(October 22, 2020) Blair Hurley received her A.B. from Princeton University and her M.F.A. from NYU. Her stories are published or forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Georgia Review, West Branch, Mid-American Review, Washington Square, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Descant, Fugue, and elsewhere. She has received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and scholarships from Bread Loaf and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Her debut novel, The Devoted, was published in August 2018 from WW Norton & Company.
FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES
Blair Hurley’s website
The Devoted (WW Norton, 2018)
Rabbit, Run, John Updike (Random House, 1960)
Snuffleupagus’s identity shift on Sesame Street
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (Penguin Books, 2013)
Motherhood is such a powerful identity in our culture, our literature, and our lives that it’s nerve-racking to approach it yourself and to consciously make the decision to adopt this identity.
When I thought about motherhood as a young woman, I thought I should focus on my career and not really think too hard about parenthood. I somehow got the impression that it wasn’t feminist to long to be a mother.
One problem I have with the “having it all” myth is the idea that you have to somehow add motherhood and career onto your life, when really, there should be some way for these roles to complement each other and to be part of your life.
It’s been so great to connect with other writer-moms and see what they went through and what they struggled with at different stages. Connecting with other mothers helps with the sense of being alone.
Before I had my baby, I thought, “It’ll be hard until she reaches X milestone, and then I’ll get my life back and I’ll be myself again.” It’s not really that way at all. It’s taken some adjusting to realize that my identity has changed forever. I’m living a different life now, and that’s perfectly okay. Life is change, and change is not always bad. In this case, it’s been an incredibly positive change. There are so many ways that I feel more access to joyful experiences.
Before I had my daughter, I thought I could write the same way I was writing before, but now I realize that my identity has changed. I’m going to be writing different things, I’m going to be concerned about different things, I’m going to be feeling different ways. And again, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it will probably enrich my writing in ways that I have yet to see.
I’ve tried to make a distinction between what we generally call sentimentality and what might just be sentiment. It’s a useful distinction to make, because yes, there is a problem with excessive sentimentality in writing that instructs readers reader to feel tragic in a manipulative way, whereas sentiment is just strong feeling. I want my readers to experience strong feelings. I don’t want to be afraid or ashamed of sentiment.
I think women writers, and maybe mother writers in particular, can be denigrated or looked down upon if they’re willing to show emotion. There is a perception that if you write emotion from the perspective of motherhood, it’s inherently sentimental. But realistic writing is about showing emotion, being willing to make a reader feel something.
Many male writers write about domestic spaces and it’s seen as the height of intellectualism and experimentalism. I think about all the many Updike stories, for example, and somehow because it’s from a male perspective, focusing on the male vantage point, it’s seen as more serious, more legitimate than when women writers write about domesticity.
Moral judgment would be passed on a character who is a mother who does something transgressive like leave a child, even temporarily, to just to get away, and who is not thinking about her child at all times. The stakes are so high for a female character who has a child.
I hope that my daughter will be proud of the work I do. I want her to see me working and to see writing as a major part of my life, something that’s part of my identity.
I love a woman writer who’s willing to engage with a little bit of cruelty, a thin edge between tenderness and viciousness.
Motherhood is changing my writing about girlhood; particularly, I’m seeing how fiercely girls want to become—to grow and to become themselves. Even at my daughter’s young age, I can see it in her desires and in the way she’s trying to figure things out and how she gets excited when she’s masters a new skill. It’s a powerful desire to become, which I find deeply moving to witness, and I feel honored to witness.
When I’m writing characters, I want to try to capture that desire and that process of becoming. Everyone wants to become—and when girls are wanting to become, it’s seen as a dangerous thing. There’s something dangerous about a girl who wants something for herself, who wants to transform. I hope to write characters that have that ferocity of desire, and to engage with its danger and risk.
Before I became a mother, I thought I would feel resentment, like I was a prisoner unable to work and I would feel horrible about it. But actually, it’s more insidious than that, because I’m too busy feeling joyful with my baby. That’s why the work is not getting done. I’m the jailer. I’m the one keeping myself from writing. I did not expect that at all. The happy aspects of parenting are actually the ones preventing me from being productive right now.
My husband and I have devised a system where we each have one day a week that we’re the primary parent to give the other partner the chance to work.
It takes a concerted effort to find that quiet place I think is essential for good writing. If you’re only trying to write in little bits while feeding the baby, I don’t think you’ll be able to arrive at bolder and deeper and darker ideas. I think it’s important to have unfettered time, however you manage it, and to do your best to honor that time and only focus on writing.
It’s tempting to feel that any time you take for yourself, you’re taking it away from your child. That can be heartbreaking. I think a lot of women feel that, and it’s so unfortunate because it’s an illusion. It’s so important for women to feel okay about valuing their work and valuing themselves. And ultimately, it’s important for their children to see their mother valuing herself and valuing her work.
We need breathing spaces; we need to have private and quiet spaces for our own growth. I’m trying to remember that it’s good for my child to allow her these spaces. Even in these few months, I’ve seen how it’s usually the moment I take a little step back that she learns a new skill. A silly example: I kept trying to guide her hands and guide her hands to help her hold her sippy cup, and finally, I said, “You figure it out.” And then she did.