Monday, July 9, 2012

Mommy's Reading List -- Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers by Kate Hopper -- Q & A With the Author and Book Review

Published May 13, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-936740-12-3
Paperback original, $16.95
256 pages, 5½" x 8½"
USE YOUR WORDS: A Writing Guide for Mothers by Kate Hopper is the first book to focus on the craft of writing using motherhood as the lens. According to an October 2010 article in Ad Age, there are 3.9 million mommy bloggers. Unlike other writing guides for mother writers that focus on journaling or how to fit writing into a busy life, USE YOUR WORDS is a writing workshop between covers. Each chapter contains a lecture, a published essay by a contributing writer, and exercises that will serve as jumping-off points for the readers’ own writing.

When award-winning writer Kate Hopper began writing about what she felt was the central experience of her life, motherhood, she found that some people weren’t taking her writing seriously. Through her years of blogging and teaching, Hopper discovered that mothers crafting memoirs and essays deal with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy. She found stories of transformation in how the authors see themselves in relation to the world in which they live.  As she says in her introduction, “Last time I checked this was the stuff of which real literature was made.”

Together, the chapters of USE YOUR WORDS teach the skills beginning mother writers as well as more advanced writers to hone their ability and turn their motherhood stories into art. Topics include:
  • an overview of creative nonfiction as a genre
  • the importance of using concrete details
  • character development
  • voice
  • humor
  • tense
  • writing the “hard stuff”
  • reflection and back-story
  • structure
  • revision
  • publishing
Essays and poems by a wide variety of mother writers including Cecelie S. Berry, Anne Greenwood Brown, Jill Chirstman, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Chitra Divakaruni, Ona Gritz, Beth Kephart, and Catherine Newman illuminate Kate’s lectures, helping readers understand the art of creative nonfiction and to read and think like writers.

USE YOUR WORDS reflects Kate’s style as a teacher, guiding the reader in a straightforward, nurturing voice. As one student noted in a class evaluation: “Kate is a born writer and teacher, and her enthusiasm for essays about motherhood and for teaching the nuts and bolts of writing so that ordinary mothers have the tools to write their stories is a gift to the world. She is raising the value of motherhood in our society as she helps mothers build their confidence and strengthen their game as writers.” 

Interview Questions & Answers
with Kate Hopper, author of USE YOUR WORDS

1)     What inspired you to write this book?

This book began with a writing class that I started teaching in 2006 for women interested in writing about their experiences as mothers. I wanted to create a safe place where motherhood literature would be critiqued, nurtured, and viewed as art. And over the last six years of teaching this class I have read so many amazing memoirs and essays. When women write the truth of their mothering experiences, it can be life-changing, not only for themselves, but for their readers. I wanted to extend the reach of my classes through Use Your Words.

2)    What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will begin this book with an interest in writing, and finish it having discovered the power of writing their lives and dedicated to continuing the important work of writing about motherhood. I hope they will see the varied ways one can write about their children and the transformations inherent in motherhood, and have a better sense of how to craft the stories that nag at them, that beg to be written.

3)    How does motherhood literature fit into the wider genre of memoir? How do you feel about the term “momoir”?

The only thing that sets motherhood memoirs apart from other memoirs is the subject of motherhood. A good memoir sheds light on some aspect of the human experience—and it shouldn’t matter whether the writer is writing about war or love or motherhood. Which is why I don’t like the term “momoir.” When you categorize a book as “momoir” (or, for that matter, “chick lit” or “mommy lit,” two other frequently-used monikers), you make it easier for people to discard it. It’s viewed as less serious, less important. In a “momoir,” people assume that the story—if indeed there is any story at all—will consist only of sleepless nights, diaper changes, nursing debacles, and tantruming toddlers. But the motherhood memoirs I’ve read deal with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy. Last time I checked, that was the stuff of which real literature was made.

4)    What are some of the things you’ve learned through teaching mother writers over the years? How have their stories changed your mothering?

I’m honored that I’ve have been let into my students’ lives through their writing. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift. I’m grateful to have been able to learn from my students as well. So many of them deal with parenting challenges with such incredible grace, and I’m honored to call them my role-models.

I think reading and listening to the heartbreaking stories has also made me a more grateful mother and person. Their stories live with me—I can’t forget them—which makes me grateful for my two healthy daughters.

5)    In your book you talk about writing the hard stuff and discuss how writing can be therapeutic and still be art. How have you seen this therapeutic process work with your students?

I believe that you can experience a transformation—a therapeutic transformation—in the writing process and still end up with art. A number of my students have lost children or have been through incredible challenges with their children, yet they come to my class and create gorgeous writing. These students have described how the process of writing helped them come to terms with their heartbreak or accept it in a different way.

6)    How has motherhood affected your writing?

I really believe that motherhood made me a writer.  Before I became a mother I wasted so much time waiting for inspiration and generally procrastinating. But when Stella was born prematurely and I had to withdraw from graduate school and stay home with her for a very long and lonely winter, I became desperate for words. When Stella was five months old, I went to the coffee shop by our house one evening and pulled out paper and a pen. But instead of returning to the half-finished pieces I had been writing before Stella’s birth, I started to write about the single most life-changing experience of my life: becoming a mother.
Now, there is no time to procrastinate or wait for inspiration. If I have an hour, I write for an hour. So motherhood definitely has made me a more efficient and more dedicated writer.
But writing also makes me a better mother. When there is dedicated time each week for me to be creative, I know I’m more patient. It feeds me in a different way than mothering. Writing also helps slow me down, notice the details that we so often take for granted. I have two small children, so things are changing really fast, and writing about some of what is happening in my life allows me to gain perspective, to figure out what I think about where I’m at right now.

7)    How do you balance motherhood and writing?

It’s a balancing act for sure. My writing time is very limited, and my children are small and need lots of attention, as children do. We recently added a dog to the mix, as well, and she has gobbled up some of my morning writing time. For me it’s not so much motherhood that keeps me from writing; it’s full-time work. I used to have at least a few hours a week when I could go to the coffee shop and work on my own writing before I moved on to teaching prep. Now I’m lucky to get an hour a week. So I’m trying to practice what I tell my students: be patient and flexible. I know I’ll figure out a schedule that works before too long!

8)    Why does writing about motherhood and women’s lives matter?

Motherhood is part of the human experience, so how can it not matter? I think motherhood as a subject lends itself to memoir. It is a time of transition and sometimes a period of intense identity struggle: Who am I if I spend all day shirtless, trying to nurse a colicky baby? What happened to my former life, my former self? How do I balance my own needs with those of my family? 

I am drawn to all kinds of motherhood memoirs because I am interested in the different ways that women process the challenges and joys of motherhood, and how they write about life in general through their mother eyes. I love what Debra Gwartney, author of Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, says about motherhood memoir: “A well-written book [about motherhood] is going to say something profound about the human condition, and we need to hear the voices of women who can express the plight we’re all in as humans.” I couldn’t agree more.

9)    What would you tell mothers who are interested in beginning to write? Where should they begin? 

Begin with a detail. Don’t worry about what the real story or how long a piece is going to be. Just focus in on a time in your child’s life or in your life as a mother that you don’t want to forget. Make a list of sensory details from that time, then pick one detail and write for 10-15 minutes. Then pick another.  Figure out a realistic time for you to write each week, and try to keep that time sacred. Leave the house if you can, so you’re not distracted by all the things that need attention at home. And communicate with your family members about why it’s important that you have that time to write so they can help you stick to your schedule.

10)  Was there anything that surprised you or was particularly challenging in writing this book?

I was surprised when I started to pull the chapters together and I realized how much work on the book I’d already done through teaching and various presentations and blog posts. I was pleased when I’d find a paragraph or two and think, “oh, this can go in Chapter 7 or 8,” but it was also challenging to take all those separate pieces and fit them into a coherent whole.
The other challenge was getting permission to use all the pieces I wanted to use in the book. I was pulling pieces and rearranging down to the wire. But, as is often the case, the changes that I had to make to the text ultimately made the book stronger. I was forced to decide what I really wanted and needed to say about certain aspects of craft, and I was forced to trust that I was giving the reader what she needed.

11)  The book contains essays and poems from a wide variety of mother writers. Why is this important? Are there any voices that you wish you could have included?

It’s very important to me—in the classroom and in Use Your Words—to try to represent a wide range of mothering voices and experiences. Diversity was one of my priorities as I chose pieces for this book.  And by diversity I don’t just mean racial and cultural diversity. I wanted to represent the voices of mothers whose children have special needs. I wanted to include an essay by an adoptive mother. It was also important for me to have a piece by a step-mother and a lesbian mother. I think we all have something really valuable to bring to the table. That is one goal of Use Your Words: for us to read and share in each other’s experiences as mothers and to come together. And I want us to be able to do that across multiple dividing lines. There are two demographics that I wish I had more widely represented in the book: the lower socio-economic class and older mothers. Though I know there are some wonderful pieces out there from each of those categories, I just couldn’t find a piece for each craft discussion that did everything I wanted it to do. But I’ll keep searching, and I’m open to suggestions!

12)  You use a number of excerpts from your own memoir in the book. Did this change how you viewed the material? 

I have written and rewritten that book so many times that I already feel pretty distanced from the material. By that I mean that I can really look at it as a writer rather than the person who lived and experienced those events. Teaching and writing Use Your Words has helped me turn a very critical eye on my own work, which has made it so much stronger. If I’m teaching about structure, I then go back to my own work, and ask, “Am I practicing what I’m preaching?” I was excited to find places where an excerpt from the memoir would fit into the writing book. (And since I knew the author, I knew she’d grant permission for its use!)

13)  You encourage mothers to write about their lives and their children’s lives, but in one of the final chapters, you discuss the ethics of writing about your children. How do you reconcile these two things: the need to write with the need to protect your children’s privacy?

It’s a very tricky issue to write about one’s children, and I think your decision changes as your children grow and become their own independent people. In the book I quote Annie Dillard, who said that as a writer you never want to kick around “people who don’t have access to a printing press.” This is true when we write about anyone, but it’s especially true when we are writing about our children, who have no control over what we say about them. They depend on us to protect them.
Talking openly about your writing and why it’s important to you helps your children (and everyone else) understand how critical it is for you to be able to express yourself through words. But I do think that at some point our children’s stories are not ours to tell.

14)  You discuss the need to make writing a priority in your life. How did you do this in your own life? What advice would you give to other mother writers who are struggling with this? 

One of the things I suggested in the book is to figure out when and how writing can fit into your life, and then make sure your family understands why it’s important for you to write. I think it’s hard for women—especially mothers—to carve out the time we need to ourselves, whether it’s time to go for a run, meet a friend at the coffee shop, or write. But I know I am a much happier and more grounded Kate when I have had time during the week to put words on the page. 

I’m in a place right now where I am not generating much new material. But I’m still doing the work of a writer as I launch and promote this book, so I’m okay with that right now. But I know that soon I’ll have to figure out a way to eek out an extra hour or two a week to continue with my new writing project.

15)  What are you working on now?

The memoir I wrote about my older daughter’s premature birth is being circulated among interested editors, so that narrative is still percolating in my mind, but I also started a novel last fall. It’s almost silly to say that because the writing is going so slowly. I began working full time on top of teaching and family, so I have very little writing time right now. But it seems that the important thing isn’t how many pages I crank out each week but rather the fact that I am producing something—anything. The main character is there, in the back of my mind. She pops in to say hello now and again, or I see something as I’m moving through my day, and I think, oh, she would think this or that if she were here. That’s enough to keep me going. 

My Thoughts:
 I have found this book very beneficial in regards to my personal journaling and sharing my thoughts through my blog posts.  Once  became a mother, my focus and direction shifted towards my daughters, and as such did my writing style.  Now, I find myself journaling to document milestones that my daughters complete, special bonding moments I share with each of them, as well as a way to put my dreams and aspirations for them down on paper, so that they can read one day.  

There are so many great writing tips in this book, that I found it easier to tackle a section at a time, and then spend a week or two on writing exercises.  On occasion, I found myself returning back to chapters read for inspiration and as a way to remove writer's block.  

Overall, this is one of the best writing books I have read in a while, and one that I have referred to friends.  You don't have to be a blogger or business person, who writes to enjoy this book.  Kate's book will help you regain your confidence in writing, while using your experiences as a mom as a way to create thoughtful and everlasting stories.  This book has become a permanent fixture on my coffee table, and one that I continue to reference for inspiration.  Definitely a must read for any mother looking to become a better writer.
About the Author:
Kate Hopper holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. She teaches writing online and at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Kate has been the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, and a Sustainable Arts Grant. Her memoir, Small Continents, is about the power of stories and learning to live with uncertainty in the wake of her older daughter’s premature birth. Her other writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Brevity, The New York Times online and Literary Mama, where she is an editor.  
Disclosure:  I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher in order to write up an honest review.  The views above are mine and mine alone.

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