March 10, 2012 § 20 Comments
By Betsy Andrews Etchart
Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life
Panelists: Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Hope Edelman, Jill McCorkle, Kate Hopper, Katy Read
And I did many things as a writer that I couldn’t also do as a practicing mother with Bots in tow. I posted several reports for Brevity’s blog, which meant I stayed up Friday night writing ’til after midnight.
Saturday night I slept for eleven hours. I can’t remember the last time I slept for eleven hours uninterrupted.
Sunday morning, I sat down to drink my coffee. Coffee, like wine, is best when taken while seated, but most necessary when there is no time to sit.
I ate whole meals while seated. I sat for more than thirty-two seconds without shooting out of my chair to get something. I sat and I ate and I wrote, all at once.
From the number of Weebots crawling and toddling at the carpeted margins of the book fair or hanging out in chest carriers at their parents’ readings, it was apparent that many writers at the conference balance parenthood with their literary vocations/avocations.
So it wasn’t a surprise that during a panel called “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life,” the Wiliford C room at the Hilton was filled near to capacity.
Two panelists were Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of Lost and Found: a Memoir of Mothers, and Hope Edelman, both NYT best-selling authors; Jill McCorkle, a prolific novelist and short story author, Kate Hopper, author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and Katy Read, journalist and author of the Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom on salon.com, where she brings Jane Austen searingly up to date: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.”
These women are funny and successful and all, aside from Katy Read, who laments her decision to quit writing temporarily during her sons’ youth, fiercely protect (or protected, in the case of empty-nester McCorkle), both their identity and productivity as writers, and the time they spend mothering their children.
As she was pushing to make a copyediting deadline on her recent book, Kate Hopper told her post meltdown eight year-old, “You know I love you more than anything in the world.”
“’Do you love us more than your book?’” asked her daughter.
“’If I had to choose, I would choose you girls,” replied Hopper. Before quickly adding, “But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.”
Most of us feel that way. And it seems the only thing we love more than writing and parenting is talking about how to mix the two without blowing something up.
Their strategies included combine and schedule. Edelman combined her professional obligations in Chicago with a long-desired museum visit. Employing similar tactics in daily life, Jill takes longer to food shop than strictly necessary. “No one ever argued with my saying, ‘I need to go to the grocery store…I have great ideas while I’m standing in produce.’”
Also make a dedicated space: Hopper has a dedicated writing space off her kitchen. It’s four feet square, but it is her space. Another panelist left out the front door when the babysitter arrived and then sneaked up the back stairs for two hours of solitude. Edelman has written three books by “binge-writing,” every third weekend in a motel room close enough to home in the event of emergency but far enough away to discourage visitors.
A man–one of at least thirty in an audience of over two hundred people, raised his hand. When called on during the brief question-and-answer period, seconds before the session’s end, he introduced himself as a writer and a full-time dad. “How,” he asked, “do you cope with the pure exhaustion?”
“Sleep when they sleep,” was the panelists’ answer.
The answer was like a basketball tossed from deep in the opponent’s free-throw zone as the bell goes off. It seemed as empty and inadequate here as it had out of the mouth of my mother-in-law three years ago when I was writing and teaching a college course in Mbot’s first months of life. Sleeping when he slept would have been completely impractical. Would the dish fairy appear to clean my kitchen while I slept? Or better, the book fairy come to polish the next chapter of my novel? Peter Dish-Pan Hands? Peter Pen? I raised my hand to join the conversation, but time was up.
I fought through the crowd to this man. He was no more than thirty-one or -two. I told him the only helpful thing I could think of: that I’d bought a Netbook, so I could work in the car, while I drove Mbot—and then both Mbot and Gbot—through the streets of Litchfield Park, willing him to sleep. I would pull over the minute his eyes closed. Sometimes, parked under an orange tree for shade, I could write for ninety minutes. If needed to email a manuscript, I pulled up in front of the Starbucks or the Burger King, pirating their wifi. Making use of the Bots’ daytime sleep in this way, I could allow myself to (kind of) sleep that night when they (kind of) slept.
Having generously dispensed my wisdom to the poor tired man, I saw that he was not impressed, although he allowed that a Netbook was a good idea. In fact, he had one.
“How many children do you have?” I asked.
“Five,” he replied. Ranging from eight to two.
“I don’t have any more suggestions,” I said.
But I think my answer, completely unqualified, should have been: “Wait.”
In her memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that she and her husband referred to their thirties, during which they raised their young family and worked and participated in their community, “the tired years.”
The Newbery-winning author penned the novels she is known for after her children were in school. This isn’t to say she didn’t write during the tired years. She just didn’t push to the deadlines of others. She was, of course, fortunate that her husband had a steady paycheck that kept her kids in Cap’n Crunch.
Hope Edelman, along with reciting a list of things she can do, now that she is a mother as well as a writer—including budget time, and experience “a whole range of emotions that have enhanced my writing”—also recited a long list of things she can’t do because she is a mother as well as a writer.
Here is an overview: “Spend three months at a writer’s colony….Stay at literary events past 9:15 on a weeknight…Shower every day….Be a foreign correspondent.”
On Sunday morning, I added one more thing to the list.
As I pulled up the hood of my down parka and turned my back to the wind on the platform of the L train to Midway Airport, I was joined by a mother and two little girls about five years old. I stuffed my gloved hands into the pockets of my parka and hunkered down.
The other mother was laughing and chatting with the girls, gripping one of their mittened hands in each of hers.
There’s another thing mothers can’t do, without thinking about it, without the world thinking about it, even if they aren’t also writers: No matter how cold it is, they can’t put their hands in their pockets.
You pays your money and you makes your choice. But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.
Betsy Andrews Etchart received her MFA in CNF from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyAndrewsEtc or at superherounderpants.com, where she blogs about motherhood and writing
March 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
By Leslie Conder
There was an excitement in the air of Chicago when I arrived on Wednesday. It felt like Christmas Eve when you’re a little kid. I was too excited to go to sleep. I should’ve had a glass of wine with my fellow writers who were pooled around the hotel bar, but instead I nestled under the covers with my three friends in our one room.
The next morning I rose before my alarm went off. Too eager to sleep and too early for the first panel, I went to the hotel gym. As I rode the elevator a voice from the monitor began to speak. It sounded like a story from the Bible. Perhaps, it was the Christmas Story. It turns out it was poetry playing in honor of the conference.
The Art of Telling A Joke panel consisted of hilarious writers telling funny stories, which induced outrageous laughs. It reminded me of the fun-loving drunken uncles and aunts in movies I’d watch every year during the holiday season. I would think to myself, that family is like my family, but with a punch. I was raised Mormon. Enough said.
After I left with happy tears from the panel I went to the main event: The Bookfair.
I felt like running through the aisles, grabbing each journal as if was a present just for me. Many Christmas’ (and one AWP) has taught me to pace myself, to really take my time to appreciate the gifts in front of me. I knew which journals I wanted and I spoke with those who had created and charged me for the gifts. I left with a sense of accomplishment to walk to another panel only to realize I had only visited one section of the Bookfair. It was a child’s dream Christmas. As for me, I took a deep breath and said, “Holy Jesus! It’s okay. I can do this.”
The last day of AWP I was completely exhausted. I needed some peace and quiet. Why were there so many damn people here? Were we the unwanted house guests who had overstayed our welcome? I went to push the down button by the elevator when a woman said, “No. No. Please don’t.” I turned around in disbelief.
“Are you going up?” She asked.
“No.” I said, with my finger still grazing the button.
She gave a full minute spiel on which elevators went where. My mouth was shut, but I was screaming, “Are you kidding me with this? You do know how elevators work, right?” I must have conveyed that through my facial expression. It was that or the fact that I didn’t move my finger from the button, either way our conversation ended with her saying, “Never mind. Do as you will.”
I pushed the button.
The next day Christmas, I mean, AWP was over. Like Christmas, I always feel sad when it’s over. Sad and exhausted, but mostly inspired. First sleep. Then write.
Leslie Conder is completing her MFA at Chatham University.
March 5, 2012 § 9 Comments
F143. The Rooted Narrator: Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction / Friday, March 2 10:30-11:45am
Many a memoirist has asked the following questions as they look at their manuscript:
Why this story?
Which version of you gets to tell the story?
These, panel F143’s description says, are the “sweet spots” of a memoir. It’s where we root our narrator, after we peg down situation and story, as Vivian Gornick calls it.
It is also what I have been struggling with my own work. Really struggling. I brought a big-ass coffee and my notebook. I wanted some answers. I got that and a whole lot more.
When I arrive at Palmer House’s Grand Ballroom at 10:20am, I spot Stephen Elliott chatting to an attendee from his previous panel (F119. Literature and the Internet in 2012). A couple of minutes later, our panelists—Jill Christman, Debra Gwartney, Sonya Huber, Dan Raeburn, Bonnie J. Rough—step up from behind the riser where they were huddled up. It’s cold up here, Christman mentions, standing at the mic. The idea for their panel springs from Christman’s efforts to find an organizing principal for her memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, as a graduate student.
Her teacher, Christman recalls, raised a straightforward, paradigm-shifting question, written in the margins: “Before the manuscript, there is silence. Why break the silence? Why here? Why now?”
“I had to pull my car over after I read it,” she says. This eureka moment was when Christman realized she needed to root the place where her narrator stands. She found her “pivot point” that gave readers a place to invest themselves, “to show what is at stake” in her work.
I talk about this with students all the time. I also tell them how hard it is to do it. I tell them about Virginia Woolf’s idea of the I-then and the I-now, about “moments of being,” Philip Lopate’s notion of reflection and introspection and the “retrospective voice.” We write in different tenses in our drafts to make this stand out—the present tense for the I-now and past for the remembered self, the I-then.
But what’s tricky, what I have the hardest time figuring out in my own work, is also the question Christman had struggled with. Where do you root the tale’s teller? Which version of yourself tells the story? Where do we say, this is the point where I have enough wisdom accumulated or lessons learned to pivot and tell the tale. Or, as John Locke asks in Lost, “When are we?”
We writers “machete a route” through our stories, the long slog of “and then and then and then,” Christman says, all the while trying not to telegraph the ending. That’s when the next stage of work begins.
In my notes, I’ve got a long line drawn across the page of my notebook. Then: “convince the reader is engaged in an urgent journey of discovery.”
Collections of essays are often grafted into a memoir, Christman says, a tack that often seems obvious or forced. It can’t work without a rooted narrator to do the heavy lifting. She talks about the use of the framing prologue in a collection of essays—the first sentence from Didion’s “The White Album,” for example.
“Life is big, paper is small,” Chrisman concludes. “Why [makes fill-in-blank line gesture]?”
Sonya Huber is next. I have known Huber for a couple of years now, ever since I published a sestina of hers on the McSweeney’s website that is adapted from a letter to the skateboarding magazine Thrasher. I finally met her in person at AWP in 2006 and she’s been an inspiration since, both as a writer and teacher.
Huber begins her talk by name-checking Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the American Century as a must-read for its points about this “imagined site of the essay.” (I see Stuckey-French later on a lyric essay panel where he read his “Dear John [D’Agata]” letter.)
Huber mentions how her work often centers around “a mess the narrator is going through,” often inside “moments of domestic instability,” of “being alone in public places.” This is certainly the case with her Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, published in 2010, which starts with instability—i.e., having “shitty insurance”—and introduces possible rooting points along the way, with “body and mind in conflict.” Huber invokes Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in particular how the book opens—not with a photo album of glamorous Hollywood memories, as one might expect, but the opening of Word document.
Starting with such everyday, domestic details, she says, is so effective in introducing memoir’s “world-split” events, the instigating incidents of memoir.
There is a mention of the importance of providing a “class-based context,” which piques my interest. My memoir’s coming-of-age tale begins in my blue-collar/working class family and it’s been tricky figuring out out how to depict the struggles I’d had dealing with leaving that world behind.
Huber is quick to point out, however, that domestic instability doesn’t mean a hermetic quandary. “A rooting moment can’t be an intellectual decision,” she says. It’s a “spiritual” moment, one that involves memory, body and spirit.
Also in my notes:
“Push against our own assumptions of what is a meaningful moment,” “not epiphanic” necessarily, but “prosaic,” with “waves of struggle and desire.”
Reading itself is “no longer a rooted experience.”
Rooting the narrator often “launches the essaying moment in memoir.”
Daniel Raeburn is next. He’s the author of a monograph on graphic novelist Chris Ware and essays in The Baffler and The New Yorker. These credits prompt a “wow” from a lady behind me when they are read aloud.
Raeburn describes himself as the contrarian of the group, and talks about the “danger” of rooting the narrator in the present tense, which is by now an expected device, often cliché. We all know how these stories begin, he says. “We begin at the end, sitting at my desk, looking at a photograph of my mother.”
Nervous giggles all around. He’s right.
He’s not going for the cheap shots, however. “This is the way many memoirs do begin, to answer this question of this moment of activation,” Raeburn says, and proposes that this might be a “misguided way of actually beginning a memoir.” While good for the writer who is eager to get started, it’s not necessarily good for the reader. The device “seems too self-conscious, even for memoir.” It recalls for him the meta-fiction of the 1970s, self-conscious and self-referential.
“The story is the distance, not the conflating of them.” Making both “I”s seem the same or blent together reminds me of James Wood’s idea of “free indirect style” in How Fiction Works, where a single adjective might indicate an “I” Narrator’s hindsight.
In the margin, I draw a box around a probably awful idea:
“IDEA: I-now in past tense and I-then in present tense?”
Writing in the present tense might “mimic film,” Raeburn says, “and that’s cool. But it’s essentially an adolescent state of being.” I write in margin: “Snap!”
From my notes:
“Are we be in the age of the meta-memoir, where the writing of the memoir drives the rooted self?”
The “Siamese twins of memory and imagination.”
The rooted self as a “booster rocket,” useful for getting one’s memoir-speaker into orbit, must also be jettisoned to make the story work.
Examples of cutting out rooting scenes, of the remembered self.
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.
The “I” Character, the subject, “relatively ignorant,” the former self who can’t understand everything, who makes unwise decisions.
The “I” Narrator, the older-wiser remembering self, who has the benefit of hindsight, the real story.
Bonnie J. Rough is next. She’s the author of Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA, which features not one, not two, but three narrators woven and collaged together.
Rough talks about the earlier drafts, often standalone essays, where the narrator appears only as “pearl of wisdom-dropper.” I giggle like a schoolgirl. I’m so freaking sleep-deprived.
A part of Rough’s memoir appeared as a New York Times’ Modern Love column, which addresses what she and her spouse might do if she is found to be a carrier of a genetic disease, ectodermal dysplasia, that claimed the life of her father at 49 years old, when she was only a young child.
I adapt a remark of hers as a question to myself about my own draft: “Isn’t it true that my dad’s story represents my worst fear for my own life, as well as a source of pride and distinction?”
Last up is Debra Gwartney, author of Life Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love. Gwartney talks about how she went “back to classic memoirs” to look for remembering, rooted selves among “calcified memories.”
An example is Frank Conroy’s classic Stop Time, specifically its second chapter, “Savages,” which describes both a former self and a current self-in-crisis.
“It’s no longer about how these bad people did bad things to good me,” Gwartney says. She proposes that every current memoir might have the same subtitle: “How I Coped.” Big laughs.
In my notes:
The rooted narrator is “not finished with the past and the past is not finished with me/him/her.”
The “filter of adult self all the way through, often in the prologue.”
Gwartney discusses two prologues that “establish the problem, the state of mind and tone of introspection” in memoir: Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. In these two prologues we “witness the unfolding of events from an inside perspective.”
By the time the panel was over before noon, I had filled up 20 pages in my off-brand Moleskin. I walked up to the podium like an eager fanboy to say how much I loved what they all had to say. I tell Sonya Huber they should compile their written remarks in PDF. Here’s hoping they do.
Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate. He helps run the group blog We Who Are About To Die and teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @danielnester.
March 5, 2012 § 18 Comments
By Betsy Andrews Etchart
I had played hooky from the conference for three hours the day before and so when, at 8 pm Friday evening, the urge to stay in my room instead of attend a poetry reading pushed me further into my mattress, I fought it. It was Philip Levine, after all. And someone named Carol Ann Duffy.
I stripped off my pajama bottoms and put my pants back on.
I didn’t regret my choice to abandon writing panels the previous afternoon. I’d walked four cold minutes east on Adams to the Art Institute. Museums are my weakness. Or rather, museums give me strength. Since my days as an undergrad studying Michelangelo and Monet, each old master feels like a time-honored friend. Museums swap paintings more often than you’d think, and so each time I meet one of my old friends, we reminisce about the last time we met.
I had never been to the Art Institute. I mounted the Grand Staircase and found myself face-to-face with Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” Suddenly I was in Los Angeles in 1994. I’d flown in ostensibly to see the Caillebotte exhibition but really to meet a man who had already left me, who had never really belonged to me, but I didn’t know it then. After he broke my heart, he would give me an umbrella with this painting printed on the canopy. It protected me like the dome of St. Peter’s protects sinners.
At 8:15, repanted, I shrugged on my down parka and ducked across the street, found the International Ballroom?, filling to its capacity of nearly two thousand. One of the great things about traveling solo is that you can find single seats near the front.
The day before, one floor below the Caillebotte, I’d paused before a sculpture called “The Forest,” by the twentieth century French artist Jean Dubuffet. It’s about twice as wide and tall as a table at the book fair. Constructed of polystyrene and painted with white vinyl paint, it consists of undulating, simplified tree forms like awkward mushrooms connected at the canopy, delineated with curving black lines, like a white 3D jigsaw puzzle. If you were two feet tall you could walk among the trees. Get lost in them. Get found. Dubuffet intended this, for the man in the street to engage, and indeed, across town at the James R. Thompson Center Plaza, visitors do wander under the arches of his enormous “Monument with Standing Beast.”
Introductions were made. Ms. Duffy read first. She began with her 1999 book, The World’s Wife, in which she retells tales of men from mythology and literature from the point of view of their wives: Midas, Tiresias, Faust. All children know of King Midas, the foolish king who wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. He appeared most enduringly in Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses.
“As a child,” began Ms. Duffy, “I was enthralled and enchanted by the story, but as an adult, I found myself queasy thinking about being the wife of Midas after the wish was granted.”
Here is “Mrs. Midas,” shortly after her husband had been granted his wish: “…I made him sit on the other side/Of the room and keep his hands to himself/ locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone./The toilet, I didn’t mind….At least,/I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.”
Ms. Duffy’s voice was deep, full, and sonorous, and became three-dimensional all around me. I was standing in a grove of Jean Dubuffet’s trees, but instead of polystyrene, they were of her voice. I have never felt so viscerally surrounded by language. Maybe it’s the sound system, I thought, and concentrated on that. I decided it was not.
She continued on to Mrs. Tiresias: “All I know is this/he went out for his walk a man/and came home female.”
Before she read Mrs. Tiresias, she kindly paraphrased the plot. Each ellipse here represents approximately two seconds: “He came across a pair of snakes… attempting to mate…I have no idea how snakes…might do this. He prevented it by beating the snakes with his walking stick…as you would.”
She had the crowd in fits.
Maybe it was the delivery? But I think mostly it was the words. I imagined Ms. Duffy herself walking among her poems as if among Dubuffet’s colony of trees—the words as environment, as architecture, as pantheon, forest.
She moved on to poems from her new book, The Bees. She is concerned about the state and fate of nature, so terribly illustrated by the honey bees’ Colony Collapse Disorder. By this time, I was just listening. One phrase, though, from a piece called “Cold,” I couldn’t not copy down: “…the windows blind with ice/My breath undressing itself in the air.”
It is good to be reminded that there is beauty in vulnerability.
I thought of how I have heard so much about writers and community, about how I am working toward becoming involved in my communities, both online and in West Phoenix. And here is this poet laureate, connecting not only with the people around her, but with the ancient past. She has joined a community of the dead and allowed them to live, to resonate in this room with more certainty and presence than any of us seated. By not just parroting the past but by inserting into ancient stories a contemporary female narrator in a contemporary setting, with cars and blowdryers—and by using an age-old narrative in its original form, a narrative poem to be read aloud. I was reminded of how, before the advent of the printing press, priests read from the Bible to the illiterate masses, traveling jongleurs spun tales in village squares, and poets like Ovid recited the memories of collected consciousness. Words as a hive.
March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments
Memoir without a Net / Dana Norris, Shannon Cason, Kevin Gladish, Kelsie Huff, Scott Whitehair
Slam reinvigorated public poetry; could the microphone reinvigorate memoir?
I’ve never been good at acting. Every time I tried, I could always tell I was pretending. On the other hand, I’m great at reading prose—Old Testament readings on Sunday, excerpts from essays in the classroom. Watching these five readers perform today, I feel like I might have finally found my theater, much the same way I found my genre when I stumbled onto the personal essay.
So if you think memoir has trended, get ready. The folk on this panel might just have the hashtag to turn it all around. They inject attitude into their nostalgia, take you to the ledge with their humor, then let you hang in the midst of their vulnerability. It’s like This American Life without Ira Glass, without music swelling in between, storytelling on the stage.
I’m ready to give it a try. If you are, too, and you’re in Chicago, check these venues out: www.storyclubchicago.com, www.thekates.org,www.thismuchistrue.com, www.heresthestory.org, www.essayfiesta.com.