It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a class/workshop situation not heavily populated by mothers. Most of my classes, if not entirely made up of mother writers, are at least populated by a significant numbers of mothers. And that’s because that’s what I do: I help mothers write the stories they need to write. And I do what I do because I know that outside my little haven and the other havens that have been created with the help of pro-mother literary journals and magazines, the world can be hard on mothers. And hard on mother writers.
I’m excited to have my friend and former student, Andrea Lani, here at Motherhood & Words today with a post that addresses this very issue. Welcome, Andrea!
Facing—and Learning from—an Audience Hostile to Moms
I recently attended my first ten-day residency of a low-residency MFA in creative writing program. Before I went, I was afraid that I would be the lone old lady among a roomful of twenty-two-year-old recent college grads that I would not be able to relate to, but when I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see a wide range of ages among the students. Several of the people I met on the first day were also moms in their 30s and 40s, and right away I felt comfortable among “my people.”
It took me a while longer to notice that among the members of my first four-day workshop group, there was only one other mom, and that most of the others were much younger. It seems the older women I had seen were in creative nonfiction, popular fiction and poetry, while fiction—my genre—tended toward the younger end of the spectrum. This didn’t bother me at all at first; I was enjoying getting to know people from various walks of life with a range of life experiences behind them and the only issue that I thought would arise from my being a mother of three children would be how in the heck would I squeeze 25 hours of writing time in around my job and my kids.
My piece—a short story starring a mother not entirely unlike myself—was workshopped on the last day. The critique went well at first; a number of positive things were said about the writing, and a lot of valuable and valid criticism was leveled at the story’s shortcomings. Then the conversation took a different turn, and three childless young women began to discuss my character. They went on the attack against her parenting choices and skills, her intellect, the validity of her claims of feminism, and, basically, the big gaping void that is her life because she’s spending a day at the lake with her children while her husband is at work.
I walked out of the room feeling as if I’d been kicked in the gut. The character had certain autobiographical elements, so the attack felt personal. But even if she had nothing in common with me, the hostility toward motherhood in general shook me to the core. Motherhood was a major theme in all of my writing—fiction, nonfiction and poetry—in fact, I would venture to say that motherhood had made me, finally, after 30-odd years of dithering, into a writer. And now I was confronted with an audience that questioned not only the validity of my subject, but also my worth as a human because I had children. For the rest of the day, I went through the motions of all of the presentations, readings, and social events but this event played itself over and over in my mind, making me sicker and sicker with each turn.
When I got back to my hotel room that night, I sent Kate an email telling her what happened; I knew she was just the person I needed to seek words of wisdom and comfort from. [Thanks, Andrea!] I woke at four in the morning, this earworm still churning in my brain, and wrote my evaluation for the workshop. I woke again at five and wrote a blog post. By the time I got out of bed an hour later, I was seriously questioning whether to continue with the program. I was angry at those women, and also at myself for letting them hijack my entire MFA experience.
Fortunately, that day was a day off from workshops and presentations. I skipped the scheduled discussions and drove home, where I took a nap, read to my children all afternoon while they tried to burrow into me, and cooked dinner. I found the simple act of chopping vegetables for soup—normally a hectic and draining event—to be soothing and nourishing. In addition to my family’s love that day, I received a wonderfully supportive email from Kate and sympathetic and encouraging comments from my blog readers. I returned to my hotel late that night feeling replenished and determined to start over fresh the next day.
Happily, my second workshop went much, much better. My group was still young, but somehow the personalities clicked as they had not in the first workshop (it should also be noted that my story for the second workshop starred not a mother but a woman facing infertility), I was matched with a great mentor for my first semester (and, no, she’s not a mom, but I’m willing to give her a try anyway) and, finally, on the last day, I met two women in the fiction genre who are older with children.
As for that awful workshop day, while I would much rather it never happened, I learned four valuable lessons from the experience which I think will make me a better writer (and, possibly, a better person) in the long run:
- Develop my characters. No wonder those women thought my character was a doormat—I had written her flat, while her children were round and robust. The one other mom in the room could relate to her by filling in her curves with her own experience. Those without that experience had nothing to work with, and so felt nothing but contempt. If I want to connect to people through literature, I need to write characters with depth that can elicit empathy in my readers.
- Take care of myself. One of the first things we learn as new mothers is that if we don’t take care of our own needs, we’re not at our best for others. Somehow this has always been hard for me to put into practice. I went into that workshop after five days of sleeping too little, eating and drinking too much, spending too much time in the company of other people and too little on my own. I was in no shape to react moderately to adversity.
- Be kind. I went into my second workshop resolved to take extra care in critiquing others’ work, to ensure my comments were fair, tempered and directed at the work, not any element of the writer’s (or her characters’) character.
- Use them. Oh, yes. I can guarantee there will be a couple of mean, nasty anti-mother characters in a story coming soon.
Andrea Lani is a mom, a writer and public servant living in rural Maine. See her dispatches on all of the above topics at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.
Thanks so much for your post, Andrea. I love how you were able to turn an unsavory situation into something that will make your writing even stronger. And I also want to say what I’ve said a hundred times: Motherhood literature (by and about mothers) is literary. It is a subject worthy of literature. It can change lives. There, I said it.
Friends, I’m curious how your writing has been reviewed/critiqued/criticized by audiences not friendly to mother writers? How did you feel? What have you done about it?