Life is so different now. So on a personal level, my daily life with children has changed because they have grown up. At the same time, I have stepped in as a sometimes-caretaker to my little niece and nephew, who are turning 4 and 6 this month. When they were 1 month old and 2 years old respectively, their mom, my sister, was diagnosed with brain cancer. The journey we have all been on since then has been huge in my life in so many ways. My sister died two years ago. The grief has almost swallowed me up. I learned so much caring for a tiny baby and a toddler during her illness. The baby was set up on the weekends in a little crib right in my MOMbo office for a whole year. I have rarely written about it, but I did do one piece on Marketplace a few years back. Since then, I have become a Montessori teacher, and I now work with 3-6-year-olds everyday. I am right back in the thick of it with their parents, who are struggling with all the things I was back when I was a mother of young children.
I tell my stories differently now, but sometimes I feel like it was yesterday that the kids were little. I’m still deeply interested in how motherhood affects us as women, especially in the early years. I still find it very fertile ground to contemplate, to celebrate, and to commiserate about.
I think that many women have deep feelings about motherhood that they might just be too exhausted to articulate. So there are many gaps in art about motherhood. There is, however, much more available to moms now than there was 20 years ago. The INTERNET!! There are so many outlets for moms to think and feel and engage in discourse about motherhood. It’s very encouraging.
On a personal level, I feel that my best writing and performance and perhaps even radio work is in the future—I have so much more experience and perspective now after all these years.
Kate: Thank you, Nanci, Darcey, and Maria for taking the time to e-mail with me about “I’m Telling.” I look forward to seeing your show on Thursday!
If you’re local, meet me on Thursday, November 18th at 7:45pm at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 2561 Victoria Street North, Roseville, MN. You won’t be disappointed!
Monday, November 15, 2010
A huge thank you to Marti, Erin, Luke, and Stacy at Good Enough Moms for all their work getting this ready!
Monday, November 8, 2010
* Meeting so many interesting and talented writers, many of whom I’ve admired for a long time, among them Dinty Moore, Sue William Silverman, Joe Mackall, and Debra Gwartney. (If you read this blog regularly, you know how much I loved Debra’s Live Through This. You can read my interview with her here.) I was also staying at the same B & B as the wonderful Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun, winner of the PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir in 2005. (Her work-in-progress also sounds fascinating, so I’ll let you know when it’s out in the world. Or you can check out her website to find excerpts.) At breakfast on Saturday, I also met the novelist Laura Fish, who is participating in the Iowa International Writers Program. I have never read her writing, but her books are now also on my list. (And talking with both Faith and Laura about their work, which is multigenerational, has inspired me to get going on my next book--or to at least start thinking about it.)
* Meeting one of my wonderful and talented Mother Words students in person. Marilyn, you’re awesome. What an honor to connect. I look forward to sitting down with you at AWP.
* Alison Bechdel — Oh my God. Could this woman be more amazing? She gave the keynote address on Friday, and she was fabulous: funny, self-deprecating, brilliant. I went straight over to Prairie Lights and bought her graphic memoir, Fun Home. And I’m going to get everyone I know who hasn’t read it to read it. In her keynote she discussed how a graphic memoir allowed her to simultaneously communicate on more than one level, something she didn’t feel capable of doing in straight prose. This idea of simultaneity was echoed in several of the other sessions that I attended, and I love thinking about how you can hold multiple stories (memories and thoughts and actual lived experiences) in your writing all at once.
* I also loved the panel on manipulating time and distance in nonfiction. Especially interesting to me were the comments of David McGlynn, who talked about how using present tense in memoir necessitates careful attention to time and distance. (Since Ready for Air is in present tense, I found myself nodding my head at every other word.) I also loved what Jocelyn Bartkevicius said in that panel about how our minds and memories are in motion, while words on the pages are static. This creates a challenge for the writer who wants to tell a story the way we think. It's so fascinating to think about the narrative structures that might make this possible.
* And of course one of the best things about the conference was being able to catch up with friends. Thanks for everything, Bonnie and Jill. So great to see you, Sonya and Shannon! And so fun to meet all the wonderful folks from Ashland’s low-residency MFA program. If you’re looking for a low-residency MFA, you need to check out Ashland.) And thanks to David for the wonderful dinner at his restaurant, the Motley Cow.
Okay, now I need to catch up on all the work I missed while I was thinking about writing.
Friday, November 5, 2010
I love writing conferences. I love to listen to other writers’ perspectives on form and narrative, voice and time. I love to walk away with new insights on how to frame my own work and where it fits within the genre of creative nonfiction (though over-thinking the latter can paralyze me, so I try not to think about it too much).
I’ll post more about the conference next week after I’ve had a chance to reflect and digest. Until then, I’ll take notes and try not to freeze my butt off. (I forgot my warm coat on the porch in Minneapolis, and it is COLD here.)
Monday, October 25, 2010
By the end of last week I did feel better, but I was busy with the girls because both of them were out of school, and then I just didn’t feel like working. Then D and I celebrated our eleventh anniversary. (How have eleven years already gone by?) And I spent the remainder of the weekend playing with the girls and curled up on the couch reading Olive Kitteridge.
Maybe in part it was this book that made me feel incapable of work. I felt heavy with the lives in Elizabeth Strout's stories, heavy with their disappointments and betrayals. I couldn’t put the book down—Strout really is that talented—but I also found her stories terribly depressing. Short stories are often depressing, I think—there is something about the short form that can handle intense melancholy in a way a novel cannot—but the stories in Olive Kitteridge were filled with such loneliness that it was almost unbearable for me. All those affairs! All of those long, lonely evenings, with children grown and living far away, disinterested in the lives of their parents!
But of course there were moments of hope and connection in these stories, as well. I was so grateful for the last story, so grateful that Strout ended the collection with a sense of connection (even though it was tempered with sadness and regret). And I love the moments in so many of the stories in which Strout reminds us to live in the moment, to not take what we have—what we are living—for granted. I love this paragraph from “Tulips,” one of the stories in which Olive is the main character. Olive is remembering what it felt like to watch her son’s soccer games:
There was beauty to that autumn air, and the sweaty young bodies that had mud on their legs, strong young men who would throw themselves forward to have the ball smack against their foreheads; the cheering when a goal was scored, the goalie sinking to his knees. There were days—she could remember this—when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure. Maybe it was the purest she had, those moments on the soccer field, because she had other memories that were not pure.
I want to be quietly joyful. I want to know that I’m living life as I’m living it. I want my children (and D) to know that I am there, present, living with them, enjoying our lives, even on those days when living is hard. I’m not sure what I need to do to make this happen. Maybe it means I don’t turn on my computer on the weekends. Maybe it means stopping each day and taking stock, appreciating what we do have.
How do you stay in the moment? How do you remember to be quietly joyful?
Monday, October 18, 2010
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Marti and Erin!
Thursday, October 14, 2010
But I do have to write about the reading, which was wonderful. There is nothing like standing in front of a room of both familiar and unfamiliar faces, describing the work that is closest to your heart. That’s what I had the opportunity to do on Thursday in the lovely Target Performance Hall at the Open Book in Minneapolis. Thank you to all of you who made it down to the event!
Also, a huge thank you to The Loft Literary Center for hosting the event and to my friends and family who contributed appetizers (and amazing shortbread bars!) for the reception. I am also incredibly grateful to Hope Edelman and Bonnie J. Rough for flying to Minneapolis for the event. I know they both had long flights, and I’m honored that they made the trip in order to be a part of the 4th Annual Mother Words Reading. Thank you, Bonnie and Hope!!
I also have some great news: for the first time, the reading was recorded and it will be available as a podcast through Good Enough Moms! Thanks to Marti, Erin, Luke, and my dad (who helped cover the recording costs) for making this possible. I’ll link to Good Enough Moms, of course, when the podcast is available.
Now on to a few photos from the event:
Me and Bonnie (center) and Hope (right) before the reading.
The wonderful opening act! I was thrilled to have Maria Asp, Darcey Engen, and Nanci Olesen perform a song from their new act, I'm Telling, an hour-long show featuring song and real life stories of motherhood, to kick off the evening. I'm sure many of you remember Nanci from her MOMbo show. And now, with the help and Maria and Darcey, Nanci is continuing to be an important voice for mothers in the arts. (I'm going to interview Nanci in the coming month here at Mother Words, but in the meantime please check out the group's website for upcoming performances.)
So it was a wonderful evening, and I'm looking forward to next year's event. I already have the readers lined up, and I will let you know more as soon as dates and details have been confirmed.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Monday, October 4, 2010
This year's Mother Words week features essays from my online Mother Words students, and it's being kicked off with a lovely piece by Cecilia, who writes the wonderful blog, Only You.
Please check out Cribsheet each day this week for a new essay. And congratulations to my wonderful students!
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Well. I just typed the last sentence with tears in my eyes, and then I turned to the woman, a perfect stranger, next to me at the coffee shop and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know you, but I have to tell you that I just finished my book.” She was gracious and polite and lovely.
Now I’ve just emailed all 345 pages to myself in case my very old laptop explodes on the way home from the coffee shop today.
I’m not completely done, of course. I need to go back over the last fifty pages, which I’ve written in a rush, and tweak and tighten. And then I’ll send the last chapters to my amazing writing group and then to my amazing agent. And then. And then. And then. Please.
But for now, I’m going to celebrate. It’s taken me a year and a half to rewrite this book, and it’s something of which I’m proud, really really proud.
This goes out to my Stella, of course. And to D, without whom I couldn’t have written a word. And to all of you for your cheering. Thanks, y’all.
Monday, September 20, 2010
September is Hunger Action Month.
Here are the facts:
* 50% of the households that benefit from food shelves have at least one child under the age of 18.
* An estimated 1 in 10 children in Minnesota lives in poverty and 1 in 3 qualifies for free and reduced lunches, based on low income guidelines.
* Children who suffer from poor nutrition during the brain’s most formative years score much lower on tests of vocabulary, reading comprehension, arithmetic and general knowledge.
* The fastest growing group of food shelf clients is the working poor: 47% of households using food shelves in our local service area report paid employment as their major source of income.
* There were more than 1.8 million visits to Minnesota food shelves in 2006, up from 1.7 million in 2005.
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.
Award-winning novelist Charles Baxter is determined to see this tradition continue. On Wednesday, September 22nd Baxter will host the 3rd Annual Benefit for Hunger featuring readings by University of Minnesota Creative Writing Faculty, including Charles Baxter, Regents Professors and memoirists Patricia Hampl and Madelon Sprengnether, poet Maria Damon, novelist M. J. Fitzgerald, and poet Ray Gonzalez. Proceeds will go to Second Harvest Heartland.
When: Wednesday, September 22, 7:30 - 9:30 pm
Where: University Hall McNamara Alumni Center
Cost: Free with a suggested donation of $5.00.
(You can read my interview with Charles Baxter about the event here.)
If you’re here in the Twin Cities, please come down and listen to these wonderful authors read their writing. If you’re not local, please consider donating to or volunteering for your local food shelf or to donating to Share Our Strength. Ending hunger in the United States is possible if we all give a little. What can you do?
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
I took away something from each of the sessions, but one of the highlights of the conference for me was the opening keynote, in which a panel of Minnesota’s pioneering bloggers—Nancy Lyons, James Lieks, Teresa Boardman and Patrick Rhone—talked about how they got started and why blogging is an important part of their lives. Many of them have been blogging since before “blogging” was a term. Nancy mentioned that she loves the humanity of blogs, how they “connect us to one another.” Patrick mentioned how writing a blog can help you develop your unique writer’s voice. He also said that he prefers be called an “online writer” rather than a blogger because the term blogger “reduces the respect and credibility of those who write and publish online.” I couldn’t agree more.
My break-out session was “Growing as Writers: Taking Your Blog Posts to the Next Level,” which was basically a mini crash course in creative nonfiction. Echoing what Patrick Rhone said, I talked about how important it is to think about blogging as writing.
**I have to interrupt myself here and admit that I’m a Neanderthal. During my session, people were snapping photos and typing away, and I kept thinking, Are they bored? Are they texting their friends? What’s going on here? It was only after the session that I realized they were tweeting. I was probably one of three people at the conference who isn’t on twitter. (Thank you, Monika, for your patience and graciousness in showing me how it works!)
I was also one of the only people there who was taking notes throughout the day using an actual pen and paper. (At one point I pulled out my phone to check the time, and I was thoroughly embarrassed to be holding such an antiqued piece of equipment in my hands. It takes me about forty minutes to send one text message.) Note to self: Get up to speed.**
So I learned a ton about the business of blogging. (Though I wish I had been able to attend the sessions on analytics and SEO—I’ve no idea what SEO even is.)
But the biggest message I left the conference with was the way blogging can effect incredible change in people’s lives.
Heather of The Extraordinary Ordinary was amazing as she talked about finding one’s authentic blogging voice. You must read her story if you don’t already follow her. And her blog even looks great. What a lovely banner. (Note to self: Get up to speed.)
And of course, the final keynote of the day was delivered by Matt Logelin, who started to blog when his wife, Liz, was on bed rest awaiting the birth of their daughter. I’m sure many of you have been dedicated readers of Matt’s blog, where he’s written about his grief in the wake of Liz’s death, the day after their daughter, Maddy, was born, and where he continues to write about raising Maddy as a single dad. Even if you don’t read his blog, you’ll be moved to tears by his keynote, which is funny, heartbreaking, and down-to-earth. (And he swears a lot, which I love.) You can listen to it and a few other sessions from the conference at The Uptake.
You can also meet Matt this weekend if you’re in the Twin Cities. He’s doing fundraising for The Liz Logelin Foundation, which provides financial and material assistance to grief-stricken young families. A Celebration of Hope will take place Friday night, September 17th at 6:30 pm at Solera in Minneapolis. And walk run hope, the foundation 5K, will take place on Saturday the 18th at 6 pm at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. You can register the day of the event, so don’t worry if you haven’t signed up yet.
Thanks so much to Missy, Arik, Suzi, Katie, and Lindsey for making this such an incredible day. Now I better get my a** over to twitter and Get Up To Speed.
Monday, September 13, 2010
And yesterday, we had two birthday parties for Stella—a kid and a family party. She was buzzing around all day, unwrapping presents, giggling with her friends, unwrapping more presents, eating cake. (And of course talking to Nibbles, who has recovered nicely from The Incident. Thanks for all your well wishes.)
This morning, my alarm went off at 6:15. I quickly turned it off so I wouldn’t wake Zoë, who was in our bed because she wet her crib in the middle of the night (which happens at least four times a week because she refuses to wear diapers at night. “I’m not a baby!” she says adamantly when I try to convince her of the merits of diapers at night.)
I snuck out of the room and I slipped into Stella’s room, where she was sprawled across her bed, sound asleep. I sat down on the edge of her bed, and just stared at her, marveling at the fact that she’s seven, a first grader. I brushed the hair from her face and whispered, “Happy birthday, sweetie.”
Her eyes opened a little. “I’m so tired,” she said, stretching her arm.
“I know, honey.” I was tired, too, and I wanted nothing more than to climb into her bed and fall back asleep with my birthday girl. I kissed her temple and wrapped her into my arms.
And as happens every year on Stella’s birthday, I’m pulled back in time, to the day she was born. I go back to the magnesium sulfate, the vomiting, the suffocating heat in my veins. I go back to my supersonic hearing, the twisted sheets, the tests, the tests. I go back to the fear, the not-knowing, the eventual C-section. I go back to my three-pound daughter being whisked away as soon as she’s pulled from me.
The events of my preeclampsia and Stella’s birth follow me around all day in such clear detail that it feels as if I could step back in time, as if I could leap into a parallel universe in which all of those events are still happening.
But then Stella reaches her arms around my neck and says, “I love you, Mama.” And I’m back where I belong, with my seven-year-old clinging to sleep in the early morning on her birthday.
I love you, too, Stella. Happy Birthday, big girl!
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
But you must banish those unsavory images (which were solidly debunked as urban legend) from your imagination, just as I have. You must do this because, you see, the newest member of our family happens to be a gerbil, and I’d like you to welcome her with a clear heart and a pure mind.
Friends, meet Nibbles. Nibbles, meet my friends.
I never thought I’d be a gerbil owner. I actually never thought we'd have rodents of any kind in our house, even though as children, my sisters and I had guinea pigs and mice (and ducks and a chick and salamanders and a snapping turtle and two parakeets and a cat and two dogs).
My parents were very tolerant of pets, and owning pets seemed to teach us responsibility. Which is why I caved. (Who doesn’t want their kids to learn to care for an animal?)
Or at least it’s part of why I caved. Here’s the rest of the story:
Last year, Stella got in her head that we should have another baby. “Let’s get a baby,” she said at least once a week.
“Oh no,” I said each time, “we’re done having babies.”
But this explanation wasn’t satisfactory, so I was forced to go into more detail, explaining that me and pregnancy don’t really mix (to which she responded, “adopt one!”). I explained that we didn’t really have room in our house for another baby (to which she responded, “You can fit a bunk bed and a crib in our room! No problem!”)
But I just kept saying, “No sweetie, we’re not having another baby. I feel so happy and so lucky to have you two girls.”
Finally, she said, “Well then how about a dog?”
So we started talking about dogs—a lot. We talked about a timeline (after Zoë turns 3) and a plan for a non-shedding, hypoallergenic dog (so D’s not miserable). We talked and talked and talked about dogs, about breeds and sizes and possible names.
And then a few weeks ago, my sister adopted the nicest cocker spaniel from the Human Society. Patch is calm and adorable and great with kids. So when Rachel said they couldn’t take Patch on their vacation, we quickly agreed to take care of him. It was the perfect opportunity to see how we would do with a dog.
Well, Patch is perfect (except for his separation anxiety and penchant for shredding things when he’s anxious) and having him was great (except for the late-night and early morning walks and the fact that Zoë kept trying to ride him and smother him in blankets). He was perfect and overwhelming, and D and I quickly realized that if this sweet dog was too much for us, we definitely weren’t ready for a dog of our own.
So imagine my delight when, last week, Stella said, “I think I want a hamster instead of a dog. Can I get one for my birthday?”
“Great,” I said. “Done.”
But after research about the frequent biting and completely nocturnal habits of hamsters (not to mention the hamster salmonella outbreak I read about online), we decided a gerbil (a creature that is slightly less nocturnal and tends to be more social) would be a better pet.
Friday, September 3
2 p.m.—Stella and I visit PetSmart and look and hamsters and gerbils. The staff reinforces our decision about gerbils.
2:30 p.m.—The begging begins: “Please, please can we get it before my birthday? I need it. I need it.”
3:00 p.m.—Names are discussed: Peanut or Nibbles?
3:30—7:30 p.m.—The lobbying for a pre-birthday gerbil begins in earnest. We finally agree that sometime the next day, we will go get the gerbil.
Saturday, September 4
1:30 a.m.—Stella is awake, in our room: “Are you sure we can get the gerbil today? Do you promise?” Kate: “I promise. Go to sleep.”
4 a.m.—To D: “Do you promise we can go straightaway in the morning? Do you promise?” D: “Shh. Yes.” (He has no recollection of this conversation.)
6 - 11:45 a.m.—Many tears because “noon isn’t ‘straightaway.’” Me: “True, but deal with it.”
Noon—We all pile into the car, go to PetSmart, sign papers, see Nibbles, decide he is definitely a Nibbles, buy appropriate (and expensive) paraphernalia: cage (check), ball (check), food (check), treats (check), bedding (check), mineral licks (check), chew toys (check). D says I have a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face. I feel as if we’ve just purchased our first house.
1:30 p.m.— Nibbles is home and seems to be adjusting. The rule is this: no hands in her cage for four days (the salesperson recommended this so Nibbles could become acclimated.)
Sunday, September 5
Sometime in the morning while I am at the coffee shop writing—little hands go into the cage and try to hold Nibbles. Nibbles tries to escape. Tail fur comes off in said little hand. There are many tears. There are many different versions of the story.
12:30—I get home from the coffee shop and notice blood in Nibbles’ cage, blood on the exercise wheel, blood on the food dish, blood on the shredded toilet paper roll. I call PetSmart. The vet is at lunch. I am told they will call me back.
2:30—The vet is not a small animal vet. They recommend a different clinic.
3 p.m.—D takes Nibbles to a clinic in St. Paul. A shot is administered. Nibbles is sedated. An amputation of the “de-gloved” portion of her tail occurs.
3:30 p.m.—I get the whole story after I assuage my daughter’s fears (“But I’ll get in trouble! I didn’t listen!”) about telling the truth. Lessons about following directions are learned. Lessons about being honest are learned. Everyone feels better.
4 p.m.—D and Nibbles are sent home to recuperate. Nibbles is tired, but fine. I look at the vet bill and try not to cry. “We have the most expensive gerbil in town,” I say. D has a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. I pour myself a glass of wine.
The following days are spent cleaning up Nibbles’ droppings to prevent a tail infection. They are spent washing hands and trying to regain Nibbles’ trust. They are spent wondering whether a gerbil is truly less overwhelming than a dog, or even a baby.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
There were some distractions in August, some of them lovely (my 20th high school reunion, which brought a few of my closest friends into town) and some of them not as enjoyable (proposals, house projects, etc.) But even without these, I wouldn’t have made my September 1st deadline. I realized, as I was muddling through my manuscript, that I had some structural problems later in the book. I had dropped a narrative thread. I was too tangential. I needed to condense and compress in order to maintain narrative urgency.
And I was feeling panicky because I was trying to rush through the writing, not letting the solutions emerge in the process of writing. So I slowed down a little. I fretted. I woke up thinking about The Manuscript.
Then last week with everyone back in school, I gave myself the space I needed to let the book happen. I wrote and I wrote. And yesterday as I was pulling together the new chapters to send to my wonderful writing group, I realized that I’m actually writing faster than I thought I was. I have written 64 pages in the last month. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. I’m on 296 and still going. Another two weeks to go? Maybe. I hope.
Structure is such a tricky animal, but it’s critical to a book’s success. Sometimes the necessary structure emerges in the process of writing and sometimes an author really needs to plan out a book. My friend Francine Marie Tolf has an interesting article in A View from the Loft about this very thing. Francine interviewed me and three other memoirists about how we approached structuring our memoirs. Check it out and see what Marge Barrett, Nicole Johns and Vicki Forman, who just won the PEN USA award for creative nonfiction for her wonderful memoir, This Lovely Life, have to say about structure and memoir.
And now I'm back to The Manuscript.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
“That’s okay,” I said. “You can get ready.”
I’ve never seen her brush her hair and teeth so fast. And then she was dressed, had eaten breakfast and triple-checked her backpack. Photos were taken and more photos were taken until finally she rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, mom. Okay, okay.” And then she was off, running to the bus stop, thrilled to be, as she had mentioned the day before, an “official first grader.”
Zoë’s transition was a little more challenging. As I drove her to preschool, she started to cry. “Don’t want to go to school,” she wailed. “I stay home. I tired. I take a nappy.” Poor kid. She thought I’d let her stay home if she slept all day.
Then she said, “I want Stella go to school wit me.” And every time we saw a school bus, she said, “Stella in there?” That killed me.
I tried to point out the big diggers at a construction site. I tried to tell her how excited her school friends and teachers would be to see her again. None of it worked. I had to pry her from my body and hand her off to her teachers when we got to school. The last thing I saw was her red, tear-stained face over the shoulder of one of her teachers. I felt sick as I drove to the coffee shop.
The truth is that I’m thrilled to have longer stretches of time to work. I love having a set schedule, knowing exactly how many hours a week I can prepare my classes and write. I love having time to run during the day a few times a week. And I know Zoë will adjust. This morning was already smoother (though she still offered to stay home and nap). She said, “No, I not go to school. I just stay here with you.”
“But I have to go to work, sweetie.”
She shook her head. “No, you not go to work.”
“Mommy always comes back for you,” I said, reminding her of the Hap Palmer song she loves.
“Just like Baby Songs,” she said.
“Just like that,” I agreed.
And instead of tears when I dropped her off, she just buried her face in my shoulder and told me she was shy.
“That’s okay, sweetie. You’ll feel like playing soon.”
She was probably zooming down the slide a few minutes after I drove away, so I shouldn’t feel so melancholy. And I know this heaviness is about more than leaving a sad daughter at daycare; it’s about the way the start of the school year marks the end of summer, the passing of another year. In a minute, Zoë will be rolling her eyes at me and running to the bus behind Stella, and I can’t even imagine what Stella will be doing. And I’ll probably have more writing time than I ever wanted. I should be careful what I wish for.
How is the transition back to school for those of you who have little ones?
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
This is what I'll be teaching:
Mother Words - 10 week class at the Open Book, Minneapolis
Tuesdays, 1-3 p.m. Sept. 28 - Dec. 7 (No class Nov. 23)
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. Course packets will be available for a copy fee on the first day of class.
For more information and to register, visit the Loft.
Introduction to Creative Nonfiction - 8 week class at the Open Book, Minneapolis
Tuesdays, Oct. 12 - Dec. 7, 7:30 - 9:30 p.m. (No class Nov. 23)
Memoirist Patricia Hampl says, “I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know.” Writing is an act of discovery. In this class, you will have an opportunity to write and reflect, go deep into your writing to find out what you know. You will develop an eye for seeing the true story in your writing. Assigned readings and writing exercises will be focused on telling details, creating a sense of place, developing strong characters and strengthening your reflective voice. Students will have an opportunity to receive supportive, constructive feedback from class members and the teaching artist through weekly sharing and one workshop.
To register, please visit the Loft.
Blogging: A Tool for Writers - Open Book, Minneapolis
Saturday, Oct. 9, 1 - 3 p.m.
In this one-day workshop, we will explore the benefits of blogging for writers. We will discuss issues of audience and voice, and how to use a blog to help build your platform and cultivate a readership for print publications. Participants will leave with a better sense of how a blog can help further their writing careers and with a page of blog resources and tips for how to start and maintain a successful blog.
To register, please visit the Loft.
I’m also taking registrations for my winter online Mother Words class, which will begin in February, 2011. And there are still a few spots left for the Mother Words Retreat, which will be held February 24-27 at Faith’s Lodge. For more information about either of these, visit my website or contact me.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I feel as though I’ve spent so much of the summer juggling and fretting that I’ve forgotten to enjoy these last months. I have been snappier with my girls, who are both in high-parental-involvement stages—Zoë is potty training and fully embracing all of the defiance inherent in being a two-year-old; and Stella is suspended somewhere between a little girl and a big girl, a transition that makes her moody and sensitive. One moment she’s totally fine, the next she’s furious, in tears, and yelling, “I’m just so frustrated, Mom! I hate you!” (That’s my favorite.)
But as is always the case, I feel much better if I take a moment and list all of the things in my life for which I’m grateful. So here is my list.
I’m grateful for:
• the way Stella purses her lips in concentration when she’s working on a new craft. (She can sit for over an hour and make a friendship bracelet or a beaded ornament.)
• the way Zoë whips off all her clothes a dozen times a day, then shouts, “I’m naked! I’m naked!” as she shakes it around the room.
• Stella’s pride as she heads down the sidewalk on her new skateboard, with more grace and balance that I’ve ever had. (Seriously, the girl has mad skills. She could be a serious surfer if she put her mind to it—and if we lived somewhere that wasn’t landlocked.)
• the way Zoë packs up all her plastic fruit and vegetables in a bag and announces she’s going to work at the “shoppy cop” (coffee shop).
• that I can run again. (I’ve spent hours this summer in the chiropractor’s office and it wasn’t helping—or helped a little and then stopped helping—and finally last week I started taking those little packets of EmergenC of all things, and my hip and leg feel so much better. Electrolytes! Magnesium! Selenium! Potassium! I could have run for an hour the other day.)
• D.—I have to give the guy a shout out not only for his surprising garage-building skills but also because he’s my biggest supporter, arranging his schedule so I can finish my revision by Sept. 1
• Led Zeppelin—Okay, I’ll admit this is a little strange. But can I tell you how much I’ve loved rediscovering those guys this summer? There is nothing like running down a country road in Northern MN; open pastures on either side of me, a cloudless sky above me, and “Ramble On” blaring on my IPod. (Who am I? No idea, no idea. I’m just going with it.)
• My parents, who have spent even more time with the girls than usual so I can log in as many hours at my computer as possible. I know it can be exhausting, but they keep offering. They keep showing up, and I’m so grateful for them.
• My kick-ass friends, both in person and virtual. I so appreciate that you’re always close by, always listening, always ready to make me laugh. Thank you!
I’d love to hear what you’re grateful for. Leave a list in the comment field or link to your own post. And thank you, as always, for reading.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Book proposals. Urgh. Just the words may make you cringe. (I already wrote a whole book and now I need to write a proposal? What?) Or you may be asking, what the hell is a book proposal?
Well, Lisa has a great set of interviews at The Court Street Literary Collective in which five authors discuss book proposals and author platforms. (I especially love Dinty W. Moore’s thoughts on platforms: “Platforms are great for those who have them – politicians, pundits, celebrities – but in my humble opinion, there is too much focus on platform right now. Good books are about the writing, not about who wrote them.” Amen. Amen!)
But the truth is if you’re writing memoir or narrative nonfiction, at some point you will need to write a book proposal (in which you will need to describe your platform). So check out these interviews and, if you need help writing a proposal, check out Lisa’s website, Book Dreams.
Monday, August 9, 2010
I have also been writing and revising and writing and revising in my one-and-a-half hours each morning, trying to finish the memoir by September 1. (I realize that I’ve moved my deadline. Cut me some slack.)
The good news is that I finally feel like I’m moving the book forward. I’m past those hard middle chapters and I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t get me wrong; I still have pages and pages to write, but for the first time I feel as though finishing it is a real possibility. I’m getting close. Which is why it’s frustrating that I don’t have more time to work on it right now.
But maybe it’s better this way. I’m out the door to the coffee shop as soon as I wake up, and each morning I’m excited to dive back into the narrative. Maybe the fact that I need to write 65 (or 70?) pages in the next three weeks is exactly the kind of fire under my a** I needed.
Hello, fire. Meet my a**.
Friday, July 30, 2010
But even though I don’t mind reading the hard stuff, I’ll admit that some days I’m just craving a romantic comedy of a book. You know, something that will make me laugh without also making me cry. Something that will make me feel lighter. But I apparently don’t own any of those books. I’ve searched my shelves, and they're not there. I could go buy some, I guess, but I’m trying not to buy new books when there are so many on my shelves that still need reading. So I stick with the heartbreaking ones.
This is how I ended up tossing Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination in my purse last week as we were heading out the door to go up north for a wedding. I was in that craving-something-light kind of mood and didn’t really want to read about a stillbirth. But this book had been on my list for a while, and then it was on my desk for another while, and then one of my brilliant students cited it as one of her recent favorites, so I knew it was time.
Well, let me tell you: I read it in three sittings. I read it in the car while Stella and Zoë napped, and then I continued to read it (with frequent interruptions) after they woke up. When we arrived at the cabin, it was raining, so I let them watch a video as I made dinner with the book propped on the counter, reading as I chopped onions. And then the next morning I let them watch another video so I could finish the book. (D was golfing.)
I can’t even apologize for my shoddy mothering because the book is that good. And it’s heartbreaking. And it’s also very funny. (No wonder it was a New York Times Notable Book in 2008.)
McCracken’s voice certainly drives this memoir; she’s funny, smart, irreverent—someone with whom I could imagine throwing back a few glass of wine (or maybe even a few bottles). But how she’s structured the book is also brilliant.
We know from the outset that her firstborn dies. We also know that she goes on to have another baby boy a year later. We have to know these things going into the story or it would be too heartbreaking (even for me). It would be, as McCracken writes, “The happiest story in the world with the saddest ending.” And I’m sorry, but you can’t do that to readers. So McCracken lays it all out there for us: Pudding’s death, Gus’ birth.
But then what is the story? Where is the narrative urgency? When you give the end away at the beginning don’t you jeopardize these things?
No, no you don’t! (This is me jumping up and down in my office, getting very excited, people.) The urgency lies in the details of both boys’ births, details that McCracken withholds until the very end of the memoir. It's brilliant really, and sad, and hopeful. All of those things.
Who needs a romantic comedy of a novel anyway?
Friday, July 23, 2010
There was a problem, though. I’ve had several readers—one of them an editor who wanted the book (really wanted it—damn her editorial board!)—who suggested that this narrative thread should be cut from the book. I’ve been told that it’s distracting. I’ve been told that it needs its own book!
But I wasn’t ready to part with it. I felt it gave more texture to my character; I felt it offered necessary contrast to the claustrophobic urgency of the NICU. In the rewrite, I've pared it down a bit, but I haven’t been willing to chuck it completely. Because, well, how would the book end, then? I love the ending, and I couldn’t bear the thought of kicking its legs out from under it.
But this very morning I woke with a different ending simmering at the edges of my consciousness. A different ending!
I don’t know if it will work yet. I have to sit with it a while, let it percolate as I make my way closer and closer to the final pages. And when I get to there I hope I’ll know—I have to know, right?—which ending will best serve the book.
I would keep my fingers crossed, but then it would be difficult to type. And I still have lots of work to do. So will your cross your fingers for me? Send me perfect-ending vibes?
Monday, July 19, 2010
I first read Gwartney’s writing just over a year ago when her essay, “The Long Way Home,” appeared in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. I’m always thrilled to hear about a wonderful mother writer, so I added Live Through This to my reading list. But then, as you know sometimes happens with me, I got busy with teaching and revising and my girls. A year passed.
When I opened her book this summer, I didn’t want to put it down. I was reading it while we were up north over the 4th, and I kept trying to sneak away from the chaos of the cabin so I could finish it. (I was asked for something to eat or drink at least five times while I was closing in on the last pages. Is there anything more annoying than that?)
When I finally was able to finish Gwartney’s memoir, I had tears in my eyes. In parts, the memoir is heartbreaking and terrifying, but it’s also beautifully written—a testament to the power of love and the necessity of forgiveness.
After a contentious divorce, Gwartney moves with her four daughters across the country to Eugene, Oregon. But the upheaval is too much for her older daughters, Amanda and Stephanie, who begin to rebel, skipping school and staying out all night. Then, when Stephanie is fourteen and Amanda is sixteen, the girls hop on a freight train and leave home for good.
There is so much I’d like to say about this book, which was chosen as a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, but I don’t want to take more time away from the interview. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome Debra Gwartney to Mother Words:
KH: Debra, I think this is a tremendously brave book. You don’t sugarcoat anything and most of the blame—though your ex-husband gets some of it, certainly—is directed at yourself. I’m wondering how it felt to expose yourself in this way, to examine your actions and reactions and take responsibility for them.
DG: The early drafts of the book included most of the scenes that appear in the final version—the circumstances, the characters, the unfolding of action. Those aspects were established from the beginning. But what challenged me nearly to defeat, draft after grueling draft for eight years, was understanding the dynamic, the “why” of the situation my family was caught in. I wrote many revisions, then gave those pages to trusted readers only to hear, “you’re still coming off as a victim.” I knew I couldn’t let the manuscript go until I’d scrubbed out as much of the “victim” as possible. The reader is not interested in self-pity or in self-loathing, but instead in agency, and it was agency that I wanted to get to the heart of. As best I could. So, yes, it was definitely difficult to revisit the past—not just once or twice, but dozens of times, and each time with the intention of establishing my role in what went wrong among us. Some days I’d have to circle my computer for an hour or more, folding laundry, baking a loaf of banana bread, balancing my checkbook or whatever, all the while easing myself toward the keyboard. Sometimes I’d do the hokey thing of pretending I was putting on a big, thick cloak that made me impervious to the sorrow or pain of the past before I sat down to write. I never once thought that I should try to be brave or to write a brave book. I was just trying to be honest with myself. The fact that you call it brave is humbling and gratifying indeed.
KH: In the introduction to your memoir, you write, “I’d like to be one of those women who can confront the past’s reminders […] with nothing but compassion. But apparently, I’m not there yet. Something tangled and sore remains unsolved in me. After years of trying to decode and dissect our history, of picking over episodes with my daughter (a fight over a concert, a note found under one of their beds, the nights and nights and nights they didn’t come home), and crawling through the muck again to discover the origins and escalations of our troubles, I want to move on. I want to forgive—Amanda, Stephanie, myself, the times we lived in—so we can stop looking backward.” Memoir writing is so much about looking back and making sense of the lives we’ve lived and times we’ve lived through, and writing memoir—for me, anyway—affects my relationship with this past. I’m wondering if that was the case for you. How did writing this book affect (if it did) your relationship with this time in your life and your daughters’ lives? Did writing this story help you stop looking backward?
DG: I’ve come to believe that memoir is organized, as its name suggests, around memory—that is, not around events in the past, but instead how you remember events in the past. I guess more accurately: why you remember the event that way. When I gave up worrying so much about what we were all wearing, whether the scene happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, if it was rainy or clear, etc., and started pushing myself to understand why I clung to certain details in the memory and refused to acknowledge others—the version of the story I was overly-attached to, from which I derived my sense of identity for a long time—the writing became more rich, more evocative, more interesting (not only to me, but to others, I believe). I did develop a new relationship with the past because in order to write a book I had to tear down my own defenses about the past. In those years of trouble in my family, I’d become quite comfortable telling myself that my rebellious daughters were wrong and I was right. Only by giving up my posture as the “good” one could I move into the writing of the true story of this time. I produced hundreds of pages that did not make it into the book. I realize now that all of that scribbling led me to examine my self-delusion, my own tendency to cling to the story that protected and served me. As a writer, I needed to get to the story of a very complicated set of patterns that led to a family crisis. “We are in the presence of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story. That was my aim: to puzzle my way out of my own shadows. Most times that didn’t feel at all nice, but instead as if my skin was being rubbed off an inch at a time. Though I didn’t begin the writing as a sort of therapy, of course it became cathartic. Once I could see myself as a player in our problems, and could admit to that agency, my daughters and I could also be more open, honest, loving in discussing this still painful time.
KH: I was struck by how careful you were in writing about the parts of your daughters’ lives that you didn’t witness. I think there could have been a lot of speculation about what they were or were not doing on the streets, but your respectfully don’t go there. Certainly there are passages in which you are worrying about their safety and wondering about where they are, etc., but for the most part, you have protected the privacy of Stephanie’s and Amanda’s relationship and their time on the streets, and I was really impressed by the way you were able to tell a full story without divulging this information.
With that said, writing about adult children can be tricky, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how you navigated this with her daughters. In the acknowledgments you write, “Not one word of this book would have been written if I hadn’t felt my daughters’ support behind me—behind this effort to get a complicated family story on paper.” How involved were your daughters in processing the content of this book? Did you get their feedback as you were writing or wait until you had finished a full draft? Or even later? Did they get veto power over the content of the book?
Have their feelings about the book changed since it was published?
DG: You’re so right that the single copy of the manuscript on my desk was a much different entity than the published book on a shelf in a library or bookstore. My relationship with the physical object changed hugely once it was published—the old cliché that I realized it was no longer mine alone, but now belonged to the world of readers—and I’m sure my daughters also struggled with the difference between the idea of the book and the reality of the book.
But back to your first point: In early drafts of the manuscript, I attempted to explain my daughters’ motives and actions. It was weak and uninspired writing, for sure, but I didn’t know how to make a book without filling readers in about what these primary characters, my girls, were up to. Then Amanda, Stephanie, and I did a segment for This American Life, produced by our dear friend Sandy Tolan. When the three of us sat down to listen to our voices on the radio parsing our own raw experience—oh what an hour that was!—the girls could not stop staring at each other. Absolute intensity between them. They were both very emotional, and for the first time I really got it: they have a story of their time on the streets that is not my story, that will never be my story, and that I really have no right to explore because it does not belong to me. I returned to my writing with a new goal, and that was to write only and exclusively my version of the story, and to leave their version alone. I had to divulge a little of what the girls were up to, where they were, but I was scrupulous (I hope) in not allowing myself conjecture as to their motives or emotions. If they want to write about that time, they can delineate what was going on in their own hearts and minds. My job, I felt, was to explore the angry, defensive, hurt, lost mother left behind and the ways in which I had to relearn the meaning of motherhood if I was going to have a lasting relationship with my daughters.
When I finally produced a manuscript worthy of a good agent—that is, honest enough, well written enough—and the fabulous Gail Hochman agreed to represent me, I realized I was on new ground. This book could become a reality now that an agent was going to present it to editors, and it was time to hash out that possibility with my children. I gave Amanda and Stephanie each a copy and I told them to be brutally honest with me about every word. If in the end they didn’t want me to publish the book, I wouldn’t (I certainly would have argued with them, though, I must admit). They both returned with many comments, some bitterly hard to take, but also with their mutual blessing to publish. Later, I gave the manuscript to the younger girls and we had a good talk about the contents and their mixed feelings about the story out in the public arena.
Looking back, that part was fairly easy.
What’s been hard is the publicity around the book, which the girls have considered exploitative at times, and which has caused anger/rifts between us (all healed now). They were incredibly good sports about the interviews and photos and all that, but they’re done participating, and I totally understand their need to be finished. Hardest of all for us—the truly nasty and consistently anonymous comments about our family life that have appeared on various websites, mostly by people who admit they haven’t read the book but still have a thing or two to say about what’s wrong with us. Perhaps I brought such ruthlessness on myself, but I’m terribly sorry my daughters have had to bear the brunt of public anger.
KH: I’m very interested in how authors turn short essays into memoirs, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about the process of writing this book. I know you first wrote and published short essays that told parts of this larger story. How did you move into working on the memoir? I’d love it if you could describe the process of creating a continuous narrative from these separate pieces.
DG: When I was younger, I wanted to be a fiction writer and in fact spent most of my creative time hammering away on short stories. Then, when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona (in journalism, not creative writing) I took several classes with Vivian Gornick, who opened this giant and magnificent door into the world of memoir. I really had no grasp of the genre back then, but after I read such books as Duke of Deception, Stop-Time, Fierce Attachments, My Father and Myself, Confessions of a Catholic Girlhood, My Mother’s House, etc., in her classes, I was certain I wanted to write personal narrative. I tried my hand at some short pieces about my childhood. But then my writing life (except for journalism, which is how I made my living) came to a grinding halt after my divorce, and into the trouble with the girls. It was only after Amanda and Stephanie were back and fairly settled that I tentatively wrote a brief piece about looking for Stephanie in San Francisco. The essay was published in Creative Nonfiction and was a notable essay that year in Best American Essays and (prematurely) got me a bit of agent attention. Around the same time, I published a piece on Salon (The Mothers Who Think column, which I sorely miss), and another in Fourth Genre. Once I had four, five, six twenty-page brief memoir pieces I thought it would be oh-so easy to line them up into a book. I had no idea what I was in for. The arc of a three-thousand-word nonfiction story is quite different that the larger, sustained arc one must discover for a book. I tried for several years and failed quite miserably in my efforts. At that point, I knew I needed help. So I returned to school. I enrolled in the low-residency program at Bennington College and within weeks was on the right track. I worked with absolutely amazing teachers: Phillip Lopate, Sven Birkerts, Bob Shacochis, and by the time I finished the program, I had a book. An honest to goodness book that made sense, had a solid structure, and held together in way that pleased me. It was an expensive decision, Bennington, but I’m convinced I wouldn’t have understood how to go from essay to book-length without that training.
KH: I was also struck by how circular the narrative felt at points. There are places where you are in a scene, then back up and explain how you got there, then you’re back in the scene, and then forward in time. My thought as I was reading was that this heightens the disorientation and the just-getting-by feeling that you seemed to be feeling at the time. I’d love if you could talk a little about the construction of the book, and whether this was a conscious choice or if it’s just how the narrative emerged in the writing process.
DG: I’m delighted by this question, actually, because the narrative was even more circular when I turned it into my brilliant editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Deanne Urmy. She and I talked a whole lot about structure and chronology—what would engage a reader and what would cause a reader to simply give up. While writing the book, I relished the idea of suspending time. For me, the layering of events, no matter the month or year those events took place, helped establish the patterns that eventually led to our troubles. Sven Birkerts writes about this kind of structuring in his marvelous book Art of Time in Memoir, and cautions (wisely I think) against the tendency to get episodic, this happened, and then this happened, and then this. . .
I was much more interested in delving into symbols, metaphors and lyricism, than adhering to chronology, and I tended to pick up on a detail—putting the tent up in our living room, or standing in the rain in the downtown square confronting my daughters, or eating at a Chinese food restaurant with Amanda—and let my writerly mind make intuitive connections with other times, other episodes. So it was a swirl—the disorientation of that period in my family life, as you say, but also the recognition of the nature of your heart and mind when you’re trying to sort out your life, or a significant portion of your life. All kinds of information and memories, and from many different times, pour in as you strive to understand how you got to this point, to this place. At least that’s how the process worked for me, and I wanted the writing to express that somehow. Deanne Urmy wisely convinced me to make the narrative more straightforward, less discombobulated, and I soon agreed that was the way to go. Still, the narrative isn’t linear, and I hope I was able to express the encounters with time, images, and emotions as I began to reconcile the past with the present.
KH: A number of readers of this blog are mother writers working on memoirs and novels. Time and again we hear that the mother memoir market is “cashed out,” that these types of books “don’t sell.” This is clearly not the case, and I’d love if you could talk a little about your journey from manuscript to book. What roadblocks did you encounter along the way?
DG: I’ve asked my agent several times (now that I’m working on a new project, and of course caught up in the anxiety of getting this one eventually published, having heard many times that it’s actually harder to publish a second book than a first) about what’s selling and what’s not, and she wisely tells me, “There’s always a market for a really good book.” Which is her way of saying: go write a really good book. I hope I can do that.
Backing up three years or so: It was not one bit easy to sell Live Through This. I’d convinced myself it would be. I’d send Gail my manuscript and within days, hours even, she’d have an offer. But the manuscript was rejected by quite a few editors and a good number of publishing houses, and I grew despondent as the no thank yous kept piling up. But then I’d force myself back into the writing, trying to make passages stronger (editors consistently complained that the narrator wasn’t “likeable,” a confounding dilemma, since that narrator was a persona made from me) and the stakes clearer. Months passed, and I was wondering if a huge rewrite was in order, and then—rather quickly and delightfully—Deanne Urmy accepted the book. I often wish I could go back to the moment when Gail called with the news. The relief, the joy, the sense of accomplishment. I’ll never forget it. Equally as gratifying and thrilling was the moment I learned the book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (I replay that one a whole lot, too, when I am discouraged about the writing life).
At one point along the way in trying to sell the book, someone called it a “momoir,” which bugged the hell out of me. I’m left to sort out my strong reaction to that silly quip. Live Through This is, in my way of thinking, a book about motherhood. About my illusions of motherhood as a young woman, and the critical need to smash those illusions so I could learn to know my children as real, vibrant, capable people. But I don’t want that effort to be belittled by calling it a “momoir.” Once the book was published, I noticed the bias against “mother” narratives: they can’t be all that serious as literary ventures, they can’t hold up against the new, edgy nonfiction out there. On the contrary, I say. It seems to me that we need, more than ever, to hear from mothers who are willing to dig in to both the utter joys and the frighteningly dark side of parenting, who aren’t afraid to express fears, doubts, guilt about raising children in an extraordinarily difficult time. It would be a tragedy for a woman to stop writing because she believes there’s no market for books about mothering and motherhood—because a well-written book is going to say something profound about the human condition, and we need to hear the voices of women who can express the plight we’re all in as humans.
KH: What kinds of reactions have you received from readers?
DG: I’ve received hundreds of emails from parents—and I’m deeply grateful for each one—who’ve gone through some kind of similar difficulty with teens. Some write about teenagers who are surly and hard to deal with but are still at home; some have written me about daughters who’ve been gone for decades without a word. Heartbreaking for sure. It’s nearly impossible to talk publicly about your children who’ve run away from home, because the automatic assumption for most people is that you’re an abusive parent. I’m pleased that some parents who are suffering through this nightmarish experience have read my book and feel like they can reach out to me.
I’ve also heard from parents of young children, who’ve been hugely supportive of the story; from young people who were once out on the street and perhaps now have more compassion for the parents they left behind; from lawmakers, police, agencies who say they’re glad to know more about one mother’s point of view in all of this. Very gratifying.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve also been lambasted by some readers (and some nonreaders). I find it curious that the angriest notes come from people who admit they haven’t read the book but are angered by it anyway. Some who have read the book are infuriated by its contents and by my actions. I’m astonished at the fury this memoir has stirred up. One woman sought me out at the NBCC ceremony to tell me that the book “disgusted” her. She chewed me out about what a bad mother I am right there in the beautiful New York City literary venue—what a shocker. But such reactions come with the territory. The negative responses upset me, of course, but then I try to remember that I wanted to write a book that pushed as hard as it could against the truth, against honesty and my own terribly difficult struggle to know myself better as a woman and a mother. Of course plopping such personal and raw material out there for all to see is going to offend some readers.
Thanks so much for your time, Debra! I do have to chime in here at the end and say how much I also hate the term “momoir,” which I’ve blogged about here at Mother Words. I’m also discouraged that readers (and nonreaders!) would judge a mother who has bravely written about the most difficult time in her life. I am grateful to Debra for having written such a well-crafted and honest memoir. Go buy this book, people.