April’s Book Club selection is for writer moms (veteran or new) who could use a little kickstart when it comes to penning their motherhood memories. Kate Hopper’s Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers is a helpful how-to that can nudge you into your first sentences … (or paragraphs … or chapters) of the story of your mom life. We spoke with Hopper to find out more about her writing and where she finds inspiration.
P&N: Your book is written for moms whose goals are “to blog, publish magazine articles or pen the next blockbuster memoir,” but it’s actually very relevant for moms who just want to journal and have a record of this time in their lives. What encouragement would you give to those who don’t consider themselves “writers?”
KH: Most of my students actually begin writing to do exactly as you say: capture their parenting moments on the page so they won’t forget them. Many start writing because they want to leave those memories as a gift for their children (think literary scrapbooking!). But once they begin writing, most of my students begin to make connections, and what they thought of as simply a moment to get down on the page becomes so much more complex, sometimes echoing issues that existed in their own families of origin. The truth is that we all have stories to tell, and each of those stories and perspectives deserves space on the page.
I think it’s helpful for those who are new to writing or who don’t consider themselves “writers” to start with a moment they don’t want to forget. It could be something that happened years ago or that very morning. Try to get down on paper with as many sensory details as possible, focusing on sounds, touch, taste, smell, sight. Then step back from the moment. What else comes to mind? Does that memory lead you to another? Keep going!
A wonderful thing about writing your life is that the more you write, the more you remember.
P&N: How would you say your writing has changed since you became a mother?
KH: 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 young 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.
P&N: Reading others’ writing is certainly an inspiration when crafting your own stories—what are some of your favorite blogs or books to read?
KH: I love motherhood memoirs and memoirs in general, but I also read many novels. I just finished a really fun novel about early motherhood by Amy Shearn called The Mermaid of Brooklyn. It’s whimsical and funny and heartbreaking all at once. I also read a number of blogs, but don’t have as much time as I’d like to keep up on my favorite bloggers. I love Rachel Turiel’s 6512 and growing, Katrina Kenison’s [author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day] blog, Tracy Morrison’s Sellabit Mum, and Heather King’s The Extraordinary Ordinary. I also love Literary Mama and Brevity for great writing.
P&N: Please share with us an excerpt of something you wrote that really captured an experience of motherhood for you.
KH: I wrote a short essay [ed. note: You can read it below this interview] called “It’s Relative” that grew out of my memoir, Ready for Air, which will be out in October. Ready for Air is a memoir about my older daughter Stella’s premature birth, but it’s really a book about family, faith, friendship, and the power of stories to connect us to one another. One of the things that I realized – and that anyone who starts their journey as a parent in the NICU realizes – early on is that anything can happen.
P&N: What projects do you have in the works?
KH: I’m actually working (very slowly) on a novel. I needed a break from the closeness of memoir after Use Your Words and Ready for Air, so I’ve turned my attention to a novel. The main character is a 78-year-old woman named Hattie, who is a recent widow. She develops an unlikely friendship with a neighbor boy, and they embark on a journey to uncover a mystery in Hattie’s past. I thought the book was definitely NOT going to be about motherhood, but after ten pages, motherhood as a theme began to inch its way into the narrative. It’s just where I’m at in my life, so it’s hard to keep it off the page.
To read more about Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and find out where to order a copy, click here.
(And, if Hopper’s words have inspired you, hop over to our Inaugural Essay Contest. Winners will win cash prizes and have their essays on motherhood published in an issue of P&N!)
by Kate Hopper
I sit in a wheelchair as my husband, Donny, pushes me through the bright tunnel that connects Abbott Northwestern and Children’s Hospitals. The tires of my wheelchair make a suctioning sound on the polished floor as we cruise past the bright posters that line the white tunnel walls. I close my eyes and lean forward, clutching the arms of the wheelchair, as if this will quell the spinning in my head caused by the painkillers I’ve been popping like Chiclets.
We’re on our way to see our daughter Stella, who’s three days old. She lives on a warming table in the neonatal intensive care unit. On Saturday, when the doctor pulled her from me two months early, she was breathing on her own. But a day later, she went into respiratory distress and had to be transferred to Children’s to be intubated.
When we’re buzzed into the NICU, Donny pushes me to the sink. We lather and rinse, fingers to wrists. We spray antibacterial foam into our palms, and then we stand above our daughter. I remembered her being beautiful. On Saturday before they whisked her away, they held her up for me to see, and I’m sure she was beautiful. But as I stare at her now I realize I was wrong. She’s not beautiful. She’s yellow.
Her toothpick ribs shudder up and down. A white ventilator tube is taped over her mouth. Her scrawny legs are splayed like a frog’s, and purple veins track across her skull like a spider web. Her ears, thin as origami paper, are pressed flat against her head.
I take a deep breath. This cannot be my baby. This is not how it’s supposed to happen. I look up, around the large room: nurses hovering over incubators, monitors beeping, alarms sounding. Through the windows at the end of the room the sky is blue, bright fall blue. I wonder how that can be. How can my baby be here, in this place? How can the sun be shining outside?
A doctor walks over and says that Stella’s right lung is damaged. This doctor doesn’t look at me when she talks. She speaks only to Donny, who nods as he listens. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and he seems totally relaxed, as if he’s at a bar, shooting the shit about sports or the weather.
I probably look like I’ve been run over by a train. I stand quietly to the side, staring down at Stella, whose shoulders are still covered with pale languo, which makes her look more like a small woodland creature than a human baby.
“The x-ray,” the doctor says, “shows a bruise—pulmonary interstitial emphysema.”
My head snaps up. Emphysema? I want to yell. Emphysema is for smokers. It’s for the old man in the movie in 10th-grade health class who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for forty years and had to have a hole cut in his throat. How can my baby have emphysema?
I start to cry, even though I hate to cry in front of this doctor, as if it proves that she’s right—I am too emotional to listen, to absorb her words, to ask the right questions.
Donny and the doctor talk softly, and it’s true—I can no longer make any sense of what they’re saying. I turn away and glance around the room, which is an open bay with five other babies in it. Each baby has a sign with a name and birth weight hanging above his or her bed. The baby across the room has the same birthday as Stella—September 13th. But under his name, Quincy, his birth weight is listed as 1 lb, 14 ozs. My chest tightens. Oh my God, he’s less than two pounds.
He was probably one of the “more serious cases” that my OB said pushed us out of line on Saturday afternoon while I was waiting for my C-section. But two pounds is too small. Quincy’s incubator is covered with a quilt, so I can’t see him. But I can’t even imagine him, imagine what a two-pound baby looks like, what it would feel like to hold him in my arms. I search my mind for something that weighs two pounds: A large grapefruit? A coffee mug? I’m not sure.
The only thing that I can think of—that seems precise enough—is a box of butter. Holding a two-pound baby is like standing in the dairy section of the grocery store, cupping two boxes of butter in your hand.
I turn back to my daughter and slide my pinky into her palm. Her tiny fingers snap shut around mine like a miniature Venus fly trap, and I suddenly get it. I understand that even with the respiratory distress and the ventilator and the jaundice and the emphysema, we’re the lucky ones. I understand that luck, in the NICU, is relative.