I was first introduced to Katrina Kenison through her anthology, Motherhood: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood, which I discovered when I was prepping for my very first Motherhood & Words class, seven years ago. I have been a fan of Katrina’s work ever since.
Perhaps you’re familiar with her wonderful books Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry and A Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir. Perhaps you read her blog (one of my favorites). If you don’t know Katrina’s work, I’m going to change that today. I’m honored to have Katrina here at Motherhood & Words to discuss her wonderful new memoir, Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment.
Magical Journey is a lovely memoir about loss, love, and compassion. Kenison reflects on the inevitable changes wrought by time: the death of a dear friend, children leaving home, recognition of her own physical vulnerability, and surprising shifts in her marriage. But the book is also a call to action: love, embrace gratitude, be open to change. That is the part of the book that I appreciate most. I know I’ll come back to it again and again.
Thank you for being here, Katrina!
KH: One of the narrative threads I love in Magical Journey has to do with writing. You say, “I’m coming to believe that there is room in the world for all our stories, not only the heroic narratives of extraordinary people who inspire us with their accomplishments, but also simple stories of ordinary struggles.” I love that. Can you talk a little about how your process as a writer and your understanding of the importance of stories worked its way into the narrative?
KK: Not long ago, my son Jack said to me, “Think of all those people who have amazing things happen to them, but who aren’t writers. And so all those incredible stories never get told.” We pondered that for a while. And then he said, “And then there’s you, Mom. You don’t do anything. Nothing happens to you, and you write about your life, and people read it.”
It made me laugh of course, but I’ve thought about this a lot. What matters, really, is not that the story itself is extraordinary but that the voice telling it is strong and clear and committed to sharing a unique experience of being alive. Everyone has a story worth hearing, but there is an art and a practice to the telling. Writing is hard work. It takes time and craft and an extraordinary willingness to be alone with ourselves and grapple with the challenge of translating inner states of mind into words that come alive on the page. My process isn’t pretty. I am very slow, I do a lot of hand-wringing. I sit in one place for eight or ten hours at a time, and I end up with a paragraph or two. I worry sometimes that Jack is right, that nothing happens. And then, if I hang in there long enough and bring every bit of attention I have to bear on the work of finding the right words, I discover that I can tell a story about sitting still.
KH: How was writing Magical Journey different than or similar to writing your other books?
KK: I took risks in Magical Journey I wouldn’t have dared take before. In part, that’s because I’ve discovered I can trust my readers to go with me into some dark places, and that in being willing to be vulnerable, and even a little exposed, I clear a space for others to be vulnerable, too. When I bring my own self-doubt into the light and onto the page, it loses some of its grip on me. So, I wrote this book as if no one would read it. And then, when the manuscript was done, I took a deep breath and decided that if what I’d written could help anyone else feel less alone, it would be worth sharing it.
KH: Your practice of yoga is an important part of your life and an important narrative thread in Magical Journey. Can you describe the ways that writing and yoga work together in your life and affect your writing and/or writing process?
KK: They’ve become intertwined. So much of yoga is about showing up on your mat, day after day, and working with what you find there – this body, these feelings, this pain in the knee, those unbidden memories. We learn to be with what is, without judgment. And we learn to stay. Well, welcome to the life of a writer. Yoga has helped me silence my inner critic. I can sit down to write with the goal of writing, rather than the goal of perfection, which is liberating. And I know, firsthand, the benefits of showing up, sitting down, being disciplined in my practice
KH: Was there anything—either in terms of what emerged or the process of writing this memoir—that surprised you?
KK: It is all a surprise. I began to write with lots of questions. “Who am I now that I’m not a 24/7 mom anymore?” And, “How can I make peace with the fact that nothing lasts?” And, of course, the big one, “What next?” I had no idea “what next.” Nor did I know when I began where I would end up. The writing was the journey. It wasn’t a journey that required a plane ticket; it was a journey that led me, day by day and over the course of a long, difficult year, to a deeper place within myself. Emerging, finding myself coming to the end, I realized I’d written my way into a new place – a place of greater faith and acceptance, of gratitude and, yes, contentment.
KH: All memoirists must decide how to approach writing about family and friends, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about what it’s like to write and publish writing about your husband and sons and your dear friends. How do you balance your need to create as a writer with others’ need for privacy?
KK: It is definitely a fine line. I think, in fact, that I’m done with memoir for a while. I’ve subjected my family to enough of it. And I’ve learned that even with the highest and best intentions on my part, it is still treacherous territory, writing about our loved ones, especially in instances where names can’t be changed. Relationships are more important than books, and I’ve made changes in my work, simply to offer a bit more distance and comfort to those I care about.
KH: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
KK: Trying to tell a story in which, as my son points out, not much happens. It really is memoir of the inner life, and not only that, it’s the inner life at a stage that is considered the opposite of “sexy”: midlife and menopause, a time we think of as the end of youth, of ambition, of intense experience. What I wanted to express was that inside us matronly, wrinkled, often invisible women, there is a lot going on. As we age, the inner life continues to be just as intense and as confusing and as passionate as it ever was.
Other than the month I spent doing yoga teacher training at Kripalu, I didn’t go anywhere or do much, so I also faced the challenge of creating a narrative structure around very small, ordinary events – cleaning a room, spending a couple of nights with a friend, taking a walk on the beach. Not the stuff of high drama, and yet as worthy of notice and writerly care as any exalted moment. In fact, these ARE the exalted moments, if we are truly present in our lives and paying attention.
KH: Now that Magical Journey is out in the world, how does it feel to see this part of your life in print and have people react to your experiences? What are some of the responses you are getting?
KK: The response has been amazing. Most gratifying of all has been the outpouring from women who say, “You write what is in my heart.” I’m deeply moved to hear I’ve given voice to some of the feelings that can seem very isolating and lonely, but that are in fact universal, just not much discussed.
The truth is, no one gets to the middle of life without experiencing heartache of some kind – death, divorce, illness, endings. We’ve all lost someone. All our children grow up and leave home, at least we hope they do. We’ve all spent too much money on wrinkle creams and been disappointed by the results. We’ve all wondered if our best days are behind us, and if we have what it takes to create something new in our lives. We all yearn to live more fully, more gratefully, with more grace and love and self-assurance. And most days, we fall short. My decision to put this simple truth out there by telling my own story seems to have stuck a deep chord. I am getting a lot of letters, not only from mothers and not only from women in their fifties, but from women of all ages and all walks of life. There is much to be said for sharing our innermost struggles – suddenly, brought out into the light of day, they seem so much more manageable.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Katrina! I’m thrilled to announce that Katrina will be reading on Saturday, May 4th in Minneapolis at the Loft Literary Center as part of the 7th Annual Motherhood & Words Reading! Please mark your calendars and join us if you’re in town.
If you are interested in a winning a copy of Magical Journey, please leave a comment below by Wednesday, March 27th. I’d love to hear your reactions to Katrina’s thoughts about writing.