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Saturday, October 29, 2011

a new name, a new look

For almost five years, I have been blogging here under the name “Mother Words.” I have also taught classes, led retreats, coordinated an annual reading, and mentored other women writers under that name.

It’s time for a change.

It’s been a hellish year in which I lost ten pounds and gained ten pounds (inevitable, I guess). But it’s also been a year of clarification and, dare I say, empowerment.

I began teaching my class for mothers in June 2006 because I wanted to create a place when writing by women about motherhood would be taken seriously as art, where it would be critiqued and nurtured. I began blogging about writing and motherhood to extend the reach of my classes, to broaden the discussion around motherhood literature, and promote some of the wonderful motherhood literature that is currently being written and published.

Along the way, I discovered writing that changed me, that made me not only a better mother, but a better person. It takes courage to write the truth of our daily lives, and I’m grateful to all the mothers who are crafting their lives into art, who are making the path easier or perhaps less lonely for another mother down the line. 

When we encounter a challenge, we are forced to take stock and evaluate the importance of our work. And here it is: I believe in my work. I am committed to helping mothers find a way to the page, deepen their sense of craft, and touch the lives of others with their words. I am committed to promoting motherhood literature and advocating for writers whose work is continually marginalized and discarded. I am committed to helping develop a sense of community—virtual and in-person—where we can write the stories we need to write.

I am excited to announce my new brand: Motherhood & Words™.

I hope that this new name encompasses my renewed passion and my broader focus. Historically, I have spent most of my time promoting memoirs and essays that use motherhood as a lens through which to understand the world. I want to expand the discussion and encompass more poets and fiction writers whose subject may not be motherhood, but whose writing is, perhaps, informed by motherhood. And always I am fascinated by the joys and challenges of getting words on the page in the midst of motherhood.

Please join me at I’m grateful for your readership, your friendship, and your support. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

hitting a wall

I’ve hit a wall. The early mornings, the rushing, the gazillion things on my to do list that I never have time to get to are taking their toll. I said to Donny this morning, “Can’t we just move to Barcelona?” This has actually become a joke between us—I’ve asked it a hundred times over the last year when stress threatens to get the better of me.

I know that moving to Barcelona wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it would provide a distraction from them, no?

And really, I don’t want to move—not yet anyway. There is a lot going on, yes. But so much of it is really wonderful. The reading last week was fabulous. I’m so grateful to Jill Christman and Sonya Huber for flying into town for the event. And I’m grateful to all of you who made it down to Open Book. Sonya read a hilarious piece titled “Breast is Best” and Jill read her equally hilarious “Weaning Ella.” I was sandwiched in between with a more serious section from my memoir. (If you missed the reading you can listen online. It will be the 100th podcast on Mom Enough. I’ll post a link when it’s live in a couple of weeks.)

Another good thing: Teaching. I love Tuesday mornings, when I don’t have to rush straight to the office. Instead, I have an hour to sit and write before spending two delightful hours with a truly inspiring group of mother writers. What could be better?

But over the last month and a half as I tried to juggle full-time work with family and my writing career, I realized that it’s not motherhood and writing that are difficult to manage (as it sometimes seemed in the past); it is full-time work and writing that are at odds. Even if I get up at 5 am, as I’ve been doing most weekdays, I have so much other work do to during that hour that I never get to my own writing.

Wait. I’ve just looked at what I’ve written, and I’m shaking my head. WTH? “Stop complaining, Ms. Hopper. You’re lucky to have a job. Pull yourself together.”

Alright. Okay. I’m done. I promise. I’ll recalibrate and be back soon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


I love my class at the Loft, which started last week. What an amazing group of women! I love teaching online, but there is nothing like being in a physical space with a group of mother writers. I leave class elated and inspired. Thank you, ladies!

Also, I wanted to let you know that the Parenting Express 2012 short story (memoir) contest guidelines are posted. Submissions open November 30, and there are a ton of prizes for the winner and runners-up. Parenting Express is an online monthly journal based out of Australia. Submit. Submit. Submit.

I'm still getting up by 5 am, but so far these mornings have been full of class prep and grant writing. Still, I'm working on it.

Lastly, don't forget about the 5th Annual Mother Words reading at Open Book next week:

Thursday, October 13 - 7 p.m.

A reading and reception with the wonderful and talented Jill Christman and Sonya Huber! Join us!

Monday, September 26, 2011

new schedule

Well, I made it through the first week of full-time work last week, but by Friday afternoon, I was exhausted (and had officially developed a head cold). I really like the work (and my coworkers are lovely), but I did feel that pull back to my desk (when will I get any writing done?) and to the River Road (when will I walk?) and to my girls, my girls, my girls. The last has been the hardest. At 2:15 each day, I stare at my clock, knowing that Stella is walking back to my mom's house from the bus stop, chattering away about her day. That is one of my favorite parts of my day--Stella in reporting mode, talking a mile a minute about everything that happened at school. I miss it!

I think Stella misses that time, as well. On Wednesday last week, she screamed, "I hate your new job! You wear make-up now and you don't even look like my mom!" I nearly burst into tears. Later I asked her what I usually look like, and she said, "You wear sweatpants." Oh yes. Did I mention that I miss my sweatpants, as well? 

I know (hope) it will get easier, even as I add my fall class to the mix this week. But I'm determined to get up at 5 a.m. to build a little writing and exercise time into the week. What do you think? Possible?

Friday, September 16, 2011

my memoir dress

Well, I started my full-time job yesterday—thank you for all your good wishes—and I think I’ll really like the job. My co-workers are lovely and interesting, and the work is important. But wow, I haven’t had a 40-hour week desk job for over ten years, and it’s an adjustment. By 3:30 I was missing my girls, wondering how their days had gone, desperate to fold them in my arms. By 9:30 I had to put down the final Hunger Games novel (just 20 pages from the end of the book) because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. But I’ll get used to it, no?

Today the office is closed, so I’m working from home (or rather the coffee shop), and I thought I’d take a break to post some wonderful poems by my friend and fellow writer, Marge Barrett. Marge has a new chapbook called My Memoir Dress, which is just out from Finishing Line Press. Marge is such a talented writer of both prose and poetry, and these poems in particular speak to me as a mother. Marge is able to capture the beauty in the moments in life that many of us overlook. Her poetry is full of lyricism and grace—it’s the kind of poetry that makes me want to stop and savor each word. Marge has given me permission to post two of her poems here, so without further ado:

Wild Flowers

Bloodroot blossoms when my daughter is born.
Along the rushing river banks, shoots push
through hard winter earth. Pulled by spring sun,
the blue-green lobed leaves open wide, breathe.

In a steamy old hospital room, the midwife listens,
counts loudly, heartbeat’s dropping, dropping.
I push, push, push my beautiful bloody baby out.
Hush. Dim the lights. Her eyes, huge blue, study us.

Bloodroot blossoms when my second daughter is born.
Basal leaves again uncurl in the woods
under the web of stick-branched trees.

In the birthing room of a new hospital,
the doctor counters, no stirrups, deep vein thrombosis;
don’t want her throwing a clot to the heart.
This baby comes fast, looks out, alert.

Bloodroot blossoms when my girls are born.
Pure white stars, golden orange centers.

© 2011 Marge Barrett, reprinted with permission of the poet


Leaving London’s Gatwick airport,
I tell them to spend the last change,
buy something sweet, maybe artsy,
why not touristy.

My son disappears,
with a calling card
designed by a machine:
his name, our address, and

He’s fascinated by tricks,
sleight of hand, coins, cards.
He saves money for supplies
at the magic and costume store.

This, after building go-carts,
balsa boats and airplanes,
yoyos (rocking the baby, around the world),
chemistry sets, rockets,
rags on the piano, drums and guitar,
the computer.

My freckled-faced, red-haired son
wands the card over my head,
draws it out of his sleeve,
once again taking me away.

© 2011 Marge Barrett, reprinted with permission of the poet

Thank you, Marge, for letting me share your wonderful words here. People, check out Marge’s writing. And have a wonderful weekend. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A recap of that thing called life (and some birthday wishes for my daughter)

I obviously haven’t posted in a while, and I apologize, but I’ve barely been keeping my head above water. I’ve been involved in a job search, a final edit of Use Your Words before it moves to copyediting, prepping for and participating in the 2nd Annual Minnesota Blogger Conference (which was this past Saturday and which was fabulous—even better than last year. I was blown away by the wonderful writing by the people in my session. Go, writers!) Saturday night, we were out in Blaine at the National Sports Center watching D play in the MN History Soccer Game. (He’s still got it, by the way—scored his team’s only goal. From the stands it seemed as though his whole body was smiling.) And then Sunday, we held Stella’s 8-year-old kid party (with a gaggle of 7- and 8-year-old girls running around our house and yard), then spent Sunday evening at the benefit concert for our friend John Sylvester (our friend who is fighting the diagnosis of ALS).

Monday morning I woke up desperate for a day to regroup. Instead, everything is full speed ahead. I accepted a temporary full-time position (starting this Thursday!) in a social service agency that serves the Latino community in the Twin Cities. It’s a wonderful organization, and I’m excited to gain new skills and polish my very rusty Spanish. (I sputtered and turned bright red in the interview when we switched to Spanish. I looked like a complete idiot. That they still offered me the position is incredible.)

So I’m excited about the job, but it will change the whole feel of our lives. No more Zoë days. No more games of Sorry with Stella in the afternoons. No more mornings at the coffee shop writing. No more multi-step dinners during the week. (Hello, crock pot.) But still, it’s a good move for me and my family. (Someday I’ll be able to break down the things that led to this…) For now, I just have to trust that I will figure out a way to fit in my writing and some exercise.

This is all a long excuse for why I haven’t posted in almost two weeks. What do you think?

And now it’s Tuesday September 13th, and my Stella is eight years old today. Usually on her birthday, I revisit that day, eight years ago, when I was vomiting and burning up from the magnesium sulfate, when I was just hoping that she would come out of me and be able to breathe on her own. Last night I wondered whether this year would bring the same flood of memories, and I doubted that it would. Stella is so grown up—so healthy and tall—so far removed from that three-pound preemie she was when she was born. But this morning, like clockwork, I thought, oh, this is when I began vomiting, this is when D arrived from his red-flight from Seattle, this is when, this is when. And I am tugged back in time by the current of details, seared into my memories of the day I became a mother.

I know there are women in similar situations right now—in their hospital beds, praying that their babies will stay inside them a few days (or hours) longer. I’m thinking of those women and families today as I celebrate all that my daughter has become: strong and determined, empathetic and caring, athletic and so very graceful. I love you, Stella. Happy Birthday! I’m wishing you a year filled with laughter and play, adventure, new interests and friendships. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

reading woolf

It’s been a melancholic week, even with the serious basement cleaning that D and I accomplished last weekend. (I’m still on my mission to de-clutter.) Stella started back to school on Monday, and she is thrilled to be a second-grader. Thrilled. She comes home full of stories about her day and her new classmates, and I love this. But I can’t help that tug of emotion: She’s growing up too fast! There is nothing we can do to slow the onward march of time! I have also been missing my grandpa a lot this week. At the beginning of each school year, we would figure out which day would be my grandpa day, the day I would take him for errands, get groceries for him, or later, just visit him and make him lunch. This year, Wednesday is the day I have alone with Zoë, and it would have been my new grandpa day, and all day I felt heavy and disoriented knowing that those days are no longer a part of my life.

It doesn’t help, perhaps, that I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. As I make my way through the collection of essays, I keep thinking of my need to make connections, to share experience. But it seems so futile sometimes. Or maybe it’s just that it’s so much work—it takes so much effort—to continue to move forward, stay open to new experiences in the face of the challenges that life provides. Does it sound like a need some kind of renewal? I do.

My goal for the weekend is to sneak away a few times and sit outside, reading Woolf. Her prose. Oh her prose. I love this:

The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it.

What’s not to love about that?

I’m wishing you all a lovely, relaxing long holiday weekend. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

clutter and clarity

I’m awake early these days, my to-do list making it impossible for me to sleep past a certain (still-dark) hour. So I get up, make some tea, and sit down at my desk, which is once again cluttered beyond recognition.

Here I sit, thinking about the weekend (a couple of birthday parties, housework, back-to-school shopping) and the fact that Stella starts school on Monday, which seems impossible. A second-grader? Already? Little Z will also be back to her school-year schedule at her pre-school beginning on Monday. And though I will miss my girls and the slower pace of our summer mornings, I am looking forward to getting back into a routine. I lost my groove this summer. I haven’t been to the coffee shop for ages; I haven’t been writing.

I think I need to purge—spend a day cleaning and organizing my desk (again), going through the girls’ clothes, packing up Stella’s too-small items and storing them, giving away the items that Z has outgrown or refuses to wear (basically all pants that aren’t “jammy” pants). I also need to do something with all my books. They are stacked in my office, stacked on top of the already-full bookshelves throughout the house, ready to topple. I need to get rid of some of them.

And I hope that when all of this purging is complete, I will be able to breathe easier, think more clearly. I know the house and my desk will become cluttered again before long, but perhaps I can develop some systems to help? Anyone have any ideas how to do that with two small children in the house? 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

when there is hope, hope

(A heartbreaking, but take-action post.)

A month ago, D and I found out that our good friend, John “Sly” Sylvester might have ALS (Lou Gerhig’s Disease).

Earlier this summer, John and his wife, Tessie, spent two weeks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester because over the last year John had lost mobility in his hand and arm. At Mayo, John underwent a slew of tests, and the doctors came to the conclusion that John most likely has ALS. There is no definitive test for ALS—the diagnosis is made through a process of elimination.

There is a slim chance, however, that this diagnosis is incorrect. Instead it might be an auto-immune disease that mimics ALS. But the only way to identify and halt the progression of this auto-immune disease is for John to undergo a series of infusions of Intra Venous Immunoglobulin Antibodies (IVIG) over the next 3 months.  If the therapy is successful, it will mean a full recovery for John.  If the injections prove futile, the ALS diagnosis will be confirmed.  But if John doesn’t receive the treatment, the auto-immune disease will remain undetected and lead to the same conclusion as ALS. 

The average patient with ALS is given 2-5 years to live.

John is only 38 years old. Tessie is 30. Their son, Gus, the cutest little guy with the most beautiful eyelashes I’ve ever seen, just turned one. They deserve a chance to be a family.

John has dedicated his adult life to helping others. He and D played soccer together for the Minnesota Thunder in the late nineties, and since then he has worked in the Minneapolis Public Schools, Harvest African-centered Prep School in North Minneapolis, and as the girl’s coaching director for the Minneapolis United Soccer Club. 

John met his wife Tessie in 2001 when they were both coaching summer youth soccer. They were brought together by their love of soccer, their dedicated connection to their families, their strong faith and their belief in giving back to the community.

John and Tessie both come from humble backgrounds. John wouldn’t have been able to make it to the level of a professional soccer player if it hadn’t been for the many coaches that waived fees in order to make it possible for him to play the game he loved. This is why John wanted to work for Minneapolis United and be able to help other young people, regardless of socioeconomic status, realize their dreams.

As a young woman, Tessie worked hard to obtain an academic scholarship to St. Thomas University and later completed dental school so that she could provide a much-needed service in low-income communities. She is currently a part-time dentist in a free dental clinic in St. Paul that serves homeless and marginalized people.

They are both self-insured, and their insurance *will not* cover the IVIG treatment, John’s only chance at surviving. The treatment costs $75,000.

John and Tessie need our prayers. They need our support. And they desperately need our financial help.

Please donate what you can to the John Sylvester Medical fund. (Donations are tax-deductible.) If you are in the Twin Cities, join us at Brit’s Pub in Minneapolis on Sunday September 11 4 – 8 p.m. for the Rally for Sly silent auction and benefit concert featuring Tim Mahoney, Kari Noble, Dave Hudson, and Hip Replacement.

John and Tessie have spent their lives helping others. Now they need our help. Donate. Please. And give John a chance to see his son grow up.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

a blur

How can it almost be the middle of August already? Summers always go too fast, but this summer has been a blur.

I drove up to St. Cloud yesterday to present to the Forum of Executive Women about writing, publishing and motherhood, and it was such a wonderful event. What an interesting and organized group of women. And I was relieved that I didn’t need to fly from the podium to find a restroom in the middle of my talk. (TMI: I’ve been struggling to get over the stomach flu, which laid me—and poor Stella—out while we were up north at my mom’s cabin over the weekend and hit D Tuesday night. It ran through Stella’s system very quickly, but it’s still hanging on to me, unsettling me.)

Aside from the flu, I’ve been busy with the girls and presentation prep and some freelance work and some tweaking of Use Your Words. But I haven’t done much new writing this summer, which always makes me feel a little disoriented. I’m hoping that as soon as school starts again, I can carve out a better schedule for my creative work.

I’m also looking forward to my upcoming fall Mother Words class at the Loft, which will meet Tuesday mornings, 10 – noon, for ten weeks, starting September 27. And then of course the 5th Annual Mother Words reading at the Loft on Thursday, October 13th, featuring authors Jill Christman and Sonya Huber. Mark your calendars! It’s going to be a wonderful event.

So there is much to look forward to this fall, as there always is. But I wish I could somehow slow down these last weeks of summer. Or is it that I need to somehow slow myself down?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

a double life: discovering motherhood

I’m so pleased to have another author interview to post this week. Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Lisa Catherine Harper, whose debut memoir, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood, won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.

This is a lovely, meditative memoir that takes the reader through Harper’s first pregnancy and early motherhood. The book blends narrative and research, and, for me, is a wonderful reflection on the complexities of life and celebration of fully living in the moment. I won’t say too much more about the book here, because I’ve written a full review of it for Literary Mama.

So without further ado, please welcome Lisa to Mother Words!

KH: I’m wondering if you can talk a little about the process of writing this book. Did you know when you began writing that you were working on a memoir?

LCH:  I did. I began writing nearly as soon as I became pregnant. I have a PhD, and one of the things I do as a matter of course is research. I realized almost immediately that my body was changing in ways I hadn’t anticipated and which no one had told me about. I researched extensively in OB/GYN textbooks and medical journals and soon began to understand that the biological changes of pregnancy were just the beginning of the enormous emotional and psychological changes of motherhood.  I wrote the book because I wanted to translate the experience of a very ordinary pregnancy for a general reader.  I believed that becoming a mother was an interesting category of experience—not an isolated experience for women only, but an experience tied to life at all corners.

KH:  One of the things I love about A Double Life is your essayistic style. You ponder concepts like movement, dance, pain (to name a few), and circle around and around each of these, really trying to search out meaning and figure out what you really think and believe. I’d love if you could talk a little about the construction of the book, and whether this essayistic circling was a conscious choice or if it’s just how the narrative emerged in the writing process.

LCH:  The style was a conscious choice. I love the essay form.  On the one hand, I wanted to write a book in the very American tradition of long form journalism, which can take the form of (personal) narrative supported by research.   I intended from the start to support my story with research and the kind of rigorous reflection I was trained in by my doctoral studies. On the other hand, I wanted to write a story that was more than my own.  I aspired to write a story that investigated the universal changes of maternity. The essay form was perfect for both of these ambitions.

KH:  Another thing that I really love about the book is how you so deftly wove research into the narrative. Can you talk a little about the research you did in writing this book? Is there anything that surprised you as you began your research?

LCH:  I read everything I could get my hands on:  every book in the bookstore, all the material from my own doctor, pregnancy websites, etc.  But it wasn’t enough, so I turned to medical textbooks, OB/GYN textbooks, and medical journals. I did a lot of research in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association).  I read extensively about all aspects of the evolving pregnancy. Some days the research itself was so interesting I had to make myself stop to get to the writing. I read a lot more than I had to (which is so often the case with research!). Only a small fraction of my research made it into the book. I had to translate all this sophisticated material for a general reader (and check and double check my facts). I also spoke extensively with my own doctors at UCSF and with a good friend who was a labor & delivery nurse.

Everything surprised me—but most especially the totality of the changes that occur in pregnancy.  The fact that your lung capacity changes, that you have more blood in your body, that your brain is washed by hormones that can cause you to have an orgasm in your sleep –those things seemed to me astonishing and deeply weird.  They still do. It’s not just your reproductive system that changes. Your entire body is transformed. This, of course, is a metaphor.

I was constantly surprised by the metaphors I found in the research. This was one of the most rewarding aspects of writing. In researching, then writing the morning sickness chapter, for instance, I understood for the first time that pregnancy overtakes your whole body in much the same way just as the nausea can: completely and without warning. Working on the sciatica chapter I found the biological explanation for how we experience pain to be the perfect explanation for some of our most cherished notions of identity (I think, therefore I am). These things helped me understand my own maternity better.

KH:  I love the way you write your relationship with your husband, Kory, and this part of the book really feels like a wonderful love story to me. How did you handle writing about your relationship? Did you get his approval before you went to print? How do you balance your need to create as a writer with your family’s privacy?

LCH  I am, however, in everything that I write constantly balancing the true facts of the story (personal details, revelations, confessions, etc.) with the real demands of the story.  I ask myself: is this fact really necessary? How much do I really need to tell? And in the telling, am I really saying something new? I’m even more conscious of this now that my children are older.  I won’t write a story that involves personal details unless I feel I have something significant to say, it does not violate their privacy, and I am not telling it simply to broadcast a seemingly interesting experience. There must be something more at stake when you write about personal history.  For me, restraint must always temper the use of personal facts when important relationships are at stake.  However, I also believe that if you have to tell the story, you also can’t avoid the hard facts for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
KH:  Lisa, you are a mother, wife and a full-time professor (and dancer, friend, etc.). How do you balance writing, your career, and your family?

LCH:  Over the years I’ve learned to accept and embrace the changes that being a parent brings to my work life. I’ve learned to cultivate discipline and silence in my work life, to work very hard during my work time and to set my work aside completely when the kids come home.  (Though I am not always successful at this latter task.) These things, of course, took years to figure out. The most important practical things I’ve done to protect my work life include: 

·      Cultivate discipline: write during the children’s naps, every day.
·      Before my children were school-age, I took Grace Paley’s advice and resigned myself to “writing at different paces.” It was okay if I worked more slowly some weeks or months. I knew that would change.
·      Don’t stop writing until you know where you will start the next day.
·      Give yourself small, specific assignments: one scene, one section, one chapter revised.

I still use these precepts, even though my writing life has changed enormously with the book publication and the beginning of kindergarten for my youngest.

KH:  What was the most challenging part of writing A Double Life

LCH:  Getting published.

Writing the book joined my geeky commitment to research and my lyric love of narrative. It was a joy to write. I found it interesting to dive into the material, investigate the story, and tease out the larger meaning. 

But I had a long road to publication.  Motherhood journals/sites often asked me to take out the research. Literary journals were not so interested in the story of motherhood. And the first publishers we approached didn’t know where it would be shelved: memoir or parenting? It’s both, of course, and readers understand that now, but it took years of perseverance.

KH:  Can you talk a little more about the process of finding a home for A Double Life? What would advice would you give to other writers as they embark on this process?

LCH:  In addition to the where-to-shelve-the-book problem I mentioned above, I had editors who loved my prose but found the book too quiet. There are a lot of stories about motherhood that are sensational or exceptional, but this was not my story. But I had a deep belief in my approach and my book, and I worked very hard to write the most incisive, compelling narrative I could, and then I knew I just had to be patient.  I actually got to the point where I was convinced I would have to publish another book first, and then A Double Life would come out as my second book once I had a better platform. But then I submitted the manuscript to the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, and won, and with that award came the publication deal. Most gratifying was that the Prize series editors understood the book’s mission and ambition completely—as have the readers since publication.  Since then, my agent has been able to sell foreign rights in Taiwan, Brazil, and Italy, so it’s been incredibly satisfying after such a long wait to have readers who understand the book as I envisioned it. The thing is, in spite of the challenges writing this kind of a book posed, in the end the it just took that one editor saying “yes” at the right time. This is always the case: “right editor, right time, right place.”

My advice is always to perfect your craft and write the very best story you can. This is the first and paramount responsibility of any writer. Then the writer’s job is to figure out how to enter the conversation.  To whom are you speaking? Seek out publication in the places having the conversation you want to be part of.  These might be local, regional, online, print, niche markets. There are many ways to begin.  Expect editors to say no, but don’t take that no personally. Be brutal and objective about your work, revise if necessary, and persevere. I often think of the opening lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Well Dressed Man with a Beard”:

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
KH:  I love that, Lisa. And I love how the message of perseverance is echoed among so many of the writers I know and love. Don’t give up, writers. And never let the “no” stop you. 
Lisa, thanks so much for taking the time to be here at Mother Words! 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

mothers and daughters

If you’ve been reading my posts in the last few weeks, you know that as I sat next to my grandpa the week he was dying, I was reading Rae Meadows’ new novel Mothers and Daughters. It was the perfect novel to read as I said goodbye to Spencer because so much of the story for me was about grief and loss and letting go.

The novel is told from the perspective of three generations of women—a grandmother, mother, and daughter. Violet left New York for the Midwest at age eleven on one of the turn-of-the-century orphan trains. Iris, Violet's daughter, now dying of cancer, has relocated to Florida and reflects on her mother, Violet, her daughter, Sam, and the love she discovered late in life. Sam, an artist and new mother living in Madison, is dealing with her mother’s death and the loss of her first pregnancy as she navigates early motherhood and tries to find her way back into her creative work and out of the secretive isolation she has created for herself.

So much in this novel resonated with me: needing to find balance between creativity and motherhood, coming to terms with loss, finding one’s way back to oneself. So I’m very pleased to have Rae here today to discuss Mothers and Daughters, writing, and how motherhood has affected her work. Welcome, Rae!

KH:  Can you talk a little about how this book started? Was it with an image, a character, an idea?

RM:  Learning about the orphan trains really was what got this novel started for me, and, soon after, the character of Violet was born. I actually based her on a photograph of my grandmother when she was young.

KH:  You’ve woven together three stories in three voices and alternating chapters. Did you always know that the book would be structured this way? Did you write them separately and then splice them together? I’d love if you would talk a little bit about your process.

RM:  I started out wanting to write a three-story structure—I was inspired by The Hours by Michael Cunningham—but when I got started, I had a hard time envisioning the novel as a whole. It seemed more manageable to write each part separately. I wrote Violet first, then Sam, then Iris. The revision process was very important for this book because I had to make sure the spliced stories worked with each other, both thematically and chronologically.

KH:  What did this involve? I’d love a sense of how long this revision process took. I’m picturing you on the floor with chapters spread out around you.

RM:  At one point I really did have chapters and scissors! And lists of who was born when, what happened where, etc. But I liked the challenge of it. It was kind of like a puzzle. And then I added details and scenes to fill out the narrative and cohere the novel. In the end it didn’t take as long as I feared.

KH:  A big part of this story for me was about the power of loss and how loss can isolate us from the people in our lives. One of the things we learn early in the book is that Sam terminated her first pregnancy because the fetus had genetic anomalies. How did you settle on this kind of loss to haunt Sam?

RM:  I had my children on the older side, so my husband and I had to weigh the risks of genetic testing and address all the possibilities. I felt like for Sam, it’s a complicated loss because she chose to terminate yet on some level she regrets that decision and doesn’t feel she’s allowed to grieve. I wanted to make her complicit in her loss, because it becomes a secret for her that gathers weight instead of fading.

KH:  What was the most surprising and/or challenging thing that happened in the process of writing Mothers & Daughters? (In terms of the narrative itself, your writing process, or how you approached the material.) 

RM:  I started out writing the novel as pure historical fiction, with two other characters at the turn of the century, including a doctor at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum. But when I returned to writing after having a baby, the idea didn’t feel right. After this tremendous life change, I knew I wanted to explore motherhood in some way. It was very much a lightning bolt moment to do a three-generational novel about women. (I’m still waiting for the lightning on my next project…)

KH:  I love this, Rae. Each of the women in the story has a very different experience mothering and being a mother. Was this a deliberate decision? How did your own experience with early motherhood help shape (or not shape) the ways Violet, Sam and Iris experienced motherhood?

RM:  It was a deliberate decision. Sam was heavily influenced by my experience as a new mother, but I really wanted to explore motherhood in different iterations. As a writer, I found it compelling to imagine how the circumstances of one’s life (and even one’s mother’s and grandmother’s lives) affect how one mothers. I liked the idea of legacy, for better and for worse. I couldn’t have written this novel before having children.

KH:  You have two children, and one is a baby. Can you talk a little about how your writing life fits in with the rest of your life—mothering, family?

RM: It doesn’t fit! As you know, it’s a crazy juggling act to be a mother and a writer. I am a full time mom, so writing happens in short bursts, late at night. I try to remind myself that this stage, with the girls so young, is a short one. My writing life will open back up. I try to remember that writing is not a race. If a novel takes an extra year to complete, that’s okay.

KH:  Can you describe the editorial process? (How much did you revise the manuscript after it was sold? Can you also talk a little about what it’s like to work with an editor?)

RM:  I spoke with my editor (Helen Atsma) before I sold the novel to Henry Holt, so I knew that I liked her and trusted her vision. It’s always a little scary to get the first round of editor’s notes back on a manuscript—I generally have a mini freak out—but Helen’s comments were clear and felt doable for me, and not that extensive. Most were about adding here and there to fill out the stories. For instance, she wanted more items in the box of Iris’s, and she wanted the box to arrive earlier. The story of Sam needed the most help, probably because she’s the character most like me! There were a couple little things I didn’t agree with, but Helen didn’t make me do anything I felt strongly against.

KH:  How does it feel to have this book out in the world? What kinds of responses are you getting from readers?

RM:  It’s wonderful to have the book out and I feel incredibly lucky. It’s so satisfying to have people read your work and have it resonate with them. Often people have a favorite character of the three—usually Violet. A lot of women tell me they cried, and that is a huge compliment. One of the most flattering comments came from the owner of a bookstore in Chicago. Given the character of Iris, she thought I would be in my seventies.

KH:  One more question: what are you working on now?

RM:  I loved the research part of this novel so much I decided to do it again. I’m writing an interwoven story about a family in the Oklahoma panhandle during the Dust Bowl and the photographer Dorothea Lange.

KH:  Fascinating! I look forward to reading. And thank you for taking the time to be here today.

Add Mothers and Daughters to your reading list! And to read more about orphan trains, visit Rae's website

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

celebrating spencer

Saturday we held the service for my grandpa, and it was lovely. There were tears, of course, but there was also lots of laughter as people stood up and shared their memories of my grandpa—his optimism, his integrity, his sense of humor, and his extraordinary golf swing.

I read the piece I wrote last week about Grandpa’s nine lives (which I’ll now tweak and submit), and we watched the short video that was made about him a couple of years ago. (I wish I could stream it online, because it’s perfectly my grandpa…)

And Saturday morning, there was this wonderful news obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Check it out here.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time writing about him here recently, and I’ve all but abandoned my author interviews. But I’m back now, and am looking forward to having Rae Meadows as a guest later this week and Lisa Catherine Harper in the next month. So stay tuned!

Thank you, as always, for your words and for reading. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

on being a writer

I haven’t had much time to sit down and really write these last weeks. Between my grandpa dying, a trip up north, a non-writing related freelance project, and limited childcare, I just haven’t had the time to spirit myself off to the coffee shop.

And this bothers me. It makes me feel unmoored, as if there is nothing holding me in place, keeping me from scattering here and there with the details of my life.

It’s interesting, then, that in the last few days, three friends have e-mailed me essays and quotes about being a writer. It’s as if they knew, somehow, that I needed that reminder.

This is the first. It’s an Ira Glass quote from Sally McGraw’s blog Already Pretty. Sally takes the quote and writes a wonderful post about how style evolves. But I love it for what it says to beginning writers:

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me —  is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

You’ve gotta fight your way through. I love that, and it speaks to something that I often say here and to my students: don’t ever give up. Keep writing. Even when it’s hard. Even when you get rejected. Even when you don’t have time. Take an hour or twenty minutes and sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

The next piece sent to me was a link to M. Molly Backes’ post on how to be a writer. A mother, whose daughter wants to be a writer, asked Molly what she needed to do to help her daughter. The mother was looking for some formula, some camp that would help her daughter realize her dream. I love Molly’s response. And it reminded me, as a mother, how I can best support my daughters’ dreams: love them, support them, and let them see me following my own dreams--working hard, never giving up.

And the last piece, also sent by one of my wonderful former students, was Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent essay, “Trading Stories: Notes from an apprenticeship,” in The New Yorker. I love Lahiri’s stories, so I loved reading about her journey into writing, her determination, the way she found a home at her desk.

Each of these pieces buoys me, and each reminds me that I am, indeed, a writer.

I have cleared my morning today, and will make my way to the coffee shop after I run and after I drop the girls at their 2-day-a-week summer program. And I will sit down and write the piece for my grandpa’s memorial service (which is Saturday). And I will let the words that emerge ground me in my dreams once again.