on writing, like a mother…

on writing, like a mother... - heirloom mothering
BEF: Bitch Editing Face

This summer I stopped at my dad’s house on our way to Georgia. We all sat down one evening to re-screen The Valkyrie, that Tom Cruise film about a mission within the German army to assassinate Hitler. My youngest sister picked it; she was probably too young when the movie was originally released so had never seen it. As we got comfy on the couch, I noticed a half-finished puzzle on the table in the corner. Dad informed me it had been in that state since Christmas.

Six months! Well, this simply will not do, I thought. I pulled up a chair and assumed the role of Tom Cruise in the puzzle completion mission, finishing just as the movie wrapped up. I love finishing a puzzle—LOVE IT—especially one I didn’t start. I’m like Harvey Keitel, just bring me in when you can’t figure it out, and I’ll get the job done. The trick is not to stand too close to it; up close, you’ll think a piece is missing or the puzzle is somehow flawed. But those standing on the outside, the Closers, can see how the pieces fit together.

When I’m writing, I need to see myself as the Closer to get any writing done. When I push past the fear of inadequacy and the unknown and stop worrying about the big picture, I arrive at the place where real work can be done. I believe it was Nora Ephron’s mother who once said, “Everything is copy,” but Nora and her mother both sold their art short. Everything is only copy if you’re sharp enough to find the story amidst the anecdotes and mundane details. You gotta sort out the corners and stop focusing on all those stupid spade-shaped pieces.

advice on how to get past impostor syndrome and just write like a motherf**ker - heirloom mothering

I love reading about as much as writing. Lately I’ve combined these two loves with volumes on writing. Writing is an anomaly in the working world in that people who do the work sometimes also document the mechanics of what they do. You’re probably not going to meet many plumbers who turn around and say, “You see, the reason I used that vented trap is…”— unless they’re filming an episode of This Old House. But if you’re a writer, you just might enjoy writing about the process of writing. I’m sharing the articles and books I’ve been looking to for inspiration. Some selections have been out a while, and a few others are new pieces. If you have some favorites, please feel free to share them!

A list of helpful books on writing - heirloom mothering

Books & Articles on Writing

Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird

No doubt you’ve heard of this one by now, if not in popular writing culture than in conversation with me. I love this book so much that despite finishing it many months ago, I still keep it on my nightstand to flip through from time to time. I’m not one to keep a stack of books by my bed (I hide them in my closet, where they can taunt me less). But this book is my security blanket, and a special friend deserves a special place.

William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life & On Writing Well

“Writers are the custodian of memory.” These books are like if your favorite professor—the grandfatherly one, not the hip one—wrote a long letter of encouragement to you. Easy to read, easy to love.

Stephen King’s On Writing

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Amen, brother. Whether you love the horror genre or not, you will love this book. This book is like if your funny uncle–the witty one, not the one who makes inappropriate jokes at the dinner table–wrote a book letting you in on his secrets. It’s open and funny—so funny I found myself laughing out loud almost once per page—and best yet, it gets the salient points across. This man understands his craft.

Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing

Dani is a writer and teacher whose expertise is in memoir, which if you haven’t noticed yet, is my primary topic of interest. I’ve only just gotten my hold copy from the library a few days ago, but so far I love it. I had already drafted the top portion of this post when I got to the place early in her book when she compares writing to a puzzle. YES! I nearly squealed in the gym.

Cheryl Strayed’s “Write Like a Motherfucker” essay (The Rumpus)

I read her memoir Wild and ended up loving it. I say “ended up” because I didn’t start out feeling that way. Wild is about Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s also about her divorce, her mother’s death, and her troubles with drug addiction. At first, her life decisions made me so mad I could hardly keep reading. Then it occurred to me how infrequently an author is able to rile me up (Cormac McCarthy still holds the top spot in that regard. I’m speaking about the time I threw The Road across a crowded subway car because I just couldn’t hold it in my hand any longer at that moment). I gave Wild a second chance; I laughed, cried, and got mad all the way through it, and it was a lovely experience to have gone on that journey alongside her.

An interview of Strayed (Guernica)

I keep coming back to re-read parts of this interview. I like a writer who gets to the point. Strayed is insightful about the writing process and is one of the most motivational I’ve come across since Anne Lamott (see above). Here’s a passage I like from the interview; it’s a response to a question about finding the time to write when you have other priorities:

I know, it’s maddening! It’s so hard, because you have to make a living, or most of us have to. I certainly had to, and have to still. So it’s really this balance between doing things you have to do because you need the money so you can pay the electric bill, and then doing that thing you really care about, your passion. I’ve done different things over the years.

One of the things I did is I never made excuses for myself when it came to writing. I prioritized writing time. Even if that meant taking risks financially. I’d apply for residencies—places that give you a free place to live and they feed you and sometimes also provide a stipend—and go off and write for these intensive periods of time. That’s why I was a waitress, because the job never meant anything to me, so I could quit. I’d quit my job if I got a residency or a grant and I’d go off and write.

The other thing I did more recently, once I became a mom and my kids were old enough that I could leave them for a short time, is I would just check into a hotel right near our house, you know, like, the Courtyard Marriott a half a mile from my house in Portland. I’d check in for two nights and I’d write more in those forty-eight hours than I would for weeks at home. So just finding all these different creative ways to say, this thing actually matters and we’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna do it whether we have the money or not, or we have two little kids, or whatever it is. And I know it’s hard. I mean, I truly know it’s just plain hard. But do your best. And really actually do your best. Ask yourself: What is the best I can do? And then do that.

What I like so much about that quote, and what I can’t get out of my head, is that she doesn’t accept excuses from herself for not doing the hard work. She just writes and writes, like a motherfucker. Again and again, she comes back to the second beating heart she feels and how she just wants to get it it out of her chest so she can move on with her life. I admire the courage it takes to stop worrying about whether you will publish it and just start writing, REALLY writing. It sounds easy enough, but I completely understand why it was so hard for her. It’s hard for me! Just do your best and Write like a motherfucker are my new mantras.

You are one of a kind, dear Reader, and I mean that literally (N.B. regarding literally: I must tell you my first grader used the word ‘literally’ today, and I think I literally saw the word jump a shark into The Waters of Amazing and Awesome). Really though, sometimes I feel like I’m shouting into the wind with my new writing venture, with only my supportive parents behind me to grip the wind sock. But that’s fine by me. I enjoyed having an audience once (and if you’re not my parents and are reading, thanks!), but I also like the idea of a place where I can yell into the abyss, Zach Braff-style, and see what bounces back.

"On writing, like a mother...", list of books and articles about writing, via heirloom mothering
view from a favorite writing spot in our town coffee shop

on wild creeks and flying monkeys

As a child I was given freedom to dream, create, and play by myself. Whether the space was granted because my parents understood the importance of unstructured outdoor play or just needed me to occupy myself, I appreciated it. Come to that, I’m sure it was a conscious decision on their part. Both of my parents were allowed to explore without hindrance or restriction as kids, so they must have wanted the same for me.

One of my dad’s best memories of childhood is riding his bike to school in the first grade, even crossing a busy four-way intersection on the journey. Go back another generation and the independence extends even further. My grandmother recalls building a hut with her siblings in a vacant lot across the street from her house in Miami; her parents let her spend the night in it (!!) without a care of scorpions or fire ants, not to mention the strangers who might have lurked about.

A post-mudpie ride around the Houson 'hood on my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel
A post-mudpie ride around the Houston ‘hood on my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel

Writing about that rusty trampoline got me thinking about my own other childhood exploits and adventures. One place I recall with fondness is a playground that was located near my dad’s old house in Marietta, Georgia. For the most part, it wasn’t the playground itself that captured my attention. Sure, there was a little merry-go-round, but we tended to use it for our own unstructured game of “flying monkeys,” which involved us seeing who could jump the farthest off it while it spun.

How to play FLYING MONKEYS:

1. Squat in the middle of a 1980s-era merry-go-round about the size of one of those Jazzercise trampolines.

2. Have your partners turn the merry-go-round as fast as they can.

3. When they yell “GO!,” you, the squatter, will attempt to stand. Fight the centripetal force pulling you back down to the center.

4. As you reach the edge, centrifugal force will step in and hurl you haphazardly off.

5. Dodge the metal animals that were meant to be sat upon and jump off the edge as far as you can go.

If I’ve described it well, it sounds as impossible as it was. Most times we would either fall right away or attempt to jump and end up splayed off it half way and need the spinners to perform an emergency stop. Regardless of the outcome, our end result would be to collapse in a heap of giggles.

After flying monkeys, we’d turn our attention to the surrounding wild. Unfortunately, the woods had been taken over by an impenetrable maze of kudzu vines and poison ivy right up to the edge where the mower clipped them. Somehow the creek had been spared that sad fate, so we’d march happily down to the water, where our real adventures began.

Sometimes we’d take the clay from the shore and make shapes. Eventually our works of art would harden into replicas of sandy red pea gravel at best or dried-up dog turds at worst. But at the time, we felt we were sculpting something good. We’d jump from bank to bank and wade in the cool, calf-deep water. When we tired of failing to catch water spiders, we would wander through the culvert to the shady unknown on the other side.

The excitement and trepidation of stepping foot into the slimy tube is one I will not soon forget. I would relive it all—the fear, the peer pressure, the anticipation, and the exhilaration—in a heartbeat. I remember how much colder it felt to go from the blazing Georgia sun into the depths of the dank, goose-pimply tunnel. My toes hugged the metal rungs as I tiptoed through; it seemed like forever until we would come out on the other side. I am certain we reverse-jockeyed for position on who would have to go first.

Once through the culvert, we fed off the energy of having survived the gauntlet by exploring the stream further. I have no memory of what lied beyond the culvert; the thrill of adventure was the only reward I required. Looking back, I can’t remember my dad ever checking up on us. I am particularly impressed with, and grateful for, his ability to let us go off on our own. I guess he figured we couldn’t get into that much trouble in our own neighborhood. It wasn’t like we were setting off on a 5-mile walk into the woods or anything, but it felt dangerous enough to me as a 10-year-old.

Dad and I exploring the Texas shore
Dad and I exploring the Texas shore

I hope I can manage to raise free-range kids, giving them the same space and trust I was afforded. In that vein, this summer I returned to my childhood summer camp–for the second year running–for my kids to attend and for me to be a counselor again. In the eight years between my stints as camp counselor, the mood has shifted ever so slightly toward helicoptering, even at camp. Kids are expected to report their exact location during any period of time labeled “free,” thus removing the sense of freedom from the equation.

I don’t blame camp administration for this change; they’re good friends and the same folks I’ve known for 15 years or more. I expect they must have endured plenty of parent complaints to have made the shift, since there weren’t any accidents that I’m aware of. Parents today simply expect they can keep tabs on their children 24/7, even while the kids are at camp. I understand the occasional need for an orthodontist appointment or an early trip to the beach, but why not schedule an extra thirty-minute window while the camp gathers your kid? Do you really want them to KNOW where the kids are at all times?

I myself love the idea of the kids being “lost” down in a mud pit or wandering a creek somewhere. Therefore, as a counselor I engaged in boundary-testing where I could this summer. Even though it took asking three people permission, gathering a cell phone and wilderness emergency bag, and making a list of who was going, I did end up taking a group of kids into the wild unknown for a creek adventure. After all, to the kids it’s just as wild as when I was taken on such excursions 20+ years ago. Maybe what they don’t know can’t burden them. And I’m happy to report that 30 years after I first stepped foot on camp property, kids are still singing about eating great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts and coming up with new verses about the fate of poor Tom the Toad. After all, what happens at camp stays at camp.

Willeo Explorers, 2014
Willeo Creek Explorers, 2014

thirteen & roughing it

thirteen & roughing it - Heirloom Mothering
Mom & Me in Myrtle Beach when I was about 13

When you think back to your adolescence, what stands out as important to shaping who you became? What age was significant for your personal growth?

For me, it was thirteen. Thirteen was the age at which I went to China; the concrete floors, smog-laden air, and lack of access to basic services like trash removal and running water were lifestyles I had never imagined. To say the least, it was a life-altering experience that opened my eyes to how huge the world is and to how I lucky I was to have felt so little sorrow in my life. I remember reading a stack of Mark Twain books–Roughing It, among other selections of his work–on the day-long flights and falling in love with his writing during that trip.

A few years later, when I stepped off a plane in Phoenix en route to the Grand Canyon with my dad and experienced the heat of the desert for the first time, I remembered this passage from Roughing It:

“The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a sign of it finds its way to the surface–it is absorbed before it gets there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound–not a sigh–not a whisper–not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird–not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air.”

I knew when I read the prose above that I wanted both to read and write as much as I could about what I saw in my life. To be accurate, I should say my writing experience began just prior to discovering Mark Twain. As soon as I knew what the word diary meant I began keeping one. Thus, when I began my current writing journey, I chose to start typing memories from being thirteen because it stuck out as a significant age.

Thirteen was also the age at which my great grandmother, Elizabeth, had to stop going to school so she could work and add income to her family. What must that have been like for her to witness her older sister continue school and piano lessons while she slogged through work as a laundress? I cling to the knowledge that even after removed from the school she loved, Bessie never stopped reading, memorizing poetry and imaginative stories. I can picture her reading her sister’s schoolbooks up in her bedroom. I wonder what her favorite books were at that age. Who were her heroes? Did she keep a journal too?

I grew up adoring the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, but I never clung to them so much as when I was thirteen. A year after leaving the comfort of my childhood home, my elementary school, I had lost my sense of connection to the wild nature I had always known. Those years had been a magical time when I was free to enjoy the simple pleasures of life in whatever rhythm sprung from the day’s activities, and then suddenly I was thrust into the unfamiliar scene of lockers and cafeterias.

In the evenings after middle school let out, I sought a sanctuary in the world of books. I identified with and idolized characters like Laura, who was so connected to nature and in touch with the details of her life that were required for survival. And yet, she could at times be found playing with a blown-up pig’s bladder as a ball with her sisters; she straddled the line between maturity and childhood.

Who were the literary heroes of your adolescence? Fern from Charlotte’s Web and Jo from Little Women also offered great heroes for me; they were girls who saw within themselves a sense of otherness and had the courage to chase it instead of running from it.