Writing Motherhood & Miscarriage: Transcript


Special Episode: Writing Motherhood & Miscarriage

March 31, 2021

This special episode is devoted to an issue so many women struggle with, and so few people discuss. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang, co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color, talk about why it’s important to give voice to this common pain.

Lara Ehrlich

Welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and this is a special episode about an issue so many women experience but so few discuss. Writer mothers Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang are here to talk about writing motherhood and miscarriage. Please share your thoughts and questions with us in the comment section, and we’ll weave them into our conversation. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang are the co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color.

Shannon Gibney is an award-winning author of books of all kinds, from novels to anthologies to essays to picture books. The through line in all of her work is stories that may have previously gone untold because the speakers have not had an outlet or because the stories carry darkness and fear that we prefer to look away from. Kirkus described her most recent book, Dream Country, as a necessary reckoning of tensions within the African diaspora, an introduction to its brokenness, and a place to start healing. Shannon is a professor of English at Minneapolis College where, for over 12 years, she’s worked with refugees, ex-offenders, international and in-country immigrants, indigenous and communities of color, and students from all walks of life to tell their stories and achieve their academic and professional goals. Her children are 11 and 6, and her third child would be 7. She describes writer motherhood as “exhilarating, exhausting, hilarious.”

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong-American writer. She is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. Yang is also the author of the children’s books A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, and The Most Beautiful Thing. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color. Yang’s literary nonfiction work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA Literary Awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, and garnered three Minnesota Book Awards. Her children’s books have been listed as an American Library Association Notable Book, a Zolotow Honor, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, winner of a Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature and the Heartland Booksellers Award. She is a recipient of the McKnight Fellowship in Prose, the International Institute of Minnesota’s Olga Zoltai Award for her community leadership and service to New Americans, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ 2019 Sally Award for Social Impact.

Please join me in welcoming Shannon and Kalia.

Kao Kalia Yang

Hello, lady.

Shannon Gibney  

Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you so much. Before we get into conversation, I’d love to invite Kalia to read a little bit from the book that you co-edited. A little later, we’ll hear from Shannon. Kalia, take it away.

Kao Kalia Yang 

Thank you. I’ll be reading from “In the Month of August.”

The early morning nurses and the doctors visited.

They said, “Not yet?”

We shook our heads. They put more medication inside of me.

It was noon. I could tell because there were no shadows in the room. Just the shine of the sun from the window, the wash of light from the fluorescent bulbs overhead.

I wanted to go to the bathroom. My husband helped me up from the bed. He held my hand, and we walked to the bathroom, much as we had on numerous other occasions, inside the safety of walls, within the hold of nature. He might have even swung our hands—as was his habit. Inside the bathroom, our walk was done. We stood side by side. I looked at his shoulder. He closed the door. For a moment, he held me in his arms, and the world was very far away.

He said into my hair, “You have to let go.”

My arms fell from around him.

I felt something drop in my belly, the weight I had been harboring deep inside of me, the child we had made but could not keep.

The baby came…a little boy, mouth opened like a little bird, a little boy who looked like a version of me, eyes closed, skin translucent, a little boy who weighed nothing in my arms—despite the weight, the weight of hope, the weight of humanity, the gravity of my little love story—his body was more light than anything else it could have ever been.

That autumn, we took long walks. I thought I should sit down and write. I couldn’t. The emptiness was vast inside of me. I felt hollow as the wind shifted and the weather turned. The flowers I loved started to die, one by one. The cold grew inside of me until I wished I could melt away. The contradictions in what I felt what I wanted were not lost on me. My feet meandered from the grass to the sidewalk, to the very edge of the highways, to a high bridge over water, to the edge of that very river that sliced through America, the great Mississippi River, flowing far and fast, from the future to the past.

The doctors told me that if he had been a week older, Baby Jules would have been classified as a stillbirth. They called him a miscarriage. I thought of the medical definition of the word: a spontaneous loss of a fetus before the twentieth week of pregnancy. I kept thinking there was nothing spontaneous about what I had experienced. Spontaneous in the world of writing signifies a surprise, an intervention, a positive impulse. My world of writing had nothing to do with the world I was living in anymore.

In the days after, we went through our lives, a piece at a time, looking for the parts that could hold him, a ghost baby, a dream baby, a baby that was but never will be.

I looked at autumn, my favorite season, as I had never seen it before, barren, full of bold promises waiting to die. Words made no more sense.

My annual garden, dollar-store pots full of cheerful blooms, my geraniums, marigolds, begonias, impatiens, could continue living, but I didn’t want them to. I stopped watering them. I watched them die. The blooms withered first, then the leaves started drying out in the sun and the strong winds. I thought about watering them in those final days, but my heart was so heavy I could not find the strength. What did a few more days of bloom matter when in the end, we would all die anyway?

The autumn passed between moments of life feeling almost normal, me talking to the people I love who loved me, trying to find perspective, and then other moments when I wished I had never met my husband and fallen in love with him, gotten married, gotten pregnant, when I wished I had never delivered a dead baby into the world—a baby the world would never know as mine. Then, I would cry and cry and cry until there were no more tears, until the throbbing in my head grew stronger than the beat of my own heart.  

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Kalia, for your bravery and for reading your personal experience here today. I really appreciate it, and I’m sure listeners do as well. According to March of Dimes, about 10 to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. It is believed that approximately 50% of all pregnancies—those might be pregnancies before a woman knows she is pregnant—end in miscarriage, and yet it’s something so few talk about, so thank you both for this anthology of women’s stories. It is such a vital resource for women who are going through this, often in silence. Tell us a little bit about your own experience, Kalia. Did you feel as though you had to suffer this loss in silence? And that’s a question for Shannon, too.

Kao Kalia Yang

No, I’m a very open person. When I was expecting my first child, it was very public. I told my friends on social media. I wasn’t hiding the experiences that I that I was feeling in my body. My mother had suffered seven miscarriages, so I knew that it was it was possible. And yeah, miscarriage is not something a writer yearns to understand from that place, and yet, it was a story that came upon me. When I went through my experience, I was so taken aback. I had no idea it was possible to love a baby in the process, and that the world couldn’t quite feel my grief with me, or there were no other places where I could express that. I went to social media. And that was how Shannon first came upon this loss. I’ve always been an open person, and there was nothing to indicate to me that I should be silent about this as well.

Shannon Gibney  

Kao Kalia Yang suffered her loss about a year before mine. I saw that post. We are both writers based in the Twin Cities. There’s a growing number of us BIPOC writers, but there’s not that many of us, so we all know each other, and we follow each other’s work. We were acquaintances, and I saw that post, and it affected me. But, of course, things affect you one way when they’re not you, and they affect you a different way when you experience them yourself.

About a year later, I was pregnant with my second child. I was 41 and a half weeks pregnant, so the baby was 10 days late. I went into labor and went to the midwifery clinic, and they tried to find the heartbeat and couldn’t find it. It was at that point that I was rushed to the hospital. I’ll read a little bit from that section later on, from my piece in the book that details what happened. But yeah, I mean, the shock of it, right? I think Kao Kalia Yang really hit the nail on the head when she said these things happen, but you just don’t think it’s gonna happen to you. There are a lot of different reasons for that, but there’s a big cultural silence around this.

Kao Kalia Yang and I, in talking about the process of getting this book together, always say that we were doing what writers do, which is looking at literature to reflect our experience as a way to start to heal, as a way to start to put some of that trauma in perspective. I don’t want to say get rid of it, because it’s still there, but each of us, in our own ways and in our own times, went looking for things—any books or movies, articles—especially around indigenous or women of color, but we were not finding things that really spoke to us. Kalia, do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Kao Kalia Yang

It was maybe about a month after Shannon’s loss. We were pregnant at the same time. Shannon was a little bit before me, but I was in the hospital. I’d put on water weight—that week was particularly hot in Minnesota—and I’d gone in to see the doctor, and they were a little bit concerned about the water weight. They wanted to know if I wanted to induce, that it was time. I did not want to induce. I turned on my social media as I was trying to make this decision, this hard decision in the doctor’s office, and I saw a post from Shannon, and it was, “If you’re pregnant, and it is time for your baby to come out, consider inducing because the risk of stillbirth goes up the longer you wait.”

Shannon’s post made the decision for me—for the delivery of Shengyeng, my second born, but the first child that came to me alive. Our stories then were linked in ways that we couldn’t have predicted. We were chatting, about a month after her loss, and she said, “One day when you’re ready, when I’m ready, would you ever want to put together something, because I’ve been looking…”—and I, too, had been looking. I’d spent a whole year looking. And so immediately, I said yes. When we’re both ready, let’s do this. And that’s exactly what we did. And that is, of course, the seed of What God Is Honored Here.

For both of us, there was no question that we had to deliver something to the world, something to the women who had experienced similar losses, something, I think, for each other and ourselves.

Lara Ehrlich

When did you feel ready to bring those stories together? How did you know you were ready? What was the decision around that process?

Kao Kalia Yang

I had, after my daughter, given birth to identical twin sons, and I knew that that was it for me. I had coded in the experience of delivering the boys, and the risks were too high. And then one day, Shannon wrote me, and we met up at my favorite coffee shop in the city from the days before this pandemic. That really was where the conversation began. Shannon had, by this time, given birth to her youngest, Mawe. She also knew that it was the end of those years. We could finally meet these stories and place them somewhere in the spectrum of our lives, in ways that we couldn’t have earlier. Before the boys, I would have never been ready to meet Baby Jules in the way that I am able to today. I think we were then ready to carry not only our own stories but the gravity of others. I think that process that happens inside when the heart flowers up, and you know that you can hold a lot more tears than you were able to before.

Lara Ehrlich

How did you invite others to join you in this book?

Shannon Gibney  

We have extensive contacts ourselves. The writing world is small in general. And then for women of color and indigenous woman, it’s even smaller. But also, we knew that there were people who maybe didn’t consider themselves writers who had stories to tell and just needed a push and some support and some access to create something powerful. We wanted a representative collection. We wanted to make sure that we had Black woman stories, Latina woman stories, Native women’s stories, Asian-American woman stories, and stories for Muslim women—not just women who identify as Christian.

We knew we wanted that, but we also knew we wanted the collection to be very strong writing. I understand that everybody processes things differently, but for me, it just increased my pain because it made me feel more isolated to encounter the stock language around stillbirth and miscarriage, like, “Oh my angel,” you know … “now she’s in heaven, and I know my heart will never be the same.”

Kalia and I are both open people—I’m a little blunter than she is, for sure, although when you get to know her, she’s very blunt in the best way possible. But anyway, when I read literature and stories, I want to be confronted with the truth, especially around pregnancy and birth and infant loss, but a lot of other things, too, like women’s bodies. I’m 46 now, and I don’t know how many more years I’ll have until I go through menopause, but that’s another thing nobody really talks about. Like, what is that actually like in your body?

There are all these things that are shrouded in mystery around women’s bodies, and a lot of it is painful, difficult stuff, so I really wanted stories that were like, no—this is what happened. This is how it felt when I was rushed into the bathroom in the hospital because I thought I had to go to the bathroom, but actually it was my baby coming out. You know, I had to balance one foot on the lever of the toilet, and three doctors rushed in to catch her, and there was blood and gunk everywhere. It’s like, I wanted that. I wanted that real visceral depiction of that, and I wasn’t finding it anywhere—and not in a sensational sense but just like this is what really happens when you go through miscarriage.

We have a piece in here about sudden infant death syndrome, which is also horrifying and very sad. Rona Fernandez, the writer, just depicts that so vividly, and it breaks your heart, but it is incredibly welcome. So, that’s what we wanted. We put out a call, and, I mean, it really wasn’t that laborious, in terms of trying to figure out what pieces we need to make this a multifaceted collection.

I will say I’m glad I had a partner like Kalia. A lot of people have said to us, “Oh my gosh—how could you go through all those stories of women losing babies?” I’m not gonna say it was easy, I’m certainly not going to say it was fun, but I will say I felt called to do this work. That’s the kind of writers that both Kalia and I are, and I think it would have been too much for one person. I really do. I’m very grateful that I had somebody like Kalia to walk the journey with me, and it brought us closer together—definitely much closer together. We’re really close now.

Lara Ehrlich

Could you talk about the process of editing the stories while respecting the voices of the women who contributed—the logistics of word choice and narrative structure, all the craft parts of the stories that feel like they could possibly be antithetical to the raw emotion of the women writing the story. But first, Kalia, did you have something to add to what Shannon was saying?

Kao Kalia Yang

I do. I think one of the most important things about this journey for me—and I think for Shannon—is knowing that we were not alone. In putting together this book, we felt our togetherness rise. That was one of the gifts of this experience. For all of the hurting, there was in that so much hope and so much beauty, especially at those early launch events.

In terms of the editing, I think one of the hardest things to ask was for our writers to linger. There were moments, and we knew those moments are so real, when a writer wants to run fast across a landscape of trauma or grief. One of the hardest things we had to ask contributors was to just slow down. And some of them said, “I need more time,” or “every time I try, all I find is tears, all I find is space.”

What Shannon and I had to do was ride that very fine line between being sensitive to the needs of our writers but also guiding this project along. Because we were a group moving in concert; we’re going to the same place, and we could only make it there if we didn’t lose anybody along the way. I think that’s really where the generosity of Shannon’s heart, and the patience of my own, were able to come together.

So, beyond just the word choice, Lara, beyond the level of the language itself, we wanted to give them creative freedom in terms of crafting the thing, so Shannon and I didn’t mess too much with structure. There were parts where we wanted them to linger, parts that needed to be cut a little bit here and there.

This was not a book Shannon or I would have voluntarily said we wanted to write or edit. And yet it was the project that had fallen upon us, as writers. I think when we said we would do it, there was a kind of responsibility that we were taking on, that neither Shannon nor myself wanted to take lightly. That was the hardest part, definitely—I don’t know if Shannon would agree, but I suspect so: asking people to linger.

You know, when you say the face of miscarriage: the baby dropped into your hands, what happened? Soniah Kamal, one of our contributors, wrote that while the baby dropped through her hands, the baby’s body slipped her fingers, but the head was still there, the head the size of a quarter. And what to do with the face of your baby? That question was the question that Soniah wanted to run by. And that was what I asked her as an editor. And her courage astounded me, at the thing she wrote. Shannon and I, you know, our hearts pause for a bit of time. What was it for you?

Shannon Gibney  

Yeah, I mean, the amount of bravery and brilliance; all our contributors in the collection pushed us through the really hard parts. And that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments, especially when the book came out, where people had differing responses to certain descriptions of things. People maybe got activated by some kind of discussion, and we had to work through some things, so I don’t want to be romantic about organizing with BIPOC folks because I do a lot of work in that area. I think that just makes things harder in the long run. People are people, regardless of our racial and cultural backgrounds, and regardless of what we’ve been through and made it through and what we carry with us and what we’ve let go of.

We sort of talked about the process of making the book and certainly afterwards, too, because now we have a whole group that we keep up with and share information and good news, stuff like this. People want to jump on and watch and comment and whatnot. We often say that the process of putting the book together is sort of like a template for processing trauma, in a lot of ways.

Kao Kalia Yang

And I’ll just add, Lara, there was the violence of what we had experienced, and then there was the violence from, in so many ways, white majority culture. From the very onset, when we published the call, we got personal messages from white people saying, “Why are you isolating us? Why are you excluding us?” And then, when we got the submissions, white men submitted, and we, as women of color editors, made decisions. We said, I’m sorry, your piece is not a good fit for this collection. We got pushback, and that continued on right to the evening of our launch event. There was a person whose social media icon was a rifle, and they posted in the launch page.

There were all of these forces that we were contending with, beyond just the experiences that we’ve undergone or the experiences of collecting these voices into this collection. We were also meeting certain forces in the majority culture along the way, where Shannon and I understood that there always a measure of risk that we were taking.

I think at every point, the writer decides who you want to be, whether you’re going to give in to these bigger forces that are trying to push down voices and presences like yours, or while you take up that space, and you do so with dignity. And every turn, Shannon and I didn’t respond personally, but we chose to do the work that was before us as courageously as possible. In that way, you’re the process, and you’re the courage that it took to undertake such a project and to carry through with it.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s unsurprising but devastating to hear at the same time. Can we talk a little bit about the need for a collection like this to be by women, specifically? A man’s story about miscarriage, of course, is heartbreaking as well, and there’s a pain and a loss there—but this is a collection for women. Could you talk a little bit about the need for women’s stories of loss and giving voice to what happens in a woman’s body? Shannon, you talked a little bit about the language surrounding that. We could talk a little bit about guilt and shame and the way women’s bodies are portrayed in literature generally. Shannon, during our planning meeting, you talked about how women’s bodies are often objectified as sexy or desirable. Is there a place for women’s bodies in other iterations?

Shannon Gibney  

I have a lot of favorite movies for a lot of different reasons. In Bridesmaids—Kalia and I bonded over this random scene—they’re all trying on bridesmaids’ outfits, and then they discovered that they’ve eaten this really bad meat at this Brazilian restaurant, and this disgusting, hilarious, revolting scene ensues, where everybody just starts vomiting and diarrhea. And Kristen Wiig, in an interview talking about it, was just like, you know, women are just not really allowed body humor, like full body humor. She’s like, I just wanted to do a full-on bash, unapologetic, woman’s body humor scene. I think that’s one of the reasons why I just love that scene.

That ties into our conversation here because I do feel like there’s these very particular ways that women are embodied in popular culture, and in American dominant discourse. We’re allowed to be objectified sexually, certainly, and in this cult of motherhood, as long as all your buttons are in a row, you know, you can be a mess, but you can’t be a grotesque mess. We don’t want to hear about the fluids. We don’t want to see the fluids. We know that miscarriage and infant loss and dead babies happen, but we don’t really want to know about how that happened in the body and what that feels like and what are the ramifications of that, in terms of recovery and all this stuff. We really don’t want to hear about that as a culture.

I think Kalia would be a good person to talk about the domain of white men in the genre of memoir. It’s just been so dominant for so long, and that definitely is something we want to shatter.

Kao Kalia Yang 

Shannon’s absolutely right. And I think it’s important for us to say, as women, and to speak to the truth of a bigger world: maternal health is incredibly understudied. When cars get into accidents, airbags are tested on men dummies, not women. Across the board, when you start talking about marginalized women and their health care, there’s the start of studies, but even on the level of women, we’re less than 30% of all of the research that is done about how safe it is to be in our cars or how medications affect our bodies. We’re under-thought and under-considered—in literature, yes, but also in the medical industry.

For Shannon and I to put together this collection, we were speaking to all of that, as well as the history in this country and other countries, about women and children and the separation. I’m thinking immediately about what’s happening at our southern borders. I’m thinking about the Hmong refugees and what happened in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America came, and said, “We want your children to fight the war”—8, 9, 10, 11 years old. Americans did not make army boots for children. And every time a bomb fell, because Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the world, only the world didn’t know it, it was the children whose boots fell off their feet first. That’s how people knew that they killed children.

In the African American context, we have this history of slavery. And then, of course, now the school to prison pipeline. There are so many reasons why women are separated from their children in this country that we as a country have never reckoned with.

This book brings all of that grief into focus. Beyond experiences of miscarriage and infant loss, we’re talking about all of the forces that have created all these divisions, all the sad, broken mothers, mothers who have to be stronger than they are to hold some idea of family and legacy. I knew at the onset that we were tackling all of these things. By focusing on the very specifics, we speak to the universal. And so that is exactly what we’re doing here.

I have younger sisters who are in graduate school, and they read this book, because I co-edited it, and one of them had been a women and gender studies major, and she said, “I wish we had a book like this. College women need books like this.” This is also what happened to our bodies. And the fact is, as a women and gender studies student myself, there were no such books in my experience, so there are all of these secrets that we are forced into hiding from each other, from other women, all along the way. Part of the work of this project is to begin to make some noise. We need representation in research. We need representation in literature. But more importantly, we need you to understand that our lives are important to the whole of this operation. The human experiment.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you. You’ve just got me streaming tears here. Sorry. Shannon, go ahead.

Shannon Gibney

My mom, who’s a former therapist, always says we’re a grief-averse culture, and most western cultures are. We don’t want to deal with grief. I don’t want to appropriate Hmong culture, but it has ceremonies and outlets in place to help people productively channel their grief in a way that we don’t culturally have in mainstream American culture, and that has all these ramifications. You can’t let go of something if you haven’t had it moved through you.

Lara Ehrlich

Shannon, something else you mentioned in our planning session was that women as caretakers protect others from our own pain. Can you talk a little bit about that, about what our conditioning as caretakers sets us up for when experiencing loss like this?

Shannon Gibney  

It looks like Kalia wanted to say something.

Kao Kalia Yang

I was just thinking about how, yes, we have rituals in place, but in this pandemic, all of those rituals for grief have been effectively obliterated. We cannot grieve together. That is the essence of communal grief, and we cannot grieve together, so I think about that and about the layering of that for women who have undergone miscarriage and infant loss in this pandemic. These are the undercurrents of our existences. They’re not on pause because we’re going through something else right now. I cannot begin to conceive of what it must have been like for so many women who’ve experienced loss at this time, when our focus is on the magnitude of this big thing and all of the tests related to COVID that we are suffering from. Also layered and complicated is that onion of womanhood that nobody really wants to peel back the surface of. I think this speaks directly to the responsibilities and goals of so many women as caretakers.

Shannon Gibney  

Totally. Thank you for that current contextualization. I was just reading a story in the Washington Post, talking about grieving from the perspective of psychologists and therapists, and I’ve definitely seen it with my friends who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. It just makes it so much harder when you cannot say goodbye and gather with people.

So, the book launched in October 2019, so we had probably a good six months of events at bookstores. We have a really vibrant book industry and bookish culture here in the Twin Cities that’s very supportive. The audiences were always smaller than we thought they might be—again because this is such a difficult topic, I think, for folks to embrace—but there was one woman I remember, an older white woman who came up to me after I read my piece, and said, “You just said it. You just said, ‘The baby’s dead.’” She looked like she was in her 60s, maybe. She was like, “I never felt like I could say that, just say what happened. I had to sort of dance around it delicately—she didn’t make it, we lost her, or she’s in heaven now. I never could just lay out the bare truth of my baby died. She’s dead. Because I knew that other people couldn’t handle it, and I had to take care of them and their emotional needs.”

And it just struck me. I mean, I felt like in this process, so many older women have come up to us and shared these stories. Earlier times, when our culture was even more closed about these losses than we are now, and just the added layers of grief that that created for them, that they are still working through, because a woman is never going to forget a baby that she’s had ever, no matter what the outcome is. A friend told me her mom was on her deathbed and wasn’t ready to go. Everybody has different belief systems, but she saw her child that she had lost, her baby that she had lost, and then she was ready.

I’ll read just a little bit from my piece. It’s called “Sianneh: The Trip Was Good.”

I don’t want to be here.

I lie down on the bed.

The doctor sits on the chair beside me. She squirts some transmission fluid on my raised stomach, and an image of a baby lying on her back, feet up, comes onto the screen. The baby is not moving. The baby has no heartbeat.

Two more doctors come into the room and stand next to [my midwife] Amy, who is seated in the corner.

“Okay,” says the doctor with the ultrasound probe. “So yes. The baby has no heartbeat.” She puts the ultrasound probe down and stands up.

I look from her back to the screen, and the baby still isn’t moving. “Okay,” I say. I want to ask her how to get the heartbeat started again, but some part of my brain is telling me not to say that.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”

I look to Amy, then each of the three doctors beside her. Discomfort drains their faces, though I can see they are trying hard to mask it. I wonder how it feels to have to tell a woman something like that and then still be expected to remain professional. It must not be easy. I asked if I can go to the bathroom.

Once inside the bathroom, I grip the sink until my knuckles are white, and stare into the spotless mirror. The woman looking back at me has dark -brown eyes that hold nothing. What was once a sharp chin is now round and plump. Her hair freezes all over from the humidity. I turn on the faucet as high as it will go, and flush the toilet. Then I scream. The woman in the mirror screams and lets go the sink as she does it. She wonders if she is just a copy of herself today, and if her real self is back at home, washing dishes. She does not want to go back into the patient room, because she knows they will tell her what she has to do next, and she does not want to know what she has to do next. She does not want to leave the bathroom, because she will have to say to her husband, Our baby is dead. She does not want to call her mother, because her mother will cry, and nothing will make her stop. She does not like to see or hear her mother cry. She will have to rewrite the story of the pregnancy, and the baby coming, the happy house, her young son so eager to be a brother. Now the story will center on a chapter in which the eagerly awaited baby dies in utero, never to be cuddled and warmed in her arms, never to scream and demand a diaper change, never to suckle her breast. The woman does not want that story. She is not ready for it, for what it will mean—not just now, today, tonight, but forever, for the rest of her life. The weight of that story could crush all other stories of her life and the lives of those she loves. She does not want that. She is too tired, and she wants to sleep. She wants to awaken.

I place my hand on my belly and tell my baby I love her. Then I open the door. I shuffle slolwy back to the room, telling myself this is real with every step.

“What do I have to do?” I ask them.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Shannon. It seems like an obvious question to ask, and I know that you both have been asked this question. You’ve told me that people ask you, why can’t you just get over it? It shouldn’t even be a question somebody should ask. I think anyone who hears your stories would immediately understand why you can’t just get over it—but could you talk about that question and the how it’s been asked of you, and why women are expected just to get over something that is so powerful?

Kao Kalia Yang

For me, the question really begins with us, not in the history books of America. When people read about American history, they read about the Vietnam War, what happened in the war to the Americans. They don’t read about the 32,000 men and boys commissioned to fight and to die on America’s behalf in Laos. They don’t write about the countless women and children who were slaughtered in that war. We are secret because the Central Intelligence Agency expected that none of us would surface from the hot humid jungle, where we felt like jungle fruit, rotting among the leaves. And yet, here I am.

People ask me all the time, who are you? And where are you from? And I try to explain, but nothing makes sense until I talk about that war. Nothing makes sense about how I am and who I am until I speak to the undocumented. The same is true of my miscarriage, who I am as a mother, who I am as a wife, who I am as a daughter, who I am as a friend, who I am as a human being.

My husband and I go back to this very, very tiny moment. Three months after the miscarriage, I go to my mom and dad’s house. My mom had seven miscarriages after I was born, but I’m sitting on their toilet, and I’m not crying, but I feel liquid on my thighs, and I looked down and I noticed that it’s the milk coming from my chest, from my breast, that without a baby, my body is creating a substance that falls in the wake of my tears. And I start crying because I don’t know what to do and I don’t quite know how to navigate the moment. I hear this gentle knock on the outside of the door, and my mom says, “I’m here.” And that was enough. You know, that was enough. I knew what was waiting for me when that door opened.

In many ways, I imagined that one day when I’m very old, when my children are grown up, and if I don’t remember any more, that this book here means that when I opened that door, there will be someone there who understands, there will be someone there that gets at the heart of who I am. Why is this book necessary? Because I know that that door opens for everyone, and when it is my turn, even if I don’t remember any more, I wanted to remind me of myself—what it has cost, what it has given, what it has granted, in this experience.

Shannon Gibney  

There are so much many parts to that question. Because it’s not about getting over; it’s really about acceptance. What is real? This really happened? No. I grew this person inside of me, and they died before they came out, and that is something that is written in my body forever. It’s written on my soul, and that’s not something I have a choice about. I have a choice about whether I share how that affects me, which is really what that question is pointing to. I don’t want you to share this with me because it makes me feel pain, and I don’t want that, which is a normal human response. It’s misguided. There’s no way you can avoid pain as a human being. Plenty of people who try usually end up with other problems, like addiction but no meaningful relationships in their lives. It just doesn’t work.

And the thing about it is, the reason why I feel pain, such searing pain that cleaves you, just cleaves you, is because of the immensity of the love that I had and still have for my daughter. You can’t have one thing without the other. You just can’t. That’s the problem with this whole grief-averse culture. Oh, I just want to be happy. Well, then you’re gonna have to be sad sometimes. That’s just the way it goes.

People always comment on my two living children, how they always mention their sister all the time. I’ve got a sister—oh, but I’ve got another one. She’s just dead. To him, it’s just a fact, right? He loved her and she’s not here now. And they make up all kinds of stuff, like if she were here, we’d have to get a bigger car. It wouldn’t be enough. We’d have to get another bedroom. There wouldn’t be enough room for her. “She’d probably laugh at that joke because Molly laughed at it”—you know, whatever, all this stuff.

My mom was talking to my son recently. They were making this book project together. And they had a whole two-page spread about her, and my mom was like, “Some people don’t like to talk about people they love who have died.” And she said my boy’s face just fell, and he was like, “Why?” And she’s like, “Because they don’t want to feel sad.” And he’s like, “But she’s my sister.”

It’s just a question that doesn’t have a response because it answers itself. Like, why did you walk here? Because I walked here. Why do you love me? Because I love you. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it a Kōan. Like, there is no answer.

Lara Ehrlich

That touches on something I’ve always wondered about: the traditional three-month period where you aren’t supposed to tell people you’re pregnant, in case you lose the child. I remember telling just my closest family that I was pregnant; I wanted the people I loved and who loved me to know I was pregnant so that if I lost the baby, they could gather around me and support me and help me through it. Although I didn’t tell my boss or my friends or anyone else beyond my family, if I were to get pregnant again, I think I would tell everyone widely, as soon as I knew, for just that reason.

That goes back to the ruling last week in New Zealand, where women now have a grieving period when they’ve suffered a miscarriage. Why that isn’t the norm in the United States probably goes back to ingrained biases about health care and women’s health. What I’m getting at is: What do you both think about that three-month waiting period? And do you agree with me that it protects others from the possibility of your pain, and then ostensibly puts you in a position where if you suffer loss, you’re suffering in silence?

Kao Kalia Yang

I think one of the most beautiful things about that is that it acknowledges there is a loss to begin with. That is still a question. How many months? How many weeks before a loss becomes valid? Women will say, “Oh, but mine is nothing like yours.” Or it was too early. There was this whole discomfort around the language. What is valid? What are we allowed to feel in the space and time of three months, acknowledging that we’ve suffered something and that our hearts our body need time to gather itself? I think that is the gift of an acknowledgement. It is kind of the opposite of what goes on in this country, in so many countries, where we’re expected to continue with life, as if that part of our living bodies had never happened.

Shannon Gibney   

And also, a lot can happen any time. I mean, my case, I’m one in a million, right? There are women who have all kinds of predispositions toward dangerous birth outcomes and all kinds of things. I wasn’t one of them. I was in perfect health, nothing was wrong, and I lost my baby 10 days after she was due. She was a full-term baby. I hate to tell people, but it’s a myth. It’s this mythology, right? It’s sort of like, “Oh, is it safe after three months?” It’s like, no. Then it gets to, well, who are we really protecting here?

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, it’s not something you hear about in childbirth classes or when you go to the hospital tour. In my case, they didn’t even talk about the possibility of a C-section. It was all, like, “Oh, but none of you probably will need to worry about that.” Of course, most of us probably need to think about what would happen if we needed a C-section. I’d rather know. And, of course, miscarriages are never mentioned in any of those classes. Then you’re left trying to seek out your own support and resources after the fact, when you’re least equipped to do so. Kalia, you mentioned early on that you wanted to talk about how this experience has changed you as a writer.

Kao Kalia Yang

I’ve always loved languages. But when I suffered the loss, the baby who died inside of me, when it was time for me to write again, I had the hardest time trusting words. It was as if the language itself had betrayed me. All of the beautiful words that I stored inside my heart for a time when I would need it, none of them were able to do the job.

It took having Shengyeng, and I want to say this because it is true. If I had never had Shengyeng, if the baby I lost was as close as it came for me, that experience would be fundamentally different in my life. But because there was Shengyeng, I remember when she was first born, I was holding her feet in my hands, and I could feel the throbbing of her heart, and I remember being, perhaps 6 years old, and holding a little bird for the very first time and feeling the beat of the bird’s heart. Something inside of me was able to fly again, because of her. But the flight was now so much more treacherous than I had ever imagined. I knew the fragility of life in a way that I couldn’t have conceived of. And now I think whenever I write, I write from this place, that cherishes life so much more than before. Before, life was this gift that I’d been granted and I could explore in any way that I wanted to—run across its terrain, jump and fly, whatever I wanted to do, dig if I wanted. But now there’s this kind of gentleness with which I approach all living things, because of the loss of the living thing inside of me, because of my own fragile life in the days after. There were so many moments when, if I closed my eyes, I believed I could slow my heart. And I believed I could die right along with my baby. Just close my eyes and slow everything down. I never knew that could happen before. And now because I know that, that informs everything I do on the page, the sensitivity of my touch, the gentleness of my regard for everything that lives; how hard it is to live. I wanted to speak to that, how we are forever changed by our experiences, and how these experiences enable and embody so much of who we are across the realms of our lives.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Kalia. Shannon, same question to you.

Shannon Gibney

I’m a very high-functioning person, and I couldn’t do anything for like, two months, maybe more. My best friend flew out from New York, and she organized my friends here into different tasks. People brought us food, people took out the trash, people washed dishes, people picked up my son and dropped him off at daycare. I literally could not do anything, and my body was healing, but my mind was not there. It took time for me to come back to language, to the written word. I, too, couldn’t write for a while, which is really hard because writing and reading are a really a big part of how I make sense of the world and my experience in it. So that was hard. I wasn’t scared about it because I knew it would come back when it was time.

I think the experience has made me a different kind of parent, too, because when you’ve had a loss like that, you know how fragile and lucky you are for all the life that you have. With my next pregnancy, it’s like hyper-vigilance, to an unhealthy level, when she was in utero and after she came out. Both my children. I will check on them even still now, when they’re sleeping. I just want to make sure they’re breathing and there’s no problem, because it can just be snatched away from you, at the smallest moment and when you’re not looking or maybe even when you are. It’s not up to you, at a certain level, and is therefore terrifying and also humbling.

I feel deeply that if you’re writing and you’re not telling the truth, I don’t know why you would write. We can’t choose the truth that we’ve been tasked to document. That’s what has been given to us, and sometimes it might feel too heavy, and sometimes it might be too heavy, but that also is how it is. I feel like it’s changed me in so many different ways. Certainly, before becoming a mother, I wasn’t writing about motherhood. And certainly, before stillbirth and pregnancy loss, I wasn’t writing about that or even really thinking about that. And those are definitely huge. They become huge parts of my writing.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you both so much. Kalia, do you have anything final to add?

Kao Kalia Yang

Just want to say thank you for having us. And Shannon, I want to say this to you. I don’t think I’ve ever formally said these words aloud. Your grace and your generosity as a human being, as a mother, as a friend, and a sister has been a gift to me, not only in the making of this book but in making the world softer and gentler. We know what’s going on across this country. You know, particularly with AAPI hate presently. But even in this moment, your friendship and your generosity has somehow made everything easier. It’s easier for me to go outside among strangers, because I know there are some strangers like you in the world. I wanted to say that to you, that yes, our journey began with What God Is Honored Here, but our journey travels far beyond that. Thank you both.

Shannon Gibney  

Thank you, Kalia. Kalia is as gorgeous a speaker as she is a writer. I think that that’s the other gift of this project. I have a soul friend, and that’s also somebody that has your back, too. And there’s, unfortunately, far too few examples of that for African-American women and Asian-American women. Kalia and I both talk about our friendship publicly, because we want a model that for other people, what the possibilities can look like.

Privately, in our own friendship, it’s like we just try to support each other, professionally and personally. Sometimes, it can be very hard being a woman of color writer. Being a writer is hard anyway, and then if you come from a historically marginalized community, it’s just another level of difficulty, so we really try to leverage our resources and our knowledge and our connections, so I just also want to thank you, Kalia, for being this real light in my life and through this process.

And, Lara, thank you for having us on for this really important conversation. We appreciate you making the time.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you both for joining me, for your honesty, for your advocacy for your book, and just for yourselves.

Jennifer Chen Transcript


Writer Mother Monster: Jennifer Chen

March 25, 2021

Jennifer Chen is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and Bust on subjects ranging from emotional labor and pro wrestling to miscarriage and the Stop Asian Hate Movement. She has an MFA and BFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is an alumnae of Hedgebrook, a women’s writing residency. Jennifer lives in Los Angeles with her TV-writer husband, twin 5-year-old daughters, and a snorty pug named Chewbacca. She describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: “longest shortest time.”

Lara Ehrlich

Hello, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest tonight is Jennifer Chen. Before I introduce Jennifer, thank you all for tuning in. You can watch this interview as a video, listen to it as a podcast, and read the transcript on writermothermonster.com. And if you enjoyed the episode, please consider becoming a patron or patroness on Patreon, starting at just $3. I’ll send you a Writer Mother Monster pin.

With no further ado, I’m excited to introduce Jennifer. Jennifer Chen is a journalist who has written for the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; Real Simple; and Bust on subjects ranging from emotional labor and pro-wrestling to miscarriage and the Stop Asian Hate movement. She has an MFA and BFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is an alumnus of Hedgebrook, a women’s writing residency. Jennifer lives in LA with her TV writer husband, twin 5-year-old daughters, and a pug named Chewbacca. She describes writer motherhood in three words as “longest, shortest time.” And as always, please chat with us in the comments section, and we’ll weave your comments and questions into the conversation. Please join me in welcoming Jennifer.

Jennifer Chen 

Hi.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you so much for joining me. Let’s just jump right into the early years of mothering twins!

Jennifer Chen

Well, it was really just figuring out how to be a mom to two babies but also how to continue writing. My agent told me that she was leaving a month before I found out I was pregnant with them. So, I was like, oh, I have to find a new agent, but I’m also gonna have babies. It just totally threw me off. That was the curveball. Originally, I was like, okay, well, I’ll write a new book. And it took a really long time to write that new book. I probably finished it two and a half years later.

I asked my writing teacher, “What do I do? How do I still write when I have these babies at home?” And he said, “Could you write for 15 minutes a day? Do you have 15 minutes?” And I realized when I was pumping, that was 15 minutes. I would wake up in the middle night to pump for the next day’s feeding, at four in the morning, and I’d be in my laptop, attached to my breast pump. I don’t think anything ever made it into the final book. It was terrible writing. But I was just exercising a muscle in the dark. I was like, I just need to have one, little space where my brain isn’t occupied by these two beings. And so that was what I did.

Lara Ehrlich

I remember being afraid that I would never write again. I had that feeling of “If I can’t figure out the time to write, am I no longer a writer? Will I ever be a writer?” It sounds like when you were able to make that time and finish something, even if it wasn’t the piece that you hoped it would be, that it could sustain you and keep you moving and feeling like you were a writer.

Jennifer Chen

Yes. I had a lot of fears when I was pregnant that I wouldn’t write after they were born. And then every mother writer that I asked was like, “You kind of just do it. You just figure it out in the midst of all that stuff.” I think that was really helpful to hear. I just got more creative with my time and got really more efficient. The writing self-doubt—I was like, I don’t have time for that. I just have time to write. That really helped, because I used to labor over my writing, but then it was like, I only had this small amount of time. Just write. Even if it’s garbage, just write.

Lara Ehrlich

I’m sure it wasn’t garbage. Nothing’s wasted, right? I listed all the amazing places you’ve been published, and I want to talk about the journalism side, but first, how’s the fiction side going? What happened with the book that you wrote while you were pumping?

Jennifer Chen

I queried that, and I signed with an agent in December 2019. She gave me an edit letter, we worked on the revisions, and then we were psyched to get out on submission. I think we went on submission in June or July, in the middle of the pandemic. My book is a YA contemporary, but it’s pretty dark. There’s a school shooting in it. We can always kind of knew that it might not be for everybody. I think it was especially hard realizing that nobody wants to read anything dark right now. But there was nothing I could do about that. We just had to keep going. So that book’s out on a second round of submissions right now.

This week, I’m just about to turn in a draft of a YA rom-com that I’m really excited about that I wrote last fall. I just wanted to work on something fun. It’s been really a heavy year, and I had written a lot of heavy stuff, so I was like, let me just do something for fun—for me. And then it just turned out really well. I got feedback, and I’m working on it to send to my agent, because I really want it to be a really good draft for my agent to critique. That’s where things are with fiction.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s exciting. A lot of things happening. I think it ties into something you said you particularly wanted to talk about tonight, which is finding joy in difficult times. It sounds like one way you’re doing that is by writing something fun. Can you talk a little bit about that decision to work on a rom-com and that departure from really dark fiction?

Jennifer Chen

When I was on submission, I wanted to work on something new and different, because I had been working on that book for a really long time. And also, that would get my mind off the submission process. I listed a few ideas and ran them by my agent, and she was like, “You sound the most excited about the rom-com.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I think it would be fun, and it’s an idea I’ve had for a while.” When I decided to start working on it, it was fun. I set it in Los Angeles, and it included a lot of things that I really love personally, so it felt really easy to write. I know that sounds weird to say, but it just felt like a relief.

During the day, I was researching and reading statistics and seeing the awfulness of what was happening to the Asian-American community, so when I wasn’t doing that, I was in this other world, and it felt really light and fun. I just let my brain go somewhere else for a little bit. Now that I’m rewriting and revising it, I look at it, and I’m like, “You saved me.” It really saved my mental health. I think it was the one place I could go and have fun with these characters. No one else was reading it, so it was just me. It was very humorous and light, just two kids falling in love. That felt like a really nice place to escape to, versus the reality of where we were at physically.

Lara Ehrlich

I’ve been reading a lot of romance for that reason: you just want something fun to escape to. I’m trying to write a romance, but it keeps veering into dark territory. Maybe I’m just not cut out for fun. I don’t know. I would be nice to have more fun with writing. Let’s veer into that darkness for a second, with the Stop Asian Hate movement and what has been happening. Even before last week’s shooting, you had been writing about the Stop Asian Hate Movement. Can you talk a little bit about that writing and also what it’s been like for the last week or so?

Jennifer Chen

Sure. If I could circle all the way back to March 2020, my girls were at the time in preschool, and their preschool shut down March 13, so they came home. My editor at what was then called oprahmagazine.com—now oprahdaily.com—had emailed me and asked, “Do you want to write about why “Kung-Flu” and the “Chinese Virus” is racist?” And I said, “Yes. When is it due?” And she said, “Can you give it to me tomorrow?”

If my kids weren’t home, I could easily pull that off, but this was maybe one week into quarantine, and my husband and I had to split up childcare, so my girls were with me when I was writing it. What I decided to do was write in the backyard while they played—just making sure they’re safe, while I’m going to get this draft on. I told them to pretend like I wasn’t there unless there was an emergency, and they just stared at me for a good 10 minutes, and then they were bored of just looking at me and started playing, and I wrote that piece.

I started at noon, I think, and finished at 5 p.m., and I believe it went live the next day. That was a really new experience for me. That’s not what I had done pre-pandemic, but it taught me a lot about writing something that quickly, because I also had to contact sources, I had to look up statistics, and do it all pretty quickly.

I feel like what it taught me was that all those 15-minute sessions I did when my girls were six weeks old gave me the muscle to write as fast as possible and not be thinking “I don’t know if this is good.” I just did it. I mention that because I think when people say 15 minutes a day, some people think it’s not going to make a difference. I thought that, too, but it’s made a huge difference in my life. Now an hour, to me, is very luxurious.

When that piece came out, a lot of friends and family shared it, and friends of friends, and I got a lot of not nice comments back, like, “This isn’t real racism.” And it really struck me. For the first time, I realized people don’t get how serious this is. I wrote about it again, for the same editor in July, as attacks continued, and the numbers just kept going up. That was sort of a blip on the radar.

The third piece I just turned in in February, and what was striking was that in the middle of it, I got really emotional, because I had to look at photos and look up headlines about Asian elders being hurt. That just felt really awful to look at—seniors being slashed up and bruised and beaten. I just started crying. Then I tweeted something about being sick of writing about this. This is my third story. Like, I’m mad. And that tweet went viral. I honestly didn’t think anybody would notice, because nobody had noticed the other pieces.

From that, people started reaching out to me to talk about it. I honestly didn’t think people were reading and caring. I know that sounds harsh, but I had been writing about this for a year. Then last week’s shooting, to me was really just heartbreaking. Now I’m working on a new piece. I interviewed a Georgia senator who’s Asian American, and she and I talked about what we could do to help.

What I go back to with these pieces that I’ve written is really using my platform to help raise awareness but also give people real tools to use, like these are some simple things that you can do to help. That has motivated me. It’s been really hard to write about, honestly. I can’t talk to everyone that wants to talk about it, because it’s too much. It’s really too much. It’s a passionate topic, but I also recognize I have to step away from it. That’s why I wrote the rom-com. I needed something with a really mild conflict.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you for talking about it here. It’s important to touch on these topics, but I also want to respect that you’ve been asked to speak on this a lot, and that you don’t need to be the spokesperson for the Asian community. We’re here to talk about writing and motherhood. As you’ve been writing these pieces, specifically the first one with your daughters in the space with you, how has the writing of those pieces made you reflect on motherhood?

Jennifer Chen

That piece in particular, I had been writing in my head before my editor even asked me to write about it. I had been angry, and I think what has motivated a lot of what I’ve written about is my kids, because I want a better world for them, and why not use this opportunity? I needed to be able to feel like I was contributing to changing my daughters’ lives at some point.

It also reminded me the first days of motherhood. It felt like you were running a marathon that you’d never signed up for, you never trained for, I didn’t have the right shoes. But I got there, and it turned out really well. Being a mother doesn’t give me skills to be a better writer, but it’s taught me how to write quickly. It’s taught me to write in my head. A lot of the stuff that I’ve written has been ideas I get while I’m doing dishes or walking the dog. I let my brain go. Then I’ll get an introduction or a sentence and I’m like, oh, that’s what it is.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, dig into that a little bit more about the sentence or the moment when you realize this has legs.

Jennifer Chen

As a writer, I really like taking classes. I took a class called The Fast Draft Method with Lindsay Eagar, a mom of three who has written 25 books in one year. Some of those are ghost written books, but I was like, how the hell did she do that? So, I took her class. It gave me so many great tools. One of the tools that I implemented in my writing was that you can be writing all the time. It doesn’t have to be on a computer, typing everything. She was like, “When can you write yourself an email? Can you audio message yourself if you can’t get to paper?” All this stuff. She gave these little tips and tricks. Ultimately, she said to get faster at it, you just have to exercise that muscle.

That really helped me draft this book, where I ended up writing 2,000 words a day, in addition to my journalism work. I would block out something like 1 to 3 p.m., I’m gonna write 2,000 words. She had writing exercises where you would time yourself with a timer. She’d be like, “Okay, write 500 words in 10 minutes.” I feel like that kind of challenge pushed me to say I can do this. I don’t have to sit here and labor over every single word.

The best tip that came from her class was if you hit something that you want to research—like where is this exactly in Los Angeles—put in a placeholder. I put brackets, like, “find the exact address.” She said do it later. Because once you go out on the internet, and you’re looking at the map, you’re on another track. That really helped me realize I can do all that stuff later on during a separate writing session. That freed me up. I wrote that first draft in October, and I finished before the holidays and Christmas.

Lara Ehrlich

I think that’s so smart. Putting things in brackets. I do that, too. Even if it’s a scene, like, “something interesting must happen here.” It’s, of course, painful to go back and be like, oh, I still have to write something interesting. But whatever you need to do to move forward, I think, is valid. I think there’s this misconception that we have to sit at a desk with pen and paper or laptop, and that’s writing. But writing in your head or jotting something down to yourself in your phone or dictating to yourself is all writing. Anything that gets words out is writing.

Jennifer Chen

Yes, definitely. One of my friends has a great podcast with writers called 88 Cups of Tea, and she interviewed Tamora Pierce, a YA fantasy writer, and she said this. She shared this story about when she would cross the street, when she was waiting for the light to change, she would write in her little notebook. And I was like, oh my God, that’s genius. Just to take those little stolen moments. I should just carry a little notebook, or if I can’t get to something, I record myself saying it in a voice memo. All of that stuff has really added up to me realizing I have a lot more time than I thought I did.

I felt very much like I couldn’t have written that whole story with my 4-year-olds staring at me. I remember when I said yes to it, and then she’s like, “Can you turn it in tomorrow?” My brain was like, I don’t know. But I’m gonna try to figure this out. I feel like that’s what motherhood is.

I’m an only child. To have twins … I was like, I don’t know how to do this. I just remember being like, well, I would make mistakes. I mean, I fed one kid and forgot to feed the other. It was, like, 3 a.m., you know. Those things taught me that you’re gonna make mistakes, and then you have to do it over again tomorrow and figure out what you did wrong and not do it again. It taught me to be flexible. I think I was a lot more rigid about writing. My routine was I have to be at my desk with my laptop and the perfect music playlist. Now I’m like, I can do it while I’m walking. I think that’s a really great skill to have as, as a writer and a mother.

Lara Ehrlich

Let’s go back to twins for a second. And expectations. At what point did you learn that you were pregnant with twins?

Jennifer Chen

It’s an interesting story, because previously, I had two miscarriages. I very quickly knew that I was pregnant, because I tracked my cycle. I knew. My OB-GYN did an ultrasound at six weeks, because we had trouble before and were trying to figure out if this one was viable or not. When she told me there were two, two fetuses in there, I looked at her and I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I didn’t do any fertility drugs. I don’t have twins in my family. It just was a shock. The biggest shock in the world, really. But it was great to know it at six weeks, because that gave us a lot of time to get everything ready—even though nothing can prepare you, really, for becoming a mom to two babies. I took “how to raise twins” parenting classes and all that stuff, just because I thought I’d ask other twin parents how you do this.

Lara Ehrlich

What were some of the things you imagine were particularly challenging with twins that might have been different with a solo child?

Jennifer Chen

My husband was home for six weeks, and then he went back to work. My biggest fear was being alone with them. Because before that, they were in the hospital, I had my mother-in-law, I had other people. And then when he went back to work, I was like, how am I going to feed two babies at the same time? I was still learning how to breastfeed them. At that point, you’re feeding every three hours and changing diapers and all of that stuff.

I asked other twin moms, and I would go on Facebook groups, I had a twin mom friend who I would text all the time—that was really helpful because they’d already been there, like “I propped up one baby on this Boppy while I did the other.” I never would’ve thought of that. I made a lot of mistakes, like, oh crap, I didn’t get this bottle warmed up in time, and now my babies are screaming. But there were other women who had done it and they were helping me figure it out and gave me so many great tips. Like, how do I bathe them if I’m by myself? Strap one into a little baby seat and swap them out. Asking other moms really, really helped me. Like, why reinvent the wheel when other people have done it before me?

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, totally. Community and support and Facebook groups, if we can find a really good one that’s non-judgmental—I think that’s so important. Do you mind if we talk a little bit about miscarriage? You’ve written a lot about that subject. Tell me why it’s important to you to write about miscarriage, about something that so many women feel shameful about and don’t talk about?

Jennifer Chen

You know, my first miscarriage, I didn’t really know that much information. I didn’t know anybody else who had gone through it, and a lot of my friends already had kids or were pregnant. When I pitched the essay to an editor at BuzzFeed, and she said, “Oh, yeah, I’m interested in reading it.” I was like, “Oh. I have to write it.” So, then I wrote it. And she and I worked on editing it.

This was January 2015. She was about to post it, and I freaked out. Maybe nobody else other than my best friends and my husband knew that this had happened, so I started freaking out, knowing now everyone’s gonna know. I was very purposeful in selling it to BuzzFeed, because they had a huge reach. It’s also men and women reading it. I really wanted to target outside of the women magazine market, because I thought more people need to talk about this than just women. But I remember contemplating pulling it. And then my husband actually said, “I think you’re going to help a lot of people. I think there are more women than you know who have gone through this and really need to hear that it’s not shameful.”

At the time, my editor was like, “If you get any comments underneath, can you respond?” It got to 700 comments. I emailed her and was like, “I can’t respond to all of the comments. I could spend all day doing this.” She and I didn’t realize that it would kick off this big thing. It really taught me that the thing that I felt really scared about was actually the one of the things that people still write to me about, and that was 2015. People still share it, because it still happens, obviously. That was the first time I wrote something that I felt really scared to share. Writing about it really helped me really release that shame.

The beautiful thing that came out of it was a lot of people emailed me. People shared their stories with me because they felt comfortable. I’m an actual stranger to them, but they wrote their stories. It was men, women, people in different countries, Scotland, India. It amazed me how many people responded and shared their stories. It made it really clear to me that everyone has a story around this and just need to talk about it.

Some women were like, “You’re the only person I’ve told.” And I’m like, oh, gosh, can you talk to your mom or a best friend? I really encouraged them, because when I talked to my friends more openly, I realized a lot of people went through miscarriages, we just weren’t talking about it. No one ever publicizes that. It’s not like people put it up on a Facebook status. I only see pregnancy photos and newborn photos. I realized, if we could just show our vulnerability, and what’s the reality and the truth, then it’s not as scary as it felt.

Lara Ehrlich

Can you talk a little bit more about that fear of publishing? And thank you for giving voice to those experiences and supporting other women in that way and advocating. You said that word shame and that you hadn’t told people, and I think, as you’ve said, that’s such a common feeling for women who have experienced a miscarriage. Why do you think you felt that sense of shame and fear surrounding it?

Jennifer Chen

I remember thinking somebody is gonna think it’s my fault, that I made it happen, that I didn’t do the right things. I really didn’t know that much about miscarriage. In high school, they teach you all sex ed and pregnancy, but I didn’t know anything about the female body in terms of when a pregnancy doesn’t go to term or the different types of miscarriage, or if someone loses a baby at 20 weeks versus six weeks. I didn’t know any of that. I felt really ignorant about my own body. It wasn’t widely talked about.

When I started opening up more, I realized there is no shame in it. But I think there’s shame when you don’t hear anybody talking about it, or when you think you’re alone and you think that you’re the only person who’s gone through this. As a writer, if something scares me, it usually means that there’s something good there. I just keep writing through it, even if it feels scary or hard.

I knew that first piece about why “Kung-Flu” and the “Chinese Virus” is racist, people were going to push back and be angry about me calling it racist. But I also felt that I’m gonna say it because I think that’s what it sounds like to me, and what it feels like. I think sometimes, my greatest pieces have come out of these places of vulnerability and shame and fear, because I think we all have that feeling sometimes on different subjects.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, definitely. It’s so scary to write from that place of vulnerability. But those are the pieces that touch people the most and connect with people. Can you talk a little bit more about putting yourself out there in such a public and vulnerable way and receiving feedback from people you don’t know in those comments sections? Whether they’re writing to tell you something heartbreaking, raw, angry or violent. How do you protect yourself against that?

Jennifer Chen

That’s a really good question. Because 2015 and 2021 are very different. In 2015, I got some trolls on that miscarriage essay, some women who said it’s not a big deal and why is she crying about this, who cares. But as a public writer, as somebody who’s on social media, I do get weird comments and racist comments, and I block those people. And then, in particular, the BuzzFeed piece, and this most recent Stop Asian Hate movement piece, a lot of people reached out.

I can’t respond to every single person, so I told myself I’ll respond to the people that I can. You know what feels feasible. I think people don’t realize how many people will reach out after something’s been published. It’s been really sweet, but I can’t answer everyone. I think everybody wants to talk about it. I got very clear with myself on what I can do and what I can’t do. I still have to write, I still have to be a mom, I still have to have my own boundary of what feels good for me.

With social media, they always say don’t read the comments, but it’s part of my job to respond to people. I try to remember what my greater good is in writing the piece, especially that piece where people really push back with “this isn’t racism” or “you don’t like this because Trump said it”—all that stuff. I would respond to them and say, “If you actually read the piece, this is what I’ve laid out.” It just actually helped me write the other pieces, because that viral tweet was a response to those first comments. I think it touched a nerve and a lot of people, and a lot of people responded to me from that.

I think there is something, even if it sounds weird, in the negative comments. I can get something out of it—like this is clearly what people are talking about or what they’re fixated on, or maybe this is the next piece that I write.

Lara Ehrlich

We have a question here from Kennedy Miller: “What tips do you have for people trying to maintain that space between the public reality of being a writer on social media with the private life of your own family?”

Jennifer Chen

I’m glad for that question, because up until this point, my Instagram did include my family. After the Oprah piece, when a lot of people started following me who I didn’t know, I realized quite quickly I have to archive my posts and take my kids out of these photos. They’re super cute. And I have a million of them. But I don’t know a lot of my followers now, and I don’t feel like it’s safe. I don’t ever put them up on Twitter. I reserve that for Facebook, where the public can’t interact with me.

But I do write about my children. They’ve been in newsletters of mine; they’ve been in stories of mine. I recognize now that because of being on a platform where people want to interact with me, I don’t really want them to have access to my children, particularly because when I’m talking about racism, it’s unnerving for some people, and I don’t want them to ever use my children negatively.

On Twitter, back when We Need Diverse Books was first starting out, I tweeted about it, saying it’s great, and these trolls were attacking me and saying that promoting diversity is white genocide. They took photos of mine that I had up on Twitter and would just say really mean comments about how ugly I was, all this stuff. I decided I’m not gonna post anything personal on Twitter ever again.

And obviously, my writing is personal, but I’m not posting my photos. I don’t share my daughters’ names on Twitter. That gave me the lesson of “there’s only so much I want to give to people.” I left my Instagram with my kids on it until just maybe last week. It felt a little scarier with people I didn’t know following me and also because I’m talking about something that pushes buttons. I thought maybe I’ll just create a personal account where my friends can see photos of the girls.

Lara Ehrlich

It’s unfortunate that that has to be the case. I feel that, too, and I don’t have many followers on social media! I’m not sure I’ve ever named my daughter or shared a picture of her where her face is visible and just for those same reasons and respecting her autonomy and her privacy. And yeah, it can be a scary place, a very powerful place, but a very scary place to be on social media.

Tell me a little bit more about writing about your girls and about whether you’ve had to draw boundaries yet. I’m hearing from other writer moms who have said that when the kids were younger, it was easier to write about them, and as they got older and more willful, it becomes harder because their stories diverge from our own. Are you there yet with 5-year-olds?

Jennifer Chen

It’s interesting, because I have written a personal essay that I’m working on editing, and it’s about something very personal that happened to my kids. I really debated whether I was going to publish it or not. I didn’t intend to. I’ve been working with an editor on it, and it has been really wonderful. I went to a parenting journalist conference, and there was a panel about personal essays. They had said they usually ask their kids if it’s okay to write about them, but their kids were, like, 9, 14, 11. When I talked to my daughters and said, “I’d like to write about this—are you okay with it?” They said okay, but I also recognize they’re 5. They don’t know what Facebook and Twitter are.

So, I’ve been really hesitant, like, let me think about this. I think it’s an important story to share, but I felt like maybe I’m not honoring their wishes. But my husband said, “I think you’ll shed light on something that happens to young women and girls.” It’s been a debate I’ve been having with myself. I don’t have an answer to it. I do think, as my girls get older, I will ask them. I feel like they are obviously going to eventually read some of this stuff and be part of the world.

At that panel, they pointed out that you don’t know how your kid is going to react. You just don’t know if they’re like, cool, this is great, or they don’t want it to be out there. So that was helpful for me to remember. But they’re 5 and their permission doesn’t feel quite like they understand what they’re giving permission to write.

Lara Ehrlich 

My daughter’s almost 5, and I think about that, too, particularly right now during the pandemic, where I feel compelled to write about some experiences of motherhood, when you have a child who’s home and not socializing with other children and the questions and fears I have around that. But, just like yours, my daughter’s too young, and she thinks it’s cool that I’m writing things, but she has no idea what exactly that means. It’ll be interesting as they get older to have that conversation, the evolving conversation. And they might not care at all.

It sounds like your husband’s very supportive and encourages you, and maybe sometimes gives you that little extra push. Could you talk a little bit about that? He’s a writer as well. I remember one essay that you wrote, another very personal piece about what it’s like to be in a marriage with two writers and some tension that existed there. But it also sounds very supportive.

Jennifer Chen

My husband’s a TV writer, and he writes right now predominantly in animation, so we do very different things. Since living in Los Angeles, I do journalism and books, which is not what a lot of people are here to do. If you say that you’re a magazine editor, they’re like, what’s that? So initially, it was hard. What he’s done is very well-known. He worked at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he wrote an episode of The Simpsons, he’s just more recognizable. Early in my career, I didn’t have Oprah Magazine and all that stuff yet, so it was hard. I felt like no one cares what I do.

What switched for me was me realizing that I really like what I do. I love what I do. I don’t want to do what he does. I just settled into knowing these are the things I’m passionate and excited about, we can do totally different things, and it’s okay. That’s when things changed and my career started taking off more because I focused on the things I want to do and the places I want to be published.

I think now it’s really evolved into a relationship where we can help each other through some of the story stuff. He always wanted to be with a writer. He was like, “I always wanted to get married to a writer, because we’d have all these conversations.” I didn’t. I was like, I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t want to have to deal with somebody’s neuroses. But now it’s really great because I have somebody who understands when I’m like, “Oh, my God, I have to write this down.” He’s like, “Okay, go.” Or if he’s got to do something for work, it’s been really beneficial and supportive. And in particular, I think he can see the things that I can’t, and I can see the things that he can’t in his work. I think he’s always pushing me to do stuff that scares me.

Even when interviews started rolling in, I was like, I don’t want to be on them. I’m a writer, I want to be behind the computer. And he’s like, “Well, I think it helps for people to see you and to know that this is happening to a real person.” So, you know, I’m grateful. And initially, I think, my professional jealousy was over what people thought of my writing. People would say, like, “Oh, who do you write for? What do you write for?” And I always felt sort of like, oh, I’m not as good as him. But in reality, it’s just different. We do different things. It’s okay. So yeah, I am grateful to be with a writer. It’s been such a blessing in my writing life, to have someone who understands the intricacies of the creative, but also business, life of being a professional writer.

Lara Ehrlich

I love that you said that you realized what brought you joy in your career and what you wanted to be working on, and that allowed you to stop comparing what you did to what he did. I think that’s a lesson that a lot of people never learn, or it takes a long time. I think I’m still reminding myself of that every day when I meet somebody who is a writer who’s doing something really impressive. So, thank you for articulating that. Have you noticed that your daughters are picking up on the fact that you’re both writers?

Jennifer Chen

Yeah. It’s cute because before the pandemic, they were able to visit my husband’s office. Since he works in animation, there’s a lot of art up because the artists are doing storyboards, and he has a lot of toys, and they just think it’s really fun. I think they just think that’s what we do. I’m like, actually, our work is fun. I have a home office that I’m in right now and they come in, and they want to write at the desk, so we’ll write together sometimes. I think they get to see all the stuff that we do. And we talk about our careers and stuff. I think it’s important to share that with them because I love how they see the world so fresh.

I’m laughing because there was one weekend where Brendan took the girls to the playground, and I said I want two hours to just work on this book, and they’re like, “Come to the playground.” I’m like, I just need two hours to write, and when you’re done, we’ll have lunch and all that stuff. And Claire, at the time, I think was 3. She came back and she said, “Mom, where’s your book?” And I said, “I need more than two hours!” And she was like, “What?” She just was so confused. It made me laugh, because of course you don’t know that it takes a long time to write a book.

I see how creative they are in their art, and they’re reading and noticing things. It’s helped me become more joyful in my own writing. I don’t know if you have this with your kids, but we have to read the same book over and over and over and over again. I think a lot of people think children’s picture books are really easy to write, and now that I’ve had to read some of them over and over again, I’m like, no, if it’s really good, I don’t mind hearing it five times in a week. If it’s really not good, then it’s like torture.

It’s taught me that when they’re laughing, what they think is funny and what they notice on the page—and not that I aspire to be a picture book writer—but it lets me see stories in a different way. Like, that visual joke came across to you? That sort of stuff. It’s really changed my creativity, because they have such a fresh way of looking at things.

Lara Ehrlich

How do you carry that into your own work?

Jennifer Chen

Writing the book that I wrote when I was pregnant and didn’t have kids yet, I didn’t know what it was like to be a mother. I think when I was revising it and working on the mother character, who was very two-dimensional, I was able to write that in a where I now understood what it’s like. If my kid is in danger, what that might feel like. I think it gave me a depth to my writing that I wouldn’t be able to write as a non-mother. But it was more that I had an awareness that I don’t think I had before of what it’s like to be a parent.

There’s a school shooting in my book, so I was researching a lot of school shootings and reading about the parents and how they reacted. I was like, oh, I totally understand now why this would feel super terrifying to not be able to reach your kid on the phone—all of that. It just infused more reality into my piece. And I think the book came out stronger because I had that empathetic feeling of what that might feel like for parents.

Lara Ehrlich

Tell me just a little bit more about the sense of joy and play and creativity that you’re learning from your girls and watching them approach life with a fresh perspective. Can you talk about how their joy weaves into your joy and writing or how your joyfulness might impact your mothering and of your girls?

Jennifer Chen

Yes, I’d love to share just one cute story. The day that I found out about the Atlanta shooting, I had, that afternoon, spoken to college students in Texas, and they were asking me really important questions about racism, and it was a really great but tough conversation. And then I got that news, and I just felt so down and hopeless.

I like to read before I go to sleep, I think it helps my brain go somewhere else. When I went to bed, and I pulled out my book, Claire had tucked a little note underneath. And it was like, “I really like Hello Kitty” and she put Hello Kitty stickers on it. And I was like, oh my god. She had no idea, but I was having such a bad day, and I felt like this little note she left made me smile and made me remember there’s good in the world. The next day, I said, “Did you leave me that?” She’s like, “Yeah, I left it as a surprise.” And I was like, “Well, thank you, because it really made my day.”

And that, to me, is a reminder of how much they bring back to me—especially when I feel like today felt really hard. And then I come home, and we’re just being silly. It feels really nice to not always feel so serious and dark and deal with such sad things. Their silliness and their joy just make me laugh and feel hopeful.

Lara Ehrlich 

Thank you. Let’s end on a note of hope and joy. Thank you for sharing that. That’s a great story. And thank you so much for joining me tonight and for talking about some really difficult subjects in such an eloquent and insightful way. It’s been such a pleasure.

Special Episode: Writing Motherhood & Miscarriage

When I read literature and stories, I want to be confronted with the truth, especially around pregnancy and birth and infant loss and women’s bodies.

shannon gibney

(March 31, 2021) This special episode is devoted to an issue so many women experience, and so few people discuss. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang, co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color, talk about why it’s necessary to give voice to this common pain.

FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES

What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color

Shannon Gibney 

Kao Kalia Yang

RESOURCES FOR GRIEF & BEREAVEMENT

From What God Is Honored Here

March of Dimes

International Stillbirth Alliance 


Shannon Gibney

Shannon Gibney is an award-winning author of books of all kinds—from novels to anthologies to essays to picture books. She writes for adults, children, and everyone in-between. The through-line in all her work is stories that may have previously gone untold. Sometimes these perspectives have remained hidden because the speakers have not had an outlet for their stories; other times, the stories carry darkness and fear that we prefer to look away from. What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color (University of Minnesota Press, October, 2019), exemplifies this approach, as does Gibney’s most recent novel, Dream Country (Dutton, 2018), which Kirkus describes as “a necessary reckoning of tensions within the African diaspora—an introduction to its brokenness and a place to start healing.”

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong-American writer. She is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. Yang is also the author of the children’s books, A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, and The Most Beautiful Thing. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color. Yang’s literary nonfiction work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA literary awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, and garnered three Minnesota Book awards. Her children’s books have been listed as an American Library Association Notable Book, a Zolotow Honor, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, winner of a Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature and the Heartland Bookseller’s Award. Kao Kalia Yang is a recipient of the McKnight Fellowship in Prose, the International Institute of Minnesota’s Olga Zoltai Award for her community leadership and service to New Americans, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ 2019 Sally Award for Social Impact.


sound bites

Writers look to literature to reflect our experience as a way to start to heal, as a way to start to put trauma in perspective. @GibneyShannon

In putting together this book, we could finally meet these stories and place them somewhere in the spectrum of our lives, in ways that we couldn’t have earlier. Before having my boys, I would have never been ready to meet Baby Jules in the way that I am able to today. I think we were then ready to carry not only our own stories but the gravity of others.

Kao Kalia Yang

It made me feel more isolated to encounter the stock language around stillbirth and miscarriage, like, “Oh my angel,” you know … “now she’s in heaven, and I know my heart will never be the same.”

Shannon Gibney

When I read literature and stories, I want to be confronted with the truth, especially around pregnancy and birth and infant loss and women’s bodies. @GibneyShannon

“There are all these things shrouded in mystery around women’s bodies, and a lot of it is painful, difficult stuff. @GibneyShannon

One of the most important things about this journey for me is knowing that we were not alone. In putting together this book, we felt our togetherness rise. That was one of the gifts of this experience. For all of the hurting, there was in that so much hope and so much beauty.

Kao Kalia Yang

One of the hardest things to ask was for our writers to linger. There are moments when a writer wants to run fast across a landscape of trauma or grief. One of the hardest things we had to ask contributors was to just slow down. And some of them said, “I need more time,” or “every time I try, all I find is tears, all I find is space.”

Kao Kalia Yang

There was the violence of what we had experienced, and then there was the violence from, in so many ways, white majority culture. From the very onset, when we published the call for contributors, we got personal messages from white people saying, “Why are you isolating us? Why are you excluding us?” And then, when we got the submissions, white men submitted. The evening of our launch event, a person whose social media icon was a rifle posted in the launch page. We were meeting certain forces in the majority culture along the way, where Shannon and I understood there is always a measure of risk that we were taking. At every turn, Shannon and I chose to do the work before us as courageously as possible.

Kao Kalia Yang

The writer decides who you want to be, whether you’re going to give in to bigger forces trying to push down voices and presences like yours, or while you take up that space and you do so with dignity. @kaokaliayang

“There are particular ways women are embodied in American dominant discourse. We’re allowed to be objectified sexually, and in this cult of motherhood, as long as all your buttons are in a row. You can be a mess, but you can’t be a grotesque mess. We know that miscarriage and infant loss and dead babies happen, but we don’t really want to know about how that happened in the body and what that feels like and what are the ramifications of that, in terms of recovery and all this stuff. We really don’t want to hear about that as a culture.

Shannon Gibney

There are particular ways women are embodied in American dominant discourse. In this cult of motherhood as long as all your buttons are in a row, you can be a mess, but you can’t be a grotesque mess. @GibneyShannon

There are many reasons women are separated from their children that our country has never reckoned with; the forces that create broken mothers who have to be stronger than they are to hold some idea of family and legacy. @kaokaliayang

Women need representation in research. We need representation in literature. We need you to understand that our lives are important to the whole of this operation, the human experiment. @kaokaliayang

In this pandemic, all of our rituals for grief have been effectively obliterated. We cannot grieve together. I think about the layering of that for women who have undergone miscarriage and infant loss in this pandemic. These are the undercurrents of our existences. They’re not on pause because we’re going through something else right now. I cannot begin to conceive of what it must have been like for so many women who’ve experienced loss at this time, when our focus is on the magnitude of this big thing we are suffering from. Also layered and complicated is that onion of womanhood that nobody really wants to peel back the surface of.

Kao Kalia Yang

After a reading, an older white woman came up to me and said, “You just said it. You just said, ‘The baby’s dead.’” She was like, “I never felt like I could say that, just say what happened. I had to sort of dance around it delicately—she didn’t make it, we lost her, or she’s in heaven now. I never could just lay out the bare truth of my baby died. She’s dead. Because I knew that other people couldn’t handle it, and I had to take care of them and their emotional needs.”

Shannon Gibney

A woman is never going to forget a baby she’s had ever, no matter what the outcome is. @GibneyShannon

I grew a person inside me, and they died before they came out, and that is written in my body forever. It’s written on my soul. @GibneyShannon

The reason I feel such searing pain that cleaves me is because of the immensity of the love I had and still have for my daughter. You can’t have one thing without the other. @GibneyShannon

When my daughter was born, something inside of me was able to fly again. But the flight was now so much more treacherous than I had ever imagined. I knew the fragility of life in a way that I couldn’t have conceived of. And now I write from this place that cherishes life so much more than before. There’s a gentleness with which I approach all living things, because of the loss of the living thing inside of me, because of my own fragile life in the days after. That informs everything I do on the page, the sensitivity of my touch, the gentleness of my regard for everything that lives; how hard it is to live. I wanted to speak to that, how we are forever changed by our experiences, and how these experiences enable and embody so much of who we are across the realms of our lives.

Kao Kalia Yang

If you’re writing and not telling the truth, I don’t know why you would write. We can’t choose the truth that we’ve been tasked to document. @GibneyShannon

There’s a gentleness with which I approach all living things because of the loss of the living thing inside me. That informs everything I do on the page; the gentleness of my regard for how hard it is to live. @kaokaliayang

Jennifer Chen

“I don’t have time for self-doubt. I just have time to write.”


(March 25, 2021) Jennifer Chen is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and Bust on subjects ranging from emotional labor and pro wrestling to miscarriage and the Stop Asian Hate Movement. She has an MFA and BFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is an alumnae of Hedgebrook, a women’s writing residency. Jennifer lives in Los Angeles with her TV-writer husband, twin 5-year-old daughters, and a snorty pug named Chewbacca. She describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: “longest shortest time.”

FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES

Where to Find Jennifer Chen
Jennifer Chen’s website
“What Pro Wrestling Taught Me and My Immigrant Grandmother,” New York Times
“Why I Don’t Want My Miscarriage to Stay Secret,” Buzzfeed

Stop Asian Hate Movement
About the movement
Atlanta shooting
Jennifer’s writing on the Stop Asian Hate Movement:
“How You Can Join the Stop Asian Hate Movement”, Jennifer’s website
“Yes, Calling Coronavirus ‘the Chinese Virus’ or Kung-Flu is Racist,” Oprah Daily
“Racist Attacks Against Asian Americans Are Still on The Rise During COVID-19,” Oprah Daily
“How You Can Join the Stop Asian Hate Movement,” Oprah Daily

Organizations
Tisch School of the Arts
Hedgebrook
We Need Diverse Books

Authors, TV Shows, Podcasts
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
The Simpsons
Lindsay Eagar‘s The First Draft Method
88 Cups of Tea podcast
Tamora Pierce


sound bites

“I wrote for 15 minutes while I pumped. I was exercising a muscle in the dark. All those 15-minute sessions gave me the muscle to write quickly without thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is good.’” — @jchenwriter

“I don’t have time for self-doubt. I just have time to write.” — @jchenwriter

“In March 2020, my girls’ preschool shut down and my editor at oprahdaily.com asked, ‘Do you want to write about why ‘Kung-Flu’ and the ‘Chinese Virus’ is racist?’ And I said, ‘Yes. When is it due?’ And she said, ‘Can you give it to me tomorrow?’ What it taught me was that all those 15-minute sessions I did when my girls were six weeks old gave me the muscle to write as fast as possible.

I use my platform to help raise awareness, but also give people real tools to use; some simple things that you can do to help.

“The first days of motherhood, it feels like you’re running a marathon that you’d never signed up for, you never trained for, you don’t have the right shoes. But you get there.” — @jchenwriter

“Being a mother doesn’t give me skills to be a better writer, but it’s taught me how to write quickly. It’s taught me to write in my head.”

“You can be writing all the time. It doesn’t have to be on a computer. If I can’t get to something, I record myself saying it in a voice memo. All of that stuff has really added up to me realizing I have a lot more time than I thought I did.”

“I’m an only child. To have twins…I was like, I don’t know how to do this. I fed one kid and forgot to feed the other. Those things taught me that you’re gonna make mistakes, and you figure out what you did wrong and not do it again. It taught me to be flexible. I think I was a lot more rigid about writing. My routine was I have to be at my desk with my laptop and the perfect music playlist. Now I’m like, I can do it while I’m walking. I think that’s a really great skill to have as, as a writer and a mother.”

“Asking other moms for advice really, really helped me. Why reinvent the wheel when other people have done it before me?”

On writing about miscarriage: “That was the first time I wrote something that I felt really scared to share, and it’s one of the things people still write to me about.” — @jchenwriter

“I didn’t know much about miscarriage. In high school, they teach you about sex and pregnancy, but not the female body, when a pregnancy doesn’t go to term. I felt ignorant about my own body.” — @jchenwriter

“As a writer, if something scares me, it usually means that there’s something good there. I keep writing through it. My greatest pieces have come out of these places of vulnerability and shame and fear.” — @jchenwriter

“We have to read the same book over and over and over and over again. I think a lot of people think children’s picture books are really easy to write, and now that I’ve had to read some of them over and over again, I’m like, no, if it’s really good, I don’t mind hearing it five times in a week. If it’s really not good, then it’s like torture.”

Rosanna Warren Transcript


Writer Mother Monster: Rosanna Warren

March 11, 2021

Rosanna Warren has been publishing “poems of riveting, compassionate darkness and social conscience for nearly 40 years” (LA Review of Books). Her most recent book of poems is So Forth (2020). She is the recipient of awards from the Academy of American Poets, The American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the New England Poetry Club, among others, and she was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005 and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. She teaches at the University of Chicago. Rosanna has two daughters, ages 37 and 35, and two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, ages 6 and 3. She describes writer-motherhood in three words as “frazzled, passionate, surprised.”

Lara Ehrlich

Hello, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest tonight is Rosanna Warren. Before I introduce Rosanna, thank you all for tuning in. You can now listen to Writer Mother Monster as a podcast on all major audio platforms or read the interview transcript on writermothermonster.com. If you enjoyed the episode, as always, please consider becoming a patron or patroness on Patreon to help make this series possible. Please also chat with Rosanna and me during the interview. Your comments and questions will appear in our broadcast studio, and we’ll weave them into the conversation. And now I’m excited to introduce Rosanna.

Rosanna Warren has been publishing “poems of riveting, compassionate darkness and social conscience for nearly 40 years” (LA Review of Books). Her most recent book of poems is So Forth (2020). She is the recipient of awards from the Academy of American Poets, The American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the New England Poetry Club, among others, and she was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005 and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. She teaches at the University of Chicago and taught at Boston University, where I first met Rosanna in a class called Eccentric Moderns, which we’ll talk about. It is not hyperbole to say that Rosanna was one of the best professors I ever had. And I’m not saying that just because she agreed to come on the show with me today. She also has two daughters, ages 37 and 35, and two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, ages 6 and 3. She describes writer-motherhood in three words as “frazzled, passionate, surprised.”

Rosanna Warren 

Thank you, Lara, so much. It is really lovely to rediscover you so many years after we were reading Hart Crane together.

Lara Ehrlich
Thank you so much for coming on with me today. I was telling you before the show that there were many others who were in classes with you at BU and elsewhere, of course, who are very excited to that you’ll be on the show with me tonight, so hello to all of you as well, BU friends, excited to have you and please comment and chat with us in the comments tonight. So, Rosanna, I’d love for you to read the poem that you came prepared to share with us, if you’re ready.

Rosanna Warren
I have it here at my fingertips. This is a poem to one of my daughters, so it seemed like an appropriate offering for this evening. This daughter, whose name is Chiara, is a psychiatric social worker, and she works with very, very needy people.

For Chiara

Leaves crackle beneath our feet—tinder, kindling—
as we walk by the brook, the crab-apple tree
a crimson pointilliste nimbus.
You want to hold each wounded soul in your hands.
Autumn flares. The damaged, the human berserk,
find their way to you. I don’t know how you sleep.
In the Gorgon’s blood, one drop is poison, the other heals.
Fevered autumn, autumn I adore
croons an old song. We stroll the road
scuffing dust. And come upon
a garter snake lying motionless,
its tail, we guess, nicked by a passing car.
When we nudge it, it flips to its back in an agonized S,
squirms, but can’t advance. Its belly gleams.
We edge it into the grass. Do we stop seeing
when we walk away? The brook prattles on.
Home’s far off. Dusk settles, slowly, among leaves.
That’s not mercy, scattering from its hands.

Lara Ehrlich 

Thank you. That was just as powerful as I remember your poetry and your presence as being, so thank you. And tell us a little bit more. Let’s start with that poem. Tell me a bit more about it, and why it is dedicated to your daughter, titled after your daughter.

Rosanna Warren

This poem became very important to me for the two half lines, “Do we stop seeing / when we walk away?” It just seems to me a fundamental ethical question in life, about how we acknowledge the suffering of others, whether we can acknowledge the suffering of others, and to what extent, to preserve ourselves. Maybe we just walk away, don’t want to see. I can’t speak for other people. I know that for myself, there are times when I say the story’s unbearable, I can’t read this article anymore, I can’t solve everybody’s hunger in the world. And yet, there’s the impulse that we should care for each other. My daughter who works with severely suffering people does a kind of job I could not do, to have the stress level of trying to manage caring for people who are desperately needy, and day in day out. Somehow people who do that kind of therapy and caring must develop, I think, a really extraordinary spiritual strength and psychological strength to be able to hold that suffering and continue their lives and try to help people. But I guess we all, in some way, figure out our own balance and our own way to try to acknowledge the suffering, or at least acknowledge that we’re not acknowledging it.

Lara Ehrlich 

I wish that before this interview I had revisited the notes from the class I took with you. I still have them all somewhere in the house. You’re bringing back memories of that class, because we talked about this type of issue. Yes, we looked at lines within poems, we looked at words, but we also talked about these big, philosophical concerns of humanity and the poet’s responsibility to address them. That’s something I really took away from your class. Can you talk about those two lines in the context of poetry and the importance of poetry, and the lines that you repeated: “Do we stop seeing when we walk away?”

Rosanna Warren

Well, this poem is, in a way, pretty simple. It’s an anecdote of a mother, or I guess we don’t know it’s a mother in the poem — it’s an “I” speaking to a “you” — taking a walk, finding a wounded snake, and in a sense, not doing the merciful thing. I think if I’d been courageous, I would have probably killed this snake, put it out of its misery, and I just couldn’t do it. It was cowardice. I just couldn’t, so we just got it off the road, which was the cowardly thing to do, though I’m not a vet. Maybe a vet could have saved it. But you know, we were in the wilds of Vermont and there was no better route. Anyway, it is a morally troubling scene, and painful, just painful, to see another creature’s pain and to feel implicated.

I try not to write poems that explain themselves too much. I try to have the poem be suggestive, to have the objects and actions and colors in the poem do the work for the imagination, but in this case, I allowed myself to be extremely, brutally direct: “Do we stop seeing when we walk away?” — and I’m okay with that, of allowing poems to sometimes speak very directly, if it’s not too crude.

I hoped the scene around it would make it complex enough. I think I would like poems to be unsettling in different ways, and for occasionally a line to feel like a knife stab.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, and grapple with these big concerns about morality and violence and our moral imperative.

Rosanna Warren

I chose this poem when you invited me to be on this fascinating podcast because it’s something that any anybody who’s a parent has lived. Motherhood seems to be so profoundly about caring, and a deep lesson in caring.

Lara Ehrlich 

Let’s talk more about that. I was going to ask you if your daughter had read this poem.

Rosanna Warren

Yes.

Lara Ehrlich

Does she recall that moment? Or what does she have to say about this poem?

Rosanna Warren

I think she thought that it wasn’t an invasion of her privacy. I try to be really careful with my friends and family members about my poetry. Some poets take a few more liberties than I do with other people’s private lives. I tried to set some boundaries. I know my children would like me to set some boundaries. But she seemed to have forgiven me for this poem, or I don’t think she thought I really needed forgiveness for this poem. I wouldn’t think so. But I’m sure we both cared about the snake, were both upset by the snake.

Lara Ehrlich 

Absolutely. Let’s shift to motherhood for a second and talk about your children. You have two girls, both in their mid-30s now, and two grandkids. But let’s back way up, even before I knew you at BU and your kids at that time were teenagers—which is horrifying to me, that that was 20 years ago—and tell me a little bit about new motherhood. Did you always want to have children?

Rosanna Warren

That really interesting. No, I didn’t. When I was a young person, from childhood through my adolescence, I wanted to be a painter. I saw myself as an artist. I worked really hard at it. I was drawing from the age of 3. I went to art schools. I was also writing, but that was private. I didn’t see myself in a conventional family at all. I also was uncomfortable with the role of being a, quote, “girl” in high school. It was unbearable. Those awful dances. I just thought the whole thing was so awful.

Lara Ehrlich 

I’m with you there. Yeah. It’s truly terrible.

Rosanna Warren

And then you bumble your way into adulthood, and you fall in love with a few people, and you sort of try to get the hang of it. This romance stuff, when I was a teenager, struck me like a Halloween party—you had to play “girl” and put on some makeup, and thank God that’s over. But then, falling in love with somebody enough so that you could imagine having a life together, and then children emerged from that, and that just seemed so natural and beautiful. I never resented it. I just thought it was this tremendous gift—and maybe all the more tremendous because I hadn’t imagined it for myself.

Lara Ehrlich 

I understand. I didn’t either. And then, like you, it was meeting a person and then suddenly it was like, well, that just makes sense that I would want to have a family with this person. But without the person, it was just me kind of envisioning my own trajectory solo. Let’s go back to your early life because I know that you grew up in a very artistic, literary family. How did that shape you and your expectations for yourself as a writer?

Rosanna Warren

I suppose it was a piece of luck, and in some ways, not luck, to grow up in a family of writers. My mother and father were both well-known writers [Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark], so in a way, that was great that I had a model of living that way. They were very disciplined. The study doors shut at nine in the morning. They didn’t open the doors until two in the afternoon. My brother and I were often in remote places in the country during the summer. We just knew that unless we had broken our leg, we were not allowed to bother our parents, so we had to figure out our own games and wander around play, which we did.

We grew up in a world where practicing an art was considered natural and not goofy. The difficulty of it wasn’t that our parents thought we should be artists—in fact, they sort of advised us against it—but when my brother became a sculptor, and I started writing more than I was painting in my early 20s, I had to deal with the social expectations of outsiders looking at me and thinking, “She’s just riding on her parents’ reputation.” In order to be a writer, in order to have the courage to go on and keep writing and publishing, I just had to ignore all that and follow the drive that I had to make these things in words. It was such a strong inner drive. I really wanted to be a painter, I tried to suppress the words, I just couldn’t.

Lara Ehrlich 

Tell me about that. What was the drive to paint and why suppress the urge or the desire to write?

Rosanna Warren

I can’t explain the drive to paint, but from the age of 3, I was drawing. And I was good at it, I think I can modestly say. I drew and painted all through my childhood and was encouraged. Also, I was born in 1953, so television existed, but my family didn’t own a television. We lived a weird, almost 19th-century life without television. When I went to school, I didn’t understand what the other kids were talking about, because they were talking about TV shows I’d never seen. I was painting and drawing and writing and playing games with my brother. I can’t tell you where the drawing came from, but it was so deeply part of what I was doing.

Then, when I went to Yale, it was a very fine art school, and I had marvelous painting teachers. Then I went to Skowhegan, which is a wonderful summer program for ambitious young artists, and the New York Studio School, so that was how I saw my life, and I was absolutely passionate about it. But the writing really did keep clawing at me, and there were things I couldn’t get into the paintings, things like saying, “Do we stop seeing when we walk away?” I couldn’t get that into a painting. That drama. So gradually, the writing took over the painting. It took me a few years. It was like a love affair, gradually dwindling and painful. When I was about 24, I realized I wasn’t painting enough to be a painter. That was painful. I still draw. I draw privately. I draw because it’s a way of orienting myself in reality, and it’s just a form of meditation. It’s not to show people.

Lara Ehrlich 

I love that, and I think others have that feeling about writing, right? Like writing in journals and so on for self-expression, with no urge to show others, which I don’t understand. Even when I’m writing in a journal, I’m thinking, someday someone will read this as part of my archives. I never quite have this sense that I’m writing for myself. I wonder what that would be like. I love the idea of drawing for yourself.

I have a comment here from Nichole Gleisner, who you probably remember, and she goes back to your parents shutting their office doors and says, “I’ve heard this described as benign neglect, and I think it can be really freeing for parent artists to cultivate this freedom.” I definitely agree, and it’s something I’ve heard a lot of the writer mothers talk about on the show. Some are very comfortable closing the door, and others are struggling with the guilt involved in closing the door to their children. And it sounds like you and your brother were able to play and to find some freedom there, but was there also any resentment on the part of you and your brother toward your parents for closing the door? And how did that carry through to your practice?

Rosanna Warren

Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t remember feeling any resentment myself as a child with my parents closing the door. It was just understood that was the way things were. They were very loving when they when they were with us. They were really with us, playing games, including us. But I know my own children missed me at times, and it was hard for them and hard for me, especially when they were little. My daughters have told me, “Mom, when you shut the door, I was crying on the other side.” I didn’t stay in the study with a little child weeping on the other side of the door, but there were tensions, which I think is partly why you have this show. This is not easy, being a mother and any kind of artist or professional person. There are costs.

Lara Ehrlich 

What was your logistical practice when you had young kids? Were you able to close the door, if they weren’t weeping on the other side? How did you balance your kids and the time that you needed for devoted work?

Rosanna Warren

I think balance might be an overstatement. I remember it more as a kind of delirium or something. I was teaching full-time and staying up very late, one or two in the morning, correcting papers or preparing class, and then getting up at six to try to walk the dog and get those children off to school. Where do you write?

I have such intense memories that maybe the mothers watching this show, perhaps the fathers, too, will have some version of this. For instance, one of the places I could try to write a poem was when I was doing the laundry. I take a big basket of laundry down to the cellar, leaving the children upstairs and their father and the dog or whatever, and I could have 10 minutes, say, in the basement, sitting on the floor with my back to the washing machine, with my little pad, and the washing machine still going behind me, scribbling in the pad. I just remember those were my laundry days. Or driving to BU and parking in the parking lot, and before rushing in to teach, giving myself 10 minutes in the car, resting the pad on the steering wheel. I have these memories so intensely, because there were times when that was all I could get.

Lara Ehrlich 

Thank you for sharing that. I feel like particularly when we talk to writers who are very successful and have a lot of work that they can show for their career, it’s hard to remember that that work wasn’t written all at once or even at a desk. I think there’s that perception of sitting at a desk behind a closed door, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or whatever it is, and so many women I’ve spoken to have said, much like you did, that they write or did write when their kids were younger in the laundry room or in the car or while on walk, those carved-out spaces. You clearly got a lot accomplished in those carved-out spaces, but maybe not all at one time. You didn’t certainly write an entire book in the laundry room during one sitting.

Rosanna Warren

No. But I also was lucky in that I got some leaves from Boston University. I’m very grateful to Boston University for so many reasons. For one thing, they took a chance on me when I was young, and I don’t have a Ph.D. They really took a chance on this young whippersnapper, would-be writer, and gave me a chance to see if I could teach and be useful. And I tried to be useful. But also write books. I was grateful to BU for giving me leaves, and I’m very grateful I got some grants. You mentioned the Guggenheim, which was in the American Council of Learned Societies. Those were just absolutely blessed opportunities to buy me out for my teaching time for a year or a half year.

The Guggenheim was 1985, and that, too, was life changing. I was trying to write a biography of the French poet Max Jacob. The book that I started in 1985 just came out in 2020, if that gives anybody courage to keep on going. I dragged a 6-month-old baby and a 2-year-old to Paris on a Guggenheim, which … it’s prestigious, but it’s not much money. I lived in a dark hole next to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and I had with me a very wonderful ex-BU student, who was sharing our difficulties on a tiny, little stipend and the chance to be in Paris. She took care of the kids for four hours a day, while I ran to the library or did interviews and rushed back so she could go off and do whatever she wanted in Paris. I think it’s insane, when I look back at what I did, dragging a baby and a toddler to Paris. We all survived. And the book came out in 2020, for God’s sake.

Lara Ehrlich 

It’s amazing. Congratulations. Heather Liz in the chat says, “I find children tend to accept absent fathers who are not around or shutting the door for their work. My own various-age children still hold a double standard for me and my writing versus my spouse.” Did you find that? Tell us a little bit about your spouse and what that working relationship was like.

Rosanna Warren

Well, I should say, I am now divorced, but not because of that. We had a very good marriage for many, many years. My spouse was also a professor at Boston University in Classics. We were both harried, exhausted, passionate teachers, writers, scholars, and I felt we were really in it together, supporting each other, so that was great. That was not a problem.

Lara Ehrlich 

I see Heather asking about children’s perspectives, when they’re old enough to voice them, about their mother’s or their father’s absences. Heather adds, “It’s infuriating to know that my shut door hurts more than all the hours my spouse is gone, engaged in work.” I wonder that about my own daughter. Will she weigh my absences more heavily than the time that my husband goes to his job? Without getting too much into your children’s personal lives, have you found that your children have given you feedback about the time that you spent away from them?

Rosanna Warren

My elder daughter is now a mother of two young children, and she a very hard-working lawyer, and they’re experiencing same kind of stresses, she and her husband being professional people and having very young, needy children, especially during a pandemic year. This has been so awful especially for women and mothers dealing with children at home. We don’t have to quote all the New York Times articles we all know, but it’s been a dreadful year for families under super stress. I mean, you and I are talking now about normal stresses, which are hard enough. To go back to that wounded snake in my poem, I just hope in any family that there’s enough basic trust and enough basic structure of caring that the children would fundamentally feel that they’re loved. I think that’s the fundamental strength any person needs to get through life. I just have to trust that that’s going to sustain us through our difficulties.

Lara Ehrlich 

I think that’s a great point. It’s something I struggle with, personally, particularly during the pandemic, when my daughter hasn’t been in school for a year. My parents live 15 minutes away, so they’ve been watching her during the week, so I can do my day job and try to fit in the writing around the laundry, like you described. She is loved, and she feels no lack there, but there’s still the guilt of not being the one who is doing the loving during the majority of the day. I think that’s a very good point to bring up: as long as the child feels loved, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be by the mother actively all the time. It could be from others who love your child.

Rosanna Warren

And that the mother’s time and the father’s time, when they’re there, is good time. Time that is really engaged. There are so many marvelous things to say about having children. One of my revelations about it was that you’re no longer the center of the world. That was an important lesson. I don’t know if I was egomaniacal before having a child, but having a child, you realize you are not the center of the world anymore. Your whole cosmology has changed. You got your fundamental imperatives to care for somebody else. That’s amazing, and that’s carried through the whole rest of my life as this profound lesson.

The other thing that I feel, among many things, from having children, is the mystery of personhood. It’s an extraordinary miracle that a creature has come into the world who has grown to be a person, and you couldn’t have predicted anything about this person. It’s like watching a seed turn into a little sprout and then grow leaves and grow up into the sun. It’s astonishing. I do feel it is miraculous. I’m in awe. The whole rest of our lives, I think of us as struggling to become people. I think it’s probably not ended until we’re in our graves. But you really see it in a baby and then a young child.

Lara Ehrlich 

How did that work its way into your work, watching a person unfold?

Rosanna Warren

Oh, I’m not sure I could even say, because it happens at so many levels. It’s not something I’ve ever addressed explicitly in poems, but maybe it’s a sensibility of that feeling of approaching life with awe—as much as watching a bear. We’re way off in the woods here. I’ve been in COVID-19 retreat in a cabin in the Catskills for an entire year, and we have black bears around here, so watching the bears this summer and fall—I watched them, too. They’re not people, but they’re creatures with very strong imperatives to live their own lives. I watch them with as much awe as I watch my fellow human beings.

Lara Ehrlich 

How did the realization that you weren’t at the center of the world—and that the center of your world shifted to keeping this other person alive—develop and grow? How did that change your work?

Rosanna Warren

Well, again, I’m not sure how to answer that. Maybe it has to do with noticing what is in your field of vision, what are you caring about, what are you seeing, what’s the poem’s crisis or trouble? Because I never intended to write poems or be a writer, the poems have to have an urgency. They have a demand, a problem to solve, and some kind of trouble is the germ of a poem for me. The trouble is often not about me, the writer, so much as something outside me in in the world in relation to the consciousness that is perceiving. I’m getting a little abstract here.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s okay!

Rosanna Warren

But not being the center of the world is a problem in vision. It’s almost a problem in optics. Where are you standing? Who’s perceiving what? What is the material of the poem? What is going to give it the urgency? What is going to give it the trouble?

Lara Ehrlich 

This is probably a mean question, but is there a poem that you wrote, before you became a mother, that if you were to rewrite it, or to write it now as a mother, that the optics would shift? Could you give us an example?

Rosanna Warren

Wow, that is hard. Because it’s a long time ago. Hard to say. But I guess some of the poems of romantic distress or erotic distress of young womanhood, where the wounded self is at the heart of things, the wounded angry self, the vengeful self, that whatever those poems are, it’s not that they’re less interesting to me, they have their own kind of energy. I think I honor that energy, that young woman energy, of erotic drama. Partly, it’s just getting older but also getting older and having children and grandchildren and a different experience of life, as one even inevitably does getting older, but that’s no longer the drama that interests me now, to write about myself. I’m interested in reading those poems written by whoever’s writing them.

Lara Ehrlich 

I’m interested how that ties back to you as a young woman in high school hating those dances and resisting sort of that idea of girlhood. I connect with you so much there. I resisted that girlhood so much that at times I tried to have some of my male friends call me by a boy’s name so that they would accept me as one of their group rather than perceive me as a girl with all the weaknesses I perceived as coming along with that. Tell me about 13-year-old Rosanna Warren. What were you like at that age?

Rosanna Warren

Oh, probably insufferable. Reading Dostoevsky and drawing all day and being shy and getting along better with my dog than with kids my age. I’m looking at a poem here that I published a few years ago called “A Way.” It was originally published in Poetry Magazine, and now it’s in my book So Forth. I’ll just read a few lines. It has a scene from when I was in my very early 20s, probably still in college, a summer in Paris in a painting program, and meeting some guy on the street. It’s about this Halloween drama of gender roles.I won’t read the whole poem. It has an epigraph from a pop singer, Marianne Faithfull, whose early incarnation was singing in a very sweet, little girl voice. Then, when she had a period of terrible drug addiction and living on the street, her voice got rough and kind of really interesting. Anyway, “A Way”:

The whole trick of this thing    …    is to get out of your own light.
                       — Marianne Faithfull

She said she sang very close to the mike

to change the space. And I changed the space

by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk in tight jeans

until an Algerian engineer plucked the pen from my back pocket.

As if you’re inside my head and you’re hearing the song from in there.

He came from the desert, I came

from green suburbs. We understood

nothing of one another over glasses of metallic red wine.

I was playing Girl. He played

Man. Several plots were afoot, all

misfiring.

That’s the beginning of the poem. It’s an oblique way of responding to your question. But I guess, every one of us, whatever gender we are or want to be or find our way to, I imagine as humans, we’re fumbling to become whole people, the kind of wholeness that we imagined for ourselves. And we’re trying to find circumstances in which we’re allowed to do that. I feel it’s kind of an extraordinary time now, where in some cultures and societies there is more freedom to experiment with those roles and find ways to be comfortable in one’s body. There weren’t those freedoms, for instance, for the most part, in the 1950s when I was born.

Lara Ehrlich 

You talked a little bit about how poetry might be a place to play with or try on some of those different roles in exploration of yourself.

Rosanna Warren

Yes, exactly. It’s a theater of possibilities. It is where we experiment with consciousness and where we can take all kinds of imaginative and emotional risks, because finally, as I often say, you’re doing it in the privacy of your study. You’re not hurting anybody, at least until you publish. Maybe that’s, in a larger sense, why we need art. It is the symbolic realm. Think of Greek tragedy. It’s the realm where the Athenians could gather for four days in a year and play out their worst nightmares. And in their comedies, play out their hysterical, obscene desires, and wit and humor—those tensions that might otherwise blow up a society.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s amazing. Let’s talk about what happens to your poetry or to that playfulness once it moves from your own office to a book that someone else is holding.

Rosanna Warren

Well, you don’t control it anymore, right? It’s out of your hands, and it becomes impersonal, however personal it felt when you crafted it. It becomes an object when it’s exteriorized. I don’t know what else to say, except that I am fascinated by the way the personal is metamorphosed. It’s almost an alchemy into something that becomes an art object. However, whatever fiction of personality is in the artwork, it is outside yourself. Now, of course, with all the social media, all these ways that people can publish their images and their writing, where we’re, in a sense, in a culture that’s increasingly saturated with expressiveness, it’s kind of glorious, the forms that expressiveness takes.

Lara Ehrlich 

I love that. Nichole has a question for you: Have you found the pandemic changing the form of your poetry at all? Nichole is finding that she’s gravitating to small, compact forums.

Rosanna Warren

I’ve been writing a lot in this retreat up in the mountains this year. We came here March 14, 2020, escaping, having no idea that we’d be here a year later, like so many people. And I found that more than the pandemic, it was the politics of this year that so terrified me. I had a strange bifocal vision of being peacefully in our cabin and seeing no other human being, except for once a month going out to get groceries and basically living on beans and rice and tinned fish. We were being really super careful.

And the outside world politically, feeling that our democracy was under severe threat in ways I could not have imagined. It just shows how naive I was. I could not have imagined earlier in my life that we would have this kind of threat, of a militant oligarchical revolution and takeover destruction of our democracy and suppression of the vote, so that affected my writing. It certainly did. I was trying to find ways to figure out how to put that horror, that fear, that anger into the shapes that would be honorable poems. And each new poem is a new struggle. It’s certainly put on enormous pressure. Besides doing the modest political activism that you can do if you’re an older person in retreat, which is writing a lot of postcards and doing “support the vote” efforts around the country.

Anyway, so the pandemic was bad enough with the politics for me. What continued to be terrifying, I have to say, is what has been revealed about our country and its divisions and the fragility of our institutions. I’ve now got up on a soapbox, and I’m sorry. But it does affect artists in different ways. How can it not affect our vision? And our forms?

Lara Ehrlich 

Have you seen any patterns in the forms that your poems have taken in the last year? Have they gotten shorter or are on a soapbox and they feel bigger? What’s the scope of the poetry you’ve been writing for the last year?

Rosanna Warren

Well, I don’t want to be on a soapbox. Not a good place for a poem to be. So that’s part of the discipline. That’s part of the aesthetic challenge, to put political anger and angst into a poem and yet still have it be a poem that works as a poem. They haven’t gotten longer or shorter, but they’ve gotten urgent in a certain way. There’s one that’s coming out shortly on the website Poem-a-Day called “Boletus,” which is the name of a mushroom. And you think it would be a poem about mushrooms, but it’s a poem about being poisoned and violence seen through nature. The way I work is to try to get at questions obliquely, because for one thing, I would like my poems to be meaningful in 25 or 50 years, not just 2021.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, definitely. Which actually leads to another question from our listeners: How do you know when a poem is finished?

Rosanna Warren

That’s an eternal question. I think the French poet Paul Valéry said a poem is never finished; you just give up. Well, that’s a really good, serious question. I don’t necessarily know. I stick my drafts into what I call a compost heap, and I let them sit there for a while, decomposing or stinking or doing what things do in a compost heap, and then look at it a few weeks later and see how it looks to me then. And then I stick it back in and then look again, and if after some of this compost heap process, it still seems to hold together, then I would send it out to a magazine and see if any editor wants it. They might not. Or they might. That’s great.

Giving public readings is another kind of test. But it’s not, for me, a really good test, because you cannot exactly fake a reading. But you can give an emotional, dramatic performance of a poem, and it gives you the illusion that it might be a good poem. It could even give the audience the illusion. But then when in the cold light of day, looking at it on paper, you might say, well, that’s a cheap move, or that’s fake. I just takes a lot of self-criticism and vigilance, which is why I like the question.

Lara Ehrlich 

I love the compost metaphor. I also love the articulation of how performance can imbue work with a glimmer of something that it doesn’t inherently possess or that it doesn’t have yet. Can you talk a little bit more about poetry as spoken performance and poetry in the cold light of day, if you’re holding it on the page?

Rosanna Warren

Well, both are really important to me. I do love performing poems, other people’s as well as my own. I like to think of poetry as originating in music and song. As you probably remember from our classes, I used to translate ancient Greek lyric poetry. These poets really matter. They were performers. There was no separation then, in the seventh and sixth century, before the Common Era, of musical performance, of singing and dance, occasionally accompanied by an instrument, a flute or a stringed instrument. By the time that performative convention gets lost, by the time you get to Roman poetry, which I also love, that’s more text-based but it remembers the lyrical Greek conventions, all of which is background.

This is in my mind, because I’ve translated those Greek poets, I’ve translated the Latin poets. I have a lot of poems memorized—English poems and French poems—that I chant to myself. And so, when I give a poetry reading of my own work, I do really love the performance. I throw myself into it. I feel it’s good. If it’s working, I feel possessed, in a kind of trance-like state, even. But I’m also aware of the dangers. I am aware of the possibility of deluding myself. So, it’s just a matter of trying, as I say, to stay vigilant. And then the critical mind is also part of creating poetry.

Lara Ehrlich

I never thought about the performative part taking over the non-performative part of poetry. That’s really interesting to hear.

Rosanna Warren

Honor them both. And especially now, with the world of spoken word poetry and young people having this marvelous forum for memorizing and performing. This is terrific. It’s almost like bringing back Ancient Greece.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s lovely. Social media has returned us to Ancient Greece. Let’s completely switch tacks for a second here and talk about grandkids. How is the experience of watching your grandchildren grow up different than raising your own children? What’s it like to be a grandmother?

Rosanna Warren

Oh, it’s delicious. This year of the pandemic has been hard since I haven’t seen them in person since last July. We do Zoom games, but it’s not as satisfying. I think I’ll just repeat myself and just talk about the awe of seeing a person grow into a person. My granddaughter, Adelaide, who just turned 6, when she was about 3, I just remember, I was amazed. She was so small. I was going to visit and take her for a walk or something. It was summer, so I was wearing sandals, and she saw I had a band aid on one of my toes, and she got really worried. And she said, “Grandma Rosanna, you have a boo-boo on your toes. Does it hurt?” This tiny child was really concerned that somebody else might be hurt. And so, I had to say, “Oh, it’s okay. It doesn’t really hurt that badly.” I just give this as an example of the miracle of personhood and of the child already developing empathy and awareness that other people have lives and they have feelings, too.

Lara Ehrlich  

Absolutely. Have you learned anything from your grandchildren that surprised you? My own parents are remembering things that they’d forgotten about having very small children around.

Rosanna Warren

It’s partly the inventiveness. One of the glories of being a grandparent for me is rereading all those books that I loved as a child. I loved reading with my children, when they were little, too. Winnie the Pooh and, you know, The Wind in the Willows, just rediscovering all these stories and having the children be just as absorbed in them as I was. We inhabit all these worlds together, but the children are also making up their own worlds and inventing games and characters. They can play by themselves—talking to themselves and making their toys talk and making a whole imaginative world without any grown-up interfering and saying, why don’t you do this or that? That just seems so precious and probably the beginning of where human culture starts, this freedom to imagine and to make shapes, to act out dramas.

Lara Ehrlich 

I really admire that in my daughter, because I have lost my ability to do that, as I think most adults do—your ability to just kind of be absorbed in your own play without worrying about any outcomes or productivity or anything like that. I find it invigorating but also challenging to sit quietly with her and play with blocks or Legos or something, because I’m always reminding myself that I have to be there in the moment with her and I shouldn’t be thinking about work or something else I should be doing. I find that my parents have a lot more capacity to do that with her than I do now. I don’t know if it’s that we’re in different life stages or what, but what about you? Were you able as a mother early on to sit and play with your kids, or were you distracted by intellectual things?

Rosanna Warren

I was distracted, possibly by intellectual things, but also, as happens in many families, my own parents were getting seriously ill and dying when my children were young. I was squeezed with having to take care of elderly, suffering people and very young children, and teach, so I was certainly distracted. Reading aloud was always a very big part of our family life, from my husband and myself reading with our children every night and having supper together and talking, trying, no matter what was going on, to have some core to family life, even with all the other emergencies that were around us.

Something I learned as a parent, not when the children were small but as they were getting to be teenagers, one of the most painful things was that there were things happening in my children’s lives that I couldn’t fix. They skinned their knee, you can bring out the band aid and the magic words and the hugs, but inevitably, life is gonna hurt them in some ways that Mom cannot fix. Having to respect boundaries in that way and learn to step back. I guess my answer comes from your question about stepping back and letting them play freely.

I also want to let them play and make up their own games. There’s so much directive parenting these days, I think it’s important to let children figure out their own games. But then, there are certain kinds of troubles they’re going to get into. That was maybe the hardest thing for me as a parent to understand, that there were certain things I could not fix—and then figuring out, well, what can you do? Maybe you can just try to be somehow present without being pushy. It’s hard. I can tell you, I haven’t totally figured it out yet.

Lara Ehrlich 

Let me know if you do. But I think that’s probably true for all mothers and writer mothers. I think the acknowledgement that we’re still figuring it out is a good place to end. Thank you, Rosanna.

Rosanna Warren

It’s been fascinating to think about these things out loud.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure.

Katie Peterson Transcript


Writer Mother Monster: Katie Peterson
November 19, 2020

Katie Peterson is the author of four collections of poetry, including A Piece of Good News. Her fable in lyric prose, Life in a Field, was selected by Rachel Zucker for the Omnidawn Open Books Prize and will be published in April 2021. She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She collaborates with her husband, the photographer Young Suh, and they have shown their work at the Mills College Art Museum and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Katie, Young, and their daughter, Emily, live in Berkeley. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at UC Davis. She has one daughter, who is 3, and she describes writer-motherhood in three words as “always play first.”

Lara Ehrlich 

Hello, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and tonight’s guest is poet and mother Katie Peterson. Before I introduce Katie, I want to thank you all for tuning in and to let you know that you can now listen to Writer Mother Monster as a podcast on all major audio platforms or read the interview transcript at your leisure all on writermothermonster.com.

If you enjoyed the episode, please consider becoming a Writer Mother Monster patron or patroness on Patreon. Your support helps make this series possible.

Now I’m excited to introduce Katie. Katie Peterson is the author of four collections of poetry, including A Piece of Good News. Her fable in lyric prose, Life in a Field, was selected by Rachel Zucker for the Omnidawn Open Books Prize and will be published in April 2021. She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She collaborates with her husband, the photographer Young Suh, and they have shown their work at the Mills College Art Museum and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Katie, Young, and their daughter, Emily, live in Berkeley. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at UC Davis. She has one daughter, who is 3, and she describes writer-motherhood in three words as “always play first.” Welcome, Katie.

Katie Peterson 

It’s good to be here.

Lara Ehrlich

It’s good to see you! We knew each other many years ago when you were professor of the practice of poetry at Tufts University. Now you’re in Berkeley; tell us who lives in your house with you.

Katie Peterson 

The people who live in my house are me, my husband Young Suh, who was born in Korea and came here to do an undergraduate degree at Pratt and then ended up doing a graduate degree at the Museum School, Boston. He’s a photographer. He also teaches at UC Davis. And our daughter, Emily, who was born October 12, 2017. She was born in the middle of the Santa Rosa fires. Since then, we’ve had a number of fires in California. But the reason why I always remember that is my labor was very long, like four and a half days, and I was already very late, and we could barely go outside because of the smoke. The great thing was we were in a hospital, protected from the smoke, but the bad thing was it was really like being in a dark tunnel for that whole time. And then when we drove Emily home from the hospital, we were driving down one of the streets on the way to our house—a suburban street three blocks away from the highway—and a stag crossed the road. This beautiful stag, right in front of our car. I think it had been driven down from the hills by the fires. We were sitting there in the car with Emily, and this stag crossed the road on this regular, suburban street. It was incredible.

Lara Ehrlich 

Talk about metaphors. That’s amazing. If you’re comfortable with it, can you talk about what you mean by the labor being long? Four days is pretty intense.

Katie Peterson 

Yeah, it was. It’s fun to talk about. I mean, what an experience. And we haven’t domesticated the experience of labor and childbirth enough that we all talk about it all the time. I think I was 41 and a half weeks. They had let me go that long because I was perfectly healthy, and the doctor was indulging my desire for a natural pregnancy. But finally, they induced me. And nothing worked. Like, they did every single intervention under the sun to get Emily to come out. They finally did a C-section at five in the morning or something.

There are probably some other mothers listening who know that the experience of taking a childbirth class is sometimes completely and totally useless to you. That’s was true for me. Finally, they did the C-section, and she came out, but the other thing that was true was that my doula kind of went AWOL. And so, it was really my husband there with me. He did not sleep—like ever. I barely slept. He was really, really good at it. And all of the nurses in the ward came through and were like, “Who’s your doula? How did you get a male doula?” They all thought he was the doula. So, I think I fell in love with him all over again, through that experience.

Lara Ehrlich

I don’t know if you knew Young back when I first met you. Can you talk about how you met and tell us a little bit about him?

Katie Peterson 

We met at Yaddo. We had the art colony love affair. I think of him as an introverted personality. When we first met, I really admired the way he took pictures, because there was so much quiet around his person. And there was this combination between being really relaxed and being really precise, which is very much a part of his pictures. He did a series of pictures about the wildfires in California that have been exhibited a number of times—this was all from the 2008, and then the 2013, wildfires—and they’re haunting. His eyes were on them, trying to reckon with the fact that he thought they were very beautiful. He tends to find beauty in things that I think feel destructive or dangerous. And his photographs—the California landscape and the American national parks—to me, are very unique, because he finds the whole American nature thing really terrifying. And for me, it’s been such a central thing about my poetry and writing—the American landscape and the West, kind of trying to bring a feminine voice to the West. He loves those landscapes, too, but they’re terrifying to him, so there’s this aspect of the sublime in his pictures that I really admire.

Lara Ehrlich 

You actually hit on the next question I had, because, like you said, your poetry very much deals with the land, nature, and those quiet spaces that can contain deep emotion, like fear or desire. Cn you talk a little bit now about your poetry, for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading your work? What inspires you?

Katie Peterson 

It’s hard to start with one thing. Sometimes when I look at my own work, it feels like a combination between a classic American nature poet and a sexy, metaphysical John Donne. I think the poems have landed in landscape because I grew up in the West, but by temperament and character, I’m a Bostonian, and I loved living there because I had that fast-paced neurosis.

I talk really fast, much faster than people in California, and here I’m often mistaken for an Easterner, though I know what I am. I remember at some point, at a dinner party in Boston, someone looked at me and said, “Did you know that Massachusetts Avenue is the fastest street in the country?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And this person said, “When I heard you talk, I thought everyone who’s walking down Mass Ave. in Boston talks as fast as that—you must be from here.” And I looked it up the next day, and it’s true that the pace of people walking in Mass Ave. in Cambridge is faster than New York. They’ve clocked it.

So, I really relate to the intensity of being in your head during a Northeastern winter. And a lot of the poets I love, like Elizabeth Bishop, are so Yankee in some way; they have that Eastern sense of texture and intensity and complexity and depth. And that’s all true, but I grew up around the airy landscapes of California and the big vistas at the Sierra Nevadas. So, I think of those things as coming together in the work.

And likewise, I think that, especially in recent work and in the last book, A Piece of Good News, I really wanted to bring together things we think of as extremes of the inner life, like desire and fear and contemplation and these irreducible aspects of our public and political existence, like thinking about who the president is or thinking about the future, or what it feels like to be in an urban space, thinking about rural spaces, or vice versa. There are a lot of poems in A Piece of Good News that take place in a rural space, but the character is thinking about an urban space. And there’s a long poem that takes place in an urban space, which is all about ranging across the rural spaces of the country.

Lara Ehrlich 

What was it like moving back from Boston to Berkeley?

Katie Peterson 

It was a shock. It was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done, besides grieve. I moved because I loved someone and because I wanted to have a child. And because I got a tenure-track job at a wonderful school with writers that I really admire—all these great reasons. But I left behind the best friends I’ve ever had and the city where I first became an independent person.

And I think specifically of my best friend, the poet Sandra Lim, who was my everyday person. For the first year that I was in California, I can’t tell you how I mourned her not living down the street from me. It was really difficult. And now I think of it and I think, “Wow, what a thing that you could live to love someone that much.” But at the time, I thought, “What the hell am I doing? Why did I do this?” It was literally like a feeling of being unmoored.

When I think about it, I think it descended first as a kind of panic, like, “What am I about here? How do I belong here?” And the other thing I realized, as the months went on, was it had so much to do with confronting the person I had been because I grew up in Menlo Park on the peninsula and had lived my whole life there until I went to the East Coast. So now the idea in my life is I’m supposed to live integrated with my childhood self and my relatives, like I’m supposed to live an hour away from my dad and be okay with it. Like, what? That was not what I had planned for my life. To be raising a child in, essentially, the place where I grew up was nothing I ever anticipated doing.

Lara Ehrlich 

You know, I’m right there with you, having moved back to Connecticut, 15 minutes from where I grew up, with my 4-year-old daughter. It’s interesting, and you see people that you went to high school with at the grocery store—or used to, before the pandemic—and it’s sort of like, “Oh, I never really wanted this to happen.”

Katie Peterson 

I was gonna say, I certainly wouldn’t be the first writer to move to a new place and gain a new persona, right? And to then sort of have to be the person that I was before I was a writer and the writer self at the same time. Well, that’s been weird.

Lara Ehrlich 

Tell me about that self before you became the writer self. And then we’ll get to the self you became once you became a mother. But who was former Katie? And who was writer Katie? And now who is Berkeley Katie?

Katie Peterson 

I don’t know—who was that person? I mean, you know, it’s hard for me to say who I was. I guess it’s easier to say to talk about what the world felt like at that time. Because I think the world felt different. I grew up in the ’80s in California. The California that we think of is a place fueled by the dot-com boom, where it’s too expensive to live and where income inequality has torqued out community to mean that billionaires live in the same zip codes as the homeless. There was boom bust here when I was growing up, but it was definitely more of an ordinary place, I’d say, and it felt beautifully far away from other places in the country, like “unique and special” far away, and there were so many open spaces. All these neighborhoods where there are now McMansions were empty lots, or there would be some lady, you know, with chickens in her backyard or things like that. There was still a wildness, even about the most sedate neighborhoods.

I think that has changed. And that sense of smallness has changed. I grew up in a Catholic family and we all went to Catholic schools, and yet, everyone I knew was some form of progressive Democrat. Is there still that world somewhere? I don’t know. The world has changed, and we’ve changed with it. I know that when I went to the East Coast, one of the things that really changed me was living in a city, because even California cities don’t really feel like cities, in a way. I think there is something about living in a city that lets you think about being a political self, like living in a community with others really publicly, even if you don’t know them, even if they’re anonymous to you. Coming back to California, this weird land of faux homesteaders, I see all the cracks in political community here and all the difficulties we have in California coming together on things. There are other things we do really well. But I think about that a lot, why it’s so hard for people to come together here and the strange mixture between the rural and the urban.

Lara Ehrlich 

You mentioned what you had expected your life to look like. What did you expect your life as a mother would look like?

Katie Peterson 

I think it’s important to say my mother died in 2008, and I miss her every day. She had cancer. She didn’t get as many years as we all would have liked for her to have. And when she died, I was filled with two twin senses: the first, this feeling that I would never be a mother, and the second, this incredible hunger to be a mother.

I lived in that really divided state mentally for like, three years, because I hadn’t found the partner. The summer before I met Young, I had basically decided that I was going to have a baby on my own and had made plans to do it. I’d saved the money to do it. I think I was 38 or something like that. And then I met Young, and all of a sudden, this thing that I both thought was impossible and I really wanted became possible in the eyes of another person who also was a man. Like it was so strange that it happened.

I think it’s less that I had a fixed idea of my destiny than I had gotten to the point where I didn’t think that a traditional life with kids in a house in the suburbs was what I was going to be looking at. I had such good friends, and still do, that my sense of being loved was quite vibrant, and I was already imagining ways in which I could continue to feel loved without being married or having a family. So, no one was more surprised than me. But it was also something I think I really wanted.

Lara Ehrlich 

Was there much conversation, or was it something Young wanted, too, and it was sort of like, okay, we found our person—now we’ll make this happen.

Katie Peterson

I think he was very surprised at how much wanting to have kids with me was a part of the initial discussion. He’s the one who brought it up. That’s the way he saw it. He wasn’t interested in dating me. He was interested in something grander.

I’m in the middle of trying to decide how honest to be… I think a lot of my women friends at the time, including me, were having disappointing encounters with men of our generation who had complicated feelings about what they called settling down. I think of it as a hallmark of my generation that people felt complicated feelings about those things.

I actually think my students who I’m teaching in their 20s feel something else. They don’t always want a traditional life. But I don’t think of the men that I teach in their 20s and the men that I’ve taught as this population of men that me and all my friends seemed to be dating for 10 years. I don’t think they meant anything bad by it. I just think we were raised in a generation with a lot of ambivalence about family.

And then I met someone from another country, from Korea, and family is so important there. He was able to sort of combine a really traditional understanding of that with the wholly new self that he had to be in this country. And he’s an artist, so he doesn’t see boundaries as fixed; he sees them as super complicated. It was not the first time but the most significant time that I was ever able to talk to someone I was in love with about what having a child with them would be like and mean. Then, in the years since, I’ve talked to all these people I know who are married and have kids, and they were like, “Oh, yeah, we talked about that early on.” Especially people I know who are religious. I think that’s conditioned as part of it. But those just weren’t the people I met when I was doing the poet thing for 10 years. And then I got really lucky and I met the right person.

Lara Ehrlich 

No, I’ve heard that from so many people. You’re not alone. I’ve heard from many of my friends who were dating, in their 20s and 30s, these men who, as you’ve said, were ambivalent about not just family but career and a future and what a future could look like. It was sort of this sense, “I live in the present, and I don’t want to think about 10 years out.” To be fair, there are probably a lot of women in our generation who feel that way, too.

Katie Peterson 

I think that’s true. I think I was one. I didn’t always date people with a future in mind. But I do remember the time it changed for me. I was dating somebody, and we were talking about what the future would look like, and this person was like, “Well, I don’t really want to think about the future.” And I remember it coming to my head as a statement: This is really boring. Really boring. I think I said to the person, “I think that would be really boring for me to keep dating you without talking about the future.”

I think about my daughter when I think about this, because my mother didn’t talk to me enough about this kind of stuff. My parents were so much in love, and they were so generous with each other’s foibles. It was both a great model and a terrible one, because I think marriage is for real. I have this great marriage in my imagination. But my mother had no other advice than like, deal. I could have used more advice.

Lara Ehrlich 

Was it because she passed away that you then felt such a hunger to become a mother yourself? Or was that something that had been brewing for a while and came to a head?

Katie Peterson 

I literally didn’t think about it until she died. And then I had to talk to my therapist about that, and my therapist was like, “You didn’t ever think about it?” And I was like, “Yeah. I really, really didn’t.” I think I thought I’d think about it later, and then all of a sudden it is later. But you don’t realize it’s becoming later.

I think at first I just felt a sorrow that my mother was going to die and she was never going to see children that I was going to have, and that was an experience I wasn’t going to get to have. But I didn’t think about it consciously like that. I actually think it came to me. I remember waking up, when my mother was really at the end, at four in the morning and thinking, “I need to have a child immediately, with anyone.” I think of it as the first biological feeling I had, too.

Something that I’ve thought about a lot in the last year is whether to have another baby. I don’t know whether you had this experience, but it was like as soon as Emily was two and a half and getting really oppositional, everything in me was like, obviously, I need to have another baby. It almost felt biological. I actually love being the parent of one child. But it seemed to come into my dreams and into my thinking and into all these other aspects of my life—as a thought and as a conversation, almost without me even. I didn’t think about it rationally. I think it came from my body.

Lara Ehrlich

I love that, and I want to talk about that more. Maybe you and I are alike, in that I am very much an intellectual person who doesn’t pay attention to my body, pretty regularly. So, motherhood was never a biological thing for me either. I never sort of felt the urge to become a mother. It was a lot of conversation and thinking and talking to my husband and my therapist. What are the pros and cons of becoming a mother? And finally, it was like, okay, well, either we’re going to do it or not. So, we’ll just do it, and hopefully, it’ll turn out okay. So, to hear you talking about this biological hunger for motherhood is so fascinating, and I wonder if you could talk about that and how it works in tandem or against the intellectual side of you, the side that creates, that parses words and creates structures within language.

Katie Peterson 

The thing that’s coming to my mind is that during the nine months of pregnancy and the month right after it, all these things happen in your body that you can’t refuse. You can’t refuse the heartburn, you can’t refuse contractions, you can’t refuse back pain. And then you have a baby, and you’re supposed to breastfeed that thing, which is so crazy. Talk about an experience that’s both biological and intellectual! There are all these biological things happening, but your brain can’t help but reflect on the strangeness of the experience.

And also, so much of it is about whether it works or not. As soon as you’re involved in something that may or may not work, you’re involved in your intellect in some way. And also the way you’re hungry. You’re really hungry while you’re pregnant, and then you have the baby, and when you’re breastfeeding, you’re really hungry. I remember some Berkeley person said to me, “Well, it must be really nice to feel so close to your body.” And I said to the person, “I live here [points to forehead]. When this is over, I’m coming back here.” And the person looked at me like I was a horse.

I feel like I want to go back and kind of correct or edit myself and say I know that people talk about a biological clock ticking, and just to be clear, I was 42 when I had Emily, and I think that surely was part of it. But I think that the part of us that dreams is also the part of us that uses language, and I think that language is all mixed up not just in our subjective responses but in everything else we do. We use it for everything. We use it for politics, we use it for religion, we use it for family, we use it for our work, the way you do one thing is the way you do everything.

There was no way I was going to carry a baby and then give birth to it without being ruminative, conceptual, philosophical, desiring of making generalizations about the experience, kind of idiosyncratically obsessed with what was most conceptual at the root of the experience. In my poems, I like to play around with abstractions. The other day, I wrote a poem in which I talked about God, money, and power. And I looked back at it, and I thought, I really have come into my own, if I’ve let myself write a 12-line poem, in which I use the words God, money, and power.

I do remember, when I was pregnant, an abiding interest in all of those conceptual matters kind of mapped on to the experience. Don’t worry, I was also just super sleepy all the time. Biological reactions. I remember having terrible contractions in the hospital and trying to write in my journal and Young took it away from me, and he’s like, “You’re not supposed to be lying on your back while you have contractions.” I was like, “Oh, sorry.” I relied on him a lot.

Lara Ehrlich 

I’ve heard other moms, including myself, say that they had grand plans of cataloguing the experiences of both pregnancy and childbirth, those early days breastfeeding. I had the grandest plans of documenting it all in my journal, so I could come back to it later in literature. I did not write a single word probably until my daughter was a couple weeks or maybe even a few months old. Were you able to write when you were pregnant and during those first early weeks?

Katie Peterson 

I’m trying to think. I wrote two or three poems that I bet will find their way into a next book, if it happens. But for the most part, I wrote notes and things in my journal that I’m glad I wrote down but that were not in the form of poetry.

I have a first-year poetry student right now who’s a mom with two kids, and she’s been writing these poems that are very interrupted, like, they have lots of backslash, slashes, and dashes and everything. She just wrote one, and I didn’t think it was very successful, and then we talked about it. I said to her, “There’s an idealism sometimes around motherhood—everything about it—that you could write poems about pregnancy while you’re pregnant, that you could write poems about childbirth while you’re having the baby.” One person can: Rachel Zucker did in The Last Clear Narrative, a wonderful book, but for the most part, that’s not how my mind works.

I need distance from the experience to talk about the experience. And the thing about being pregnant and having a baby is, I wasn’t interested in thinking about another time in my life. When I think about it, I think it was the time in my life that I was most interested in thinking about the time right before me. Now I wonder whether what I’m trying to say is that the writing of poetry sometimes relies on being in one time, thinking about another. And there was something utterly present about a lot of that time that I was experiencing.

I think that when Emily was asleep as a baby, I really longed for that to be a wonderful time to write poems. And I sometimes sat with a notebook and tried and really wanted to be in the moment of the poem, but I wasn’t. I’d still like to write about those things, as that happened, but I’d like to write about them tumbled into my other experiences. I’d be interested in 10 years to write a poem about the day I had Emily and try to remember and reconstruct that day. I think it might get interesting to me later.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s so fascinating. I think, like you said, not just with poetry but in fiction as well, the distance from those important events can make for stronger writing, rather than being in the midst of it and trying to piece together a narrative. I did the same thing. I sat with my notebook and tried to write while my daughter was sleeping, and then you kind of fall asleep or that’s your one chance to take a shower, and writing doesn’t really take the precedence.

Katie Peterson 

And I think it still happens to me. I’ve been trying to write an essay about the Republican senators and why they’re so evil, basically. I wanted to write something about self-respect. I look at them and think, “Well, you’ve lost your self-respect.” I think with prose, I really feel it, and I wanted to talk to you about this. Poetry can sometimes be a fragment, but when you’re trying to write a piece of prose, say it’s 5,000 words, and you lose track of something, there could be a thought there, and you can lose it. Like motherhood can actually make you lose it. And the thing that I’ve been trying to tell myself is, “But it’s here somewhere.” So, I may just have to jog the thought back by doing something like washing my hands or taking a shower or doing laundry or doing something else.

There are two places that I think right now: one is in the shower, and one is after dropping Emily off at daycare, driving home on my own. Right now, I work at home. In those two moments, there is usually a thought that has to do with the thing I’m trying to write. Just the other day, I lost a thought when I came home because their teacher called me because I’d forgotten something that she needed at school. And I spent the next hour trying to get the thought back. I couldn’t get it back. I finally gave up and went to put a little laundry in, and it came back.

Right after Emily had been born, I felt like that constantly, like I’d have a thought and lose it completely, and the thoughts were a wandering around somewhere in me, but I couldn’t find them. It really drove me crazy.

Lara Ehrlich 

I definitely felt that way, too. And I still feel that way. Like when I’m driving or showering, those are the two times I think, because you can’t do anything else. Your brain is occupied with this task, and then, in the background, you can be thinking about something else, and that’s when it rises up to the surface.

We have a question here from Brittany O’Duffy: “I would love to hear you all expound on the animal. There’s a visceral element of these primal experiences, but how does or did that inform your creative narratives?” That’s a great question.

Katie Peterson 

I think you should answer first. You wrote a book called Animal Wife!

Lara Ehrlich  37:34 

Well, I’ll give you a short answer, because I really want to go back to you, Katie. But yes, I’m very interested in the animal and the visceral, bodily aspect of being not just a mother but a woman. I feel like as we grow up, we are afraid of—or taught to ignore—the parts of our bodies that are animal. We shave the hair from our armpits and our legs. And we’re ashamed of, and hide, our menstrual cycle—all of these things that animals in the wild experience but that we as women are taught to tamp down.

When you become a mother, it’s the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt, being immobilized on a table with pain and with this very animal experience of giving birth, when all the things we’re taught not to talk about are suddenly laid bare, and torn open in a very animalistic way. That definitely impacted my writing. After becoming a mother, I found this new interest in bodies and in the physical and the animal parts of our being. I want to turn it back to Katie and ask you that same question. It’s a great one.

Katie Peterson 

It’s interesting, because these things are hard to look at in ourselves. And then you’re looking at a child, and I think they’re easier to look at in the child. I don’t know whether your child is like this, but I bet they are. Like, Emily is really fascinated with animals. All children are, right? And for her, the world of animals is daily. It’s moment by moment, constantly checking in with what animal does she feel like, what animal does she want to be, which animals are around? She likes to call us animals. She’ll say, “I’m a baby alpaca. Are you a mama alpaca?” And she goes through the animals.

I think it’s kind of interesting. I think that’s true. I think we have all these reserved feelings about thinking about ourselves as animals, but never in my life have I thought more about another person as an animal than having a little girl.

Right now, she’s in what I read in the books is a stage that a lot of kids go through, which is really wanting to reunite with my body. And I don’t mean to say that idealistically. There’s something that sounds really sanctified about that; I don’t mean that. When she was a little baby, I always found her very independent. She didn’t love breastfeeding. Since the beginning, she has been just as attached to her father as to me. She wasn’t that cuddly of a baby to me, almost like she likes to examine things from a distance. But in the last two or three months, she goes to sleep in her own bed, and then she wakes up at three or four in the morning and comes into ours and literally wants to sleep on top of me every single night and wants to be in my lap all the time. She wants to just be here all the time. It’s so mammalian. It’s so intense. And I also can feel or think that she wants that because it’s going away. So, she always says, “I’m a baby alpaca. You’re the mom alpaca?” Well, she’s also a little girl. Now she’s 3. She can do letters—like almost, you know. She’s becoming a grownup. The animal in her is in time. It’s moving forward in time.

And I’m so glad we’re talking about animals because my next book, Life in a Field, is dedicated to my friend Bridget and her dog, Violet, and also to animals and girls because Bridget has been my good friend for so long and also because she’s the person who’s shown me what a relationship with an animal in its most beautiful form can look like. I’ve been really educated by that, not really being a dog person myself. I wanted to dedicate it to animals and girls because there’s a kind of vision in the book of “what would the world be, if we divided it up into animals and girls and not into men and women?” What if we sort of redrew the lines and instead thought, “Okay, who in a situation is an animal and who in a situation is a girl?”

The vulnerability in animals and girls is accompanied in both cases, I think, by what I would call aggression. Like really being able to see the aggression of other creatures. In the story that I wrote, a girl and a donkey become very good friends, but then they have to marry time. The last section of the book is the marriage ceremony in which the girl and the donkey each decide to marry time. Both characters have a kind of aggressive part of themselves that they have to find a way to deal with.

It strikes me that one of the things animals model for us is dealing with the consequences of our impulses, as opposed to hiding the idea that we ever had them, living not at one with ourselves but living always in struggle. I’ve grown to love dogs because they’re so attuned to the moment. All of their hungers—for people, for order, for food—they experience without shame. And that’s an interesting way of coping with being mortal. Not our way, but an interesting way.

Lara Ehrlich 

I wonder when all of that kicks in with small children. Everything you’ve described with dogs and with animals is very similar to my experience with my daughter, that there’s that lack of shame early on, about bodies and about wanting to be in your lap and wanting to be close to skin and not curbing impulses and so on. We teach kids how to curb those impulses and hopefully not in a damaging way, but that’s tricky in and of itself. I’m interested in this because my daughter, who is a year older, four, went through that stage, and then she became independent again and slept in her own bed for a good long time. But then recently, in the last month or so, she has insisted on sleeping in our bed again. In part, she says it’s because she’s lonely, and she doesn’t want to sleep alone. And how do you tell a four-year-old during a pandemic that she has to sleep alone? So, we’ve sort of gotten back to all sleeping together in the same bed, which feels, again, very much like she’s trying to recapture something that she’s moving away from. With girls, particularly, and trying to instill a sense of boundaries and ownership of your body, how are you thinking about that with Emily and with her desire to be close to you and to be in your lap? With my daughter, I’m starting to have to have those conversations like, “No, this is Mommy’s body. Please respect my space.”

Katie Peterson 

I mean, I haven’t had to do that yet! I just let her do whatever she wants, within reason. But I didn’t breastfeed for that long, so there are things she doesn’t do. Will there be a point in which she’s too clingy? So far, Emily has been pretty independent, and I kind of wonder whether she will direct her attentions towards that independence again, when it’s appropriate.

You asked me how I was thinking about it. One way in which I’m helped in thinking about it is that she goes to a really great Montessori daycare where they talk to them about the integrity of their bodies and not letting other people into their spaces if they don’t feel comfortable. It’s incredible how much she knows about that. All the stuff she knows about it, I didn’t know until I was like, 25. I think she is being raised in a different time, in a different world. I think she has a different sense of her body. I think I probably lived without an independent sense of my body from my mother’s for longer than she’s going to.

Lara Ehrlich 

How has becoming a mother changed your work? We talked about having that narrative distance from the actual act of giving birth, but how have you seen Emily and the experience of being a mother changing your poetry and your prose?

Katie Peterson 

I don’t think we have a great sense in our culture right now about what it means to grow up. We underrate growing up. Many of us don’t want to grow up. I’m sure as soon as I’m saying that, there are people listening who are like, “Ew, gross grownups, I hate them,” right? And definitely, that’s how I felt and still feel, like being a grown up is fundamentally kind of a bad thing. Who are the models for really good grownups—Obama? That’s it. It’s hard to think of that many more. Dolly Parton and Obama are really good grownups.

Lara Ehrlich 

Those are good ones!

Katie Peterson 

Yeah, there aren’t that many. I do think there’s something about parenthood, and I wouldn’t confine it to motherhood, which has to do with putting someone else in front of you, that you have to. I was raised a Catholic, and the spiritual work of selflessness is at the center of many monastic and religious traditions, and I think it changes you because it gives you some authority over life experience and also over things that you can’t always tell to somebody.

You can’t always tell the truth to everyone all at once. That’s something I think about all the time about being a mother. I can’t tell Emily the truth. I can’t reason with Emily about everything. Emily and I can’t stand in the rational truth of things when she doesn’t want me to park in a certain place and throws a temper tantrum. Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant—success in circuit lies.” The truth is something that cannot be dropped on the page unceremoniously, but is its own difficult animal that needs to be cajoled and sometimes restrained.

I think of that as being something that motherhood has made me think about a lot, how many of my own feelings, I now must repress, how many of the things I’d like to say, I have to repress. That wisdom, when I think about the history of it from literature, is not from a woman but Odysseus from the Odyssey, who, more than once, sat and, through tears, listened to a story that he couldn’t react to. And nothing has made me think about that more than this pandemic and also the political situation. The week of the election, Young and I were both on our phones and going crazy and texting people, and Emily was also going crazy and was unmanageable, by the day after the election. And of course she was! Her parents were completely out to lunch. We weren’t good enough or selfless enough to put aside that to just be with her. I’m sure there are other parents who are much better than us than that.

That proved my point, in a way, to myself, which was as soon as something comes into you, as a parent, it’s part of your child’s life, too.

So when I think about being a mother, I think about being a grownup, and when I think about being a grownup, I think about being so attached to others that what you do and say and eat and feel matters in such an embodied way to somebody else. Of course, that’s true if you’re not a mother, but it’s come into relief for me as a result of being one.

Lara Ehrlich 

That leads into another question I had for you about taking the time to write and how you balance motherhood with the logistics of writing. I’ve heard others say the same thing that you were just talking about, that being present with their child is so important but sometimes impossible. Like during the election, my husband and I were also similarly consumed with the news. So, writing is another time in which you need to be consumed with something other than your child, and how do you balance those two, all-consuming things in your life?

Katie Peterson 

You don’t balance them. You unravel. You do it by any means necessary. I feel like I’m constantly letting my ideas go, my idea of how the day is supposed to go, in light of how the day really is. And you have to be educated by that. If there’s something more at stake than writing, you have to be with the fact that there’s something more at stake than writing, and sometimes there is.

I am good at making use of small bits of time and always have been. I’m glad I have that. But it’s also true that at this point in my life, I don’t think I’m interested in being type A or neurotic about getting my writing time in. I’m not sure what we’ll see—the jury’s still out—but I don’t know that I’m the kind of person who could get up to finish a project every morning early, but maybe I will be, at a certain point. It just hasn’t worked for me that way.

Young and I were like, “We’re living one life together,” and for both of us to be right with our work, we have to be right with each other. It’s like a whole system. I know it works differently for different people, but for me, that’s been really crucial.

I would say the second thing is you mentioned driving and the shower. I really had kind of given up hope this spring of really writing any poems this year, and then I started going for walks. On these walks, this poem kind of came. And then it was like, I had to go on the same walk every day. I still go on it, because there might be a poem on the walk. And I become very rigid about this walk that I go on, because there might be a poem on the walk. And I don’t have that many non-negotiables. But that has become this kind of weird non-negotiable thing. Young and I get together and talk about our non-negotiable things that we need to do in order to feel like we’re still working.

Also, I was lucky to have Emily late because I had tenure when I had her. There are things that I didn’t have to worry about, and that’s just fortune that gave me that.

So, like I was saying, I’ll be writing a poem—like, I was standing in the bathroom, writing a poem on my note function on my phone, and Young and Emily came in, and they were like, “What are you doing?” And I was like, “I’m writing a poem.” And they were like, “Why?” And I was like, “You guys are supposed to know me better than anyone. Get out of the bathroom.”

When you asked me for three words, I said, “always play first.” That’s something that I’ve also discovered this year. If I’m not right in my relationship with Emily, then it’s pretty hard for me to write a poem that I care about. Doesn’t mean that I have to be freaked out about my relationship with Emily—I think I’m actually a pretty chill parent—but it’s not like I have yet to have the experience that I know a lot of mothers have, which is having to sacrifice something with their child in order to get their work done.

Poets are lucky. We don’t get anything done. We just don’t. I think writing a novel must feel very different, or a book of essays or an academic book. We’re wasters. We’re the wasters of culture. We beautifully waste time, and it comes out and it does the work of justice. But it’s a mysterious and weird thing. The life of a poet is a lifelong dare. And I’m just in the middle of that big dare, like I jumped out of a plane and I’m still in the jump. I just have really cute company, this little goblin Emily.

Lara Ehrlich 

I had other questions lined up, but that is just the perfect place, I think, for us to end, because we’re at an hour. Katie, this has been such a pleasure. And it’s so great to talk to you again, after all this time.

Katie Peterson 

It’s good to talk to you, too.

Lara Ehrlich 

I hope you’ll come back when your new book comes out. Tell us a little bit, before we go, about the new book.

Katie Peterson 

It’s called Life in a Field, and the cool thing about the book is it was selected by Rachel Zucker, the poet I mentioned earlier who is one of the poets of my generation who’s written beautifully about motherhood. So has Katie Ford, who was written into the chat. And as a very long-time friend of mine, Katie has also written beautiful poems about motherhood.

Rachel chose the book for the Omnidawn Open Books Prize, and the publication date is April 1, 2021, when I’m sure we’re all still going to be living in our houses. We’ll probably have a virtual book launch. And the cool thing about this book is, I wrote it in the aftermath of a pregnancy that I lost in 2015. But it’s a fable; it doesn’t directly treat that topic. I wrote it as a consolation to myself, feeling like I was living in a world that I didn’t want to live in, that was my sense. The question that echoes through it is, “What do you do with the world you didn’t wish for?” It’s a story written in these small, prose-poem paragraphs, and it’s accompanied by four folios of photographs taken by Young. As you move through the four sections of the book, you also move through these folios of photographs taken by Young and arranged by both of us. And there are these two characters, a girl and a donkey, and it’s just about them learning to understand each other

Lara Ehrlich 

That sounds beautiful. I want to read that right away. I will be pre-ordering. When will it be available for preorder?

Katie Peterson 

You can pre-order it now on Bookshop and lots of other places where books are sold, and they’ve done a beautiful job with it at Omnidawn. The book layout is stunning. And Young’s photos are in full color, which is unexpected and wonderful. So please do.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yes, everyone, please. Go buy it now, and we’ll be at your launch party, and will have you back when it comes out. Thank you so much again for joining me tonight and for your honest and thoughtful conversation.

Katie Peterson  1:00:50 

And so great to talk to you about animals, and congratulations on all the attention your book is receiving. I loved reading it myself.

Lara Ehrlich  1:00:51 

Thank you, Katie. You know I’m a fan of your work too. And thank you all for tuning in. We don’t have an episode next week for Thanksgiving, so enjoy Thanksgiving, and you as well, Katie—have a good holiday and we’ll see you again soon.

Rosanna Warren

I’d take a big basket of laundry down to the cellar so I could have 10 minutes in the basement, sitting on the floor with my back to the washing machine, scribbling in my notepad.


(March 11, 2021) Rosanna Warren, who teaches at the University of Chicago, has been publishing “poems of riveting, compassionate darkness and social conscience for nearly 40 years” (LA Review of Books); her most recent book of poems is So Forth (2020). She is the recipient of awards from the Academy of American Poets, The American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the New England Poetry Club, among others, and she was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Rosanna has two daughters, ages 37 and 35 and two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, ages 6 and 3. She describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: “frazzled, passionate, surprised.”

FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES

Rosanna Warren’s Website
Rosanna’s Books
Rosanna’s Poem, For Chiara
Rosanna’s Poem, “A Way”
Rosanna’s biography of the French poet Max Jacob
Rosanna’s Parents, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark
Academy of American Poets
The American Academy of Arts & Letters 
Lila Wallace Foundation 
Guggenheim Foundation 
American Council of Learned Societies 
New England Poetry Club
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Philosophical Society
University of Chicago 
Boston University
Skowhegan 
New York Studio School
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Hart Crane
Dostoevsky
Poetry Magazine
Marianne Faithfull
Athenians 
Poem-a-Day
Paul Valéry  
Winnie the Pooh 
The Wind in the Willows


sound bites

I try not to write poems that explain themselves too much. I try to have the poem be suggestive, to have the objects and actions and colors in the poem do the work for the imagination.

I would like poems to be unsettling in different ways, and for occasionally a line to feel like a knife stab.

“Poems have to have an urgency. They have a demand, a problem to solve, and some kind of trouble is the germ of a poem for me.” Rosanna Warren

I was uncomfortable with the role of being a, quote, “girl” in high school. It was unbearable. Those awful dances. I just thought the whole thing was so awful. This romance stuff, when I was a teenager, struck me like a Halloween party—you had to play “girl” and put on some makeup.

Having children was this tremendous gift—and maybe all the more tremendous because I hadn’t imagined it for myself.

I had to deal with the social expectations of outsiders looking at me and thinking, “She’s just riding on her parents’ reputation.” In order to be a writer, in order to have the courage to go on and keep writing and publishing, I just had to ignore all that and follow the drive that I had to make things in words. It was such a strong inner drive.

I don’t remember feeling any resentment myself as a child with my parents closing the door. It was just understood that was the way things were. They were very loving when they when they were with us. They were really with us, playing games, including us.

My children missed me at times, and it was hard for them and hard for me, especially when they were little. My daughters have told me, “Mom, when you shut the door, I was crying on the other side.” I didn’t stay in the study with a little child weeping on the other side of the door, but there were tensions. This is not easy, being a mother and any kind of artist or professional person. There are costs.

One of the places I could try to write a poem was when I was doing the laundry. I’d take a big basket of laundry down to the cellar, and I could have 10 minutes in the basement, sitting on the floor with my back to the washing machine, scribbling in the pad. Or driving to BU and parking in the parking lot, and before rushing in to teach, giving myself 10 minutes in the car, resting the pad on the steering wheel.

“The book that I started in 1985 just came out in 2020, if that gives anybody courage to keep on going.” Rosanna Warren

“There are so many marvelous things to say about having children. You’re no longer the center of the world. Your whole cosmology has changed. Your fundamental imperative is to care for somebody else.” Rosanna Warren

“The mystery of personhood is an extraordinary miracle. It’s like watching a seed turn into a little sprout and then grow leaves and grow up into the sun. The rest of our lives, I think of us as struggling to become people.” Rosanna Warren

“Poetry is a theater of possibilities. It is where we experiment with consciousness and where we can take imaginative and emotional risks.” Rosanna Warren

I could not have imagined that we would have this kind of threat of a militant oligarchical revolution and takeover destruction of our democracy and suppression of the vote. I was trying to find ways to figure out how to put that horror, that fear, that anger into the shapes that would be honorable poems. Each poem is a new struggle.

“I stick my draft into what I call a compost heap, and I let it sit there decomposing or stinking, and then look at it a few weeks later and if it still seems to hold together, I send it out to a magazine.” Rosanna Warren

Reading aloud was always a very big part of our family life, from my husband and myself reading with our children every night and having supper together and talking, trying, no matter what was going on, to have some core to family life, even with all the other emergencies that were around us.

Transcript: Amy Shearn


Writer Mother Monster: Interviews with Authoresses, hosted by Lara Ehrlich

Guest: Amy Shearn

Interview: October 15, 2020

Amy Shearn is the author of the novels Unseen CityThe Mermaid of Brooklyn, and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. She is a senior editor at Forge and a fiction editor at Joyland, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Literary Hub, and many other publications. Amy has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and lives in Brooklyn with her two children.

Lara Ehrlich 

Hi, I’m Lara Ehrlich, coming to you live from Writer, Mother Monster, a new series about writer moms. With me today is Amy Shearn, author of the novels Unseen City, The Mermaid of Brooklyn, and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. She’s a senior editor at Forge, a fiction editor at Joyland, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Literary Hub, and many other publications. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and she lives in Brooklyn with her two children. So, with no further ado, welcome, Amy, and thank you so much for joining us.

Amy Shearn 

Thank you so much for having me.

Lara Ehrlich 

So, you are our first guest on this new series! Thank you also for being my guinea pig tonight.

Amy Shearn 

I’m so happy to be. It also means I can’t be your worst guest. This is great news for me.

Lara Ehrlich

You would never be the worst guest. You and I already had an event together a couple of weeks ago now. We’re both authors for Red Hen Press, and your book just came out and is getting wonderful reviews. So, Amy, just to start, why don’t you tell us where you’re from and a bit about your family.

Amy Shearn 

Oh, like my current family?

Lara Ehrlich 

Tell us about your kids, since we’re both writer moms.

Amy Shearn 

I’m like, “How far back do I need to go?” Well, I live here in Brooklyn, New York. And much to my surprise, I’ve lived here for 15 years now, although I’m originally from the Midwest, from a suburb of Chicago called Highland Park. I feel like it’s really important to name the suburb because real Chicago people are like, “You’re from Chicago? Really? Where? City? Or suburbs?” Just to be clear, I just say that up front. I have two awesome kids, a 9-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, which I think are really fascinating ages. And they both seem to be writers.

Lara Ehrlich   

I have a 4-year-old myself, so I know you remember that stage. And we can talk about that, as well: having a very young child while writing your first two novels.

Amy Shearn 

Yeah, it’s such a different ballgame. I remember with one of my 4-year-olds talking to their pre-K teacher and the teacher saying, “The thing about 4-year-olds is they’re sociopaths. And that’s okay. That’s the developmental stage. And then they’re about to learn all the social cues and, you know, some system of sort of rough ethics and things like that, but they’re not there yet.” It’s a wild age.

I kind of at every age, this is the most fascinating. Wow, this is the best one. Well, I don’t always think it’s the best one. But then they get a little older, and I’m like, no, this is the most fascinating age. Your own kids are very interesting to you.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, I have the same thought, as well. I’m like, “When will she not be cute?” There might be a time when she won’t be cute, but so far, I haven’t found it.

Amy Shearn   

Yeah, you’re still in the era where just everything they say is cute—because they’re saying it.

Lara Ehrlich  

We have a lot to talk about, with our kids. But first, you’re also an editor.

Amy Shearn  

Yeah, I’m an editor at an online publication called Forge, which is part of Medium. Forge is a personal development publication, so I write and edit content to help people live their best life and improve as people, which is really interesting. It’s a really good space to be in, especially right now with everything that’s going on. It feels really nice to have my work be trying to help people feel better.

It’s funny, because I got an MFA in creative writing, and I thought that I would probably end up teaching, because that was just what all the writers I knew did. It just seemed like the job that writers had. And then I moved to New York and found that I couldn’t really afford to teach, actually. And also, I found it really, really super draining. I’m fine for a couple hours in the classroom, and then I’m like, I need a nap in a quiet room for three days. I guess maybe you get used to it. But I kind of stumbled into editing, which, as it turns out, is a great path for me. I feel like editing makes you a better writer. And writing makes you a better editor. So, it’s a good combo.

Lara Ehrlich 

Can you share one of your favorite pieces of advice from your work at Forge? What have you discovered about how we can be taking care of ourselves during a pandemic?

Amy Shearn 

Well, you know what is funny? Something that’s really super popular among the readers of our publication is stoicism—anything that has to do with the ancient philosophy, but also the modern iteration of stoicism. I’ve worked at Forge for one year, and for months I was just like, “Ew, stoicism—why? It’s so boring. And it just seems so male, like it’s telling you not to have emotions or something.”

I thought, “I don’t know why people are so into this.” Then, my fellow staff members asked me to write about stoicism, so this summer, I did a deep dive and ended up writing a feature about stoicism and actually finding it super useful. Stoicism is knowing what you can control and what you can’t control and looking at the world and looking at your life and saying, “Okay, what’s happening right now? What am I feeling about it? This thing that’s causing me stress—is it something I can control? And if not, can I deal with my own emotions about it and just sort of surrender a little bit? And if it is something I can control, then I adjust and deal with it.”

There’s a lot more to stoicism than that—but that whole question of the practice of just giving up what you can’t control is so useful in this time when there’s so much that’s crazy and stressful and that I really am not in control of, as powerful as I am. So that’s, I have to admit, super helpful.

Lara Ehrlich   

Yeah, helpful for everyone, I think, but especially mothers! That’s a great segue into the writer-mother conversation. As a woman, at least, I feel like I always need to be in control of everything, like our day jobs and our families. We have to make sure that our kids have their doctors’ appointments and their lunches and all the things we need to take care of as moms. And then the writing time—because it’s for yourself, it’s a personal act—tends to be the thing that falls off the priority list as writer moms. Is that something you’ve found? That’s my personal experience, but tell me a little bit about yours and how you prioritize all of these different balls in the air.

Amy Shearn 

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s hard, right? As a mother and as sort of like a contemporary, creative class, urban mother, I feel like there’s a certain kind of mothering you’re supposed to do. You need to be in control and on top of everything. And of course, that doesn’t have to be the mother, but every heterosexual couple I know has that dynamic. And you’re also expected to do all these things at such a high level—you’re supposed to work like you don’t have kids and parent like you don’t work. And then if you have creative work, too, that’s like another layer. Honestly, something that helped me with that was having my whole life just be forced off the rails—which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, but in the last year, I’ve lived through this pandemic with all of y’all, but I also separated from my husband, moved out, and I am in a different place now. I co-parent my kids with my ex. So many bananas things happened all at once.

Lara Ehrlich 

You had to give up some control.

Amy Shearn 

Right. I’m just doing what I can to do my best. So there’s that—that’s a technique if anyone wants to try it. And then also, I think just being forgiving of yourself. Something that’s helped me is being aware of how much my daughter—and my son—is watching me, thinking about the kind of woman and mother I want her to be or feel like she has to be. I would never want her to grow up and think, “Oh my God, I have to do everything perfectly.” That is so stifling.

If you’re a creative person, so much of being creative is giving up control and letting a little bit of wildness in sometimes. My kids really have loved the past few weeks, because I’ve been super busy with the book launch and a big thing at work, and they were like, “Wow, our lunches lately have been awesome!” My daughter actually said, “I’m really into your benign neglect.”

They know that I love them more than anything, and that they’re my most important priority, but they also know that I have other stuff going on in my life and that adults have things and that even moms have other things that they’re doing. Like my son said to me recently, “I feel like your job is your job. But your writing is your profession” They can see that because they see me making it a priority. And they know it’s a part of my life.

Lara Ehrlich 

It’s helpful to have that solidarity, to hear that the balance is hard, and that sometimes things go off the rails and we lose control. The only thing we can do is the best we can. Our kids don’t know the level of perfection we’re shooting for—they can only live their experience—so as long as they’re safe and happy and we’re giving them a good example, maybe that’s sufficient.

Amy Shearn 

Our kids are watching all of us live through a crazy time, and they’re learning from us. So, if we’re like, “Oh, okay, this is what I can control, this is what I can’t control, this is how I deal with the stress,” that’s what they’re learning. It’s totally fair to have emotions in front of our kids and to be like, “Hey, I’m juggling a lot right now, and these things are important to me and here’s why.” It gives them permission to have things that are important to them, too, and to value and prioritize their own passions, their own professions.

Lara Ehrlich 

I still have those conversations with my daughter who’s four. I don’t think she’s too young for that. I think it’s important to respect these little people enough to say, “This is my work,” or “This is my writing, and it’s important to me. It makes me who I am, and it validates me as a person, as a woman, as a writer. I want you to know that it’s important, but not more important than you”

Amy Shearn 

When kids are readers themselves, or if they take in any media, I think it’s fair to say, “Somebody had to make this and put a lot of work into it, and it doesn’t just appear. And if you want there to be cool things in the world, somebody’s got to take time making them—and maybe that means that week they didn’t bake you some muffins or something.”

Lara Ehrlich

And to show them the end product I gave a copy of my book to my daughter and said, “Look, it’s dedicated to you. I wrote this for you and your name’s in here.” And she was just thrilled with that. She’ll probably understand that a lot more as she gets older.

Amy Shearn 

Unseen City is not dedicated to my kids—it’s dedicated to my parents—and my kids were like, “What the hell?” I’m like, ”The last one was dedicated to you guys!” And they were like, “Okay, we want the next one, too.” I was like, “Alright. We’ll talk.”

Lara Ehrlich 

Have they read your books?

Amy Shearn 

They’re still a little young, but they both made a big show of Unseen City, being like, “I’m gonna read this.” I feel like the best moment of my life was when they were going through together and just picking out all the swear words. I was like, “I raised you right, and this is amazing.” They’re just like, “Ah, I found another one!” And my son, the littler one, was, like, “I’m gonna read this whole thing.” And he was sitting down, he was really reading through it. And then he was like, “I don’t really find this that interesting.”

I was like, “You know what? You’re not totally the audience. Maybe, maybe give it a couple years.” I don’t know why they would find it interesting. But they’re very supportive. And they’re very aware. If we go to a bookstore and they see my book, they’re really excited about it. It’s cool to see them be excited about it.

Lara Ehrlich 

Before you became a mother, what preconceptions did you have about writing and motherhood?

Amy Shearn

It’s such a good question. And it’s something that I know from our previous conversations that you thought about a lot. And I feel like maybe I actually didn’t think enough about it. I didn’t think very clearly about it. I was a writer before I was a mother. I had gone to graduate school, my first book had been published—actually, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter the day after my first book came out, which was amazing. So, I think that helped a little bit.

I think before people have been published, particularly women, we have a hard time calling ourselves writers or justifying writing time if no one has ever seen the result of the work. And so, it really helped me in those first few years. In the back of my head, I knew I had a book, but that book isn’t the world, and someday I’ll have another one. I think that gave me a little bit of permission to write the second book. I feel like it’s always a leap of faith.

It’s always hard, especially when you have little kids and a partner who has needs too. I was home with my kids when they were really little. And then on the weekend, I’d say to my partner, “Okay, cool, you’re home, I need to go take some time to write.” And no one’s ever really happy to hear that. Everybody wants you to be the mom and wife who’s home and doing stuff for them. And it’s hard. It’s really easy to fall into that trap of like, “Oh, yeah, I shouldn’t be so selfish and take time away from the family and work on the book.” But I feel like I was often able to justify it because I get really crabby when I’m not writing. It’s actually better for everyone.

But to more clearly answer your question: I did have a very clear plan about how I was going to keep writing after I was a mother. I would recommend this: If you’re going to have kids, sit down with your partner and have a real conversation. This is so hard to do, but tell them, “I am going to need this much time to work on my writing. When are we going to make this happen?” That’s such a privileged thing to say, but I think it probably would have been smart to do that.

I had a couple years of having a baby and working on a book and just fitting in the writing time whenever when she was napping or when I could get someone to watch her for a couple hours and feeling guilty about it the whole time. That was not a good plan.

Lara Ehrlich 

I’m very, very lucky to have a very supportive husband who wants to give me that time and encourages me to take it. He was the one who said, “We need to make sure you take time for writing. This is important.” And I was the one who, when my daughter was born, held myself back from doing that. I think your word selfish is a very apt one. Maybe this is a female thing, ut we feel selfish for taking that time. I think it goes back to the point that unless you already have a book contract that you’re writing toward and you have accountability in that way, it does feel like a personal venture. It’s something you do by yourself in a room, something that’s just for you. And if you don’t have that book contract where you’re getting paid at the end, it feels selfish, even when it’s not, and that’s very hard to combat. How do you deal with that feeling of selfishness?

Amy Shearn 

I think it’s so important to have someone in your corner who you can delegate to check you on that. For you, it sounds like that’s your partner, and that’s lucky and very convenient. I have some very supportive writer friends who I do not know how I would survive without. They’ll talk me down and be like, “No, this isn’t selfish. You know that you are a writer and you need to write. Don’t be stupid, just do it.”

For the past few years, I’ve been connected with this amazing group of women writers and artists. A couple times a year, we’ll all coordinate a DIY writing residency inspired by Lenka Clayton, an artist who started the Artist Residency in Motherhood. She has a website where she has all the materials to do your own DIY writing residency, and it’s so helpful. She literally has signs you can print out. I have my card. [Reading from residency card]: “I aim to embrace the fragmented mental focus, exhaustion, nap-length studio time and countless distractions of parenthood as well as the absurd poetry of time spent with young children as my working materials and situation, rather than obstacles to be overcome.”

Lara Ehrlich 

I love that.

Amy Shearn 

I have it right here, so I don’t forget. It’s important to have that support, whether it’s signing yourself up for a residency and making yourself accountable or connecting with a group of other creative friends or just having someone who will check you if you’re getting wrapped up in your bullshit, because it’s so easy to see in someone else. Like: “You need to do your work. Why wouldn’t you?” That’s not selfish. Sometimes you need like that outside voice, I think to remind you.

Lara Ehrlich 

This is kind of like a therapy session thing to say, but I ask myself what I’d tell a writer friend. Would I tell her, “You’re being selfish. You should never take the time to work on your book”? Or would I say, “Of course you should take that time to do on your creative work. That’s just as important as your day job or your children or your spouse”?

I love the recommendation to do a retreat in that way, whether it’s going to a formal retreat—or, something that I’ve started doing, just get an Airbnb for a night, just in the town over. I spend the whole time in the room, and it’s just mine. Something about having that place that’s a dedicated time and place makes you buckle down and just plow through as much work as you possibly can.

Amy Shearn 

What I’ve done a couple times as part of the Artist Residency in Motherhood is to connect with a couple other friends and just plan the weekend. I don’t think we’ve ever rented an Airbnb. It’s always been at someone’s house. A friend who’s a great novelist very good at locating these places will call me and be like, “Okay, my friend is not in their house on Long Island for this week, and we can have it for free.” And then she’s also very good about snacks, which, if you’ve ever been to an established residency, being fed is kind of the best part. Not having to think about food is so important.

There’s something about that, especially if you’ve been doing that mother writing thing of scribbling when the baby’s down for a second or waiting in line at the Y to register for toddler ballet. When you’re used to buying time and finding time wherever you can get it, to have even two days—or even an entire day—of uninterrupted focus … it’s like a drug. It’s the best.

Lara Ehrlich

Yes, I had other writer friends tell me before I had a child that their focus turned laser after they had kids, because when they had that time and space, it was like, “Okay, time to work,” and they were not distracted by anything. I find the same thing. If I have that time that I’ve devoted to writing, it’s like, “Nope, don’t want to stop for lunch. Don’t want to take a shower. I’m just gonna sit here and work.”

Amy Shearn 

Oh, totally. Someone asked me, “How do you keep from getting distracted or blocked in your writing time?” I was like, “I can’t. I don’t have enough time to get distracted or to procrastinate.”

Lara Ehrlich 

How has your writing changed since you became a mother?

Amy Shearn 

Ifeel like in the same way being a mother changes you as a person, or changed me as a person, it sharpened my empathy in a way that for a couple years after having my first baby, I couldn’t read or see anything scary or violent. It was just like, “That’s somebody’s baby”—even if it’s a schlocky horror movie or something. All of a sudden, you’re going around the world like, everyone is somebody’s baby. It gives me this intense empathy for everyone.

I don’t think I was a mean person before I had kids, but I remember getting that note in workshops—”I don’t think you love all your characters”—and being like “What?” And now I get it. I really do love my character in a really intense way. It’s like my empathy muscles got stronger.

Also, something I think is hard about writing as a mother is that your goal as a mother is to make things nice and take care of people and make things pleasant—but in writing, it’s much better if you’re not doing that, if you’re not trying to be pleasant. You’re trying to be as honest and real as possible. I find it slightly harder to get there. Now I actually think it’s coming back a little bit, getting to that more untamed place.

Lara Ehrlich 

Is there a scene from one of your books that you could point to that was really difficult to get into that mental space for?

Amy Shearn 

The very beginning of Unseen City. It was really important to me that this character was trying to find her own way in life and not trying to live life the way people expect a woman to. She’s never been married, she never wants to be married, she doesn’t want to become a mother, and she’s really adamant about that. That stuff was hard to write. At the time, I was a wife and a mother. A little part of me was like, people are gonna read this and be mad at me, because my character is like this. But I knew that was important for her, and I had to get her there, even if it didn’t feel polite.

And actually, a lot of The Mermaid of Brooklyn—which I wrote when my kids were littler and I was married—when you have to answer to a spouse, it’s hard to write certain stuff. That character is a very stressed-out mother of two children. I was like, “Oh, no, people are gonna think this is me, and my kids are gonna read this and think that he didn’t like them or something.” As it turns out, people think your main character is you, no matter what. It’s a thing that they do, and you just can’t fight it. It’s a little insulting because there’s this subtext of, “How could a woman really create something from scratch? Obviously, she’s just writing about herself.” And then there’s a little bit of like, of course, every character is you. It’s ridiculous. Every single character from every book I’ve written came out of my head. I invented them all. It’s all made up. So of course, that’s part of it.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, it’s a weird dichotomy, isn’t it? At one of the first events I did for Animal Wife, I felt like I had to say, because my parents and my daughter were watching, “I want everyone to know that I love my daughter and I love my parents. I do not want to leave my family, even though many of my characters do.” You feel like you need to make that apology for yourself, which is problematic. And I would say it’s not just kind of insulting, it’s very insulting that women get asked that question and men often don’t—how much of that character is you, what part is autobiographical—particularly when it comes to sex scenes and things. Like, do really want to know? Why are you asking me that question?

Amy Shearn 

Boring question, right? You’re not interesting. That’s for you to think about, I guess.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah. If you must, I guess.

Amy Shearn 

Something that helps me when I get stuck in that place is I think about my ideal reader. For Mermaid, I was like, “Alright, it’s a little scary to write about an unhinged mother,” but what gave me the idea for the book was being at the playground, next to another mother with our little, teeny babies—they must have been like, eight months old, like just old enough to sit in the swing and also let us have a conversation.

The other mother said, “I want to read a novel about a mom like me, a mom I can relate to. And I feel like I can’t find this book that I want. I want a book that’s really honest, and honest about the great things about motherhood and the crazy things about motherhood. Especially in that early stage of motherhood, when it is still about you, and your identity has changed. And you’re not actually dealing with the kid as a kid yet.”

I was like, “I’m gonna write that book for her.” And she never knew that she inspired this whole book. I think about the reader out there who needs this book, or who will be moved by this book, and I think about the times I’ve connected with a book and didn’t know the author—which is the majority of books—there’s that amazing intimacy of that relationship between the writer and the reader who never meet each other. It’s almost otherworldly. And it’s why I wanted to write in the first place, so I feel like I have to remember that. I have to remember the lovely people that I work with and the other moms at school who are like, “Oh, I read your book!” I’m like, “Oh, thank you—let’s not talk about it anymore.” That’s the vast majority of the people who will encounter your writing, and it’s not for them. I mean, it is, and it’s great when they read it and are nice about it, but for me as a person. it’s like a different part of me that’s being tapped into. Do you know, I mean?

Lara Ehrlich 

Yes. And I love that story about the mother at the swing set. What was the feeling you wanted to tap into when writing that book, specifically?

Amy Shearn 

Well, full disclosure, partial disclosure, she was talking about another book she had just read that was very popular at the time. This was 2009, 2010, and the book was about Brooklyn moms and was supposedly the “Brooklyn mom book.” I remember that book. I read it and was like, “These are very glamorous moms. They’re just having sex all the time and they’re super chic and what the hell? Like, I’m a real Brooklyn mom, and I’m losing my goddamn mind.”

The woman at the playground had had a career that she really cared about. She chose to be home with her baby, and she was already like, “I love this baby so much, but this is not what I was trained for my entire adult life.” She was particularly neurotic. She was like, “I love my kids so much, I love being a mom so much, and I also feel like I’m losing my mind. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t know what the rest of my life and identity is going to be like. Raising kids in the city is bananas. I don’t know if it’s great. I don’t know if it’s good. This is so hard on my marriage, and what the hell?”

I had had this idea in my head for a while. I’d actually written it as an essay in graduate school, and very smart friend of mine, Amanda Fields, read the essay and said, “This is a novel, not an essay.” It turns out, she was right.

There’s a family story that my great-grandmother had been depressed, had been standing on a bridge, took her shoes off, and was going to jump into the water and then looked at her shoes and was like, “No, I love those shoes. I don’t want to lose those. I don’t want anyone else in those shoes. I’m not gonna jump.”

She had a very troubled life and actually married and divorced the same man twice, which I just think is fascinating. She was from Eastern Europe, Lithuania area. I had tried to write an essay about that family story and the mermaids in Eastern European folklore. They’re not nice mermaids. They’re mean, scary mermaids who seduce sailors and then kill them. I was trying to weave together these storylines. And then when I talked to this mom, it made perfect sense, like I’m living in this weird world of Park Slope, Brooklyn, parenting, which feels like a novel itself, it’s so off-the-wall. This woman with her shoes, this weird relationship, mermaids—it all makes sense.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s fascinating. The book I’m working on now is about a mother and sirens and the dark side of mermaids—the ones who destroy sailors. What do you think it is about sirens that lend themselves to stories about mothers?

Amy Shearn 

Well, I think you already know this because in your book Animal Wife, there are so many transforming characters and half-person, half-animal mythical creatures, fairytale creature types. That makes total sense to me, because there’s something so weird and transformative about motherhood, and also physically transformative in a way that’s so weird. I mean, I don’t know if everyone is like this, but for me, I was like, “This is crazy. This is really how we propagate this species? This is nuts!” I think part of that dissonance is that we live the way many of us live, so disconnected from our mammal selves. I was at work at an office today, not seeing any sunlight or breathing air and staring at a computer and also growing a person in my guts. That’s bananas. Like, I just couldn’t get over it the whole time. Well, the second pregnancy, I was over it—like, “Right, right, right, it’s a miracle, yeah.”

But it’s so weird, the way it transforms your body and the way you become so aware of yourself as an animal. Nursing babies is so nuts. That puts you in touch with that animal part of you, and you’re so connected and you’re transforming and then watching a baby grow and transform into a child is the most fascinating thing.

Stories like that—half person, half animals—they make total sense to me. It’s like metaphors. You have that great story in Animal Wife about the woman who wants to become a deer and builds an exoskeleton for herself. And I’ve written a short story about a woman who’s half person, half goat and lives in New York City and is just trying to figure it out like any of us. She just happens to be a fawn. It’s like a woman who’s trying to deal with the wildness inside her and domesticate it and be like, “No, no, no, I’m not a wild animal—I’m a totally normal lady just living.” Your woman’s the opposite, trying to un-domesticate herself.

Lara Ehrlich 

Do you feel like that, as a mother? I often do. I feel a sense of wild restlessness, but then I have to, like, make dinner and clean the toilet.

Amy Shearn 

Yeah, totally, yeah. I don’t know if it’s universal feeling, but I feel like it’s definitely something that a lot of people have. And there’s this great book called Norma Jean the Termite Queen from 1975 about a mother who kind of does just that. She’s like, “I can’t take it anymore!” And kind of takes off.

There’s a Facebook group I was in, in those years when my kids were toddlers, and someone posted, “Am I crazy? Does anyone just kind of want to get in the car and drive away sometimes, or just like take a walk and just keep walking away?” And everyone was like, “Oh my god, yes. I thought it was just me.”

I felt so much shame about this. I don’t even know if that’s motherhood so much as domestic life, especially when the kids were little. The parenting part is great. But it’s the other stuff that’s a real drag. In my relationship, a problem with division of labor that maybe other people have figured out better, but I’m just like, “I used to have a career and I have a master’s degree, and here I am just cleaning up after everyone all the time.” In my friend Siobhan Adcock’s great novel The Barter, there’s a scene where a mother who’s in that very situation is just like, “Here I am, putting the same slightly damp sippy cup on the same shelf, just like I did yesterday, just like I’m going to tomorrow.” I think about that image all the time. The domestic stuff is so stultifying and boring. Who wouldn’t want to run away from that?

Lara Ehrlich 

No, it’s true. Have you read Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment about a mother trapped in her apartment with her two kids?

Amy Shearn 

I have. It’s such a nightmare.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yes, and it’s all so mysterious, in that you don’t know if her breakdown is physical and if her lock really breaks and she can’t get out, or if it’s mental and she just can’t remember how to unlock her door. It’s so relatable in that she’s walking through her apartment like, “Okay, I need to make a phone call to get the lock fixed.” And on the way there she has to pick up clothes to put in the laundry, and then at the laundry, she’s like, “Oh, but here’s some broken glass on the floor. Oh, but before I do that, I need to do this”—and she never gets to where she’s trying to go. There is this sense of all the domestic clutter getting in the way of a pretty simple goal: just getting out of her apartment.

Amy Shearn 

You’re making me think of this great book called Forty Rooms, by Olga Grushin. It’s about this woman who is a poet and has all this promise—her teachers have all this excitement about her future as a poet and she has all this excitement about her potential as a poet—and she has this almost mystical ability to summon spirits and talk to this muse that appears almost like a ghost. But she also wants to get married and have kids. So, she does, and they obtain this beautiful house—and she’s really into her house—but then, over the course of the book, she starts to realize, and you start to realize, that the house is becoming her creative work and is taking all of the juice out of her.

She has a moment where she’s like, “Wait a minute, am I just a totally ordinary person just in a house now? What happened to this art I used to have? What happened to this connection to this other realm, this great gift I used to have of these things speak through me?” It’s really sad, but I think it really captures that thing that can happen and that we’re all kind of worried about, because every mother writer I know is working through this. My hope is that we’re figuring out how to evolve slightly, and our daughters will have an easier time being able to balance these things and be able to be a mother and not feel trapped in a room or house or something.

Lara Ehrlich 

We really are conditioned to feel like we can manage all of these things at the same time. The subhead of this series is “Dismantling the myth of having it all.” Because it is a myth. We grow up thinking: “Now we’re liberated women, we can have careers and families and passions—all the things we want, if we just work hard enough.” Then we find that, yes, we might have all those things, but we feel like everything is crashing down on us, and we can’t be 100 percent everywhere. We feel like we’re failing in various places. I think the word evolve is so important. We are evolving women’s rights, but the systems in place to support us in that evolution are not evolving with us.

Amy Shearn 

It’s not really fair to say our daughters will have it figured out because sure, they will. The structures that are in place just make it impossible—like the fact that, for so many people, childcare costs in this country cost more than their income. And we’re in a moment right now where there are historic numbers of women dropping out of the workplace because they can’t manage kids being at home and manage home schooling. Whether it’s finances or the patriarchy or whatever, the husband’s career is being prioritized. And that’s not a failing on the part of those women; the system has failed.

Lara Ehrlich 

And just to remind all of our listeners who might be feeling this way that we are in a global pandemic, and it’s unprecedented. So why are we beating ourselves up for not accomplishing enough in a time that no one has ever lived through? No one living right now has been through a period like this, so there’s no precedent for it. But that said, in the next couple of minutes that we have, let’s talk about a couple really easy things that we’ve found—because we both have careers, we both have families, and we both have published books—for women to prioritize their writing. What can we do?

Amy Shearn 

I’m cheating slightly, because for me, the pandemic has coincided with me moving into my own place—it happened right before the pandemic—and co-parenting. I know this isn’t totally practical, but I truly believe that every couple should co-parent as if they are divorced and have 50/50 custody. It’s the first time since I’ve had kids that I’ve felt like I have the time and the bandwidth for everything. And it’s because they have to be somewhere else every other weekend. And, yes, I miss them when they’re not here, but I have every other weekend to myself, so I almost feel bad talking to my parent friends who are freaking out, saying “This is terrible—I never have a minute to myself!” And I’m like, “Oh, I do. It’s great. I really recommend it. I feel so much better. I always know that some time is coming to catch up on work.” Because the rest of the world is pretty shut down, it’s really easy to like prioritize writing in that time.

But in a more practical way: quarantine life reminds me of when I was home with toddlers. I didn’t have any childcare or anything, so it was just that compressed time all together, being stuck in the apartment or the house or whatever. Something that helped me in those times was if I didn’t have a space of my own, and I couldn’t carve out time during the day, it was a matter of chipping away where there’s some give, where I can create some time and space for myself. In those years, it was early morning time. For a couple years, I’d go to bed when the kids went to bed, and then woke up at 4:30 or 5, just knowing that the next few hours are mine and making that like sacred time.

There’s a line from Norma Jean the Termite Queen where she’s talking about TV—which now seems super wholesome. The character turns on the TV so the kids will watch it and she can do her work, and she says, “Sometimes you absolutely have to forget that their brains are being destroyed so that your brain can survive”—or something like that. Just finding that time, whatever it is. For some people, it’s after their kids go to bed.

Something else that helps is being really not precious about the amount of time you have. If you just tell yourself, “Alright, I’m gonna write for 15 minutes”— maybe it’s gonna be 15 minutes, but maybe it ends up being more. It’s easier to commit to that when you’re tired or there’s a pile of laundry. I’m gonna face the other way from the laundry that needs to be done and just give myself at least 15 minutes.

And also, I signed on very early in my parenting career to outsourcing everything. What can be delivered? What can be ordered? What can someone else do? I’m not gonna be precious about that. Let’s just minimize my work.

Lara Ehrlich 

I think that’s great. That’s a lot of wonderful advice. One of the parts that you said might not be relatable, the part where you co-parent and alternate weekends, I think is relatable. You’re saying you don’t have to write every day; you can find a chunk of time that can be just yours—whether your partner takes your child for two hours, or you go away to an Airbnb for two days, or you get up really early while they’re sleeping or stay up really late—it’s not about, as you said, being precious, like, “Every day starting at 4 PM, I will write 50 pages.” It’s about cherishing that time and saying, “I will prioritize my writing. I will take this time and claim it.”

Amy Shearn 

Also, not getting too attached to the ritual. People love the idea that there’s like some writing routine that you can set yourself up with and that then it’ll be like a magic formula—like it’s gonna be 5 AM every day and I’m gonna light a candle and I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna write 1,000 words or whatever it is. If that helps you, that’s great, but the problem with that is if you don’t do it one day, or it gets ruined or interrupted, then it’s easy to say it’s not working and now I can’t do this. I think you have to give yourself the permission to have your writing time be different every day. I don’t write my own stuff every day. I just don’t. I do write in big chunks on weekends. There’s no right way to do it.

Lara Ehrlich 

We’ve come full circle now to giving up control. It’s giving up control over those rituals and the preciousness and instead leaning into the fact that your writing life is messy. Sometimes you’re writing next to laundry, and sometimes you’re writing in an Airbnb, and sometimes you’re dictating to yourself while you’re driving to your kid’s dance lesson.

Amy Shearn 

Sarah Ruhl has this great book called 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. They’re really great. They’re all these really short little ideas. In one of the first ones, she writes about how she can’t write these essays because her children are constantly interrupting her. And then she writes about having this moment of revelation where she realized, wait—life is not interrupting the work; life is the work. This is the work. This is part of it. This is my life that I’m writing about, which I feel like can be really liberating.

Lara Ehrlich 

Absolutely. I think I need to go read that book right now. And it’s a wonderful place for us to close on. Thank you so much, Amy, for joining us. Where will you be next?

Amy Shearn 

Oh, good question. Things are calming down a little bit for me now. After this, I’m doing a craft talk about setting in writing on Oct. 26, through The Resort, a great, co-working and writing space in Long Island City in Queens, and they’re doing all this online programming. And then in November, you and I are doing a panel for Politics and Prose with some other great Red Hen Press writers about crushes and writing, which is my favorite. We’ll come up with a December thing. It’s gonna be great.

Lara Ehrlich 

Sounds good!

Amy Shearn 

And your book is a book that all mothers and humans should read. It’s a very good, wild mother book.

Lara Ehrlich 

Thank you so much. And thank you to everyone who has been with us tonight on various platforms. We really appreciate you tuning in. We will post the recording and have this talk on social media so you can catch it again. You can watch it every night if you want to or share it with other writer minds.

Amy Shearn 

Just like on a loop!

Transcript: Blair Hurley


Writer Mother Monster: Interviews with Authoresses, hosted by Lara Ehrlich

Guest: Blair Hurley

Interview: October 22, 2020

Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted, published in 2018 from W.W. Norton & Company, and her stories are published in Ninth Letter, The Georgia Review, West Branch, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She’s also the winner of a Pushcart Prize and scholarships from Breadloaf and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Arts Center. She received her AB from Princeton University and her MFA from NYU, and she lives in Canada, near Toronto, with her husband and daughter.

Lara Ehrlich 

Hi everybody. Welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m Lara Ehrlich, and today’s guest is Blair Hurley. Blair is the author of The Devoted, published in 2018 from W.W. Norton & Company, and her stories are published in Ninth Letter, The Georgia Review, West Branch, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She’s also the winner of a Pushcart Prize and scholarships from Breadloaf and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Arts Center. She received her AB from Princeton University and her MFA from NYU, and she lives in Canada, near Toronto, with her husband and daughter. Welcome, Blair.

Blair Hurley 

Thanks so much for having me. Great to see you, Lara.

Lara Ehrlich 

You, too, Blair. Now, we met probably five years ago now at Breadloaf, before either of us were parents, or had published books. It’s great to meet here in this virtual space as both writers and mothers. To start, can you tell us who lives in your house?

Blair Hurley 

It’s funny. I’m such a new mother that the title is still something that I’m getting used to. But I live in a suburb of Toronto with my husband and our seven-month-old baby girl. And a couple of cats, as well.

Lara Ehrlich 

Can’t forget the cats. You were telling me, just before we started, that your daughter’s crawling now, right?

Blair Hurley  

Yes. Everyone told me that that would be one of those milestones where you had your life before that, and then, forget about having a life after that. It’s true that before that point, you can just kind of put a baby down on a mat somewhere and walk away and they’ll be there when you get back. But that’s not true anymore. She’s very much underfoot, all over, which is exciting and great. I’m so happy and delighted about it, but it does sort of ratchet up your alertness to another level, where you feel like you have to be constantly monitoring.

Lara Ehrlich 

Definitely. I used to put my daughter in a little basket by the couch. It was a basket with handles, and I could move her around the apartment and just sit and write next to her.

Blair Hurley  

There was this pillow that I would put her on, right next to my computer, and she would just sort of smile up at me and I’d smile back, and it was very, very cozy. But now she’s just too busy. She would roll right off that pillow. She’s on the move.

Lara Ehrlich 

What were your expectations of motherhood before you became a mother?

Blair Hurley  

Wow, there are so many things. Motherhood is such a huge, powerful identity in our culture and in our literature and in our lives that it’s nerve-racking to approach it yourself and to consciously make the decision to become this identity. I love the name of your series, Writer Mother Monster, because I think there are all these epic elements of motherhood. I definitely thought a lot about my relationship with my mother, of course. I was very close with my mother. She passed away more than five years ago now. And we just had a wonderful relationship. There was never any one clear moment where I could put my finger on why she was a good mother—or, you know, what were the things she was doing that made her a good mother? It was so hard to quantify.

And yet, thinking back, it was in 1,000 small decisions, every day, to be present with me, to be interested in what I was interested in, to show me caring when I needed it—all these thousands of little decisions. And in retrospect, it feels like she made the right decision every time. So I felt very nervous going into it, thinking, “How could I do that? How could I make the right decision every day, 1,000 times a day, without ever making the wrong decision?”

It feels that way, right? Like that, as a mother, you have to make the right decision every time. You have to get it right every time and choose to be the good mother with every decision. And so, I felt a lot of trepidation, for sure, heading into that decision to become a mother.

My expectations of motherhood were that, yes, it would be tough, and there would be all these decisions to make. I had a vague sense of how tired you might get. You can have people tell you you’ll be tired, but it doesn’t really mean anything until you experience it. Another thing that a couple of parents told me is that you’ll be so sleep-deprived in those first couple of months that they’ll go by in a blur and you won’t remember them after this. That has been true a little bit. But there’s a lot of time there. I’m not sure what I was doing—so your memories are not that strong those first couple of months. Things got much better as time went on, when we started to find our routine and just kind of understand our baby better and better. I think that happens, where it’s not just a generic baby; it’s your child, and you start to learn what your child needs better and better. So yeah, my explanation is a long, rambling way of saying that my expectations were that it will be difficult and tiring. But it doesn’t really mean anything until you experience it.

Lara

There’s no way to prepare for it, right? People tell you, you can get a dog, but it’s not the same thing.

Blair Hurley

It’s not. And that’s okay, because you’re also learning every day, and you get a little bit better every day. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have bad days, but you learn more and more about what to do right each day. So, there is a learning curve, and you start to understand better with each day, so you feel more in control, as well. In the first month, in particular, I felt sort of out of control. You’re learning so many things you have to keep in mind, at the same time you’re recovering from a major biological event and you’re exhausted. It seems particularly cruel to me that you have to learn to care for an infant at exactly the time you’ve been injured in a way physically, and you have to recover. The fact that it all happens at once—it’s tough. It’s a tough time, for sure.

Lara Ehrlich 

Oh, absolutely. Did you always know you wanted to be a mother and/or a writer? Do you have strong sense of one or the other or both?

Blair Hurley 

I had a strong sense from a young age that I wanted to be a writer. From age eight, I was writing stories, and it was always part of my dreaming about myself, my sense of self. I only felt whole and complete and content when I had written, and I couldn’t go long without feeling irritable if I hadn’t written. So, writing has been a part of my identity since I was very young. The idea of being a mother, though, I think, was something that I mostly avoided thinking about. I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a mother. It was something that was very much a question mark, and I was open to what the adult version of me might want for herself.

I had a very liberal, feminist upbringing, and the focus there is to value your career and your ambitions and put motherhood aside. It’s sometimes looked down upon if that’s your only ambition, to be a mother, and that’s an unfortunate conflict, the idea that a feminist can’t want to be a mother and see it as a value—meaning you can really be a feminist parent. That’s something that I absolutely wanted for my vision of parenthood. But I didn’t know how to do it. When I thought about motherhood as a young woman, in my teens and 20s, I thought I should focus entirely on my career and not really think too hard about parenthood, because I somehow got the impression that it wasn’t feminist to long to be a mother.

Have you had that impression? If you think back to the messages that we received, well-meaning messages about encouraging girls to have a focus on careers and valuing career, I don’t think there was a lot of talk about, “Oh, and when you’re there, you’ll feel this way.”

Lara Ehrlich 

I think you’re right. And I wonder how much of that is a response to the generation before us, to our mother’s generation, when women were encouraged to get married and become mothers, and that was the identity that they grew up believing was theirs to inherit. And so, in pushing back against that, a whole generation of women who said, “We can focus on our careers, we can be empowered to be feminists, and you want something more than domesticity?” Maybe it went a little too far?

Blair Hurley 

It’s unfortunate to put these two things in conflict with each other. One problem I have with the “having it all” myth is the idea that motherhood and career are two things, and 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—to be a writer, to be a mother, to be both instead of piling more burdens onto yourself.

I’m glad that my school and my family encouraged my career and my growth as a feminist, as a self-reliant person, but I also wish, in a wistful way, that there was some sort of class I could have taken or model I could have seen about becoming a parent. Almost like the way a lot of adults say they wish there had been a class they could have taken in high school about how to do their taxes or these other practical life things. That would be great to have a model for a parenting class. I know some schools do have them. I don’t know if I would support it or not. But I do, at least on a very personal level, feel this kind of gap, this emptiness around what sort of parent I was supposed to be or what sort of skills I was supposed to know. I feel like everything I’ll be saying to you tonight, Lara, will have the caveat that I have the benefit of literally seven months of experience. I don’t have a lot of worldly wisdom around parenting yet. I don’t know that you ever feel that way. I’m not sure.

Lara Ehrlich 

I don’t think you do. And honestly, I think it’s great that you have the experience that you have. This series is for women of all stages of motherhood and of writing. Seven months is just as valid a mother as seven years and 17 years. Your experience as a mother is very valid.

Blair Hurley   

Thank you. We haven’t even mentioned how the pandemic adds to the burdens of all parents these days. It felt particularly odd with the timing for me, because I gave birth literally two days before the borders closed between the U.S. and Canada. And so, when I had a baby, the world was different. We’ve been pretty much in social isolation since then, just trying to do the right thing about being safe and not really socializing or meeting other moms or getting the benefit of our local community. We’re just trying to pretty much hold up. Both my husband and I have felt like we’re on our own. It’s just the two of us raising a baby and figuring out how to do it and learn. So, it feels particularly isolating that I haven’t been able to have that benefit of my community.

And, I’m certainly missing my mother more than ever, feeling like she would have so much advice to give me and this would be a time when she would have so much to give. She’d be able to tell me so much about caring for a baby. I felt that as a refreshed grief. It’s another time in life when I miss her particularly. It’s an isolating time for everyone right now. I would really appreciate having the opportunity to just kind of connect with other moms, but in the digital sphere, it has meant a lot to me to make the connections that I have had. I’ve been emailing with other writer moms and just kind of connecting with them and seeing what they’re up to and commiserating, feeling their woes and just sort of sharing what we’re struggling with. That has been so meaningful to me. I know you and I have exchanged a few texts about some of the more difficult questions and dilemmas that we have had, and it’s been so great to connect with other writer moms and see what they went through at this stage or that stage and hear about what they’re struggling with. It definitely helps with the sense of being alone, to connect with other mothers and see what they’re living through.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, there is a universality to the experience of motherhood and of being a writer mother specifically, even though everyone’s experience is so different. I think the unpredictability and the loss of control, as you said earlier, are uniting factors among mothers. I mean, what a loss of control not just of your own body but of your space, your time, your sleep—of just about every aspect of your life. And then to rebuild your identity as the mother to this small being whose identity you’re still learning because they’re not born fully formed either. So, yeah, building a community is so important.

Blair Hurley 

It is, absolutely, just to get someone else’s experience about that. And that was something about my expectations beforehand that I’m starting to learn, which is that on some level, before I had my baby, I thought, “Oh, 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 than I was in the past. 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.”

That’s something that with my writing, I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens there. Because with writing, as well, I thought I could write the same way I was writing, or just carve out the time, thinking, “Of course it’s going to be hard, but I’ll find some time, and I’ll write the same things that I was writing before I had a baby.” But now I realize that no, again, 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.

In my writing, I’m a little bit wary about being prone to sentimentality. It’s something that I’m really concerned about right now. Because, sure, there’s a lot of hormonal shifts that occur, particularly in those first few months, and yes, I was crying at commercials. I was feeling waves of emotion about things that before I could keep a very dry, ironic distance from. Or now, if there’s a movie where a child is in danger or a child is hurt, I can barely take it. It is amazing to me to see how my emotions have changed in that way. Things leveled out, and it got better, but I also feel that there’s some aspect of it, that there’s a permanent change, where I can feel a deeper sense of concern. Or it might be that I’m more prone to sentimentality. I’m not sure. I’ll have to watch out for that in my writing.

Lara Ehrlich 

Sentimentality is something I’ve heard other mother writers talk about. I think particularly as women, we’re conscious of sentimentality as being a negative in writing, right? Like, you don’t want to write prose that is purple or that is too emotional, because then it’s not literary. It becomes something different. And yes, as a mother, I feel the same way you do, where a story with a child in danger is hard to take. And that tendency when you’re writing on certain topics and subjects to veer into sentimentality—what’s wrong with sentimentality, do you think, as a writer?

Blair Hurley 

I’ve tried to make more of a distinction in my mind 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. If I had to define it, I suppose it would be a kind of heaping on of emotion that is instructing the reader to feel terrible or tragic in a manipulative way, whereas sentiment is just strong feeling. I want my readers to experience strong feelings, so I don’t want to be afraid of sentiment.

In fact, I was reading a bunch of short stories in very prestigious literary magazines, and every now and then, I’ll feel a little bit impatient with the kinds of stories that I see that are so ironically detached, or bleakly showing sad people doing depraved things for no discernible reason. And I realized that no, these may be the stories that often get praise, but I’m not always sold by them. I actually do want to feel strongly about things, and I want to have an emotional experience. When I’m reading, I don’t want to just feel detachment or disdain or contempt for feeling. I do think restraint is powerful. You want the reader to feel emotion; you don’t want to have to grab them and shake them and say, “You have to feel this!” So, in a craft sense, restraint is important, but overall, I want my reader to feel something strongly, and I don’t want to be ashamed of that.

I think women writers, and maybe mother writers in particular, can be denigrated or looked down upon if they’re willing to show emotion. I disagree, because realistic writing is about showing emotion, being willing to make a reader feel something. But there is a perception that if you do it from the perspective of motherhood, there’s something inherently sentimental about it.

Lara Ehrlich 

Sentimental and domestic.

Blair Hurley 

Yes, absolutely.

Lara Ehrlich

“Domestic” being, as it should not be, sort of a curse word in the literary world.

Blair Hurley

Kind of small-minded, afraid of risk taking, and that sort of thing. I hate that, because there are so many male writers who write about domestic spaces, and it’s seen as the height of intellectualism and experimentalism. I think about all the many Updike stories and novels about domestic situations, for example, and somehow because it’s from a male perspective or focusing on the male vantage point, it’s seen as more serious, more legitimate.

Lara Ehrlich 

And talk about purple prose and sentimentality—John Updike! I love the Rabbit books, I have to say, but yeah, why is it different for a male writer to write about a man leaving his family and escaping from domesticity? Why is that literary, and when a woman does the same, it’s either denigrated because she’s unlikable or it’s chick lit because she goes off and has an affair in Paris or something.

Blair Hurley 

So irritating that there’s a double standard of perception there. There was a question you were mentioning before we went live about the idea of transgression and how male characters and male authors are sort of encouraged and lauded for showing characters transgressing, and this is something that I felt very strongly as a writer before becoming a mother. In fact, my novel The Devoted is a lot about that: if a woman decides to take a transgressive route, she’s viewed differently than a man. So, in that case, it’s a character running away from home and going on her own kind of spiritual experience and adventure. I think the moral judgment that would be passed on her if she were a mother would be exponentially harsher, if she decided to do something transgressive like that—to leave a child, even temporarily, just to get away. To somehow not be thinking about her child at all times and all moments in her entire sphere—moral judgment would be passed on a character like that.

Lara Ehrlich 

To be a bad mom and an unlikable woman, right?

Blair Hurley 

Yeah, absolutely. That idea is something that I think I’ll probably always be fascinated with as a writer, and I’ll probably write about it. I’m only just beginning to learn how much higher the stakes are for a character as a mother who’s interested in transgressing in some way and breaking out of norms. The stakes are so high for a female character who has a child.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, in the same way that I feel like, for example, in a thriller, the stakes become much higher if it’s a child who is held captive or kidnapped. There’s something about the vulnerability, or the perceived vulnerability, of that character and the transgression of that vulnerability.

Blair Hurley 

Yeah, absolutely. There’s this feeling that is wrapped up in a lot of sexist ideas about the purity of girls and how it’s important to preserve the purity of girls and how their innocence is something that needs to be preserved. I find all of that deeply problematic and often angering. We both have daughters, and maybe this is something you’ve started thinking about. Once I found out I was having a girl, all these thoughts swirled through my mind about how I could be a good parent to a girl in particular, because there are so many ways she’s going to learn to devalue herself or see herself as vulnerable to corruption or to the repugnant ideas out there around girls and women.

One funny thing that I remember about my parents’ views about parenting—this is maybe one of the more unusual things that they felt strongly about—was that they didn’t want their kids—I have a sister—to grow up thinking that the world was a malevolent and scary place. There were all these classes, like “stranger danger” lessons that kids would be taught in the ‘80s. My parents refused to sign the permission slip and took us out of school for the day for the “stranger danger” one. They felt that strongly about it. That was their hill to die on. They didn’t want their kids to get the impression that the world is a scary place, that you should be afraid of everything and everyone that you should feel anxiety. Of course, we all have read various statistics about how we’re probably living in one of the safest times that humans have ever lived, and crime has been on the decline for a long time. That’s a wonderful thing, and yet, there’s this perception of the world as an increasingly dangerous and malevolent place.

Lara Ehrlich

In ways that are not as visible, right? Online.

Blair Hurley    

Absolutely. It’s a really funny balance to have to strike as a parent today. These dangers are real, and there are ways in which we have to teach our children to be safe, to protect themselves, to know about the dangers that exist. And yet my parents decided that was one thing that they didn’t want us to feel overall. I mean, they taught us things about being safe, but they didn’t want us to have the impression that the world was a malevolent place. I think that was interesting. That’s something that I can point out as a definitive parenting decision my parents made. I question what balance I want to strike with my child; what kind of perception do I want her to have about the world? There are ways in which, as a girl, she’s uniquely vulnerable to some dangers that she wouldn’t have to think about if she were a boy. And yet at the same time, I don’t want her to feel fearful of the world. So, it’s a difficult balance to strike.

Lara Ehrlich 

We have that same conversation all the time, specifically around sex and education and bodies. You want to make sure that your daughter’s not ashamed of her body but at the same time, trying to avoid the messaging around purity and virginity and the sacredness of her “flower.” How do you instill respect and empowerment without those ickier sides of sex education? It’s gonna be tricky. I think you hit it pretty straight on with the ‘80s, the messaging. There’s just something so creepy about the messaging from the ‘‘80s around sex and drugs and “stranger danger” and all of these after-school specials.

Blair Hurley 

Maybe it was one of the first generations where people were talking frankly about dangers, when before they were unspoken. In some ways, that may have been a positive improvement, to talk about some of these things explicitly. But there are also ways in which they, I think, got it wrong. One thing that made a big impression on me was when I learned about the way that they’ve changed the character of Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. In the old days, in a previous generation, Snuffleupagus was invisible to adults. Only children could see him on the show. And then they decided to change this after consulting with a lot of child psychologists and experts, because the danger of that narrative, the experts believed, was that it was a case of where the children are always trying to tell the adults that they can see something happening, and the adults don’t believe them. So it’s a kind of ominous sign. So if a child is, for example, being abused or something, they’re learning the lesson with this particular story, unintentionally, that if they tell adults, they won’t be believed. So it seems like such a harmless thing, but I can see how that might have the unintended consequence of teaching children that their stories don’t matter and that they won’t be believed if they tell an adult something. What I’ve taken from that is the importance of really respecting the inner life of a child and believing a child, being willing to value their story, and listening if they tell you something.

Lara Ehrlich 

There’s a lot to unpack here with storytelling, the power of characters in childhood, and the way that adults can write for and to children. Just to go back to your own daughter and your writing. Obviously, she’s too young to read your book right now, but thinking about your daughter, when she’s maybe 15, 16, and older, maybe when she’s a mother herself, what would you want her to read into your work, whether it’s The Devoted or work that you’ll write from here on out?

Blair Hurley 

My first thought is that it’s something I really hope for my daughter: to be a reader, to love reading, and to have books as a great source of joy or comfort or stimulation or challenge in her life, no matter what path she chooses. I think that being a reader is such a valuable part of having a meaningful life. My side note is we read lots of books with her every day, little board books, and she started turning the pages herself today, so she figured out the system. When I’m done reading a page, she’ll turn the page. I’m just very proud of that right now.

But when she’s 15 or 16, what I think is that, first of all, it’s perfectly healthy and normal for a child to be totally uninterested in the private lives of their parents and to be a little bit mortified by it and to just be totally detached from it. I’m perfectly okay with that. I won’t be insulted or hurt. I think it’s perfectly fine for kids to lead their own lives. If she does have an interest, I will be perfectly happy. If she finds something meaningful there, if she does have a curiosity about my life before I had her and the kind of person I was then, the writing that I was doing, I hope on some level that she’s proud of the work I do, and I want her—hypothetically, in the future—to see me working and to be proud of that and see it as a major part of my life, something that’s part of my identity. I would be perfectly fine if she is embarrassed by the deep feelings that are in there. Above all, I think that one of my jobs as a parent is to encourage and foster a child to learn how to lead her own life and define her life the way she sees fit.

Lara Ehrlich 

Did you wonder about your own mother’s private life? What did what did you see her doing? Did she read a lot? Was she a writer?

Blair Hurley  42:22 

She was a writer, which is something that I feel very proud of. That is something that was a great, strong connection that we shared. She wrote a number of short stories that were published in small magazines. She never published a full-length book. She was a lifelong, avid reader, as well. My love of reading definitely came from her. We would share books and read to each other and talk about books. And I would rush to her with my little written-up stories, you know, and have her edit them. She was strict, as well. She had high standards. Even if I was 9 or 10, she would mark it all up and say, like, ‘Too many commas here,’ or, ‘This metaphor is not working.’ She would give me real feedback. And I would run to the computer and try to implement the changes and then rush back with another version. So yeah, we shared this love of reading and writing that is one of my fondest memories of our bond.

She had really interesting interests, I would say. In her own career, she was a wine importer. She created her own business from scratch. I was always proud of her. I had this sense of her starting this business and figuring out how to make it work. It also enabled her to work from home, so that meant that she was always there. We had a variety of babysitters and stuff, but I never had to be away from her for long periods. Even as a kid, I realized that that was kind of a rare opportunity. So that’s something that I hope to have.

Lara Ehrlich 

I want to get into that deeper because I wanted to ask you about the work you do outside of your creative writing. But first, I just want to remind viewers, you can post questions and comments. We’ll see them come in. And we do have a question here from Brittany for you, Blair. This goes back to our conversation about sentiment and sentimentality. Could you tell us which female authors you feel do an elegant job of navigating that balance of sentiment and story? Great question.

Blair Hurley 

I love a woman writer who’s willing to engage with a little bit of cruelty, like a thin edge between warm tenderness and cruelty or viciousness. I think Alice Munro does a great job of this. On the surface, she’s portrayed as a quiet, domestic writer—again, that perception of women writers as being quiet, little writers or something—but she’s a writer with a lot of ferocity, I think. There are these incredibly devastating moments in a great climax of her story, where we’ll suddenly realize that a scene that we thought meant one thing is turning on its head and, in fact, something else is happening here. It’s sort of a knife’s edge element of perception between who’s being cruel and who’s being kind, or who’s acting in order to protect someone else. I love Alice Munro so much.

And this is not a female author, but I’ll put him in there anyway. I grew up loving John Steinbeck. I think he often gets a bad rap or he’s seen as a somewhat sentimental writer—he’s willing to engage with big sweeps of emotion in his writing and show suffering on the page and show how painful situations are, and he’s sometimes looked down upon for that very reason. But I think he does it very powerfully and well. I am willing to engage with that powerful sweep of emotion, the feeling that sometimes life does exist on an epic scope. So yeah, I’m a Steinbeck fan.

I’m just looking over my bookshelf because there’s a writer that I really enjoyed who I only discovered a couple years ago, Ruth Ozeki. Her book A Tale for the Time Being was one of my favorites of the past five years. It got a lot of attention when it came out. It’s about a diary that washes up on the shores of California all the way from Japan after the tsunami. And so this woman who lives alone is reading the diary of a young Japanese girl, and bit by bit, we learn about the girl’s life, and we’re also learning about the California woman’s life, alternating chapters, and we see how they’re kind of reaching this amazing connection across time and across an ocean. I think it’s truly a beautiful book. The teenage girl is in a really terrible situation. She’s being bullied at school and is quite miserable. And the author’s willingness to engage with teenage-girl misery maybe is seen as sentimental, but I was moved by it. I was totally moved by this girl who felt totally trapped in her situation and didn’t—couldn’t—see a way out.

Lara Ehrlich 

That leads into another great question from Brittany. Brittany, I think I’m gonna invite you on here to ask some questions. she asks how having a daughter has changed how you plan to write female characters.

Blair Hurley 

Oh, good question. As I said, I feel still so, so young in the stages that I’m sure I’m going to learn more as time progresses. I almost feel like I’m only just starting to learn her personality and starting to see it come out in the most recent months, which is a true delight, to see her starting to become an individual. The way motherhood is already changing my writing about girlhood particularly is seeing how fiercely girls want to become—to grow and to become yourself. 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 able to do some new skill. I see it as this 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. No character is truly static, if I’m doing a good job. They’re always wanting things and wanting to become something else and wanting to grow and to be a better version of themselves, or to escape, or to transform. 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 also, to engage with the danger and the risk of that.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s fabulous. What a great answer. And I want to read those stories immediately. Something I love Blair about this conversation is that you’ve touched so often on the joy of motherhood and of thinking about writing from a mother’s perspective. I think we often lean into how hard it is to write as a writer-mom, but it’s also such a joyful and powerful honor to learn from this little person, and then imbue our writing with the lessons that we’re taking from this shift in identity. Thank you for talking about the joyful parts. That’s so valuable and so empowering.

Blair Hurley 

I do want to give that impression, because it is it is an amazingly joyful experience. And as you said, it’s an honor, for anyone who decides to make this choice. It’s an incredible experience. I will say as well, though, another thing I didn’t expect when people talk about how hard it is to make time for your writing, which I do feel powerfully, is that 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 happy and joyful to be with my baby. That’s why the work is not getting done. It’s not because my child is a tyrant or a jailkeeper; it’s that I want to be with her. I’m the jailer. I’m the one keeping myself from writing. I did not expect that at all. But the happy aspects of parenting are actually the ones preventing me from being productive right now.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s fascinating. And so well said. And it’s something Amy Shearn and I talked about in the last episode, that before I became a mother, my husband was adamant that we’d make time for my writing—and I was lucky to have that support—but then, like you, when my daughter was born, I was like, “Well, I just want to play with her,” or stare at her. Writing does take focus, and whether you’re writing for five minutes or five hours, that means your focus is not on your child. And that’s very difficult when time with your daughter is so enticing.

Blair Hurley 

That deep, unfettered focus is essential for writing well, and for diving into those creative ideas, and it’s a constant struggle. I feel very grateful to be in a partnership as well. I’m in awe of parents who are doing this solo, because I can I can even fully understand how one would do it. I have an equal partnership with my husband, and that means when he’s taking care of her—and it’s not like he’s helping either; I hate when people say dads are helping; no, they’re raising their children—then I can feel fully at ease that she’s with her father, and it’s going to be okay. That’s an essential part of the equation. But it’s true that it’s so enticing to think about—whether it’s worrying or thinking happily about—your child. It’s just such a such a draw.

My husband and I have devised a system because we both need time for deep, deep work where we don’t have to think for a few a couple hours about the baby. We have a system where we each have one day a week where we’re the primary parent, and we take on as much on as we can to give the other partner the chance to work in an unbothered way. It seems like a great idea, and it has helped a lot, but the first day that was mine, honestly, I just spent the time looking at videos of the baby. I just couldn’t get back into it. I was still in parent mode. I was missing her, even though she and my husband were just outside my office.

I can see how ridiculous that is. But it takes a concerted effort to find that place, that quiet place that 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 periods, however you manage it, and to do your best to honor that time and only focus on writing.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, you know, I’ll say two things. I agree with you that to get really deep into a story, you need unfettered time. But you can use those little chunks of time where your attention is divided, too. I’ve filled those moments with other tasks that are writing related. When I was commuting to work, I would dictate to myself and use an app to transcribe the dictation. When I got home and my husband was feeding my daughter, I could sit with them at the table and clean up the transcription. And that only took like half of my brain so I could still sit with my family. And then when I had the time to really sit and go deeper, that was the time when I would look at what I had on the page and really devote myself to going deeper with it and making it writing as opposed to just a stream of consciousness.

Blair Hurley 

I think that that’s so smart and important because it’s true. There are all sorts of phases of writing work that need to be done that don’t require that deepest of focus. I still write a lot of my drafts by hand first, but then there’s the phase of just typing it up, so that I can do with a very divided mind, I can get that done. It’s when writing those first drafts that I feel I need to get into that quiet place. And sometimes when I’m doing a major revision as well, I need to call my most creative powers into play.

Lara Ehrlich 

We’re coming to an end. But first, I’ll say that it’s really important that you said when we do have those moments during which we can devote ourselves to a story, it’s important to honor those times. That’s really hard. Before the interview, we were talking about mom guilt, and that feeling of guilt that you’re stealing time from your child, or that you are missing out on something, or that you’re being selfish. And it’s often hard for women, too, to ask for something for yourself, or to demand something for yourself. It can feel selfish. But really, it’s necessary. Writing is our vocation.

Blair Hurley 

It’s powerful and tempting to feel that it’s plus or minus, that any time you take something 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. This isn’t a political discussion, but there are so many ways in which I wish our society was set up to support parents better. And on a personal, emotional level, I think 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 that as well. It’s better for the child to see a mother valuing herself and valuing her work.

When I think back to my own childhood, I was a very kind of introspective, introverted child who just liked being off with my book or imagining stories with my toys. And I think it was so valuable and precious that my mother and my father just let me have that time to be off in my head and to explore and to be alone to figure out things on my own. And it’s those private moments when I grew as a child, and as a person, I think.

I’m trying to remember as best as I can right now that it’s actually good for my child to allow her those private spaces to grow and to figure out things. Even just in these few months, I can see how it’s usually is the moment that I take a little bit of a step back that she’s able to learn 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 was like, “You figure it out.” And then she did. We need these breathing spaces; we need to have private and quiet spaces for our own growth. I’ve tried to remind myself that it’s good for our children to have these spaces of their own while their parents do the things they need to do.

Lara Ehrlich 

Blair, thank you so much, again, for joining us. I can’t wait to see what you do next and I hope you’ll come back because this has just been such a great conversation.

Blair Hurley 

I had such a great time chatting with you, Lara and it’s been great just to articulate some of my ideas about motherhood and parenthood.

Transcript: Liz Harmer


Writer Mother Monster: Interviews with Authoresses, hosted by Lara Ehrlich

Guest: Liz Harmer

Interview: October 28, 2020

Liz Harmer is a Canadian living in California. Her first novel, The Amateurs, a speculative novel of technological rapture, was released with Knopf/Vintage in 2019. Her stories, essays, and poems have been published in Lit Hub, Best Canadian Stories, and elsewhere, and her second novel, Strange Loops, is forthcoming with Knopf Canada in 2022. Her children are 13, 11, and 8, and here’s how she describes motherhood in 3 words: “Challenge and Delight”

Lara Ehrlich 

Hi everybody. Welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m Lara Ehrlich, your host, as well as a writer, mother, and monster myself. Joining me today is Liz Harmer. Liz is a Canadian living in California. Her first novel, The Amateurs, is a speculative novel of technological rapture, and it was released with Knopf and Vintage in 2019. Her stories, essays, and poems have been published or are forthcoming in Lit Hub, Best Canadian Stories, and elsewhere, and her second novel, Strange Loops, is forthcoming. We will talk to Liz about all of those things, as well as being a writer mother. Let’s welcome her right now. Hi, Liz.

Liz Harmer

Hello.

Lara Ehrlich 

Let’s start by telling us who lives in your house.

Liz Harmer

Well, along with my husband, Adam, there’s Fiona, who’s 13; Simone, who’s 11; Juliet, who’s 8. Sometimes I forget their ages, because they seem to grow up really fast. I also have a dog, two cats, and a bunch of rats. They’re kind of part of the family also.

Lara Ehrlich 

Are they your rats or your kids’ rats?

Liz Harmer

Fiona wanted to get a rat, and then the rat got lonely. And then that new rat was pregnant. We had seven, now we have five … you know—cycle of life.

Lara Ehrlich 

I won’t ask. Right before the interview, you were telling me that you came here pretty much straight from the ER. So first of all, thank you for joining us. Are you okay?

Liz Harmer

I am okay. I was having a lot of pain and pain with breathing and a lot of symptoms that I couldn’t understand. I just wanted to sleep a lot, and my husband was like, “I think maybe you need to cancel your classes and go in.” I did not cancel my classes. But I tried to squeeze in an ER visit. But anyway, I don’t have COVID, but I might have it now because I was surrounded by people, which was pretty stressful. I had to get an IV. Apparently, I had a really juicy vein that gushed blood everywhere. So that was fun. And anyway, it was a bit of an adventure. I’m sorry if this is too much information about my body. In any case, I’m fine except that I’m exhausted and having some weird pain. It could be an injury. I may have injured myself doing pushups. You’re learning a lot about me right now.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s the point, right? I’m glad you’re okay. But as I said before the interview, you are certainly welcome to postpone this interview. And as we were talking a little bit about how as women, particularly as mothers, we feel like we have to ‘go, go, go’ all the time, even at the expense of our own health, and there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

Liz Harmer5:46 

Yeah, yeah. I wish I would learn it already. You know, it’s taking me a while.

Lara Ehrlich 

Don’t apologize for telling us too much about your personal life. That’s why you’re here. And we’ll get into bodies and women and childbirth, too. I want to start by asking you about the book that’s coming out in 2022.

Liz Harmer 

So that book is called Strange Loops, and I’ve been calling it my doomed sex novel for a while. It’s really a book about transgression. There’s a female narrator who basically has an erotic obsession, and she gives into the obsession at the expense of everybody else and ruins her own life and kind of knows she’s ruining it. I’m interested in women who are smart but still doing the wrong thing and know they’re doing the wrong thing. And I’m obviously really interested in obsession and desire. I became very obsessed about desire for about five years, I read everything I could. The book arose out of all of that.

Lara Ehrlich 

What was the impetus for that obsession? And then, what research did you do, if you can share?

Liz Harmer

I guess I better get some practice talking about this because the first novel is completely imaginative and not really about anything that I could be accused of being autobiographical, because there are portals and things—even though there was autobiographical stuff, obviously. I’m interested in my own desire, and women having desire feels like this taboo thing that we’re confused about culturally. But also, I was raised in a very strict religious background in the Christian Reformed Church in Canada, which is like a Dutch Calvinist subculture. I felt like the messages I got as a kid and as a teenager didn’t really help me sort out my desire. I’ve been married a long time, but I’m not afraid of talking about desire, being interested in desire. I’m interested in different arrangements, and I became really interested in people who are polyamorous and choosing to live outside of monogamy.

The research that I did was mostly—it’s not really research—I listened to the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet soundtrack while reading Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse and Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and like books like that. I was seeking out a lot of work by people who also were really fascinated by desire. There was this quote that I came across a couple years ago from C.S. Lewis, and it was naming all the loves—I think it’s in a book called The Four Loves—and when he names erotic love, he says, well, erotic love will make you abandon your children and burn down your house and kill your neighbor. I mean, I’m making all of that up. But it was something about what erotic desire can do to us that other kinds of love obviously don’t. And it seems like not super loving to burn down your house and murder your neighbors.

Lara Ehrlich

Maybe not so much.

Liz Harmer

Anyway, those are some of the things I was thinking about. How we can get punished for desire.

Lara Ehrlich 

I’m really fascinated by that, too. You tell us you’ve been married for a long time. How long have you been married and tell us about your spouse.

Liz Harmer

Okay, I’m 39. I’ve been married since 22. We just had our 17th anniversary. At 15 years, I started to lose track of the years, but basically our whole adult life. We had a really intense love affair—like, I fell in love with at first sight with him. I met him in the university bookstore where he was looking at all the philosophy books. We were both in the philosophy class. I was like, “Oh, there’s a guy—I’m gonna go talk to him.” So I just insinuated myself into his life for a couple years. And he is now a philosophy professor, which is why we’re in California. He’s continuing to be the man standing in front of the pile of philosophy books, and I continue to be the person who’s going, “Here’s the guy.” We fell madly in love. I was engaged to somebody else briefly. I was from this background where I was an old maid already at 21—not really, but kind of.

Lara Ehrlich 

According to your religion?

Liz Harmer

Yeah. I mean, you didn’t have a lot of choices, because you can’t have sex outside of marriage. But you’re full of desire. So, you have to get married in order to have sex. I mean, I’m not saying that’s all it was, but there was a lot of pressure on getting married young. And I feel really bad for naming all of that in my community. I’m sure that’s not true across the board, but I felt a pressure. So, while I was engaged to this other really great guy, I just fell in love with Adam. And that was a bit destructive. That was a bit of a C.S. Lewis “burn down the house” kind of thing. But Adam and I have been together ever since. We’ve been through a lot together. And, yeah, 17 years.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s amazing. And I have to share with you: I met my husband in graduate school, and I think the moment I was drawn to him was when he was reading Ulysses in the student lounge. I went over and I was like, “What section are you reading?” And it was the one in the brothel, and I was like, “Oh, I love that part, where all the prostitutes are hitting on Leopold Bloom.” And he was kinda like, “Huh, who is this girl?” And we’ve been married 15 or 16 years. So, tell me: you have three kids; did you always want to be a mom? Or was it something that snuck up on you?

Liz Harmer

I don’t know if I always wanted to be a mom. There were times when I was a kid when I was envisioning my future having children, and there were other times when my dream life for myself was that I would live nomadically without any ties and I would just be a “writer” and travel and have lovers and not have children.

Lara Ehrlich 

Capital ‘W’ writer.

Liz Harmer

Yes, exactly. I never had a strong image of what my future would be, except that I wanted lots of romantic, bohemian situations, which, I didn’t know how to get those. There was no path, like “this way toward Bohemia.” I just wore black turtlenecks. I had Fiona when I was 26. The decision when we got married was very impulsive. I was planning to be an academic. And I was like, well, am I going to have children during grad school? How am I going to have children while I’m on the tenure track? How, while job searching? None of them seemed possible. And I think this must have been something I internalized, that I thought I was so old, at 26, to start a family, when what I found out was I was the youngest mom around. Every other mom that I met was in their 30s, for the most part. So basically: “I can’t make up my mind, and I can’t stop thinking about it; let’s give it a go.” And then, that’s what happened. It was very impulsive. We kind of just do that. And then the chips fall and hopefully we can manage. I guess that’s how we live.

Lara Ehrlich 

I have so many questions to ask you about this because it’s so different from my own experience. And it’s just fascinating to see how people make those decisions about their families. But first, as somebody who was looking for that nomadic life, which really resonates with me, I wanted to have a love affair with a gypsy under the moon and ride off on a horse, like fairy tales, and all these things were part of my dream for myself. And at least for me, like with you, there was no road sign to nomadic life. And I won’t say that I settled or that you settled because I don’t think that’s the right way to put it. But it’s very different than the nomadic lifestyle, to have been married for more than 15 years and have children. How do you reconcile those two diverse paths—the nomadic side of you, the wild side, and the married mother of three, who lives, I assume, in a home with pots and pans and a refrigerator and very unromantic things?

Liz Harmer

Yes, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I mean, I just thought I was going to be Leonard Cohen. I’m like, maybe I could be him. That’s my top choice. And then I had no other options. How do I reconcile myself to this? Well, I guess I try to have an interesting and rich life from where I am. I do believe passionately that you can have an interesting, rich, not boring, settled, domestic life, just because you have a boring, settled, domestic life. I try to say yes to things, I try to meet lots of people, I do things that scare me a lot. I probably work a lot of it out in my writing by letting my characters do the thing I can’t do myself or that I’m afraid to do. I guess that’s how I do it.

Lara Ehrlich 

That’s a great segue to writing and how you use personal experience in writing. Blair Hurley and I, in the last episode, were talking about how women’s work or women’s writing is very much seen as autobiographical, even if it’s not, so people say, “Where are you in the story?”—which is not something that people typically ask men. So when you say that you work out some of these issues in your writing, I hesitate to say, “What’s autobiographical about your writing?” But I will ask: where do you see this coming into play in your books, whether it’s The Amateurs or the forthcoming book and/or the memoir? You’re working on a memoir, right?

Liz Harmer

Yeah, the memoir is the sort of the next thing. The origin of The Amateurs, which is a sci-fi, speculative kind of a book, was that I was worried that I was going to screw up my marriage in some way that I couldn’t fix. So, I kept writing about this character who kept screwing up her marriage and then realizing it was the worst mistake of her life. At some point in this process, I found out that there was a time machine, and what if she could go back and fix it? And then, of course, you can’t. So, I was working out some things with that. I guess it has to do with the narrative of your own life, which is that I believe my husband and I are incredibly well-suited to each other and that our love story was really intense. A lot of these narratives bolster that that narrative, right? Like “this is the one true love.”

With Strange Loops, it’s a lot darker. I also wrote this novel that I’m trying to turn into short stories, which was quite autobiographical in certain ways, because it’s about people who lose their faith and have boxed themselves into a corner with their choices. And then, they no longer believe in the things that made them make those choices. They’re Christians who decided not to use birth control and ended up with a lot of children and then were like, “Whoa, this is not the life I wanted,” too late.

I think that the way that autobiography works for me is that the ideas I’m interested in become things I’m trying to sort out. The characters are not always very close to me or the way that I think or the way that I am. And, in fact, I thought that my main character was based on myself in The Amateurs, but I found out recently that it’s actually more like my husband, which I was kind of shocked by.

Then the memoir. The one thing that happened to me that was very life-changing was that I had a huge psychotic episode when I was in high school, and I was hospitalized. It kind of threw my plans into disarray. I’ve been writing about that experience of mental illness and how I deal with mental illness, trying to be honest about all of that, how my family system is involved, how my faith was involved. So obviously, that sets really deep. I try not to be afraid to see myself in my writing. I don’t think you can avoid yourself coming into your writing. But that doesn’t mean that I’m writing about myself.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, characters can be very different from you but still drawn from something deep inside you, I think, or something you’re struggling with. So that makes a lot of sense to me. Tell me a little bit more about your kids. And I’ll share with you that I wasn’t sure I always wanted to be a mother. It was something I thought long and hard about. I had my daughter when I was 35, I think, and I have one child. It was something that I told my husband very early on when we were dating, that if I never want to have children, are you okay with that? And he said yes. And then we were married for six years before we had a child. So, throughout those six years, he started to feel like maybe he wanted to have a child, and I wasn’t sure. What would that do to my career or my writing career? I felt very much that writing—with the capital “W,” as you said—is a solitary act that demands commitment, and that children might ruin that commitment. So, finally, it was like, “Well, we’re either gonna do it now or never because the clock is ticking.” So I had my child. It’s very interesting to hear you say that it was much more organic. Like, it was kind of like, let’s do this, it’s a life choice, and we’ll see what comes of it. So tell me a bit more about that—and then having two more children! Tell me what life is like with three kids—because with one, I’m a little crazy.

Liz Harmer

Uh, yes, it has not been easy. During the time that we were having our kids, my husband was in a Ph.D. program the entire time, and I was working part-time or trying to be a writer. At some point, I gave up all of my jobs so that I could be a stay-at-home mother. I got really crunchy for a little while, like I was breastfeeding two children at once. Just thinking about all the phases I went through having three kids, I had a very serious postpartum depression after the second. We didn’t have any money, I didn’t think we had any prospects, I didn’t think Adam could get a job as a philosophy professor … so it was really tough for a while.

And now it’s fun. They’re all just running around, and they live their lives. And our parenting philosophy is pretty much like, “We love them; I hope they’re okay.” We don’t have the energy or money to put a ton of resources into turning them into whatever. I don’t know what the middle-class dream is for a child, but I guess getting them into the right school so they can get the right job so that they can get married and have a house with all that stuff that you’re supposed to want. And none of that stuff is possible for us. So, we’ve just decided we don’t want it because you can’t have it anyway. No, we just let our kids be, and so that’s easier, I think. So right now, it’s easy. We’re in the Golden Age.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, and I want to come back and talk about advice for people who are struggling right now with younger kids. Like Blair, who we saw last time, has a daughter who is seven months old, and she’s right in the throes of it. Can we talk about mental health for a second? You mentioned postpartum depression and in high school having a psychotic break. Tell me about your experience as a woman, first of all, with mental health and then as a mother and whether you were taken seriously and what support there was for you. If we could talk about writing too and how this how this may impact your writing or play out in your writing, but start with just tell us about what it was like.

Liz Harmer

The postpartum depression that I suffered was one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through, because when I was depressed before, you can sleep all day, you can indulge your depression. You feel a certain permission to be dark. But you can’t do that when you have a baby. So, the spiral that you get into of guilt and rage—the guilt turns into rage, and you’re so tired. I just didn’t get enough sleep. I am very sensitive to lack of sleep. When I had two babies under two, I was breastfeeding both of them, I was probably anemic, and I had a really traumatic birth with my second daughter and my eldest daughter was having night terrors like three nights a week, and I was getting no sleep. I think that I was really set up for a disaster.

And so, with my third daughter, we prepared better for that. And I didn’t fall into that depression again. But it was really bad. And I didn’t see it coming. My belief had always been that because I had gone through an incredible mental health crisis, how could that happen again? Because I would see it coming, and I would be able to stop it. And in this case, it got on top of me and I couldn’t stop it. By the time I realized I was depressed, I’d been six months depressed and just kind of white-knuckling it. And that was really, really rough. I’m really glad that’s over.

Lara Ehrlich 

I hear you saying that for the third birth you prepared in advance, and that you didn’t let yourself go there, and it sounds as though you’re taking the responsibility for something that really is a chemical. Is that a message that you heard from people? Did you have support in getting through this? Did you have medical doctors believe you when you said, “I’m suffering”?

Liz Harmer

I am really grateful that you asked me that question, because I need to give some context. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17 or 18, and I rejected my diagnosis and went off my meds. Most people do that, because it’s horrible to be on. It’s really hard to be on those meds. It’s hard to get them right. And so, I had been for a long time expecting to have another mental illness, you know, a manic episode. And then I just never did. But anytime I need psychiatric help, they know that, and they know that I am not on medication. I had this really great psychiatrist, and there was this women’s health concerns clinic in Hamilton, where I lived in Canada. And she knew that I wasn’t medicated but that I was vulnerable, chemically vulnerable, to all kinds of things.

So, what I mean by prepared is that she prepared everything she could for me, so that I wouldn’t have those chemical exacerbations, like lack of sleep. Certain things that we did had to do with lifestyle stuff in order to give me the best chance, without going to the medication. Partly because if you have a history of bipolar, if you have a history of mania, they don’t want to put you on antidepressants, because that can cause a manic episode. So, you don’t really have the option of going on SSRIs in the same way. Anyway, that’s the context. I didn’t mean to sound like I was blaming myself, although I probably was a little bit, like I knew that I was taking on too much. And I couldn’t stop myself. I often was looking for someone to stop me from ruining my own life, you know?

Lara Ehrlich 

I think that’s a really relatable feeling, mental health notwithstanding, just with women and particularly with mothers that sense that you need to be responsible and in control and that if something spirals beyond your control, it’s somehow your fault, and then you need to work harder to rein it in. It’s a self-defeating cycle, I think.

Liz Harmer

The point is, I actually did have support, but I also didn’t. I also was in a community. I was in the attachment parenting community, and I don’t know if that’s still a big thing.

Lara Ehrlich 

I know I’ve heard of it, but describe attachment parenting for people who don’t know.

Liz Harmer

Well, there’s this book called The Baby Book. And actually, this doctor is also an anti-vaxxer, I think. I got involved with a lot of moms who were really into natural parenting, which meant slings, co-sleeping, breastfeeding until the child decides not to breastfeed anymore. And a lot of that stuff was really beneficial for us. But a lot of it put a lot of pressure on me to just give everything over to my baby. I think the message that I was getting as a mother was, “I’m suffering. I can’t even walk a kilometer because I’m so depleted.” And I’m just like, “Gotta keep breastfeeding.” Nobody’s there saying you don’t. Some social worker was finally like, “You know, you’re allowed to wean them.” Which was nice. Finally. But there was a line that says something like, this is such a short time in your baby’s life—like who are you to not give everything to them, basically. It was in the context of sexual desire, like if, when you’re breastfeeding, you don’t feel like having sex, well, too bad, because this is just five years of your life or whatever. I was breastfeeding and pregnant for 10 years. I mean, that’s a long time. I’ve learned a lot.

Lara Ehrlich 

No, but those messages are so ingrained, so deeply ingrained, I think, in motherhood that you have to give yourself wholly to that little person. And yes, in part you do, because they are vulnerable and they can’t exist in the world without their parents—I won’t say “their mother,” because the father can give a baby formula and they’ll be fine. But the message that we hear is that the mother is the one keeping that child alive, and the nourishment comes directly from you. But not just the nourishment. Breast milk has the antibodies, and you’re keeping them safe from germs. You’re their world. And there’s a lot of pressure, particularly when you don’t know what you’re doing, like with the first baby. For me having one and only one baby, you don’t have anything to compare it to. You can’t anticipate what it’s going to be like. It’s a lot of pressure.

Liz Harmer

Yeah. And I think that Dr. Sears, who wrote The Baby Book, sort of thought this was magical, like mothers were magical. And if you only do this, your baby will never have a tantrum. And they’ll always have such a sense of rightness. It was really dogmatic, and I really bought into it. I thought, well, I’ll just invest now. And then I watch it later.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah. And then when your child doesn’t conform to that, because no baby conforms, and you’re like, what am I doing wrong? So what messages did you hear about motherhood as a writer before you became a mother? I’ll share with you what mine were later, but what did you anticipate your life as a writer mother would be?

Liz Harmer

I was in a Ph.D. program, and I thought I was somehow going to be an academic, a novelist, and a mother. I realized I wasn’t able to do all of that—or didn’t want to have to do all of that. I felt like it would be so easy to just be a writer and a mother. I wouldn’t have to also be an academic. Honestly, I don’t really remember getting messages. I was very supported by my parents in this desire to be a writer. And sometimes when I hear people saying their parents don’t want them to be a writer, I couldn’t understand. One of our hypotheses, my husband and I, is that because I went through this experience in high school, where everybody’s just kind of crossing their fingers, hoping you’re going to be okay—and maybe you’re not going to be okay or have a normal life it kind of sets you free to just experiment with your life, because no one expects anything from you or something. I don’t know. That’s one hypothesis. My answer is I don’t know what my messages were. I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time, but I also was so bullheaded, I was just like, I’m going to do this anyway. So, tell me about your messages.

Lara Ehrlich 

Good for you. I remember this book Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed that came out the year before I decided to get pregnant. It was a book of essays from famous female writers who decided not to have children. And so, it’s like, okay, that just confirms the fact that you can’t be a great writer—with a capital “W” and a mother with a capital “M”—that you’re going to have to skimp on one in order to succeed in the other. I grew up with a mother who was a capital “M” mother. And I felt like that’s what you had to do to be a great mother: you had to be a Mother. To be a great writer, you have to be a writer first, and there’s no room for negotiation there. So, it was very hard to decide that I was going to try to do both and have a full-time job on top of it. You have teaching and writing and motherhood and you’re trying to balance all of those things. It’s very hard. And so how do you do that? You are a professor, a teacher, you have three children, and you’ve written a number of books. How do you balance it?

Liz Harmer

Okay, well, I will tell you, this is the most practical advice I ever got: I think I was pregnant with my third daughter at the time, and I was working a lot of hours in the summer at the library and my husband was working on his Ph.D. And also, I was learning how to drive a stick, which is really stressful for me. I kept stalling. I just was like, I can’t write this summer. I’m just done. I can’t. This is too much to add to my life. I’m allowed to not write. But then I met Richard Bausch, who ended up being kind of a mentor for me. He has this list of advice for young writers, and one of them was learn how to write in every situation. And he described lying on the couch with a baby on his chest and writing with a pencil because then it doesn’t run out of ink. And while I’ve never done that, because that was really awkward for me, I did learn to not have precious writing time, but just to be writing all the time. The downside is that I don’t have a lot of boundaries around work in life now. Just a little bit every day adds up to a lot.

Lara Ehrlich 

I hear you on that. And thank you, Nan Cohen, for supplying the title of the book I was thinking of: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, by Meghan Daum. Those are the words that resound in our skulls when we try to do things like writing, which is such a personal venture, it’s selfish and shallow and self-absorbed. But also, those words, I guess, are for people who aren’t mothers and feel like they’re making that choice because they are too selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed to have families. I guess it goes both ways. But this is a podcast about motherhood. So, we’ll do it from our perspective.

Liz Harmer

One thing I do want to say about that is that I remember this calculation that I did when my kids were young, which was that I wasn’t raising my three daughters just so they could have more children. Like what is the point of life? What is the point of anyone’s life? I wanted to model for them that you could have more things in life than just a family. Family was important, and you love the people that are near to you, but also, you have to invest in yourself, because I want them to do that. So that was something I thought about a lot because I just started to get a lot of like generational despair, over just creating generations, and then they’re going to create generations, and what is the point?

Lara Ehrlich  

Tell me about writing as a mother of three girls. Do they see you writing? Where do you write? Do they know what you’re doing? Have they read your books?

Liz Harmer

They do see me writing all the time. They know. And often, I’m just a bad mother, and I’m like, “Get lost, because I’m writing.” They know that I go and do writer retreats and things like that. It’s a really big part of my identity. My 11-year-old is now writing a novel and multiple stories. And the other day, she was like, “I could just drop out of school and be a novelist, couldn’t I?” And so, she has absorbed some of that, I think, although she would claim that I have no influence. She tried to start reading my book the other day, but I think I use pretty difficult vocabulary and concepts. So, they’re not quite reading the novel yet, but it’s something that Adam really supports. He values my time to write, and the kids know that’s valuable to me. It’s pretty long-standing, at this point.

Lara Ehrlich 

How do you communicate to your kids that it’s important to you?

Liz Harmer 

Um, “Get lost kids—doing important stuff now”? I don’t know. I guess I just carve out time, and I tell them not to interrupt me when it’s that time.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah. Which leads us to the fact that you mentioned earlier: the kids are older now. But for people who have really young kids, whether it’s one or two or three kids, how different is it now that your kids are little older than when it was back when they were like 2, 3, 4, or 5, when they’re a lot more demanding of your time.

Liz Harmer

I remember all kinds of different phases of this. When I had one child and was pregnant with a second, I got into a routine, where every Saturday I went out to a coffee shop, and that was my write time. The rest of the time, when I had free time, I would write. So I would be using that time to write and to think about literary community and all of that stuff. But then I would just sit down and write one story on the weekends, or maybe fix up a story. And it started to feel like that wasn’t enough time.

And so later, I “negotiated”—I’m using a lot of air quotes because it’s not like Adam’s difficult to negotiate with—but we rearranged our schedule, so that I could have two hours every morning out of the house. We were in a cramped apartment with two screaming children. I couldn’t write while I was with those screaming children. So, I would go across the street to the coffee shop, and he would be in charge of the kids. And that was two or three hours every day, say from 8 to 10, 8 to 11. And because he was a student, he could work around that. And that was a lot of hours a week—that adds up to a lot. Actually, that seemed like a lot more than I have now.

And I remember when I was kind of holed up with Juliet, who’s my youngest, kind of protecting that time, that postnatal time, sitting on a bed while she was beside me sleeping, and I was writing. So, I would just steal the time that I could. I think that because we had our kids young, and Adam found this too, it looks absurd. When you look at what we were doing, him being a full-time student, me trying to write while having all these kids, it looks absurd. But because we had started that young, time was so precious, we didn’t waste it. I actually feel like now I waste a lot more time. And I feel a lot more guilty about the time that I waste. Because, you know, suddenly I’ll look around, and nobody actually needs me at this moment. I could probably do the dishes. Oh, that’s the other thing. I don’t have a tidy house. And I never will. And I had to reconcile myself to that. I’m just not going to tidy my house very much.

Lara Ehrlich   

Yeah, there are always things that you have to kind of give up, right? Like, give up control over, whether it’s your house or your lawn care or something. But when you were taking those two hours a week, did you feel guilty? If not, that’s awesome. If you did, how did you get past it?

Liz Harmer 

That seemed like a very small amount of time. I don’t even think I went out to get haircuts or go shopping or anything. I didn’t do anything for myself, besides those two hours. I don’t think I really felt guilty at that time. The way I constantly try to not feel guilty is to remind myself that it’s important that my kids see me as a person. I think it’s important for parents to not be the servants of their children. They need to learn to be on their own in the world, slowly, and it’s important that they understand that we’re also human beings who have needs and boundaries. Whenever I feel guilty, I think, “No, I’m teaching them good boundaries.” I guess I’m really skilled at defense mechanisms, where I tell myself I’m doing okay.

Lara Ehrlich 

It sounds like you’re doing great to me. I think those are all really valuable mantras to keep repeating to ourselves. And thank you Becky Kirk, who says, “Liz, you and Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn’t have tidy houses. So, you’re in good company. You have more important things to do.”

Liz Harmer

I wish my house was tidy.

Lara Ehrlich  

Talk a little bit then about raising daughters, specifically. I have a daughter myself, so we touched on the example you want to provide for your kids—that you’re not their servant, that you have things that are important to you. But as the mother of daughters, what messages do you want them to receive that maybe you didn’t, as a young girl?

Liz Harmer

For a long time, my answer to this was that I felt I didn’t feel pretty as a kid and I wanted my mother to tell me I was pretty. And also, we didn’t like vanity in our religious subculture, and I felt confused about that. So, I was like, “I’m gonna tell my daughters they’re pretty.” That was gonna be my thing. But now the tables have turned, and my kids think that I’m vain, and they’re annoyed about that. They don’t value that at all. I guess my work is done there.

I want my daughters to grow up with a very healthy relationship with sexuality. I don’t want them to think there’s anything shameful or bad about sexuality. I want them to be able to freely explore sexually. So that’s really important to me. That’s a value that I feel strongly about. And I guess my kids don’t seem to want to be mothers right now. I don’t know what I’m doing in that regard. I’m really proud of them. They seem to have minds of their own, thinking through things in their own way, and Adam and I both value that. So, I don’t know what else I could ask for them. That’s what I want for them.

Lara Ehrlich 

No, that’s great. I think to small kids, and even to teenagers and 20-something women, certainly to me, motherhood seemed really terrifying. I remember my 4-year-old asked where babies come from, and I explained childbirth to her. And she’s like, “No, I don’t want to do that. No, I’m not gonna be a mother.” I was like, “I don’t blame me.” Like, that is kind of terrifying.

Liz Harmer

Yeah, I think because I was young and fumbling and bumbling my way through everything, sometimes I’ll tell the kids things that I did, like I tell them their birth story, and they’ll be like, “Why would you do that? Why would you make that so hard on yourself? Why mom?!” Anyway, so yeah.

Lara Ehrlich 

Do you have advice for people with smaller children right now? And in a second, we’ll talk about the pandemic and how that changes things. But with the pandemic aside, people who have young kids and are trying to make their way as writers, what would you advise?

Liz Harmer

I don’t want to be like, “Well, just claim your time,” because it’s not culturally possible to do that. I acknowledge that part of the reason I claim my time is because my husband doesn’t give me a hard time about that. So, my answer is I don’t know what to do in terms of your time, however, one piece of advice that I got that was that was really helpful to me was that everything’s easier after the youngest child is 5. It feels endless. You look at the rest of your life, and it just feels like responsibility and difficulty. And you do have this responsibility, but the various things that make it so hard when your kids are young and so much more challenging do get easier. And things get a little bit more fun. And also, you’re more rested.

It was important to me to not get overwhelmed by my ambition. When you haven’t written anything, a book looks really long. How are you gonna finish a book? I got into a routine that was useful to me, which was “I’m just going to finish a story. And then I’m going to finish another story. And then maybe I’ll edit those. And then I’ll slowly get to a third story.” As time passes, you end up with 15 or 20 stories. The habit perpetuates itself.

Lara Ehrlich 

You don’t have to do it all at once.

Liz Harmer 

And I guess, also you forget everything. When I look back, it wasn’t that long ago that my kids were young. But it feels like a different country that I used to live in.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, it doesn’t necessarily get easier; it just changes and that the time you have changes and the things you want to write about change. It’s not really that frightening expanse of future that is going to be exactly the same as it is right now. When your kids are young and you have no time and you’re exhausted.

Liz Harmer

I don’t know if that’s helpful, because I just made decisions. I was too afraid to make them. So I just made them like; I just went for it. And that’s probably not the best way to live. But that’s what we did.

Lara Ehrlich 

My husband and I are the opposite: we over-plan and overthink things because fear holds us back. And then finally, it’s kind of like, we either have to do something or not do something and we’re forced to a decision. So, I think either one has its problems, but its benefits as well.

Liz Harmer

Yeah, when I look back 13 years ago—my oldest daughter just turned 13—all those years ago, I didn’t have a smartphone. And naptime was reading time, and it was so quiet in my soul. Actually, what was has been a harder thing for me with writing is all of the infiltration of social media technology into my brain and eroding my time. And my attention. I look back and it looks like I had a lot more mental space.

Lara Ehrlich 

I think a lot of people feel that too. I definitely feel it. You sit down to write and then you’re like, “I wonder what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter.” So, not to get too heavy here, but how has quarantine and isolation changed the dynamic of your family and your writing time?

Liz Harmer

The pandemic has been really hard for us. Our kids have been home from school since middle of March, and that has been unrelenting. We don’t have family around. And so, we don’t have people to help with child care, although our oldest daughter is getting old enough to help out with that, but there’s not a lot of privacy. I know my husband who’s extremely introverted is struggling with overstimulation and feeling crowded. He’s doing a lot of helping with homework, the kids are constantly needing something, the messes are worse, they need food all the time, constantly having to feed these children. Um, you know, they need help with their technology.

Meanwhile, like I’m teaching three mornings a week, two afternoons a week online, he’s in two other days in his office recording Zoom, or doing Zoom teaching, and it just doesn’t feel like we can get off this ride. Like when is it going to get easier? I’m trying to be okay with the fact that I’m not getting a lot of writing done right now and to treat this as a fallow time, but it doesn’t really feel fallow so much is just full of other junk that I have to do. I don’t really feel well unless I’m writing, oo I’m trying to write a little bit, but it’s actually the worst for my writing that I’ve ever experienced, even when our kids were little.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, I’ve heard that from a lot of people. Also, just the anxiety of the situation is always in the background, even if we’ve kind of learned to live with it, it’s there. Much less the situation of living in close proximity with your kids and your spouse, and there’s no breathing room there and everything has been upended. When you say that you’re finding time, or making time to do some writing, even if it’s like small pieces, how are you doing it?

Liz Harmer55:28 

So one thing I’m doing for self-care is walking my dog every morning. On the mornings I don’t teach, I walk the dog without my smartphone. I just walk outside. I let that be a time of collecting my thoughts and letting my ideas stew. And then I’m just taking notes here and there on the things that I’m working on.

And then probably scheduling, like two to three hours a week of writing time. I Skype with a good friend once a week on Thursday afternoons, and we write while the Skype is on. That is a really precious time. Sometimes when somebody else is keeping you accountable, or somebody else also doing it, you feel permission to do it. On Saturday, when I should have probably been mopping the floors or whatever, I just had a burning urge to work on this novel that I’ve been working on. And I just shut the door. And I was like, I need a few hours. And everybody kind of respects that because it’s longstanding at this point.

Lara Ehrlich 

I think there’s a lot there. I love the idea of those Skype writing dates and holding each other accountable.

Liz Harmer

It also just makes you feel close to the other person in a nice way.

Lara Ehrlich 

It’s a great point that we don’t have to write every day to be writers. Elizabeth McCracken, who’s a mother and a successful writer told me, “Anybody who says you have to write every day as a man.” You grow up with that message that you need to write every day. And it has to be like, between 5 AM and 1 in the afternoon and then you drink whiskey and smoke a cigar and go back to writing.

Liz Harmer 

I heard that John Cheever put on a three-piece suit to bring his kids to school, got home, took everything off, and was naked drinking and writing all day. And then put the three-piece suit back on. The facts don’t sound right.

Lara Ehrlich 

And Stephen King wrote on an ironing board in the back of his trailer. And it’s like, really? His wife was making dinner while he got to like go sit and write on an ironing board.

Liz Harmer

Yeah, that’s right. But we don’t have anyone around here making the dinner. Yeah, that’s the problem here. This is another hot tip: apple slices, peanut butter, and cheese sandwiches are perfectly nutritious enough. You don’t have to make elaborate meals, you can just serve kids a pile of things.

Lara Ehrlich 

My four-year-old eats popsicles three times a day. They’re fruit, right?

Liz Harmer

I think it’s perfect. No guilt.

Lara Ehrlich 

As long as they’re like fed and you know, relatively clean. Relatively.

Liz Harmer

Hopefully they’ll figure out how to be clean later.

Lara Ehrlich 

We have a comment here from Natalie McAlister Jackson, who says, “Listening to you talk about motherhood and writing makes me feel so human. Thank you for sharing.” I’ll say the same: It definitely it makes me feel human and like I’m not alone in this weird venture that we’ve embarked upon. We’ve hit the hour mark, but I want to ask Liz, if there’s anything we haven’t covered yet or that you wanted to talk about or any messages you wanted to relay to people out here who are listening? And if not, that’s okay.

Liz Harmer

I don’t think I have anything else to say. I hope I haven’t exposed myself in the most awkward way possible.

Lara Ehrlich 

I think I think you’ve exposed yourself just enough! I think it’s really great to be open and brave and talk about some of these things. I really appreciate it.