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Monday, January 31, 2011

cover me

A couple of weeks ago I finished Sonya Huber’s compelling new memoir, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, which was released in October from University of Nebraska Press, and I can’t think of a more timely book.

If you’ve ever had stress over healthcare and coverage, you will relate to this story. But perhaps it’s an even more important book for those of you (are there any of you out there?) who haven’t experienced stress over healthcare coverage. Step into Sonya’s shoes and understand how the lack healthcare coverage affected one woman’s health and life.

There were parts of Cover Me that almost started me off on my own anxiety attacks (something with which Huber struggles in the book), other parts that had me nodding my head, and still others that brought tears to my eyes. Huber leads us through her struggles deftly, and by the end of the book I had never been more convinced of the need for healthcare reform in this country.

I’m pleased to have Sonya here at Mother Words today, so without further ado, welcome, Sonya!

KH: I’m very interested in how authors turn shorter pieces into memoirs, and I know that many of your chapters appeared in literary journals as stand-alone essays. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing this book? Did you always know you were writing a book?

SH: This is a great question, because it was a major challenge! I always knew I was writing a book, but I really wanted the opportunity to try to publish stand-alone essays. My first book, Opa Nobody, is so interwoven and complicated that it was impossible to publish pieces of it. And I didn’t have many journal publications as a result. So for Cover Me, I wanted to try to get pieces of the book out there and test them before the book was published.

KH: What was the most challenging part of writing Cover Me?

SH: The biggest challenge was dealing with the connected essay framework I created for myself. I wrote the pieces knowing that they were forming a connected narrative, but then the goal of publishing them separately made them into very individualized little beasts with their own distinct personalities. Each became a little universe with a distinct voice, and then the process of shaping them back into a book was quite difficult. Agents who I queried said that they loved the idea, but a collection of essays wouldn’t sell, and the book in its draft form was “sort of” connected—neither completely essays nor completely memoir. So I had to do some major surgery to reconnect them.

A second trouble spot was the voice. I’ve been so angry for so long about the state of healthcare access in this country that the first years of writing were, to put it politely, pure spew. And I didn’t want to assault the reader with that—I wanted to bring something to the reader. This ended up being a problem of voice. I had to work to make the material approachable and funny, to connect it to a situation that makes me angry while at the same time allowing for breaks and distance. This book, because it’s still new, is unfortunately still suggesting to me other ways I could have done this. But I have to let that go because it’s published.

KH: Was there anything—either in terms of what emerged or in the process of writing this memoir—that surprised you?

SH: I just did a reading last week where I first read something from Opa Nobody and then something from Cover Me, and I was really shocked at how different the voices are. That made me happy because it’s something I tell my students, and it’s actually been born out in practice: that the voice fits the subject matter and leads to the approach for the book. And the voice carries the book (like ‘Til Tuesday sang a long time ago).

I think the other thing that continues to surprise me is the reaction to the politics of the book. Some see it as confrontational and wildly political, and some see it as not political enough. I think that points to the larger fact that personal stories on this specific issue are so necessary, and that one book can’t meet all those needs. I was writing specifically to use a personal story to offer a bridge between Red-Blue, Right-Left and all those other over-simplified divides. I just wanted to show that this is not a ‘boring’ issue—it’s something we can all talk about. We each have the story of the health insurance debacle in our bodies. So the continued strong reactions are a delight and great food for thought.

KH: All memoirists must confront the issue of privacy and decide how they will write about family and friends. You seem to be extremely careful about protecting the privacy of the people who appear in Cover Me. Can you talk a little bit about that?

SH: You rock, Kate. I’m so happy you noticed this! I’m sort of a stickler for this, and that does have its downsides. My goal is to only include someone if they are essential to the story and/or if I am mentioning something so innocuous that it wouldn’t matter to anyone. If someone appears as a character, I usually check with that person before publication, give them the complete text that mentions them, and then ask for their comments. I’m very much influenced by field practices in anthropology and ethnography with this practice. I usually make the changes that people ask for, and I have found this process to be very rewarding. It’s a cheese-grater, for sure, because it’s hard to engage in conversations about old relationships. Boy have I gotten some good feedback about my own past mistakes. It’s like therapy bootcamp! But what other job requires you to do that? It’s a great learning opportunity. And it’s also made for renewed friendships and stronger bonds with family. There are a few places where, for specific private reasons, I couldn’t ask for approval due to the nature of the relationship and/or lack of a relationship, but those are rare. I obsessed over those points, too, and I cut and cut so that, in my opinion, only the necessary pieces of information were revealed. In some cases, a lot of the story is missing because of that. But I’m okay with that. That’s a compromise I make with my books for the sake of ethics and relationships. I’m not of the “write and damn the people” school. I think you have to write it all, but then as you’re nearing publication, you might be surprised at how difficult and then how fulfilling it is to share writing and be open to a conversation about your point of view. All of my work is better because I have asked the people portrayed for their help.

KH: Sonya, you are a single mother and a full-time professor. How do you balance writing, your career, and your family?

Well, one sad answer is that I got sick! I have rheumatoid arthritis, which may have been coming anyway, but it’s been aggravated by the stress of various post-divorce legal issues and the juggling. But on the huge upside, I’ve gone from being a single mom to living in a fantastic household with my fiancé Cliff and my son. Cliff is such a huge support. He came into my life and the life of my son, and we made a family, which is lucky indeed.

The other struggle I’ve had is that, in years past, I would have also added “activist” to that list in your question. But right now I’m up against my limits of health and energy. I’ve had to pull back from important local issues. I don’t socialize as much as I would like. I write an hour a day, then I teach and work for the rest of the day, and then comes everything else. To be honest, it doesn’t feel balanced! It feels like, if there were more social supports for families, things would be a lot easier. So I’m still very committed to doing what I can to support organizations like MomsRising and Healthcare Now! and many other good groups. The issue of balance in a working mom’s life makes the issue into an individual math equation, and that’s where we’ve gone wrong. This is a social problem, not an individual issue, and we’re putting it on the backs of people who are exhausted and are raising the next generation. That’s wasteful, cruel, and unfair, which is why we need things like equal pay for equal work and universal healthcare.

KH: This book is such a beautiful indictment of our healthcare system. What kinds of reactions have you received from readers/the press?

SH: I’ve been really psyched about the reviews; moms in general seem most touched by the book, which is excellent. It’s been so satisfying to be part of the discussion about a book that connects with readers’ current experiences. Opa Nobody was about the Nazis during World War II and socialism in Europe, so it didn’t have that personal connection for hardly any of my readers. I’ve had a few negative comments about my personal choices: yes, I did have sex before I got married, and I did a few very mildly crazy things in my twenties. Interestingly, readers appear shocked by these very common experiences only if the readers happen to disagree with the issue of healthcare reform. I also had one reviewer complain about the number of jobs I held and quit. I think if you’ve been working since you were sixteen, as I have, that’s a no-brainer—especially if you’re a writer. I made the conscious personal research choice to mention ALL of the jobs I had ever held, along with whether or not they came with benefits. Most people, in my experience, don’t have that stuff on their resume so they sort of erase it from their consciousness. I was open about a social class and money issue that’s kind of taboo. The issue of social class—and people’s lack of awareness about how social class affects one’s choices and options—can affect the reading and a person’s worldview. I’m hoping to write a big fat book about that someday.

I had my first truly shocking comment left on Amazon.com earlier this week. A man commented, among other things, that he wished I would have died from an ailment I mentioned in the book. He appeared to be against healthcare reform and also against women who write books, so his politics were pretty different from mine. But the comment about wishing I was dead—that gave me a day of really deep reflection and a bit of sickness. My Facebook posse rallied immediately and complained to Amazon, and the comment got taken down. I guess that made me sad because I really had grandiose illusions that a funny, self-deprecating, personal story about healthcare would allow readers to step away from the political battle to examine how the issue might affect one woman’s life. But I’m always too idealistic. That’s okay—that’s a permanent personality issue that’s not going away, apparently.

KH: That comment is outrageous, Sonya. I’m so sorry that happened.

My last question for you is about what you’re working on now.

SH: I like to work on several projects at once, so I’m getting a bunch of new ones started. Right now I’m working on individual essays, and also working on a series of connected short essays about what life is like for family members of addicts and/or alcoholics. I think I might also be doing a separate but related project on the intersection of Buddhism and the topic of those “witnesses to addiction.” And I also have this strange desire to work on an essay or book that connects the reading of Moby-Dick with living as a single mom. Too many things to pursue, but that’s how I like it.

KH: Thanks for taking the time to join me at Mother Words, Sonya!

Readers, go get a copy of Cover Me!

Friday, January 28, 2011

four years

All week I've been thinking that today, January 28th, was the anniversary of the day I started this blog, but just now I realized it was actually January 20th. So this post is a week late, but I'm celebrating the 4th anniversary of my blog today anyway.

I began this blog to create to a place where writing by women about motherhood would be taken seriously as literature. I wanted to promote the wonderful books and essays and poems being written by writers who are also mothers. And I wanted a place to talk about craft and teaching and the hectic nature of mothering and living and trying to get words on the page.

And I'll admit to anyone who asks (and even those who don't) that starting Mother Words has been one of the most satisfying things I've ever done. I'm now part of a huge virtual community and I've connected with writers I never would have known if it weren't for this blog. My small, often lonely writer's world has expanded beyond what I imagined was possible. And I've made friends, close friends, who live across the globe.

I'm so grateful for all of you, for your words and stories, for your wonderful writing and encouraging words. Thank you for being out there, reading and commenting and writing and living. Today I'm celebrating you!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

upcoming classes and retreats

January is flying by, which is hard to believe since I spend most of day closeted in my tiny office. But I'm so busy getting ready for AWP and my winter and spring classes that all the sudden I glance at the clock and it's time to walk down to the bus stop to get Stella.

Here's what I have coming up:

There are still two spots open for the 2nd annual Mother Words retreat at Faith’s Lodge February 24 – 27. Spend the weekend writing and relaxing and talking about craft with a group of mother writers amidst the quiet and luxury of Faith’s Lodge. For more information about the retreat, visit my website. To register, contact Marquetta Nickols at Faith’s Lodge at marquetta@faithslodge.org or 612-825-2073.

I’m also excited about my upcoming prose revision class at the Loft. It meets Monday nights February 21 – April 11, 7:30 – 9:30 p.m. Here's the description of that class:

After the First Draft: Prose Revision
You’ve finished the first draft of your short story, novel, or memoir. Now what do you do with it? This course will help you revision your writing and move beyond that first draft. We will discuss how to strengthen your characters, sustain your narrative threads, identify the heart of your piece, and make the most of your dialogue. We will read writers such as James Baldwin, Charles Baxter, Bernard Cooper, and Beth Kephart. In addition to lectures and in-class writing exercises, each student will have an opportunity to share and receive feedback on his or her work. To register for that class, visit The Loft.

And I also have four spots still open in my Spring online Mother Words class, which begins on March 23. Visit my website or contact me with questions or to register.

Lots of fun teaching coming up. I look forward to having a few of you in class!

Friday, January 21, 2011

parents with pens

Thanks to all of you for your kind birthday wishes for my grandpa. He’s had two lovely parties so far and one more tomorrow. (It makes me tired to think about three parties. Imagine doing it when you’re 102.)


I’m pleased to announce that I have Kris Woll here at Mother Words today. Kris is a local Minneapolis writer and mother. She writes the blog A Little Practice, and is about to re-launch Parents with Pens, a local writing group for parents.

KH: Can you talk a little about Parents with Pens?

KW: Parents with Pens is a free writing group for parents who write and/or writers who tackle parenthood as their subject. It is casual and meant to be very supportive -- the kind of place where you can read something your are working on and gather a little feedback, float a few ideas, ponder where you might go with what you are working on. It is also a place to read and discuss some of the great work that is out there on the topic of parenthood. And I hope it's a place where a group of writers can really connect and get to know each other.

Parents with Pens is one of the Open Writing Groups that The Loft Literary Center hosts each month. The Loft kindly provides a space -- their cozy book club room -- where interested writers to gather and talk and read and support each other. Like all the Open Writing Groups, Parents with Pens is free and convened by a volunteer facilitator. And really it's low commitment -- once a month, 90 minutes.

KH: What was the impetus for starting this group?

KW: I first created Parents with Pens in 2009. Then I was still relatively new to Minneapolis, just emerging from the fog of early parenthood, and really eager to connect with other parents and other writers. In PWP’s first incarnation, a small group of us met through most of that year sharing our works-in-progress, but for a number of reasons (you know them -- no time, too much work, stuff to take care of at home, general craziness of life) the group took a break for most of 2010.

This fall I took a writing/reading course at the University of Minnesota, and it was so nice to meet with other writers to read and discuss. As it came to a close it occurred to me that it was very worthwhile to get the PWP group started again. And here we are, about to get started ...

KH: How do interested parents get involved?

KW: The group kicks off on Monday, January 24 at 7pm. For more info, including how to sign up (for this group and others) visit The Loft.

And hopefully, Kate, you might agree to be a special guest at one of our meetings!

KH: I’d be delighted, Kris! Thanks for being at Mother Words today! Head over to The Loft if you’d like to sign up for Parents with Pens.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

102

Imagine being alive for over a century and still not being ready to die—to be interested in and excited about (and sometimes disgusted with) the world.

Some of you will remember my grandpa Spencer, who was ill a year ago when his abdomen filled with fluid, which made it difficult for him to breathe and sleep. Spencer, who was exasperated by my lack of imagination when I suggested that he wasn’t feeling well because he was old. Spencer, who has lived through numerous wars, who served in World War II as a military police officer, who is outraged that we haven’t learned our lesson yet. Spencer, who has had four holes-in-one, who has spent more time on a golf course than most people spend alive at all. Spencer, who was married to the love of his life, Lucille, for sixty-seven years, who sat beside her as she died, who went on living when she was gone.




Today, my grandpa is 102 years old, and he’s better than ever. He would argue that he’s still a little wobbly when he stands, and he would probably lament how long it’s been since he’s held a golf club in his hands. But he’s eating more, sleeping better, and he’s even learning how to play chess. He’s started thinking about spring and the scenic drives he and my mom will take when Minnesota thaws.

There is no one like Spencer, and I’m so lucky to have him in my life and in my girls’ lives. Happy Birthday, Grandpa! I love you!



Please raise your glass to Spencer today! 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

proud

Cecilia, one of my talented former Mother Words students, has a wonderful piece in Cassie Premo Steele's Birthing the Mother Writer column at Literary Mama this week. Lovely writing, Cecilia. If you don't read Cecilia's blog, you should. She's so fabulous. Congratulations, Cecilia!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

kudos

I’ve spent the last few days obsessively reading the New York Times and listening to public radio as they cover the devastating shootings in Arizona. I can’t stop thinking of the victims’ families, and I feel heartsick about the whole thing.

But today I want to focus on something positive. I *will* be positive. Here it goes:

One of the most satisfying things about being part of a writing community is celebrating the hard work and successes of my friends and colleagues. There are many successes and new books to celebrate this year, and I’d like to start with my dad, David Hopper:

I’m thrilled to announce that my dad’s fourth book, Divine Transcendence and the Culture of Change, was just published by W.B. Eerdmans. The book explores several significant historical and cultural effects of Reformation theology. (Check out these amazing blurbs.) It’s not the kind of book I generally read, but I’m so proud of and happy for my dad. He spent SEVENTEEN years writing this book. Talk about persistence and perseverance. Way to go, Dad!

My high-school friend, Michael Ebner, just came out with his first book, Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy. Like my dad’s book, this probably wouldn’t be considered light reading, but it looks fascinating.

Charles Baxter’s Gryphon: New and Selected Stories is getting rave reviews. Baxter is clearly a master of the short story form, so you can’t go wrong if you buy this book. Whenever my characters feel flat, I turn to Baxter’s stories, which are full of nuance and subtly. You can hear Baxter read and discuss Gryphon at Micawber’s on Friday, January 28 or at the University of Minnesota Bookstore on February 8.

I am also very excited about the following two books, which I helped edit:

Kara Thom’s and Laurie Kocanda’s Hot (Sweaty) Mamas: Five Secrets to Life as a Fit Mom. Kara was in my first Mother Words class (and a number of subsequent classes), and I used to trail behind her on the track until I realized I wouldn’t actually catch her. This book will be out March 29, and it’s a must-read for any mom who is fit or wants to be. Kara also writes the wonderful blog, Mama Sweat.

Elisabeth O’Toole’s In On It: What Adoptive Parents Would Like You to Know About Adoption was published in October, 2010. It’s a wonderful guide for friends and relatives of adoptive families. (I know I feel better able to support adoptive families after reading this book.)

And last, but certainly not least:

Kevin Fenton’s debut novel, Merit Badges, which won the 2009 AWP Awards Series in the Novel, is just out from New Issues Press. Kevin’s prose is lovely, his characters quirky and relatable. You’re not going to want to put this book down. You can hear Kevin read on Wednesday night, January 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Virginia Swedenborgian Church in St. Paul.

Congratulations to all of these wonderful authors!! I’m lucky to call you my friends!

Friday, January 7, 2011

when clutter really means clutter

Many of my favorite mother bloggers have been writing about the desire to get organized at the same time they've been lamenting the challenge that "getting organized" poses when you have a house full of small children.

I get it. I spend so much of each day picking up toys that I'm often tempted to say the hell with it and just vacuum them all up. (And when you add to the general child and house maintenance a gerbil whose poop chamber, as we have taken to calling it, always needs cleaning, well, "organized" seems impossible.)

But after reading Kara's wonderful post about framing tasks as questions and Kay's post with some tips for keeping a clean house in the midst of pre-schoolers, I knew I needed to do something to clear the clutter. Then I was inspired by this photo of Vicki's office, and I realized that I didn't need to tackle the whole house (or even the basement); I just needed to clear some space so I could think again.

I am embarrassed to even post these photos of my office, but I need the evidence so you'll know how hard I worked yesterday. This is my office yesterday morning:

If you take a look at Kara's office again it's clear that "clutter" means a slightly different thing to her than it does to me. And seriously, what is that disheveled Barbie doing on my books?

Okay, now here is my office last night. D came home from taking the girls to Stella's dance class and said, "Look how big your desk it!" Indeed.


And now I am ready to dive into my work. Do you think I'll write faster now that I can actually see the surface of my desk?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

happy new year!

I hope you all had a lovely holiday.

We spent the week after Christmas up at my mom’s cabin in Northern Minnesota, and it was just the change of scene I needed. Stella and D cleared an ice rink on the lake, and Stella skated back and forth, undaunted by the number of times she fell. Then it snowed over a foot, so we gave up skating for cross-country skiing.

There is nothing like gliding through the silence of snow surrounded by towering pine trees. It always helps me put the things in perspective.

We also spent time reading and doing puzzles (which developed into an obsession), laughing and eating and drinking wine. Zoë danced and played with Little People and got snugly on the couch with a pile of books. And Stella spent quite a bit of time making earrings and working on a quilt for her doll.

The sewing, crafting gene clearly skipped my generation, but I did the best I could as her assistant, trying not to curse when I pierced my skin with the needle or almost glued my finger to an earring. I kept thinking of Catherine Newman’s wonderful essay, “Pretty Baby,” in which she describes her son Ben’s “most special outfit.” It’s “the one he wears only for such extraordinary occasions as a birthday party or the weekly show-and-tell at his preschool.” It “involves a floral printed t-shirt and fuchsia velour sleeves, and the pants that I myself made (with much saying of the F-word and sewing of my actual hand to the fabric) from the magenta striped terry cloth that Ben picked out from Jo-Ann Fabrics.” I love her.

Over the course of the week, we made several trips to the Ben Franklin in town for more crafting supplies, and I’ll admit I was wooed by their isles of colorful fabrics (which are a steal, by the way.) Ben Franklin has just about everything, from tacky to truly useful. It may be my favorite store. (Do I sound like I’m becoming a crafter after all?)

I tried to stay off-line as much as possible over the holidays, but I did log in a dozen hours on the memoir. Based on insightful feedback from my wonderful agent and brilliant writing group, I dove back into it and cut cut cut.

I always promote the merits of ruthless cutting to my students. It can be such a challenging task, especially for beginning writers, because it’s difficult to eliminate a nicely crafted sentence, even if you know it’s superfluous. I felt those pangs as I cut chapters 3, 4, and 5. But as is always the case after I slice away unnecessary words and heavy-handed back-story, the manuscript is stronger. I did new writing, as well, and yesterday I sent it off to my agent again. It’s closer to being ready than it’s ever been, so I’m celebrating that.

I look forward to reading and writing my way through 2011! How about you?