April 10, 2014
by Kate

feeling good & the right frame

This week I have been ticking things off my to-do list, which always feels good. I’ve gotten a few huge projects out of the way, and everything feels manageable for the first time in a long time. Remind me of this in May and June when I once again will be overloaded as I prep for conferences and retreats and my first ever time (in late July) on faculty at Ashland University’s Low Residency MFA program. Whoop! I’m so excited about that, but I also know it will be a lot of work to get ready for two packed weeks of teaching and manuscript critiques. (I’m currently trying to convince Donny to drive down with the girls for a few days. I know it would be a long solo trip with them, but I can’t stand the idea of not seeing them for two full weeks…)

But in the meantime, right now, I’m just enjoying my work. I just finished a really wonderful session of Motherhood & Words online. What an amazing group of writers! I have a number of new editing/mentoring clients, and I love diving into their work and talking about their writing processes. I’m also full steam ahead on the novel. I still dedicate the first hour of my day to it, and it’s making a huge difference. This consistent work keeps it closer to the surface on a daily basis. Hattie, my main character, is with me throughout the day.  Sometimes I’ll get an idea or glimmer of an idea as I take the dog for a walk or make dinner. I then jot it down on a slip of paper or type it into my phone, so I can turn to it the next day. This—thinking about writing throughout the day—makes me feel like a writer again.

It’s funny because even though I have two books out in the world, I sometimes forget to honor and trust that part of myself that writes. To trust that I know what I’m doing, that the words will emerge if I give them a chance. To trust my gut.

For a few weeks whenever I thought about the collaborative project I’m working on, I felt uneasy. I wasn’t sure that everything we said would go into the book really fit in the book. It was only a couple of weeks ago when I sat down to rewrite the proposal and began working on the chapter summary that the book really began to take shape for me. (Or take a shape that narratively made sense to me.) It was one of those aha! moments. I finally had the frame. I knew where it had to end. And it will work! Hallelujah!

That whole process got me thinking about structure and how important it is in nonfiction to have a sense of what your frame is. Where in time does you book start and end? What’s the stage? Sometimes I think we do a disservice to students when we tell them to just write! Keep writing and it will make sense! Of course you need to write, but at some point, you also need to know where that writing all goes. Deciding on a frame allows you to know what’s backstory and what unfolds in the real time of the piece. Knowing what the real story is helps you decide on a frame, of course, and you often need to write your way into that understanding. But settling on a structure that works for your story is critical in allowing you to get the damn thing done. I now know that when this book finds a home, we will be able to get it done, and that I’ll feel proud of it.

What are you working on? Do you have a frame? Is it working? I’d love to hear about it!

March 24, 2014
by Kate

my writing process

I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks, but I have been writing blog posts in my head, so hopefully you will see a flurry of activity here soon.

Today I’m going to talk a little bit about my writing and my process. The wonderful Rachael Hanel invited me to join a writing process meme. Rachael and I met through social media. She’s another Minnesota author, and her first memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: A Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was out last spring from University of Minnesota Press. (It’s near the top of my teetering stack of books on my desk, so I’m hoping to get to it soon.) Thanks for inviting me to do this, Rachael! (You can read Rachael’s post here.)

This tour is great because you can click back and follow the blog trail, reading about each writer’s process and work. It’s fascinating, and I have a whole new list of writers whose work I want to read. But be warned: hours can pass.

So here it goes:

1) What am I working on? 

I’m working a couple of things right now. The first is a novel—my first novel. It’s been slow going for a while, but in January I received a Minnesota Arts Board Grant to help me dedicate more time to it, and that’s been huge. It took me a while to get back into the swing of the writing, but now I try to work on the novel each weekday morning before I turn to my other projects. I’m still very much at the beginning of the process, but I’m loving it.

I’m also working on a collaborative project, which I’ve mentioned here before. It’s a memoir about running and autism, and I am co-writing it. We’re still in the proposal phase, but last week as I was working on the chapter summary, I figured out the frame of the book, which was a needed breakthrough and has given me some new energy around the project.

This year I’d also love to play with a couple of short essays. I’ve got a few ideas kicking around in my head, and I’d love to get those down on paper. I miss the short form, and I think working on a couple of short pieces will help me bring the playfulness back into my work.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?  

All of my work has to do with the complex realities of women’s lives. For years I’ve been focused on motherhood in my writing and also in my work as a teacher and editor. I’ve really tried to expand the reach of motherhood literature, to fight for its place in the literary world. That’s still my passion, but in my own writing, I’m ready to expand my focus a little in terms of subject matter and also play with form and structure (both in short nonfiction pieces and in the novel).

3) Why do I write what I do? 

I’m a memoirist at heart. I love mining my own life for meaning. I love to dive into a memory that I thought I had lost and write my way into some kind of understanding. I believe in the power of personal narrative, and love the sense of community that arises when we write our truth.

With that said, I have been having so much fun with fiction. It’s so liberating to be able to make things up, to imagine, to let a character inch her way inside me, to show me what she knows. It’s coming at truth from a different angle, and I love that.

4) How does my writing process work?

 My process has been different for each book. With Ready for Air, I spent months just vomiting images and memories—snippets—onto the page. I didn’t worry at all about structure at the beginning; I just wrote. Then after I had 50 or so pages, I saw that there was a shape developing and I began to rearrange the snippets. Then I filled in what was missing. All of this took an incredible amount of time, of course. I had a full draft that I then revised. But what was most helpful was to have a year away from the manuscript. That time away really helped me see what the book was about. After I understood that, I printed it out, and wrote it again from the beginning, which took another two and a half years.

Use Your Words was different because it grew out of my Motherhood & Words class. So the chapters grew out of the lectures and also from various presentations I’d given over the years. Because I had done so much writing already, this book came together quite quickly. I did the bulk of the writing in about six months.

The novel is exciting because I never know what’s going to come out when I sit down to write. I have broad stroke ideas about the plot, but I’m still very much getting to know my main character, so I love sitting down and just letting her show me who she is. With this book, I’m revising as I go. When I get feedback from my writing group, I try to implement it immediately, and then move on. I realize, of course, that I might need to trash sections based on where the story ends up. But for now, I start my work by reading and revising and then moving on to new writing. So fun!


The three writers I’m tagging are Marilyn Bousquin, Andrea Lani, and Sarah Wells. Each will write about their own work and writing process next week, so please check out their wonderful blogs on Monday, March 31st.

Marilyn Bousquin is a rock star. I met her in 2009 when she took my Motherhood & Words class, and wow! She went on to get her MFA and then founded Writing Women’s Lives. You can read a little about why she does what she does here. I promise you’ll love her. Check out her post here next week.

Andrea Lani is another rock star former student who went on to get her MFA. She’s primarily writing fiction now, but I love her nonfiction, which often explores motherhood and the natural world. Her writing has appeared in OrionKindred, and Brain, Child, among others. You can read her writing process post here.

Sarah Wells is crazy prolific. She writes nonfiction and poetry. She’s also the Administrative Director for the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University and Managing Editor for the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. I interviewed Sarah here in January, so please check that out if you haven’t already. And you can read about Sarah’s process here next week.

Again, thanks to Rachael for tagging me!

March 6, 2014
by Kate

my zoë

Happy birthday to my sweet Zoë, who turned six yesterday. (SIX!) We celebrated with a dinner out last night and cupcakes, and this weekend she will have two parties (one for kids and one for family), so I’m getting into crafting/piñata/cleaning mode.

My little Z is a dancer. As soon as our house fills with a thumping beat, she’s off, twirling, leaping, sashaying across the floor. She could spend hours (and sometimes does) choreographing a daughter daddy dance with flips and spins, ordering Donny around and running back to the computer to start the song over “just one more time.”

She’s fearless in the water, diving to the bottom of the pool pretending to be a mermaid or running full speed down the dock at the cabin and flopping into the lake (regardless of how cold it is).

She can get under her sister’s skin, pestering for attention. But if Stella agrees to play (and Zoë follows Stella’s rules), they can spend hours in their room, setting up their doll school rooms, teaching math and art and science to those attentive American Girls.

She’s fiercely loyal. If Donny or I have scolded Stella, she’ll glare at us and go straight to her sister. “I love you, Stella.” And if we’ve scolded Zoë, she’ll turn again to her sister: “I only want Stella.” (I’m glad they have each other since we are clearly such ogres.)

She’s a ham and loves to make people laugh. I can imagine her on the stage—she’s able to mimic anyone’s facial expression and loves accents, which she slips on as she flounces across the room.

She’s a cuddler and will climb up onto my lap as soon as I sit down in the comfy blue chair or on the couch, sometimes falling asleep in my arms if it’s bedtime and we’re watching a movie. She still comes into our bed a couple nights a week, snuggling between Donny and me, then throwing off all our covers because she’s burning up, my little hot pocket.

I love this girl, who is funny and sweet and smart. Happy birthday, Zoë!

March 4, 2014
by Kate

on the go

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me between my Motherhood & Words retreat at Faith’s Lodge and AWP in Seattle. But like always, both events left me inspired to write and teach and write some more.

The retreat was incredible despite the ice/snow storm that loomed on the forecast for our travel day. I encouraged everyone to leave early and we all beat the storm. And everyone seemed to appreciate the extra time to settle in before I went into teacher mode and began doling out writing prompts.

It snowed all night that first night, and by morning the lodge was engulfed by fourteen additional inches of blowing, drifting snow. Bring it on. We were cozy inside, sweatered in front of glowing fireplaces. It was lovely.

In past years I have been completely drained—elated, but drained—after three days of intense teaching. But this year, I was simply elated. I realized on the drive home that part of the reason I wasn’t as exhausted as usual was because I didn’t have to push as hard to get my students to go deep, to write toward vulnerability, toward that beating heart of their pieces. They now go there willingly on their own (or at least they seem willing).  And the results are really stunning. They all produced incredible writing, which will hopefully be out in the world and ready for me to share with you soon.

AWP was exciting and busy, as always. But I wasn’t ready to leave my girls after just getting home from the retreat. So the day I left for Seattle, I went to the co-op for fresh mangoes and chocolates, which I left on the dining room table with a note. And I stuck post-it notes to their bunk bed, just letting them know I love them. (D got a note and chocolate, too, lest you think he was being ignored.) Still, it was hard to go.

On the plane I switched into AWP mode, reading and rereading and editing my presentations. And then I was in Seattle at my friend Bonnie’s house, and we were talking writing and life as easily as we always do when we’re together.

Thursday morning I was up at 5:00 (damn time change) doing a little more prep, and then Bonnie and I were off to the convention center for our first panel, “What Was Is: Present Tense in Creative Nonfiction.” Oh this panel, people. I loved this panel. I was the moderator, and I really wanted us to be in conversation with each other rather than each of us reading a paper. And it worked! You can read a short recap on Brevity’s blog. I’m very grateful to Hope Edelman, Marybeth Holleman, Bonnie Rough and Ryan Van Meter for their wisdom and careful preparation. These writers rock!

That day I went from one presentation to another, sneaking in a quick lunch before my other panel, “Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion,” which was also amazing. Holy kitkats, what a crowd. The packed room overflowed with women writers (and three brave men). The walls seemed to vibrate with hope and power and a little bit of f-you. You can read a recap of that fabulous panel here. And you’ll definitely want to check out the writing of my co-panelists Rosemary Daniell, Connie May Fowler, Janice Gary, and Anna March. They blew me away.

I spent the next days going to panels and meeting old writer friends for lunch and drinks and dinners. Then I had a reading Saturday night and spent Sunday kicking around with my cousin and his wife before heading home to my darlings, who are, indeed, darling and very cuddly.

I’m grateful for two great trips, but I’m happy to once again be home, ensconced in my tiny office. How is writing going? Talk to me, people.

February 13, 2014
by Kate


I’ve been quiet these last weeks, partly because I’ve been busy and partly because I didn’t want to post that I was still sick, still slogging through my days with a head cold and a bad cough. So I just didn’t post anything at all.

But things are better. I got antibiotics and an inhaler, which have seemed to help. I went back to my fabulous PT to kick the low back pain, and—this is the big one—I started doing daily meditation. Seriously. I would have rolled my eyes at myself if I’d said that a decade ago. I would have said that running is my meditation. Running (when I’m healthy and can be outside snaking my way along the river road) is still meditative for me, but I’ve realized I need more than that. I had been feeling that there was so much chaos surrounding me, that I was drowning in white noise. And then my older sister told me about Headspace, and how the daily, guided mediation was changing how she moved through her day. “Just try it,” she said. “The first ten days are free.”

I have to pause here to say that this is not a sponsored post. I don’t do those. It’s just that when I love something, I like to spread that love around. (And speaking of spreading the love, you have to read Bonnie Rough’s hilarious essay in Brain, Child. I’m not spreading the love quite like that, but I do what I can.)

Anyway, now as soon as Donny and the girls head out the door in the morning, before I sit down to start work, to wade through email, I grab my phone, settle myself in a comfortable chair, and click my Headspace app. Then Andy appears with his lovely voice and leads me through ten minutes of meditation. And I feel myself come back into my body, sloughing off the stress that I usually wear around like a cloak. After 8 days of ten-minutes a day, I’m a believer. Am I more relaxed? Sleeping better? Somehow taller? Oddly, I think so.

I just signed up for a year subscription, and over the next weeks will increase my meditation to 20 minutes a day. Do any of you meditate? Or do you want to try it?  How has it changed you, your relationships? I want to hear about it.

January 29, 2014
by Kate

escaping the vortex

We’ve been hearing a lot about that whirling mass of cold air that keeps engulfing us again and again. And there is no denying that it sucks. The day or two of warmer weather sandwiched between frigid air feels like a mean joke, and it’s all grown so tiresome.

But it’s not just the ridiculous weather that’s gotten me down. These last couple of months I’ve also been drowning in my own vortex of minor health issues. Oh, I’m fine. And I’ll be fine. But it’s been one thing after another and I haven’t been able to run or swim for weeks, which has led to stiff everything and a very crabby Kate. Finally yesterday I indulged in a massage (something I do approximately once every 18 months), and I feel better—sore, but better. I slept well last night and woke feeling more like myself. (And trust me, I’m not the only one in my house who is relieved about that.)

I’m going to head to the gym today and walk, try to remind my body what that feels like, and then I’ll spend some time organizing myself for my online class, which starts tomorrow.  I forget how much I miss teaching until I’m kicking off a new class. There is that tingle of excitement in knowing that I’ll learn just as much as my students. And what a group they are—women from all over the country and world. I’m already grateful for them.

The other thing I’m doing to get out of my funk is to start planning for some of the great stuff I’ve got coming up this spring and summer (when it will hopefully be warm again). My annual retreat at Faith’s Lodge is in just three weeks, and that’s always such a rewarding weekend. Then the following week I’m off to Seattle for AWP, where there might be spring flowers and some sunshine. (I’m hoping.) I’m really excited about the two panels I’ll be on: “What Was Is: Present Tense in Creative Nonfiction” and “Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion.” What’s not to love about those? And if you’re in Seattle, I’ll be reading and discussing Ready for Air at Third Place Books, Ravenna, on Saturday March 1st. I’d love to see you there.

At the very end of May, I’ll be heading to Ashland, Ohio, for River Teeth’s Nonfiction Conference, a highlight of my year. And in early July, I’ll be leading a Women’s Memoir Retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts. Imagine it: Hopping on a ferry in northern Wisconsin and heading to the largest of the Apostle Islands for five days of writing and talking craft and biking/walking/running along the shore, staring out over the sparkling water of Lake Superior. I’m slowly compiling essays and memoir excerpts that I want to discuss over the week. It’s going to be so fun. Anyone interested? Check in out here. Then later in July, I’ll be the visiting editor at Ashland’s MFA residency, so I’ll get to go back Ashland and spend time with some of my favorite people and do manuscript critiques. What an honor!

See? I feel so much better. It will eventually be spring. I will eventually stop coughing. I will run and swim again. And I’ll get to work with tons of smart and funny people. Vortex destroyed.

What is keeping you sane these days? What are you looking forward to this spring and summer? Come on, spread the love.

January 15, 2014
by Kate

my mother’s funeral – an interview with adriana páramo

One of the books I read while we were at my mom’s cabin over break was Adriana Páramo’s engrossing new memoir, My Mother’s Funeral. It shifts in time between Páramo’s mother’s funeral in present-day Colombia and Páramo’s childhood in Bogotá and Medellín with a mother who was fierce, protective, and domineering—a force in the lives of her six children. Páramo transported me from small-town Colombia of the 1950’s to the tenements of 1970’s Bogotá to the middle-class existence of Medellín in the 1980’s and finally to the United States, where Páramo settles, looking for a better life her own daughter. This is a story of loss and love. It’s about the power of family and inextricable bond between mothers and daughters. And ultimately it’s a story of grief powerful enough to fragment memory, history, experience.  Páramo delves into memory and ends up exploring not only the history of one family, but also that of a country and culture.

I interviewed Adriana last year about her first book, Looking for Esperanza, and she agreed to come back and to discuss My Mother’s Funeral with me. Welcome, Adriana!

KH:  In sections of My Mother’s Funeral you write about your mother’s life before you were born. It’s clear that she told these stories over and over again to your and your siblings when you were growing up, and I loved the way you brought this part of her story to life through your writing. How did it feel to inhabit these parts of her story as you wrote? Can you talk a little about that process?

AP: The task of recreating scenes and dialogues I did not witness was daunting, to say the least. I feared that I would turn an ordinary life—my mother’s—into something extraordinary, or worse yet, an extraordinary journey into something mundane. It took a careful, calculated balance not to fall in either trap. At least, I hope I didn’t.

I would love to say something romantic about the process of re-creating my mother’s life, something like, Oh the story wrote itself down, or I didn’t even know what was going to make it into the book until it jumped before my eyes, or really, I didn’t choose the stories, but my mother. Na-ah. None of the above. I usually have very few surprises during the writing process, and this book was no exception. I had a clear idea of how I wanted the book to read—what parts of my recollections I wanted to share, and which corners of our lives would resonate with anyone other than family members—way before I wrote down the first paragraph. It’s a terrible habit, at best, and a progress-crushing factor, at worst. I cogitate for months, constantly arranging and rearranging images and phrases in my head, and only when I seem to know the story by heart, I start to write.

KH: Wow. That’s amazing. I don’t think I’d ever get anything down on the page that way, but maybe I’m too distractible.

You alternate between “present” day sections that include you hearing about your mother’s death and making the trek to Colombia for her funeral and sections of your mother’s young life and your life with her growing up. How did you settle on this as the structure for the book?

AP: Family sagas are highly subjective, highly exclusive, highly insular, and therefore, highly uninteresting to outsiders. Family sagas also tend to be linear, a narrative structure I did not want to use in My Mother’s Funeral simply because moving forward in time makes lyricism look out of place, complicates flashbacks, and leaves little room for linguistic playfulness. Instead, I wrote stand-alone pieces in the present, which were interspersed with stand-alone bits in the past, or the other way around. It’s hard to tell. Of course this is not, by any stretch, the ideal formula or a formula at all. It is, however, the only way I know how to write.

KH: You thank Ira Sukrungruang in your acknowledgments for his keen editorial comments on an early draft of the book. Can you talk a little bit about how working with him changed the memoir? What kind of feedback was especially helpful to you? How else did the book change through revision?

AP: About five years ago, I sent the first draft of My Mother’s Funeral to my agent. Eight agonizing months later, she replied with a resounding No and a suggestion: go back to school and take some writing classes. (Tears might have been shed, and massive doses of pride might or might not have been swallowed.) When I was done with my self-flagellation routine, I applied to a graduate writing program at the University of South Florida where I met professor Sukrungruang. It was his passion for memoir, the arguments he used to defend the genre, and his conviction that everybody’s story matters and that the secret is to know how to tell it, that made me realize that he was the one for me.

He agreed to look over my manuscript at the end of the semester during the summer. Some days I imagined him reading my words in awe, wondering how in the world I had managed to create this masterpiece. Some other days I imagined him reading my words and making little noises that sounded like WTF? And What in the world? And Pfft. And tsk, tsk.

“I think I know what you’re trying to do,” was all he said five months later when he returned the manuscript with his edits. What? Is that it? That’s not what I wanted to hear. I wanted a whole dissertation over coffee and cookies. I wanted hours of discussion and back-and-forth ruminations about my structure, my word-choice, the arc, the voice. He gave me none of it. Instead, he handed me back my draft, heavy with what appeared to be vicious remarks in shiny red ink and a few coffee stains. (Tears might have been shed, and massive doses of pride might or might not have been swallowed.) But you know what? He knew what he was doing, better yet, knew what I was doing or trying to do, and gave me direction.

I did several rewrites and because I chose to write the book in stand-alone chapters, I submitted a few of them to literary magazines. By the time My Mother’s Funeral was accepted for publication, ten chapters of the book had been published.

Once the book was at Cavankerry Press, and just when I thought I was home and dry, the real revisions started. First were the rewrites about content under the meticulous eyes of Baron Wormser, an in-house poet with a keen eye for inconsistencies, chronological mistakes, and information gaps. He was a fantastic content and copy editor. He wanted me to produce nothing but the best book I could write. Then came yet another round of revisions, this time from the line editor, who went over each sentence, checked grammar, punctuation, spelling consistency, word usage, etc., and in the process, nearly destroyed what it had taken me years to create. It was apparent that she had never worked with a Latino writer and mistook the voice, the nuances of Colombian humor, the imagery that works perfectly fine in Latin literature, and the Spanish-infused playfulness of the writing for incorrect English, and quite frankly made a complete mess. To give you an example, I say something along the lines of being so terrified of Mom that when she scolded me, the light bulb in the kitchen flickered every time she spoke. The line editor said that this is impossible, that no light can possibly flicker at the sound of a human voice and the sentence had to be deleted (No way. The sentence stayed). I found her linguistic choices too stiff for me, so formal that I began to feel as though I was writing a business proposal rather than a piece of CNF about growing up in Colombia. There were over 22,000 edits, things that she deleted just because. Whole chapters, which had been published in reputable literary magazines, were shredded into unrecognizable bits. Cavankerry Press was so shocked by the amount of work ahead of me that instead of the standard two weeks given to their authors to get their act together, they gave me a month. I agonized over the edits. It got to a point where I felt like I was writing a whole different book, with a different voice, only to please the editor. It was horrible. This, compounded with my personal fear of being dropped by the press if I didn’t comply, made me tread very carefully through the rewrite. I tried to remain humble (she knows what she’s doing, she is the editor for god’s sake), but could also hear my voice being stifled on each page. I worked hard. I compromised. I tried to keep the essence of the work even though it had undergone an aesthetic transformation that displeased me beyond words, and I grudgingly submitted the final, final, final revision to the press. Luckily, the managing editor, who had been my cheerleader, fan, and supporter from the beginning, did not approve of the changes and asked me to revert to the pre-line editor manuscript and apply only grammar and punctuation corrections.

KH: Thank God for the managing editor. It’s such a tricky place to be in—wanting to do as the press says while staying true to your voice and vision for the book.

In your recent essay in The Sun you write, “S&R. Search and rescue drills over the Persian Gulf. That’s how my husband spent his day as the captain of a 15-seat twin-engine military helicopter.  Now, he wants to know what I did today. I wrote, is the answer. Of course. What else am I going to do? It must be so incomprehensible for him that a woman can actually start writing at 5:30 am when he leaves for work and be still writing at 2 pm when he comes back. At the end of the day I have nothing tangible to offer as a proof of achievement. I can’t put it in my hands and say, here, this is what I did today. What do you think? And it’s not just the writing, it’s mostly the rewriting; the constant rearranging of words and paragraphs like moving furniture around the house. It’s the unexpected paths sometimes writing takes. It’s this process of looking for the right word, then a better word, then the perfect word to describe a sound, a smell, a feeling. It’s the constant retrospection nonfiction writers have to endure; that close self-scrutiny, the unabashed self-deprecating prose that has to be tempered with beautiful writing for it to be palatable; it’s the permanent self-doubt that comes with writing in a foreign language learned intuitively and not fully mastered; the nuts and bolts of spelling, punctuation and grammar of a language learned as an adult, it’s the rhythm, the imagery, the laborious wading through a sea of fickle linguistic devices.”

I love that passage so much. I so often feel that way after day at my desk—what have I actually accomplished? Also, when I read your writing I’m always amazed that you learned English as an adult because your prose seems so effortless. Can you talk a little more about what it feels like to write in a language that is not your mother tongue? Are there times when stories/essays come to you in Spanish rather than English or vice versa?

AP: I love writing in English and speaking in Spanish. Ever since I left Colombia 22 years ago, I’ve been fully immersed in English-speaking cultures (Alaska, Kuwait, Florida, Qatar) and I no longer think or dream in Spanish. But I’ve always been an avid reader and this combined with the fact that I had excellent and passionate Spanish teachers growing up is, I believe, what gave me the tools I need to write in a foreign language today. But writing in English is a slow process for me. I could not, for instance, work for a newspaper and deliver pieces on the spot. When I write, my mind gets into slow crockpot mode. I throw a pile of ingredients in it and let the mixture simmer for months. The thing is, as it simmers, I keep changing the ingredients, stirring the whole thing, sampling it, until it tastes exactly the way I had conceived in my mind before I even turned the range on. I usually know what I want to accomplish; it’s the journey getting there what takes me forever.

KH: I love that image of writing as a slow-cooking crockpot.

I know that one of your sisters now lives in Florida, but the rest of your family is still in Colombia. Do they read your work? If so, what have their reactions been, especially to this memoir?

AP: Only one of my siblings speaks English.  She has taken it upon herself to translate bits of the book so that my other siblings can be a part of it. The reactions have varied. I wrote about the way we were 40 years ago and, of course, we are not the same people now. So, it was hard to discuss the book with my brother, because he was not a part of my life growing up (he is now), and explain to him why the book is dedicated to my sisters, not him. Also, I always felt that, by virtue of being the youngest one, I was mom’s baby, her favorite child. Unfortunately, another sister felt the same way and was profoundly hurt by my assertion that I was closest to mom. I didn’t think it mattered. Mom is no longer with us and we are all grownup now. But it mattered to my sister, for which I’m terribly sorry.

Another sister did not appreciate my recreation of mom’s first nights as a married woman. She accused me of fictionalizing a true story, of romanticizing a violent period and a brutal awakening, of trivializing the downhill path my mother’s life took after she married my father. What can I say? How can I contest those charges? Neither of us was there to see the events unfold, neither of us knows what actually happened, all we have is our own personal interpretation of a woman’s memoirs. It’s like writing third-hand accounts as nonfiction. Like historical nonfiction.

But individual perceptions aside, because of the book, I believe we’ve had meaningful moments of mutual recognition and the kind of communion that only sisters understand. My sisters are my living heroines. I hope that when they read the Spanish version they feel my love, my devotion, my gratitude. Also, I hope that through my writing, we can have mom back, with her euphemisms, her steely rules, her “angry food,” her sacrifices, and her boundless love for us, music, and for my father, of course. Always, my father.

KH: Lovely. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.

People, check out this book.

January 8, 2014
by Kate

sarah m. wells – an interview

I was startled awake this morning by the incessant beeping of my old-school alarm. We’ve grown lazy—all of us—sleeping in until 8 a.m. many of these last 17 days. But once I got over the affront of the 6 a.m. wake-up, I jumped out of bed, ready to get back into a routine—my routine. Donny and I tag-teamed in the kitchen, readying lunches and scrambling eggs. Then the girls were all dressed and the three of them were out the door into the (still-frigid) morning. I waved. I felt a moment of loneliness. Then breathed a sigh of relief. I went into the kitchen to start my decaf brewing, turned on the light in my tiny office, and gratefully sat down.

And what better way to celebrate this return to routine than with an author interview? I’m pleased to have Sarah M. Wells here at Motherhood & Words today. Her lovely collection of poetry, Pruning Burning Bushes, was released in 2012, and I’ve had it sitting on my desk waiting to be read for months and months. It’s wonderful. Sarah’s poems are full of quiet grace. She writes about growing up on a farm in Ohio, about the natural world and the domestic. Her poems deal with family relationships, with faith, with motherhood, with loss. You’ll want to read them again and again, savoring each one. But Sarah also writes prose, and I love her essays, several of which have been “Notable Essays” in The Best American Essays series.

So please join in my discussion with Sarah!

KH:  Both the natural and the spiritual worlds permeate your poetry. Can you talk a little bit about how both your faith and the natural world (and the farming world) influence your poems?

SW:  When my boyfriend in high school started dragging me to his Lutheran church every Sunday in a valiant evangelical dating maneuver so that we could get married someday, one of the challenges that I faced was what felt like a mutually exclusive relationship between science and God—it did not seem as if religion had room for science, and science didn’t want to make room for religion, at least to this junior in Biology class. But I loved nature. I grew up in the fields and woods of northeast Ohio, like Scott Russell Sanders, and explored creek beds and picked up garter snakes and chased pigs back into their pens when they escaped. I loved to learn the names of clouds, the names of plants, the workings of chromosomes and ribosomes, what the insides of animals looked like. It was all fascinating.

And yet, I felt this peculiar itch and draw toward the spiritual world, as well. Even though I didn’t end up marrying that boy from high school, he was one of several people who spurred me toward faith. It turns out that faith and science are not mutually exclusive, of course; both must make room for the unknown even while seeking to know, even while acknowledging that the more we know and understand, the more mystery and awe occupy our awareness.

I hunger to know and to understand, and for me, exploring the natural world only provokes a deeper sense of awe and wonder about the spiritual world.  This interconnectedness makes writing about almost anything in nature a spiritual matter for me.  Because the natural world is tangible and ever-present, it provides a keyhole view into the less accessible and more difficult to explain spiritual world.  It provides a vocabulary to communicate the mysteries.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “Basically there can be no categories such as ‘religious’ art and ‘secular’ art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore ‘religious,’” and I believe that to be true.  The natural world is beautiful and wonderful and strange; we can see that it is the work of an Artist. I think the spark of artistry and appreciation for beauty is divine and lives in every artist or poet or writer.

Okay, enough philosophizing! :)

KH: That’s beautiful, Sarah.

You write both prose and poetry. Do you know when you begin writing whether you are writing a poem or an essay? Does your process change depending on the genre?

SW: Usually I know whether I am writing a poem or an essay, but there are often times the language and music of poetry will invade my prose. When that happens, I get energized and often feel as if the music of poetry is leading the way into my subject-matter instead of my subject-matter dictating what words come out.  Just as when I write poetry, letting the music of language take the lead draws me to revelations and ideas I would never have discovered or explored otherwise.  This unfolding is a humbling gift of grace I get to receive with palms up.  And afterward, I do a little party dance in my living room.

I have been writing a lot of shorter lyric essays lately that I think will accompany some longer, more traditional essays in whatever manuscript comes into being.  My process is very similar whether I’m writing poetry or essays. I revise a lot. I reread a lot. I read the piece out loud and revise some more. Lots of hammer and chisel sweating. It isn’t very sexy.

KH: Adriana Páramo posted a link on Facebook to this essay by Lauren Quinn about bearing witness versus bravery in the act of writing.  Quinn writes, “My motivation to publish stories that reveal my ugliest moments has less to do with bravery than with bearing witness.” She goes on to write, “My suspicion is that these stories get confused as brave because, like most stories, they have a surface layer that tends to obscure the deeper story that tentacles beneath. It’s easier to stay on the surface, to play the victim or call something brave. But part of bearing witness, I believe, is being honest about who I was in the experience and the role I played.” It’s an interesting piece, and in your response to it on Facebook you wrote: “I have felt this way a few times this year and find the use of the word ‘brave’ such a strange choice when I’ve revealed the tender places we don’t usually talk about.” (I know I have called you “brave,” specifically for your essay “Field Guide to Resisting Temptation,” which appeared last year in Brevity. I still stand by that because to me bearing witness IS an act of bravery.) I wonder if you can talk a little more about this.

SW: I prefer “bearing witness” over “brave” because revealing hard subject-matter in writing doesn’t seem brave to me. The definition of brave is “ready to face and endure danger or pain,” and in one instance, “without showing fear.” Maybe there are some stories that are both stories of bravery or stories told bravely, but in the specific instance of “Field Guide…,” I don’t think I was either brave in the season or brave in the telling.  I felt weak in the season and scared to death in the telling. And yet I still felt I had to tell it.  There are some stories that need to be told.  This happened.  I am bearing witness to it.

KH: Hmmm. That still seems brave to me because we risk a lot when we expose ourselves in the way that you did in “Field Guide.” Yet you did it anyway, knowing their might be unpleasant ramifications. We need to continue this talk over glasses of wine next time we meet in person. 

SW: Sounds like a brilliant plan to me!  Especially the wine.

KH: You are the mother to three young children, the Administrative Director for the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University, and the Managing Editor for the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. And you are an incredibly prolific writer. When do you write? How do motherhood and your work at Ashland influence (or get in the way of) your writing?

SW: My job provides me so many opportunities to hear from and learn about other amazing and talented writers.  It is such a great gift to be able to work in a literary environment when you are a developing writer yourself. I have worked at Ashland for six and a half years now. The first year I worked at Ashland, I worked with the poet Michael Miller on his first book of poems with the press.  Michael asked if I was a writer. I sheepishly said, “Yeah, I guess,” and started to send him some of my poems via email.  He is in his seventies and didn’t use the computer at the time, so his wife would print out my poems, he would write notes on them and then mail them back to me.  It’s just about the neatest and unusual mentorship you could imagine—in the last six years, I’ve only met him briefly once, and yet we probably talk by phone once a week.

KH: That is the coolest thing I’ve heard in a long time.

SW: When do I write?  When I’m standing at the kitchen sink, when I’m cutting sweet potatoes, when I’m driving my kids to their grandparents’ houses, when I’m reading someone else’s writing… all day long and often as I’m drifting off to sleep.  Without all of this writing… or pre-writing… I’d never get anything down on the page.  I usually write actual words on an actual sheet of paper or computer (or my iPhone’s notes app, yay, technology!) after the kids go to bed. We’re annoyingly strict about bedtime in our house and aim for 7:30 or 8 p.m. for our kiddos. Once they are asleep and the kitchen is degreased and uncluttered, I will write, but only provided there’s something to say, some idea that has been skittering about during the daylight hours. Otherwise, I feel like I’m wasting time at the keyboard.  Most of the time, though, there’s always something that’s been brewing, and if there isn’t something new there are ideas about what could be revised. And if neither of those things happens, then I drink another glass of wine and drift off to sleep to the hum of broadcasters shouting about football.

KH: I love how you describe that pre-writing. (And that you give it the credit it deserves!) So often we don’t give ourselves credit for the work that happens—brews—throughout the day.

You are working on a memoir/essay collection about the two most important men in your life, your husband and your father. Can you talk a little bit about this? The impetus for the project? What you are discovering about yourself and/or writing as you delve more deeply into it?

SW: You mean my messay collection? Ah, yes. :)

KH: Ha!

SW: One of the first essays I wrote and published appeared in River Teeth, “Country Boys, City Boys.” It is an essay that categorizes the two types of men I’ve known in my life while trying to discover my identity in relation to them.  I can’t seem to leave this topic alone.  I am fascinated by the influence that fathers have on daughters, especially when it comes to the kinds of men daughters marry. As I continued to gather essays, some more directly related to marriage or to dating or to my dad, it appears as if I won’t be able to leave it alone.  I have had many revelations as I’ve been writing this project, but one is haunting me right now. All this time I thought I had married a man like my father, but the more I write our marriage stories, I see how much of the way I conduct myself and my life with my kids mirrors my dad’s relationship with me growing up. It turns out I am my father’s daughter to a much greater degree than I thought.  This is a startling revelation given how much I yearned for him to be more present throughout my childhood and adolescence, and it’s made me more aware of the importance of those brief hours between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. when we are all together as a family.

I’m at the point where I feel as if the tiles are in place; I just have to fill in the gaps with some grout. Ask me in four months and probably the whole project will be tore up in a stack of chipped bricks.

KH: I doubt that, Sarah. It sounds fascinating, and I look forward to reading it! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

You can read more about Sarah and her work here. Also, Sarah’s publisher, WIPF & STOCK, has agreed to give away one copy of Pruning Burning Bushes. Please leave a comment below by Saturday January 18th for a chance to win.

January 2, 2014
by Kate

skiing, reading, and e-books

We’re back from five days at my mom’s cabin in Northern Minnesota. It was colder than we would have liked, which curtailed some of our outdoor activities. But even with the cold, the girls got out and skated every day. And Stella and I skied the long loop through the woods once, which was so fun. I love that she’s old enough to manage an hour on skis with me.


But the weather (-20° *without* wind chill) kept me from exercising as much as I usually do. Add way too many rich meals, too many glasses of wine, and a pan of Scotcheroos to the mix, and, well, I need to get to the gym.

But the cold weather and cozy cabin made for lots of time doing puzzles and playing Uno with the girls, watching movies, and reading. I caved this year and asked for a Kindle for Christmas. Oh I know; I won’t use it for most of my reading. I still love the weight of a real book in my hands.  But occasionally it makes sense to get an e-book (say if my book club is reading something that I’m pretty sure I won’t read again and it’s a book I need now because we meet the next morning—not that that happens, of course). The other reason I wanted an e-reader is because of Shebooks, the new publisher of short e-books for women, by women. I love this idea, and I also love what/who they are kicking off with: short stories and memoirs by Hope Edelman, Faith Adele, and Suzanne Antonetta Paola to name a few. And they are great, people. Please check them out. And only $2.99 each. (I’ll interrupt here to say that I’m thrilled that Suzanne has a new memoir, Make Me a Mother, coming out in February and that she has just agreed to come to Minneapolis for the 8th Annual Motherhood & Words Reading on May 7th at the Loft Literary Center. More on that to come.)

Anyway, I got a Kindle so I could support Shebooks and my author friends who are publishing with them. (And also so my slacker self could save face at book group.) But at the cabin I also read a couple of hold-in-my-hands books: Adriana Páramo’s new memoir, My Mother’s Funeral, which I loved. (I’ll be interviewing Adriana in the coming weeks here, so stay tuned.) I read Sarah Wells’ beautiful collection of poetry, Pruning Burning Bushes. (Sarah will be a guest here soon, as well.) And I started Alice Munro’s fabulous new collection of stories, Dear Life. Honestly, these stories are stunning. I wish I could curl up at read them all day. (But see above. I need to go to the gym and then attend to all sorts of work-related items. And to generally catch up after being unplugged for five days.)

I’d love to hear what you’re reading and how your holidays went. I’m grateful for you, my community of virtual and in-person friends. Wishing you a new year filled with love and laughter, good health, and many fabulous books.

December 19, 2013
by Kate

this week

This is the week that I promised myself I would dive back into the novel. What novel? you ask. I know. I’ve asked myself the same thing. What? I’m writing a novel? I almost forgot about that sad, neglected thing. (Okay, I didn’t really forget about it; if I had it wouldn’t be a source of such unyielding guilt.) I had tried to work on it a few weeks ago, but the book proposal I’ve been working on has consumed my mental energy and I wasn’t able to shift gears, to immerse myself again in that fictional space, to get into Hattie’s mind the way I need to if I’m going to move forward with it. So I put it aside (again) until the proposal was done, which finally, it is.

So I spent a few hours on Monday reacquainting myself with my main characters. I did a little tweaking, realized that I needed to stretch out a couple of chapters and slow down the backstory (or maybe I need more backstory?–I haven’t figured that out yet). I didn’t get much new writing done on Monday, but it still felt good to be working on it, and it felt good to be thinking about it the way I can only think about a project when I am actually writing. It was like inhaling deeply after holding my breath for too long.

Tuesday was slower, full of distractions, but yesterday was better. Today, a little slow, which is why I’m posting right now rather than wondering What Hattie Will Do. (WWHD?) But it’s okay that it’s slow. I’m easing myself back in. And then once I’m fully immersed, I hope I’ll be able to pop into it for a shorter periods of time. Because I also have to be thinking about and working on a few sample chapters for the collaboration project and then of course I have the interview questions I have to compile for the twenty zillion author interviews that have been languishing on my plate.  And then there are the recommendations and the blurbs and the class prep.

But that other stuff can be put off a little longer, right? Because this week all I want is to work on the novel, go to pilates classes (I would go every day if they had more day-time classes), make this, and get the backyard skating rink ready for the girls. (By that I really mean I’d like to watch Donny stand in the freezing cold spraying freezing cold water across our yard while I watch from the comfort of my office, maybe while I drink a latte or a glass of wine.)

So that’s my week. What are the things you’d like to be doing this week? What’s standing in your way?