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Friday, February 26, 2010

retreat day 1 - the arrival

Yesterday morning I woke early with an oozing eye. This happens to me sometimes when I have a cold—the snot tries to exit through the tear duct of my left eye. I know. I know. I wish there was a more delicate way to say it, but there’s not.

I wasn’t too concerned about the eye during the day yesterday, but by evening, as I headed off to teach my creative nonfiction class, I realized it felt as if someone had emptied a shovel full of dirt onto my eyeball. By the end of my class, the left side of my face hurt, and it felt as though there might have been tiny shards of glass in that shovel of dirt.

Two of my students—both of whom are nurses—said that I should go to the doctor. “You need to get that looked at before you leave town.”

I sighed. Okay. But it was 9:45 and even Urgent Care was closed. I drove home. But things weren’t getting any better; by the time I walked into my house, I was convinced that my sinuses had ruptured and I was doomed—I would not be able to go to the retreat; the fluid would take over my face; my brain might explode. (Once I begin on this train of thought, it’s difficult to for me to redirect. I put my jacket back on and drove to the ER.)

The ER. What can I say? Three hours later—at 1:30 a.m.—I was finally home, a very expensive tube of antibiotic ointment in hand, my eye swollen shut.

I slept. Then this morning—was that just this morning?—I frantically got the kids ready, dropped Zoë off at toddler school, passed Stella into the hands of my sister, and wondered what I had forgotten to pack. (The whole while looking like Quasimodo.)

Maybe I forgot to pack something, but it doesn’t matter now. The sky is the pale blue of a wintery late afternoon. Outside my window are tall Aspen trees, white bark peeling. Curling like a hundred ancient scrolls.

There is an energy here at Faith’s Lodge that I’ve never felt before. It’s as if all of the families who have stayed in these rooms, stood on these balconies, and walked these trails have left a little bit of themselves here. As if they’ve left a little bit of the love they have for their children.

So now I feel myself take a deep breath, loosen my hold, uncoil. A space opens in my head, a clearing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


My mind has been buzzing these last days with thoughts about form and function in creative nonfiction, memoir as discovery, and the role writing plays in memory revision. Both of my classes are underway now, and I'm loving them. My students are so smart and engaged.

I realized this week that I love teaching two classes at once because often the ideas being mulled over by students in one class speak to the ideas being mulled over by the students in the other class. How cool is that? The constant back-and-forth keeps me thinking and making connections. Add to that the prep for next weekend's Mother Words Retreat, and, well, you can imagine my busy busy brain.

So today I'm simply going to leave you with this photo of the snowman Stella and I made a few weeks ago:

Sad snowman. Sad, sad snowman. (Can anyone guess what we used for the eyes?)

Monday, February 15, 2010

a thought about winter

We’ve gotten more snow here. I pulled back the curtain this morning, and said, shit, more snow. But now, as I stare out the window in my tiny office and I’m blinded by whiteness, by the glinting and sparkling of billions and billions of snowflakes in the bright sun, I have to admit that it’s quite pretty. (Of course, it would have glinted and blinded me without the extra two inches. But whatever. I’m trying to be positive.)

But really—and this is me being positive again—the sky is blue and February is half over. Eventually, spring will come and I will be able to take the girls to the park, pull Zoë down the sidewalk in the wagon as Stella zips past us on her bike. We will be able to rake the yard, and I will sit on the back step sipping a glass of white wine as I watch the girls dig for worms. That sounds perfect.

I’ve heard people say—hell, I’ve said it myself—that Minnesota winters build character. But right about now I’d take less character. And really, what do we mean by character? We’re just trying to excuse the fact that everyone in this state is crabby for three (and sometimes four) months, and then, as soon as the thaw comes, we all stream outdoors to walk in groups around the lakes, smiling at strangers, laughing uncontrollably. We make plans, become social again. We are *reborn*.

I’d just as soon take happy year-round, thank you very much.

The thing I’m looking forward to most is running. I actually ran, slowly, yesterday. I stepped carefully over ice and snow, music blaring into my ears. And it's true that I felt alive. But I can’t wait to run in shorts and a t-shirt along the river as the trees begin to turn green. I can’t wait to nod and smile—we’re so happy!—at the other folks out running and walking and smiling. I’ll be so damn positive you won’t even recognize me. I promise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

lost and found: a memoir of mothers

I have been meaning to post about Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers for months and months. Kate read as part of the 3rd Annual Mother Words Reading last fall at the Loft, and her lovely memoir is a story of adoption, love, and what it means to be a mother.

Just after Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s mother died of ovarian cancer, Kate received a phone call late one night. The woman on the other end of the phone began ticking off facts about Kate’s life and her parents' lives. Then the woman said, “I gave birth to a baby girl.” She named the day, the month, and the year that Kate was born. Then she said, “Would that be you?”

Lost and Found is the story of losing one mother and finding another mother, and as the often-moving narrative progresses, we see Kate broaden her idea of family and learn to accept and love her birthmother, Val.

Kate St. Vincent Vogl will be reading this Friday, February 12th at 7 p.m. at Birchbark Books (owned by the amazing Louise Erdrich) in Minneapolis, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to talk with Kate here at Mother Words. Thanks for agreeing to this short-notice e-mail interview, Kate.

KH: Kate, I love how present your writer-self is in the narrative. I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how writing this story helped (or didn’t help) you process it. What were the biggest discoveries you made during the writing of this memoir?

KSV: Thanks, Kate. Thanks especially for this chance to share my story with your readers.

This is such a great question, for these discoveries happen on both the personal and professional level. Let’s talk personal discoveries first—though I should say that when Meredith Hall was asked if writing a memoir was therapeutic, she balked at the notion that a memoirist should seek that as part of the goal of getting her story onto the page. Considering her success in Without A Map, I think I’ll defer to her expertise. Yet I’m the type of person who needs to talk things out in order to understand what I think of something. So, I won’t call the process therapeutic, but I will call it enlightening. Until I sat down to write it, I hadn’t realized how far I’d come in my willingness to bridge a connection with Val. I had to go back to my original emails to my friend Christin telling her about Val’s call to recapture that moment. I’d forgotten I wasn’t interested in developing any sort of a relationship with her. I had to step back into that moment and recapture that desire to keep her at arm’s length and then bring the reader to where I am today. In looking over those old e-mails, I was also able to tap into the voice I wanted to use in the telling. I wanted to draw the reader in close, so I tell the story much as I would tell it to my friend. Women in the book clubs I’ve joined have noted that intimacy, so I’m glad I’ve been able to make that connection with readers.

On a professional level, I learned a lot from writing this as well. This was the story I wanted to write when I first started writing seriously almost 15 years ago, but I knew I didn’t have the tools to be able to write it yet. So I set it aside and wrote an awful first novel. With 100,000 words under my belt (and 5 revisions of each and every word), I was finally ready to write this story. I could finally write an effective scene—or at least a decent one—and I could carry a narrative arc. I could parse dialogue down to its essence, and when it came time for revising, I could recognize which scenes needed to be added and which ones really should be cut. (Okay, so some were easier to cut than others.)

I should also note that some of my biggest discoveries came not in the writing, but in the marketing of this book. In speaking at national conferences, I realized just how many people out there hunger for mother words—that’s something.

KH: In Lost and Found, you write a lot about your sister and your sometimes strained relationship with her. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached this material, both while you were writing and when you were ready to publish it?

KSV: That’s so interesting—at many readings people noted how they wished I’d written even more about my sister! And at one point I had, but my editor (the very accomplished Patricia Weaver Francisco) reminded me that writing is an art—but not a martial art. So a chapter of my memoir that focused on my sister ended up on the cutting room floor. Which was better, really. It’s a memoir of mothers, after all—not a memoir of sisters.

That example is indicative of my writing process. What I tried to do was get my heart on the page, to include what my motivations were, what mattered to me. That’s the essence of characterization, isn’t it? Once I got it down in that crummy first draft, as Ann Lamott calls it (she actually calls it a much naughtier word!), then I had to decide what to do with it.

When I started writing this memoir in full, there was one person I definitely had to get the okay from to write it: Val. I wrote out a draft of the first three chapters, in which I write about me not wanting a birthday card from Val and how I admitted I was a snot for being that way. (At least I was honest, if not very nice.) So you can imagine how I held my breath for Val’s reaction. And I have to hand it to her, Val called me right up and said, “Absolutely, you have to write this. You have to share everything.” It was important to her that other birthmothers know they weren’t alone in the darkness they lived in, not knowing whether the child they surrendered was okay or not.

Once I wrote the story, there were of course others I needed clearance from. Val gave the okay once more as I started sending it out to agents. And then I shared it with Nor, my birthfather’s sister, and she loved it. (My BookShelf article in this month’s Minnesota Women’s Press touches on this.) I then also shared it with Nor’s sister, Welling. And I shared it with Dad, but he still hasn’t been able to read the whole thing yet. It’s still too hard for him to think about Mom.

As for my sister Aimee, I asked her from the beginning if it was okay to write about being adopted, and Aimee was totally okay with that. So I went with it. When I gave her a copy to look over, Aimee had only one change—she was working at the country club when Mom died, not the Ponderosa. So that was easy enough to fix.

KH: How did this book change (or not change) your relationship with your birthmother, Val?

KSV: It brought us much closer together. Sharing with her the writing of my novel was a big first step. There is a vulnerability in sharing a work in progress. Add on top of that sharing your innermost feelings about topics you don’t normally talk about—motherhood and the role played in your life by those closest to you. Why don’t we do this? There is such a need for this out there, so I applaud you, Kate, for getting these Mother Words out to folks.

When the book came out, Val and I presented it jointly to the national adoption conference. I shared what happened from my perspective, and she shared it from hers. There was such a demand in response to our presentation that I had to return to the area just a few months later to take our story to many of the local bookstores. It’s been wonderfully rewarding to be able to give back by sharing with others the gift Val had given me.

KH: The chronology of Lost and Found moves back and forward in time, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you settled on this structure. Did it come early or later in the writing process?

KSV: The book opens with the initial phone call Val made to me and then establishes my dad’s initial reaction (“There’s always enough love to go around,” he said, “but I’m not sharing holidays!”). The narrative goes from her call to a vacation we actually did all share together—my birthmother and her husband, my father and step-mom, and my family. And though we’d grown close over that 13-year period, Val and I still had secrets left to share. This story shows what it took to get there, what we still were afraid to reveal to one another.

In that process, there is some context a reader needs in order to understand the full import of what’s happening. There’s some weaving of time on the life-changing events covered in that time-frame, and that way the reader can see what happened before and how it compares to now. Always, always, you need to show the reader why it’s relevant to what’s happening in the moment. You need to keep it tight, or else you lose that forward momentum of your story.

I’m not a linear writer. I prefer stories to be much more complex that that, like the effect Tobias Wolff achieves in Bullet to the Brain. Or even any of Tim O’Brian’s work. And so it’s that peeling back the onion of a character and an event as in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours that I strive to emulate.

KH: You write both fiction and nonfiction. Does anything about your writing process change as you move from one genre to the next?

As I share with my students in my multi-genre classes at the Loft, there are many similarities between the two. Indeed, Vivian Gornick points out that we have a situation and a story in our memoir, much like we have themes and plots within our fiction. Likewise, just as a narrative arc is essential to good story in fiction, so too will it serve a narrative well in memoir.

I teach a class through the Hennepin County Libraries about the basics of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In an hour, I have to explain the unifying elements of all three. Luckily, there are key techniques we do use for them all. Most importantly as writers we must create effective images for our readers. Without that, we are nothing. Carol Bly in her Passionate, Accurate Story talks about the need to cull out of our stories all the plurals and generics. If there’s one thing I would tell writers to do, it’s that.

The other thing is to show why it matters. Why is it essential for them to find out what happens? This goes to the story question, and it goes to plot development, and it goes to character development too. If you’ve got all three, you’ve got a story your reader has to read, no matter what the genre.

KH: Lost and Found is in its second printing now. Can you talk a little bit about changes you made to the memoir before the second printing? What was this process like for you?

KSV: The cover is the most noticeable change, so let me start there. Right after I got the book contract from North Star, the Adoption Network Cleveland asked me to speak at their upcoming national adoption conference. It was in just five weeks, and North Star had said the publishing process would take at least 6 months. But with this opportunity, North Star said they could get me copies to have in hand. I can’t tell you how amazing they were in their efforts. The offset printing process alone is a 3 week process and we had to get final edits in 2 weeks—turning around in 5 weeks what New York publishers usually take 2 years to do. But to do so, I had to go with the cover design they came up with. It was good, but I wanted to go with more of a periwinkle cover, to bring in my mom’s name, Peri. So I worked with Sandra Benitez’s cover designer to come up with the design for the second printing. Then I was able to include on the back and inside covers some of the good reviews that had started coming out for the book, too.

Going to a second printing gave me the chance to correct a couple of typos (sigh… I had three book clubs and five other readers and still we missed the apostrophe in “smokers’ coughs”). Turned out I did need to change some of the wording, too, especially that describing one of Mom’s friends. As important as it is to capture an image in words, I don’t know of many women who’d love to know that their eyes have turned milky since the last time you saw them. (!) The point I was trying to make for this beautiful friend of my mom’s was that I could see time passing over her in a way that would never touch my mom.

But there was also a much more serious change I decided to make between the first and second printing. Right in the midst of making the final changes, I got a call from the Catholic Spirit. There was a reporter who was going to run a feature article on my book. “I’m really enjoying it,” she said. “But I got to page 65 and it says here that you’re pro-choice. Is that true?”

I wanted to tell her she shouldn’t believe everything she reads in print, but that line was absolutely true. I lost the interview, I lost the chance to connect with readers. So for the second printing, I pulled the line. I don’t know if I did the right thing. But I did leave in (towards the end after the reader understands how much I honor my birthmother Val) that if I’d been in Val’s position, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to do what she did. To me, I am saying the same thing but in a less politicized way. Hopefully it’s framed so I can get my message across to an even broader audience.

I’m thinking next round I’ll try fiction and then I can just blame the issue on my made-up characters.

KH: I’d love to hear about some of the reactions/responses you’ve gotten to the memoir.

I’ve been very fortunate in the positive responses I’ve received. The best part by far is having people tell me how much they’ve been touched by my words. That they had to put the book down at times because they were so moved by my words. To have some women have to put on sunglasses in the middle of my reading because they are crying so hard.

And just today, I was answering some questions for someone from Ohio who’ll be doing my book for her book club this Friday and she said she cries every time she reads the ending. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I suppose that might not be too nice of me to say it’s a good day at the office when I make someone cry, but I think as writers what we strive for is to connect with our readers on an emotional level, and to achieve that—well, then, we’ve done our job.

KH: Kate, you are a writing teacher, as well. What advice would you give to emerging writers working on their first books?

Get your heart upon the page. Write about what matters to your character, and for that you need to understand what it is that your character wants that she can’t get. That’s the essence of any story.

Maybe we laughed at Diane Keaton’s character in Something’s Gotta Give as she sat at the computer laughing and crying and carrying on as she wrote. But we all do a bit of that as we write. It’s been said that if there’re no tears in the writer, there’re no tears in the reader, and the more I do and teach this, the more firmly I believe that. You need to write about what you care most about, and your reader will care about it, too. You can write about real life as I did, or you can fictionalize it. I think of Ron Carlson’s famous quote. “Did it happen? No. Is it true? Yes.” It’s that truth we want to capture in what we write.

The hard part is this: that truth doesn’t show up in our first drafts. So be patient with it. Listen to what your writing is telling you. The key to being a good writer is being a really good at revising, at revisioning. In that way we can turn our writing into all that it’s meant to be.

Thanks for taking the time to visit Mother Words, Kate!

Don’t miss Kate St. Vincent Vogl at Birchbark Books this Friday, February 12th at 7 p.m. To learn more about Kate’s writing, visit her website.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

the other side of perseverance

Last week, I found myself staring longingly at mail carriers, watching them tromp through the deep snow, doing their rounds. And I thought, I could do that. That could be my job. I’m organized and I’m a perfectionist (though I’ve tried hard not to be). But perfectionism seems like a useful trait in a mail carrier—no one would get the wrong mail and I wouldn’t let the bills get rained on. And—and this is a big AND—I would have a salary and benefits and killer quads.

I know I talk a big game about persistence, about never giving up on writing, but sometimes—some weeks—I do want to give up. I want to turn my back on words. I want a "real" job. I don't make much money, and what I do make goes to child care. I’m actually starting to feel irresponsible about it. (How will we pay for the girls’ college? How will we ever retire?)

One of my wonderful former teachers said to me recently that when he sold his first book, more than elation, he felt justified. All the time he had spent writing was paying off. See, I am a writer. I sold a book. This is important. (And of course he went on to become a wildly successful and respected author.)

I need a little justification right about now. I need to know that all my years of hard work—those thousands of hours I’ve spent at the coffee shop, at my computer, worrying in the middle of the night—haven’t been a complete waste of time. Oh, I believe in what I’m doing here on this blog. I believe in teaching. I believe in helping other mother writers find the most effective way to tell the stories they need to tell. I believe in that. But is that enough?

Winter in Minnesota is clearly hard on my positive attitude. And I know that when spring comes—months from now—and the sun is shining and I can go for long runs and take the girls to the park and rake the leaves from the garden—things will feel a little easier. And maybe then I won’t feel the need for justification. I will find my way back to words. I will find my way inside them again. At least I hope so.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

on friday

Zoë woke at 1:30 am with a fever. She’d had a cold for a week, but this was the first sign of a fever. She was inconsolable, so I brought her into our bed. “Cuddle me, mama,” she said, wrapping her arms around my neck. We had a fitful night of sleep, and in the morning her temperature was 101.3.

I usually get very irritated when my kids are sick on preschool days. (This sounds horrible, I know.) But on Friday, I didn’t feel that way. I had a lot on my plate, a handful of things that needed to be checked off my to-do list, but it didn’t matter. I wanted Zoë home with me. We spent the morning cuddling, wiping her nose, and watching her favorite baby songs video (a classic—circa 1982).

She napped a little, and when she woke up she felt hot. I made some soup and was letting it cool on the stove while I held her in my arms. But all of the sudden, she sat up with a start, cried out in pain, then began to shake, her body going rigid in my arms. I knew immediately that she was having a seizure. I stood up slowly with her in my arms and walked to the phone. I dialed 911, and when I heard the woman answer, I said: “My daughter is having a seizure. She has a fever.”

Then I started to cry. Zoë was still rigid, her eyes rolled back. The receptionist got my address, my name, and connected me to a paramedic. All I could do is hold my daughter and cry. I knew that febrile seizures weren’t uncommon. My good friend’s daughter had one about a year ago. Still, there is nothing like watching your child go rigid, unresponsive, in your arms. The skin around her mouth turned purple. What if she stays like this? Her backed was arched. What if she doesn’t get better? The paramedic on the line asked whether she was breathing.

“No. Yes. She’s drooling, frothing at the mouth.”

“Let’s count her breaths. Tell me every time she breathes.”

Zoë made a sputtering sound and took a ragged breath. “Breath,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

“Breath,” I said. And again, “Breath.”

“Good,” he said. “She’s breathing. I won’t leave you alone. I’ll stay on the line until the paramedics arrive. Is your door open?”

I looked down at Zoë. Her eyes still staring off, unfocused. I carried her onto the porch, unlocked the door. “I hear the sirens,” I said.

“Tell me when you see them.”

I looked down at Zoë, whose eyes were now closed. And then I saw the fire truck in front of our house. “I see them.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to let you go.”

“Thank you. Thank you,” I said, but I’m sure I wasn’t able to convey my gratitude that this man was there with me, waiting with me, talking to me.

I have seen someone have a seizure only once. It was almost ten years ago, when D and I lived with Mimi, and I had taken her to Byerly’s, the upscale grocery store where she always shopped. I was pushing my cart along the meat aisle when I saw a man holding onto one of the frozen food containers. I walked past and glanced at him because he was standing there frozen himself, and that’s when I noticed he was jerking slightly and staring off in that dazed way. What I should have done is gone to the meat counter and told the butcher to call 911. (I didn’t have a cell phone back then so I couldn’t do it myself.) But I didn’t go talk to the butcher. I wasn’t sure the man was having a seizure. I moved on a little, and then thought, no, something wasn’t right with him. I went back and said, “Excuse me,” and of course he didn’t respond. He was standing right in front of his cart, so I moved it to the other side of the aisle so he wouldn’t fall on it if he fell. Then I turned to the meat counter to have someone call 911, and that’s when he hit the ground. He fell hard, like a felled tree. I heard it. When I turned, he was flat on the floor. The paramedics were there in a few minutes, and when the man started to come out of it, they asked him whether this was his first seizure. “Yes,” he said. I continued to hover around, feeling guilty that I hadn’t acted more quickly, that I was too worried about minding my own business to get the paramedics there sooner. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but still. I was shaken for the rest of the weekend, and I think about this man still, wonder what happened, what caused his seizure.

I know as seizures go, a febrile seizure is the best possible kind. I kept thinking this. This is the best kind. This is the best kind. And I thought about those of you whose children had and have seizure disorders. I thought of how powerless it must make you feel, every day.

The paramedics tromped into out house, dwarfing it with their huge bodies, their gigantic boots and jackets. I kept apologizing for the mess, worrying in a completely illogical way that they would think that the Little People and crushed Cheerios all over the floor reflected bad mothering and that somehow this untidiness led to my daughter’s seizure. Crazy, I know. “I usually pick up,” I said.

They waved away my worrying, crouched down, and checked Zoë, who couldn’t keep her eyes open. They told me she would be fine. They told me about their own children. They told me I did just the right thing. They were fabulous.

A neighbor popped in his head to see if I needed help, and I shook my head.

The paramedics said they could take us to the ER, but that it probably wasn’t necessary.

I thought about the ambulance. Stella would be off the bus in a half hour and there was no one there to wait for her. I also thought, shit, we can’t afford an ambulance. I hate that I thought that, and if they had said, we should take her, I would have gone, of course.

They gave Zoë some Tylenol and were on their way. I called our clinic, and the nurse said I should bring her into the ER to be checked anyway. So I called my sister to see if she could come over and spend the afternoon with Stella. Then I tracked down D, who was in a workshop. He met me in the ER and Zoë, poor Zoë, underwent a slew of tests. But they were all reassuring. She just had a virus and a fever.

When we got home later, my dad brought us take-out and my sister and her husband and son came over for dinner. Zoë wanted me, only me. She was feverish all night—next to me in bed, saying, “Cuddle me, mama.” D and I were up and down, alternating Motrin and Tylenol every three hours.

In the morning I was so tired my face hurt, but I had an interview for a grant I’d applied for, so I showered, grabbed some coffee, and tried not to sound like an idiot in the interview. Afterwards, I rushed back home to find Zoë asleep in D’s arms on the couch.

Her fever finally broke early Sunday morning. That phrase—her fever broke—always reminds me of the historical romance novels I read as a teenager (and I’ll admit into adulthood). I can see the hero pacing a long hallway in his Hessian boots as he waits for word on his young bride, who contracted a terrible fever during childbirth. Or I think of the heroine, dabbing the forehead of her lover after he was wounded in a duel, defending her honor. I assure you, I was no less relieved than my heroes and heroines when I reached over and felt Zoë’s forehead in the middle of the night and it wasn’t burning.

The fever was back Sunday afternoon, and then gone yesterday. I have my fingers crossed that it stays away, and that this is the only seizure she will ever have. That’s what I’m doing. I'm crossing my fingers.