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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

creating your own integrity

Stella is on spring break this week, and something about that and the fact that it is surprisingly—strangely—warm outside makes me feel as if I should also be on vacation. I’m not, of course, but things have slowed down for me a bit. One class has ended and the other is winding down, so I find myself feeling oddly lethargic. It’s not as if I don’t have plenty of other things that need doing—Lordy, you should see my list—but I feel incapable of doing any of these things.

Today, after my mom came to get the girls for the afternoon, I even lay down to try to take a nap. A nap of all things! What sacrilege. But of course I only dosed for a few minutes before I roused myself to read. And read I must—I have five or six (or twelve) books I’d like to post about, so I better get reading. And I must read during the day. I find that at night—and I know I’ve mentioned this before—I am so tired of looking at words (I spend far too much time at the computer each day) that I simply cannot pick up a book, even if it’s a book I’m really enjoying. It makes my eyes hurt (and sometimes my head and sometimes my neck).

In my lethargy this afternoon, I opened The Best American Essays 2009, which I have been ignoring on my shelf for months, and I turned to Patricia Hampl’s essay, “The Dark Art of Description.” I love her essays on writing and memoir, so I thought this might be just the thing to jump-start my tired brain.

In it, she describes doing a Q & A with a group of Freshman Comp students. There was one student who seemed particularly disinterested in what Hampl had to say, but at the end of the Q & A, he sat up in his seat and he said that he understood. He said, “Nothin’s ever happened to you — and you write books about it.”

In the essay, Hampl, says this:

He was right, of course. And in pronouncing this acute literary critical remark, he touched on the most peculiar aspect of the rise of the memoir in our times — namely, that fundamentally it isn’t about having a more interesting life than someone else. True, there is a strand of autobiographical writing that relies on the documentation of extraordinary circumstances, lives lived in extremity, often at great peril. But such memoirs have always been part of literary history. What characterizes the rise of memoir in recent times is precisely the opposite condition — not a gripping “narrative arc,” but the quality of voice, the story of perception rather than action.

She goes on to talk about style and the importance of description and then ends the essay with another story of an encounter with a student. This student was worried that he didn’t have anything important to write about because he came from Fridley, a northern suburb of the Twin Cities. Hampl assured the young man that being from Fridely was actually good news. She told him, “The field’s wide open. Nobody has told what it’s like to grow up in Fridley yet. It’s all yours.” Then she ends the essay with this:

All he needed to do was sit down and describe. And because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, you find the world you have lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued. The world you alone can bring into being, bit by broken bit. And so you create your own integrity, which is to say your voice, your style.

Caressing detail into life. I love that. And I also love the idea that each of us has a world that we, alone, can bring into life.

I guess it's time for me to get off the couch.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

teaching, writing and lee

The other night I went to see Chang-rae Lee read and talk about his new novel, The Surrendered. I haven’t read much of his fiction, but I absolutely love his essay “Coming Home Again,” which he was gracious enough to let me use in my Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class at the Loft.

I like to use this essay when I talk about character development because it’s such a lovely portrayal of his mother, a first-generation Korean immigrant, and of Lee’s relationship with her. The essay describes the last months of Lee’s mother’s life and her quarrel with herself over sending Lee away to Exeter for high school. This is one of my favorite scenes:

I remember washing rice in the kitchen one day and my mother’s saying in English, from her usual seat, “I made a big mistake.”

“About Exeter?”

“Yes, I made a big mistake. You should be with us for that time. I should never let you go there.”

“So why did you?” I said.

“Because I didn’t know I was going to die.”

I let her words pass. For the first time in her life, she was letting herself speak her full mind, so what else could I do?

“But you know what?” she spoke up. “It was better for you. I you stayed home, you would not like me so much now.”

I suggested that maybe I would like her even more.

She shook her head. “Impossible.”

On Tuesday night, Lee read the beginning of The Surrendered, which is stunning, and then spent over a half hour answering questions. I asked him, as I am wont to do, how he balanced teaching—he teaches at Princeton—and writing and family. (He has two young daughters.)

He admitted that it was challenging, especially when his daughters were very small. But he said that because his teaching predated his publishing, he’d always been a writer who taught. But he also said that it’s difficult to teach when he’s writing and write when he’s teaching. He needs to compartmentalize these two things because writing involves turning inward and teaching involves turning outward, being empathetic and supportive. (I’m paraphrasing badly here…)

I guess I agree with this, though I don’t know when I’ll have more than a month at a time when I’m not teaching, when I can really immerse myself in my own prose. Maybe I'll never have that kind of time.

And maybe that’s okay. What I like about teaching and writing simultaneously—juggling the two—is that the elements of craft I’m discussing with my students are then at the forefront of my mind when I’m writing. As I sit down for my twenty minutes here or an hour there, thoughts about craft are swirling in my busy brain. I like to think it makes me a better writer.

And there is no doubt that teaching energizes me. Oh, the prep and getting myself in my teaching frame of mind can be exhausting, but it also feeds me. When my students have break-throughs or get a piece published, I take great pride in their work and the part I’ve played in it.

And that brings me to Brain, Child. One of my lovely and talented students has a wonderful essay in the latest issue. If you don’t already subscribe to Brain, Child, you should. And when you do, check out Andrea's “Raising Private Milo,” which she started in my online Mother Words class last year. Congratulations, Andrea! You can also read Andrea’s writing online—she writes the wonderful blog Remains of the Day.

Now, I'm off to write for twenty minutes before I start my teaching prep.

Monday, March 22, 2010

broadening the motherhood discussion

I have a review of Who's Your Mama? and Unbuttoned, two interesting and important anthologies, over at Literary Mama this week. Please check it out.

Happy Spring!

Friday, March 19, 2010

firefly memoir writing retreat

I'm happy to announce that I'm leading another writing retreat this summer. This will be a memoir writing retreat with Firefly Retreats, which will be held at Xanadu Island Bed and Breakfast in Battle Lake, Minnesota.

What: Memoir as Discovery

Description: Writing is an act of discovery. Dive into your writing and find out what you know. The retreat is a place to write, share writing, discuss elements of craft, and connect with other writers. In addition to group learning, students meet with me individually to delve more deeply into their writing and learn to take risks on the page.

When: June 14 - 17, 2010

Where: Xanadu Bed and Breakfast, Battle Lake, MN

The retreat begins 1:00 pm on Monday, June 14 and ends at noon Thursday, June 17. Most of the time we’ll spend writing, but we’ll take time for local color too. We’ll do our writing at Glendalough in a lodge that overlooks Annie Battle, a primitive lake restricted to non-motorized recreation.

Xanadu, where we’ll stay, is located on small peninsula jutting out into a lake. When we’re not writing, there’ll be time for recreation – paddle boat, fishing boat, water “toys”, bonfires – or just relaxing.

We'll eat dinner one night at Stella’s (wonderful name!), a favorite restaurant and wine bar in Battle Lake, and dine another night at a private home overlooking West Battle Lake.

Cost: $600

The cost of a retreat includes writing instruction, transportation to and from various venues, and meals. Accommodations are NOT included.

Participation is limited to 8 people. To book the retreat or for more information, call Firefly Retreats at 218.862.5510 or email firefly[at]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

the power of words

Thank you for your kind comments on yesterday’s post. I’ll keep plugging along, I promise.

And because I’m going to keep plugging along, I have a few things to say about how women’s writing is described.

So often in our society, writing by a group of people is lumped together and dismissed. This has certainly been the case with motherhood literature. In 1976, Adrienne Rich began Of Woman Born with this: “We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” Three decades later, we have made some headway: a few literary journals featuring motherhood writing have emerged, motherhood scholarship has found a place in some academic settings, and a number of books about motherhood have been published. Yet, motherhood literature and motherhood memoir, offensively christened “momoir,” is routinely dismissed.

The names people use to describe literature or movies—or anything—have an impact on how those things are perceived. And when you categorize books as “chick lit,” “mommy lit,” or “momoir” you are making it easier for people to discard these books. They are viewed as less serious, less important. (I wrote a long post about “mommy lit” here.)

I like what Kate Trueblood, author of A Baby Lottery, says about “chick lit”:

“What concerns me is not that this genre exists, but that there is an increasing tendency to pull all women’s literature into that category. If all women writers are all classified that way, what happens to the female writers of social protest and other difficult social questions?

I believe that the blanket classifying of all women’s writing as chick lit goes back to the age-old notion that women only write about small, domestic matters. Lumping female literature together like this prevents the serious questions from getting asked about what it’s like to try and combine life with a partner and a career and children. This is something that obviously a lot of young women are thinking about. I am not opposed to chick lit, but I think it is important to be mindful of distinctions that matter.”

You can read the whole interview with Kate Trueblood on her website.

All you have to do it tack “mommy” or “chick” onto something and it loses value. So imagine my dismay when I read the recent New York Times article “Honey, Don’t Bother Mommy. I’m Too Busy Building My Brand.” As if women blogging about motherhood need any more flack.

Susan over at Two Kinds of People has a wonderful response to this article. Here is an excerpt. Please head over to her blog for the whole post.

"I guess it's the language that gets to me, because I'm picky about words. Words are powerful — they carry weight and meaning and subtext that is both subtle and profound. "Mommy Blogger", like "Soccer Mom" before it, carries a wide range of connotations, as illustrated a full year ago by the social media guide Mashable, which posted a list of 10 Misconceptions About Mommy Bloggers.

Most style guidelines advise using gender-neutral language whenever possible: server vs. waitress or waiter; manager or executive, not businessman; actor, not actress. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "actor" was originally used for both sexes (1581); we didn't see "actress" introduced until 1666, 85 years later."

Words are powerful. I wish people would use them more carefully.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

nine lives

The sun is finally shining here and yesterday was gorgeous, mid-sixties—almost unheard of weather for this time of year in Minnesota. It’s amazing what this does to the way I see the world. Hopefulness bubbles to the surface, escapes through my pours. I start imagining long walks and bike rides and loping, solitary runs during which my mind is free to wander, to come up with ideas for essays I won’t have time to write.

I took the girls to my dad’s this morning for a visit, and I noticed that the first of his crocuses have poked through the dark earth, purple buds ready to burst open at the sun’s coaxing. Soon his whole yard will be covered with dark purple Siberian Squill, and he will ask me to come over to take a picture, as he does every year.

Now I’m sitting in my little office. Zoë is sleeping and has recovered from her fever of a few days ago. (Though, unfortunately, she’s also fully embraced the Terrible Twos.) Stella’s bus will rumble past the house in less than ten minutes, and then she’ll come bursting through the door, her eyes wide. She will say, as she so often says, “Mama, I have to tell you something…” And I will listen to the report of her few hours at kindergarten, nodding my head and saying “Oh really?” over and over to keep her talking.

When Zoë wakes, I’ll strap her into the Burley, which she pronounces “Booooley,” and the three of us will head out on bikes to visit my grandpa, who, miraculously, is much improved. Many of you posted kind and hopeful comments about him a couple of months ago. I so appreciated these, but frankly, I didn’t think my grandpa would live to see spring. But now he has gained some weight back and his skin as lost its sallowness. He’s ready to step outdoors. How is it possible that 101 he still is not ready to give up on life?

After my piece came out in Brevity a couple of months ago, I took my laptop down to his apartment in the basement of my mom’s house so he could read it. (He doesn’t really understand what I do, doesn’t ever seem to believe me when I tell him how busy I am, so I wanted to prove something to him with that piece.) He read it slowly, nodding his head. And then when I closed the computer, he said, “You know, I should have died about nine times.”

And as if he were composing his own piece for Brevity, he proceeded to list the times he should have kicked it. But he only got to eight. “Hmmupft,” he said then, shaking his head. “Maybe there are only eight.”

His swelling is down, his breathing normal—he’s on his ninth life now. At 101, he’s not ready to go.

I’m still struggling with what it means to be a writer (or maybe I'm struggling with what it means to be a struggling writer). I swing between feeling hopeful—on the cusp of something big—to despondent, all in the same day, sometimes multiple times a day. Still, I’m not ready to give up. I can’t imagine doing that, just as my grandpa can’t imagine giving up on life.

So instead, I'll keep doing what I'm doing and wait and hope. And in a few weeks, I'll go to my dad's house, stand at the edge of his lawn, and take comfort in the reliability of his Siberian Squill.

Friday, March 12, 2010

i swear i can fly!

I'm sorry I've been quiet this week. Zoë has been home sick the last two days with a fever, which means very little work time for me. And of course she's sleeping next to me because I'm deadly afraid she'll have another seizure.

You probably wish you could hang out with me in person right now, don't you? I'm super cheerful and well-rested and ready for the world. Well, maybe not.

But I am excited about this performance I'm going to see tomorrow with my friend, Diane:

I Swear I Can Fly! is a collection of tall tales about flight, birth, parenthood, and strange encounters of everyday life in the first year of becoming a parent. Written and performed by Francine Conley-Scott.

Friday March 12, 7:30 pm
Saturday, March 13, 2pm
Saturday, March 13, 7:30pm

WHERE: Dreamland Arts, 677 Hamline Avenue, St Paul, MN - (651) 645-5506

Monday, March 8, 2010

writing parenthood - one-day workshop

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes for Zoë. I think she had a wonderful birthday (and she’s very excited about the new wagon from her grandparents!)

I wanted to let you know about my upcoming Writing Parenthood class at The Loft -- it's a super-condensed version of Mother Words (and dads are welcome, too!)

Here are the details:

Writing Parenthood - One-day Workshop

Saturday, March 20 - 9:30 am - 1:30 pm

The Loft Literary Center, Open Book, Minneapolis

Parenthood offers endless fodder for writing. In this one-day class you’ll learn how to capture your funny and heartbreaking parenting anecdotes on paper and bring them to life with sensory details and strong characters. In addition to in-class writing, we will spend time discussing how and where to pitch your parenthood stories and how to fit writing into your busy life. You will leave the workshop with a start on two essays and a page of exercises to try at home.

To register, please visit The Loft. Please contact me with questions.

Friday, March 5, 2010


It’s my little Zoë’s birthday today. How can she already be two years old?

I remember the day she was born, the thick wet snowflakes falling outside as I tried not to think about being sliced open. I remember the terrible cold I had that day (as I do now). I remember that Donny took Stella out for breakfast so I could try to sleep a little more. I remember that I didn’t sleep. I remember the moment the doctor pulled her from me and held her up for me to touch. I remember, later, in the recovering room, when Donny placed her in my arms and she latched on immediately, gazing up at me.

This morning, she woke at four a.m. after Stella barreled out of their room riding the tails of a nightmare. Both girls were then in our bed, but that doesn’t work for Zoë. She was up and down, saying, “Downtairs. Downtairs now.”

At 5:15, I kicked D in the shin and he took both girls downstairs for breakfast. “Don’t open the present without me, though,” I called after them.

Yesterday, Stella and I had gone to pick out a doll for Zoë. Stella has the Target version of an American Girl Doll, one she calls Charmy Running Girl. (I don’t remember what her box name was.) And because Charmy is Stella’s doll, Zoë can’t get enough of her. “Runny Gool. Where Runny Gool?”

It was Stella’s idea to get Zoë a doll of her own. She thought this would keep Zoë from pulling Charmy’s hair and dropping her on her head. She thought if Zoë had a doll of her own, she’d back off poor Charmy.

When I got up at 6:30, we all sat on the floor as Zoë opened her present. She was ecstatic. “My Charmy Runny Gool! My Charmy Runny Gool!”

Stella pursed her lips, holding dear Charmy in her arms. “Zoë, you can’t name her that. They’re cousins so she needs a different name.”

Zoë eventually settled on Sofia. (Named after my friend’s baby.) But Sofia turned into Charmy Sofia and then Sofia Running Girl. And after twelve minutes, Sofia lay abandoned on the floor, and Zoë was weeping to hold Charmy, the real Charmy, as I was trying to finish packing lunches and get both girls—the live ones—ready for school. Ah well.

This afternoon, Stella and I will take cupcakes to share with Zoë’s toddler friends. And tomorrow we’ll have a party with our families.

Today, I am thankful for my Zoë, thankful for the way she says, “’Kay, Mama? ‘Kay?” I’m thankful for her devilish laugh, for the way she lines the baby dolls up on the couch, covering each one with a tiny blanket. I'm thankful for the way she says, "Tay too yo welcome" when I pass her a bowl of orange slices. I’m thankful for her red hair, which is a mat of dreadlocks at the back of her head because she will not let me brush it. (And I just let it be. I let her go to school like this.)

I’m even thankful for her gremlin ways—the way her teeth grit in a crazed smile when she’s about to pinch me or when her “gentle touches” become a lot less gentle or when she has grabbed my favorite mug from the dishwasher and run into the other room, poised to smash it to pieces. Okay, it was a little hard to love her the moment the mug exploded into a gazillon ceramic shards on the floor. But then I was over it.

And I do love every bit of you, Zoë! Happy day!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

a few photos

Here are a few photos from the Mother Words Retreat.

The view.

The Great Room.

The sunny meeting room on the very top floor.

The evening ritual.

Reading some of our favorite poems and essays by the bonfire. (Yes, there were s'mores.)

What's not to love?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

retreat recap

I wrote about arriving at Faith’s Lodge on Friday, about the feeling of that place, the incredible energy there. This energy only intensified, crystallized, as the weekend progressed.

The weather was perfect—in the 40s, bright sun, blue sky. (Don’t be afraid of Wisconsin in February!) As we sat in the top floor meeting room, sun streamed in the windows, melting snow dripped from the roof.

Of course, it wasn’t just the weather that filled us up. I have never been in a room full of women with such powerful stories; women who were willing to share these stories, grapple with them, write to the heart of them.

We talked about craft, about writing and publishing. We wrote. We listened to each other read what we’d written. We cried—a lot. We laughed—a lot. We drank a lot of wine. And by Sunday afternoon, everyone had made major breakthroughs with their writing: rethinking structure, making discoveries, focusing in on scene, reframing.

It’s amazing to be part of a writing breakthrough. There is something incredibly powerful in asking the questions, making the suggestions that help someone crack open a piece of writing and take it to the next level.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something that Kate St. Vincent Vogl mentioned in her interview a couple of weeks ago. She alluded to something I’ve heard writers—and especially writers of creative nonfiction—say before: that writing isn’t therapeutic. So many writers balk at this idea.

I think the reason they balk is because they want their work viewed as art and they think if it’s tied in any way to “therapy,” this will somehow undercut the work they’ve put into crafting their story.

I’ve talked about this with both my classes in the last weeks and I talked about it on the retreat. And this is what I think: if you are really diving in and fearlessly searching for your story in the material of your life, it’s impossible for you not to make discoveries, to gain perspective on the life you’ve lived.

I love what Philip Gerard says: “[A memoir is] not simply a scrapbook of memories to brood over or cherish, but a reckoning. That’s the reason to write a memoir: to find out what really happened in your life; to drive toward the fact behind all the other facts, and come to some understanding, however limited, of what it means—and accept that truth.”

But if you are really doing this work of “reckoning,” you will change, you will be able to make sense of the life you’ve lived in a new way. What’s not therapeutic about that?

Now, that the thing that differentiates writing for yourself—journaling—and successful memoir and essay lies in craft. Is it crafted? Has the writer been able to craft the raw material of his/her life?

But you can experience a transformation in the writing process and still end up with art.

It’s my job to help my students craft their stories into art, to find the best way to tell the stories they need to tell. And I hope—I really do hope—that in this process they make discoveries, process the material of their lives, let go of what they need to let go of.

This is the kind of thing that was happening all weekend—this kind of tremendous and important work. Maybe it was therapeutic. It was definitely the work of artists.

Now I’m home, and I’m filled with gratitude for these fine women with whom I spent the weekend, filled with gratitude for D and my girls. (Stella made me eight presents while I was gone—paper flowers and bags decorated with glitter, drawings of our family. And when I pulled the car up in front of our house on Sunday, she and Zoë were waiting on the porch, waving, smiling.)

And now I’m ready to write. I’m ready to walk bravely into words, just as I witnessed these fine writers do all weekend long.

(I’ll post photos in the next few days.)