Q: You describe Writing Motherhood as a travel guide. What do you mean by this?
A: Motherhood, like life itself, is a journey, and writing can help you navigate your way. I suggest in the book that becoming a mother is like landing in a foreign country—a country with its own language, customs, rituals, and taboos. Just as a travel guide tells you what to eat, what to see, where to sleep, Writing Motherhood maps out your journey through the Mother's Notebook, giving you topics to write about, tips to help you hone your writing skills, ways to connect with other mothers. No matter how old our children are, mothers—and I include myself—continue to experience those inevitable moments of not knowing—rendered all the more terrifying in the face of our children's pain, anger, rebelliousness, confusion. I hope that my readers will use their Mother's Notebook to plot their course and document their passage through the highs and lows of being a parent.
Q: So how is the Mother's Notebook different from a diary or journal?
A: All forms of personal writing are necessarily concerned with the self: they give us a place to explore our thoughts and feelings and to make sense of our experiences. But the writing you find in a diary or journal tends to be stream-of-consciousness, whereas the writing you see in a Mother's Notebook is much more focused and directed. People typically use their diaries or journals to narrate their lives (I had lunch with so-and-so) or to air their frustrations (I can't take this for one more minute!). The Mother's Notebook, on the other hand, while it is a tool to chronicle and clarify your life as a mother, is also a place to practice your craft as a writer. I ask you to write each day to a specified length—two Mother Pages—and to a specific task or topic—what I call a writing start. I was surprised to discover how many chapters of Writing Motherhood had come directly out of my notebook. The lesson there for me was that when I use my Mother's Notebook consistently, day after day, I write better and deeper.
Q: Tell us more about the writing starts.
A: Writers tend to be snowblinded by the blank page. You open your notebook and say, What should I write about? How do I begin? You begin with a writing start—a word or phrase that jumpstarts your writing: bedtime, recount a parent-teacher conference, mothering your mother. But remember that writing starts are not essay assignments. You don't have to stay on topic. So while you know where you will start, you never know where you will end up. I'm always amazed in my classes how fifteen different people writing to the same writing start will produce fifteen totally different pieces.
Q: Does a woman have to have any particular literary or writing skills in order to be a Writing Mother? And what do more experienced writers have to gain from Writing Motherhood?
A: There are no prerequisites for Writing Motherhood. In fact, the very first thing I tell readers is to throw away the rules, because rules stifle our creativity and constrain our imagination. Many of my most eager students haven't written since college—some never went to college. These women feel for the first time in their lives not just that they can write, but that they have something worth writing about. On the other hand, I've had plenty of students with degrees in creative writing or backgrounds in journalism or public relations. These students come to Writing Motherhood with the toughest resistances, but they invariably experience the biggest breakthroughs. For many of them, writing about their lives—writing from the perspective of I—is entirely new.
Q: Do women have to take the course in order to get the full benefit of Writing Motherhood?
A: I know that not all mothers have the opportunity to take a course, nor does every woman have the time or resources. That's one reason why I wrote this book—so that a woman could do Writing Motherhood on her own. More than anything, the course gives women a chance to join a community, and that community becomes so important that many of my students continue to meet long after the class has ended. But there are lots of ways to meet mothers outside of a classroom. In the third part of the book, I offer suggestions for coming out of the notebook and connecting with other mothers—from starting a group of Writing Mothers to reaching out in cyberspace. If you belong to a community—even one other mother who wants to write—you'll have a much better chance of making Writing Motherhood a way of life.
Q: Is Writing Motherhood primarily for new mothers?
A: That was the biggest surprise to me. I had thought Writing Motherhood would draw mostly new mothers. As it turns out, the majority of women who come to my classes have older children—in high school, in college, or full grown with children of their own. In my most recent class, for instance, I had three grandmothers, one of whom is 75. There are many reasons Writing Motherhood has such appeal to mothers of older children. I know from my own experience that as I left behind diapers and strollers, I had more time and energy to focus on myself. I also found myself confronting the realities of sickness and death—with my parents, my family, my friends. I don't know if I agree with the old adage, the bigger the children, the bigger the problems, but I do know that as our children grow up and we grow older, the issues we face become more complicated. Increasingly, we need a safe place to contemplate these questions. What better place than the Mother's Notebook?
Q: Whatever their age or stage, how do you expect mothers, most of whom already feel overworked and overscheduled, to find the time to write?
A: You only need fifteen minutes to write two Mother Pages—the time it takes to walk your dog or hard-boil an egg. I encourage my readers to take their notebooks wherever they go because you never know when you can snatch fifteen minutes to write: in the car, in the laundry room, in the dentist's office. Even so, some days you will succeed in writing nothing more than a grocery list. That's okay. Just don't let writing become another chore on your list. You write because you want — or need — to write, not because you have to write. As I say in the book, Writing Motherhood is a guilt-free zone.
Q: Don't you or your students worry that someone will read your Mother's Notebook without permission?
A: I've known people who have destroyed every diary they have ever written for fear that someone will discover their darkest secrets. And some of my students admit to keeping their Mother's Notebook under lock and key for the same reason. I tend to leave my notebook on the living room couch or the kitchen counter, partly because I am too lazy to put it away, partly because I doubt anyone would be interested enough to open it. Each of us must find our own comfort level so that we feel totally free to write without censoring our thoughts and feelings.
Q: What about the privacy of your family? If, as you say, Writing Motherhood comes out of your own life, how do your children feel about being the subject of your stories? How have you protected the privacy of other people in your life?
A: As I say in my Acknowledgments, my children and I have an agreement: I get to write about them now; they get to write about me later! Seriously, my kids have mixed feelings about being the subject of my stories. From the beginning, they've encouraged me to write and have felt honored, if mildly amused, that I am writing about them. But as the publication date of my book has neared, they've expressed some trepidation about exposure. They're teenagers, after all. Like any memoirist, I struggle between wanting to tell the truth and needing to protect the privacy of my family and friends. I'm still figuring out what's okay to expose in print, and what's better left in the privacy of my notebook.
Q: You talk a lot in the book about your background as a cellist. Does a woman have to be musical or artistic—or even creative—to write?
A: There's no question that my background as a cellist has helped me immensely as a writer—not just by helping me develop a good ear for language, but also by showing me the value of practice. Anyone who has ever played a musical instrument knows that the only way to improve is by practicing your scales and etudes every day. But you don't need a creative background in order to appreciate Writing Motherhood or keep a Mother's Notebook. Creating a business plan, building a web site, running a corporate department, teaching, cooking, gardening, meditation, yoga—all these activities demand practice, commitment, and enthusiasm. You can bring to writing the same passion and dedication that you've given to your professional interests and hobbies.
Q: In the stories you tell about your own life, you keep coming back to the community you grew up in, to your best friend from childhood, to your mother. Isn't Writing Motherhood about a woman's experiences raising her children, not about her own childhood?
A: One of the chapters that did not make the final cut was titled "Mothers Live Twice." Many writers have said that they go through life twice—first in the moment, later when they write about it. Mothers have a similar experience. As we raise our children, we come back again and again to our own childhood, remembering the first day we went to kindergarten or sleepaway camp, our first boyfriend, the day we left home for college. As I say in the book, motherhood has a way of bringing us back to the bare bones of our past, and so we find ourselves thinking and writing about our memories, our mother, our childhood.
Q: Women must tell you about the impact Writing Motherhood has had on their lives. What is the most compelling story you have heard?
A: One thing that happens in a memoir writing class is you are given an intimate look at other people's lives. Over the years, I have witnessed the way writing helps people handle the challenges they face, the burdens they shoulder: loss, illness, estrangement, depression, abuse, adolescent angst—their children's or their own. But one story stands out for me, not because it is sensational but because it shows the transformational power of Writing Motherhood. I had one student who came to my class so timid and insecure that her voice shook whenever she spoke or read aloud from her Mother's Notebook—which wasn't very often. At the end of the year, in an all-class reading at which more than forty women were present, she came forward and read a piece about her relationship with her sister, which had changed abruptly the year they each got their own bedroom. The whole time she read aloud—in a voice that was strong and sure—her mother, whom she'd brought as a guest, sat in the audience smiling. So did I. And to this day, I have saved an email from this student, who wrote: "Our writing has given each of us something so precious...CONFIDENCE. Whether we are excellent, brilliant writers or not doesn't matter. What matters is we are doing it and being heard and our writing dreams don't seem so unachievable anymore."Back to Top