One of my favorite things about this work I do here is meeting other women writers who are putting their words out there, creating community and making the world a better place. Today I’m so excited to kick of a week dedicated to a few of these women and their projects. This week I’m featuring three fantastic anthologies that celebrate motherhood and writing, and I’m so pleased to kick off with Suzi Banks Baum’s An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice. (You can leave a comment below for your chance to win a copy.)
I met Suzi online a few years ago when she asked me to participate in her wonderful Out of the Mouths of Babes blog series. Of course I said yes! (If you don’t know this series, you must check it out. She’s pulled together the words of some of my favorite mother writers.)
I’m so honored to kick off this week with Suzi, who creates community wherever she goes. Writer, maker, mother, she teaches the Powder Keg Sessions writing workshops for women, produces Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Writing to Others and a host of other soulful art experiences. Most recently published on The Mid you can find more of her work at LaundryLineDivine.com.
For me, her anthology is a call to action, a reminder of the power in sharing our words and art with each other and the world. In the introduction, Suzi writes, “You become an activist when you decide that what you have to say has enough value to be worth saying.” Yes! This makes me want to pump my fist in the air, which is what you’re going to want to do when you’re done reading.
Please welcome Suzi Bank Baum to Motherhood & Words!
KH: Suzi, thanks so much for being here and kicking off this week. Tell me a little bit about how you conceived of your anthology. Why did you feel there was a need for it? What made you take the leap?
SB: When I began writing in earnest, towards a narrative that captured my days mothering, I wanted companionship. I had swallowed Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions whole. I wanted more personal writing, not fiction, not idyllic, not ideas about “what to do when.” I had hit some hard patches and wanted to hear how creative women expressed the full range of experience. I prowled libraries and bookstores. I found works of fiction by women who were mothers, and some non-fiction beyond Lamott, like Laurie Colwin and Anna Quindlen, but I knew there had to be more. I wanted to read about women who were working creatively within the demands of mothering. Mother Reader, a collection by Moira Davey and Mamaphonic by Bee Lavender and Maia Rossini, were two collections that bore witness to a wider range of women’s experience. My research led me to this blog and to others. I found Lisa Garrigues Writing Motherhood. It sent me back in time to Alicia Ostricker’s Mother Child Papers, to books of quotes and art about motherhood, to re-reading Barbara Kingsolver and Louise Erdrich for clues on the way they worked. Erdrich’s poem “Advice to Myself” became iconic for me. (“Leave the dishes,” she whispered to me) It led me to scholarly texts and Demeter Press, but it did not lead me to writing with immediacy that felt alive, vibrant with newborn understanding. I wanted to hear words from women who were in it, not fictionalizing motherhood, not with the perspective of time and distance, I wanted to sense the heat of the kitchen, the sound of feet bounding up and down stairs, the doors slamming and the writer there, in the midst of it. Messy. I didn’t mind messy. But real, so what I felt was companionship and identification.
I looked to the creative women in my community. This is where my anthology seeded and gestated.
KH: Can you talk about the way the book is structured? Did the pieces you receive dictate the content of the book, or did you specifically seek out works to address different topics that come up when women write about motherhood?
SB: The works in my book, literary and visual, were mostly sourced by a call for entries to a small group of writers in my area and to my blog series on motherhood and creativity called Out of the Mouths of Babes. I conceived and produced a live event for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers that featured six writers reading 8-minute works that responded to my initial questions: Tell me how your creative life fuels your mothering. Tell me how mothering impacts or affects your creative life. How is motherhood creative? Do you find your creative yearnings stymied or fed by motherhood?
The range of responses caught me by surprise. I loved the diverse interior spaces women ventured into. I loved how their real lives were so interwoven with their creative expression, even though their work was thwarted by parenting or they had chosen to leave behind their primary creative modes of expression, I loved the energy and vitality, the ache and painful yearning that came through in all of the pieces. Birthday cakes and business decisions, meditation and losses, fresh sprigs of mint and buried memories of their own childhoods came forward and I knew the work had to be seen by more eyes than those on my website.
After two years of running Out of the Mouths of Babes for the Berkshire Festival and on my blog, I knew the integrity and impact of the work. I had enough content to create an anthology. I knew there was room on the shelves for the words of my peers. My longing for companionship in this expression and witnessing the fascinating and varied responses made me leap to publish.
I have produced Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others event and the partnered blog series for four years running now. I would like to continue. I recast my theme every year. This year’s theme was The Village: Who else is here while you mother? I now have enough material for another anthology, but have to table it while I market this current one and do my own writing on the book that started this whole line of inquiry (and sprouted my career as a writing teacher, social media mentor and producer).
Just last night, my 20-year-old son came into my bedroom where I sat reading. He read the cover of my book and asked, “Don’t you ever get tired of reading about mothers?” I smiled. I read constantly. My shelves are full of a range of works- poetry, fiction, social commentary, essays, short stories, historical fiction, but he is correct. I am still devouring all the writing I can find that takes me inside this timeless and contemporary experience of women’s lives.
The book my son found me reading is Katrina Kenison and Kathleen Hirsch’s collection, Mothers, 20 Stories of Contemporary Motherhood. Published in 1996, this collection of 20 works of fiction by women writers is prefaced by an excellent introduction. Each work is followed by comments by the authors. I could fill this page with excerpts from the introduction, but this says it all for me:
“We decided to narrow our focus to stories that would portray the complexities of mothering in America today as we and other women of our generation are experiencing it – not as a footnote to career adventures, not as a subplot to romantic entanglements, but as a state of existence with an integrity all its own, rampant with grace, ambiguity, and bittersweet revelation.”
Kenison and Hirsh’s book confirms today what I recognized when I decided to publish An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice. The voices from inside motherhood were worth amplifying.
KH: What pieces in the anthology particularly resonate with you? Why?
SB: Each piece in the anthology makes me more comfortable to be my full self. I have long been a multi-passionate woman (Marie Forleo’s term). I write, make jam, garden, paint, act, sing, do yoga, collage, sketch, knit, sew, embroider, dye, weave, felt, print, journal, make books, bake. I do lots of things, not all at the same time, certainly not in the earliest years of motherhood, and not all now, but I think about them while hanging laundry, I ponder them while reading at night, I explore ideas from hand to hand while walking in the woods with my kids and wonder what would happen if I started writing from this moment, when the slap of a beaver tail startles us all out of our late summer afternoon stupor and we dissolve into laughter and fright? In that first round of pieces women offered to the blog series, I felt a surprising safety in the thought, “If she can, I can.” Which reminds me of something Tania Pryputniewicz wrote: “What a relief: I am not exploring the seams of intimacy alone.” These stories offered me courage. They offer readers courage, comfort and companionship.
Motherhood certainly defines us. On a blog I will never forget finding on one of my “down the rabbit hole” searches for writing about motherhood and creativity, a woman wrote, “Motherhood is the one thing in my life that I have done, that I cannot undo.”
This may sound a bit bleak. And it may sound a bit stark. And it is true.
You cannot undo this. We will never stop being mothers. We will never cease our innate desire to mother others, to support, nurture and assist growth. Celebrating this inevitable, eternal, ancient and penetrating topic with a group of creative women allows a whole forest of possibility to emerge. I don’t have to set my mother-self aside to do my work.
Motherhood is timeless and captivating. Generations of women before us have been silenced, as women, as mothers, as healers, as teachers. I feel it is my responsibility to create a legacy of voiced women, so that our daughters’ daughters can look back and see, as Terry Tempest Williams writes,
“In a voiced community, we all flourish.”
KH: Was there anything that was particularly challenging or surprising that you encountered as you compiled and published your anthology?
SB: During the course of publishing and marketing this anthology several things surprised me.
- I was surprised by how much women had to say.
- I was surprised by how some women took this opportunity of being published to join a forum of discussion, integration and reflection on motherhood and creativity. Many have launched successful businesses, cottage industries and exciting new literary offerings because of the permission this project has given them. Our momentum is countering the dearth of vibrant writing about women’s experiences.
- The contributors who never responded to having been published surprised me. Kind of like the rare chicken, they hatched the egg and walked away from it. I realized that I did not ask them to commit to any reciprocal marketing, and that I had certain expectations. I learned there are certain things I need to make contingent on being included in any future projects.
- I was surprised by the gentle way so many people received the book. My best friend from fifth grade and her mother bought a copy, read it and talked about it with each other. When I visited them last summer on the book tour, they spoke of some of the stories as if the writers were all with us in the room. They referred with such familiarity to the writing. I learned then that I must be assiduous in what I select for inclusion in this project because people read carefully. The impressions that are made by the written word and the visual image can reach deeply into people’s lives. I think of the tenet, “Do no harm.” I want to include the hard stories that touch sore places long insulated by grief and shame. Open, curious hearts will receive them each. I want what is true to be unvarnished by style or fancied up. These are not cute stories of what happened in the grocery store. These are stories of real women filled with yearning and wonder, caught in the act of making lives while mothering.
- I was surprised by how much I love the eyes of an editor.
- I was surprised by the responses of women who are not mothers; so touched by these.
- I am surprised at how proud I am of the book, that it is dedicated to a woman who was present and engaged in discussion at the first live event, whose hands are pictured in a photograph in the book and who died within a year, leaving two teenagers behind, that funds from the book do double philanthropy as I share proceeds with two different organizations that supply free and low-cost healthcare to women and families in Berkshire County and that it is so very lovely to hold. It looks good. It feels good.
KH: What advice would you give to women who are just starting to explore motherhood as a subject matter in their writing?
SB: All I can say it this: Your story matters. Write or make your art work a part of your daily life.
Let your kids discover you lost in reverie, fascinated by the whorl of a pinecone. Let them know your hands paint-stained or berry splattered, let them know the strength of your advocacy for the planet and its people, let them hear the sound of your singing voice and see you on stage. Model passionate citizenship to your children by living full out.
I love what Katherine Paterson says: “As I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time are those how have given me something to say.”
Be stopped by motherhood, put down all your devices and pre-occupations and give it your full, unsullied attention, and do not let it squelch your voice. Let it connect you to other women. Talk with them. Be a good listener, to your own heart, to the hearts of your family and to your world.
Then, word by word, tell us all about it.
KH: Amen, Suzi! Thank you so much for taking the time to “chat” with me.
Readers, if you’d like to win a copy of An Anthology of Babes, please leave a comment below by June 19th!