Writer, teacher, essayist, author of the essay collection Made Holy forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press 2019. Mother of two boys, runner, and activist. Wife and partner to Kindergarten teacher and singer songwriter, Mr. Martin.
Tonight at 8pm CST (9pm in Vermont), my sister Alida and I will be discussing my book, Made Holy, in Chisholm, MN –my hometown! We plan to go live downtown in the Pocket Park.
I want to have an opportunity to talk about the process of writing this book & why I wrote it.
I never thought I would write a nonfiction book about my life. I have always been a private person, secretive even. So crafting essays about some of the most intimate parts of my life would have seemed like a nightmare to my twenty-something self.
Yet, everything changed in my life around the age of 28. And slowly over the years these essays came to me in the dark hours between feeding my babies, in the early morning light of winter over cold cups of coffee, and at the edge of sleep. Writing is a solitary endeavor one toils over, drafting and redrafting, crafting and cutting apart, refining and redoing. Nobody becomes a writer casually or on accident. It has taken me years to perfect sentences, develop my craft, harness the stories that flew like kites at the edge of my dreams. They always presented like siren calls from somewhere deep within that also felt far away, and every time I built the ship that would sail them, it took months and years. I know, it sounds crazy, but that is writing and the deepest joy comes out of writing well and giving the gift of one’s labor to the world–a tiny boat in a massive sea that sails into oblivion.
Mid-summer and I am dreaming of bees. My husband, dream midwife, has given me seven days to ride a horse in my dreams, but I sleep late and wake and forget as my youngest nudges me up, Come, play. In the field adjacent to the house, a hidden stream between us, my husband and oldest son are tending the plants. Music winds its way to me from the little speaker they have brought. I lift my hand to them.
Rural Vermont feels like the shire, my husband says. It blooms full towards autumn ripeness. I prefer fairy lands and secret hovels and hidden cabins in the woods. I prefer bodies of water, long fields, a distance when looking.
I drink coffee and I think of bees. Erotic buzzing, multitudes, queen-ruled, a song like lips making a sound the ear only feels. I walk in the grass barefoot and do no work. I cut wild flowers and place them in a clear glass vase. My husband leaves for work. The two boys have a tea party with mint licorice tea, round crackers, stuffed animals. They hum and bicker and love. They grow hungry, thirsty, tired.
My husband dreamed of a golden horse dancing in the field outside this house the night before our first son was born. We did not live here. His grandfather did at that time. Cavallo means horse in Italian, which is something they also eat in Italy. It is one of our first son’s names, for his grandmother’s line–Italians and for the horse in the field where her mother once lived, June. I knew that he would be irrevocably mine, but I tethered him to Nana in this small way, like a spell. Eventually this magic worked and he dotes on her as she does him.
He was born under the sign of my mother, Aquarius. Like her he is thin, red-haired, original. Moses, is his first name. A name that came to me like a storm that never lifted. No, not Mo or Mose, I would say to my husband. It must be Moses. After he was born and grew, I wondered over the name. Why it possessed me. Why I insisted he carry such a mantle all his life. Mo, I say. Mo, like a quiet place one might find respite.
On and on they go, the two of them creating worlds. For a moment, I listen. They are fetching a pen for “research.” They lose interest. “Want to have a battle?” one asks. “No, I’m doing research,” says the other. “After my research,” he repeats, the word a charm on his tongue. He has no idea what it means, he is only four. Something to do with a pen and paper. I think about what I would like to research: bees, linens, islands, furniture carved of wood, large beds with fluffy pillows, tea that clears the mind.
We leave in two days to travel halfway across the country. To land in the bay of loons. To romp and rollick and read. Sun, water, wave. Tree, bird, stone. Wind. Summer, in the life of teachers: its soft and balmy breeze, its blanket of sun each morning, its long evening flush with fireflies, a scrap of moon above the treetops. The late fire around which we speak of things we would not, by any other light, admit.
I laze and consider the quickness of flies, how I would move if I moved like an ant, what I will make the children for lunch. I do not think of the third child I want. I do not think of the fortune teller’s words. Two children, she said. Perhaps a third, but they might not make it through. I was twenty-something then. Now this phantom child haunts me. I try to call her name: Ruth, June, Jude, Camilla, Matilda, Matisse, Elouise. I imagine if I find her name and sing it out to her she will come. Yes, she. But dare I taunt the gods.
I think of a line of poetry I once wrote: Bee, bee, bee. Once, you called the bee from me.
I make lists. Gratitude. To do. To pack. I make calls. I feed the children. They go on creating worlds–houses made of pillows, chairs in a line become a path to keep their feet from hot lava. Cars, podcasts, horses. Dragons. Stones. Scrap of blanket balled up and smelling of the blackberries they picked from the yard.
We moved to this house two years ago and have been slow to make it our own as we do not own the house. This spring I dug up the grass and planted a garden. My husband began farming the field. I made a rock garden and planted flowers. We cristened a fire pit in the early spring air. Each season here like a thickening emotion, a scent I call forth in my mind–always, the way it feels occupies me most.
Though I have avoided this out of a sense of fear and anxiety, my first book will come into the world this September. Its birth, a long coil of labor, a fierce abandon-ing of allegiances for truth, a hope of another world, a whisper at my ear–this is what birth feels like, which is what Peggy, my midwife whispered to me during the birth of my second son. The first had been born by C-section. I am the kind of person who needs a midwife at my ear whispering these words all the day long–this is what it feels like. This life.
Now the bee and the horse and the children still wrapped in their games. Now the turn of the day, the leaving, the work, the labor, the speaking and planning and doing. Now the sun hot in the sky and the field, a green expanse. Now the laundry, the dishes, the organizing, the pitch and purchase of the day.
Summer arrives in the North like a dream. Exuberant, joyous, freeing. One thing I love about my summer is watching my sons run wild. Bedtime is extended, the outdoors becomes a roving playground, and I see their swift transformation into wilder versions of themselves. They find a freedom in the unscheduled hours we occupy. Planned activities feel more exciting after hours of fluttering time that spreads like a quilt of wind over days.
They also fight and bicker and meltdown. But that’s to be expected. I try my best to stay hands off and to avoid nagging and scolding and demanding they clean up. Right now they are wrestling on the futon in the living room with a bunch of pillows. I hear screaming, laughter, shouts, demands, giggles. All of it necessary. All of it good.
Since school got out last week, I’ve struggled to get back to my writing practice. It’s difficult to focus with them here and my husband is currently away for a training. I have come to see my writing practice like a meditation practice. I listen to Tara Brach – meditation teacher, Buddhist – talks often and much of what she says about meditation, applies to writing. I’m also a big fan (as you all know) of Brene Brown‘s work and highly recommend her current Netflix special. Taking from their work and my observations, I’ve come up with some principles for summer writing practices.
Make a goal and track it. I think this is essential. Write down what you plan to do and then write down what you do. It really helps if you work with a buddy on this and either start a shared google doc to set goals and track actuals OR text each other. You can either track words or time. Think about how many days a week you want to write, how much time, and whether or not the word count matters to you. If, for example, you’re a poet or you’re editing, word count isn’t a helpful measure.
Develop your writing boundaries. What are boundaries? People talk about them all the time but I don’t know that we all understand them. Brene Brown highlights how in order to be vulnerable we need to feel secure in our boundaries because then we know that we are taking care of ourselves and we won’t let anyone take advantage of us–we need to develop self-trust. So, create your writing boundaries. Mainly this is about carving out space and time on a regular basis that is all yours. Your own space. Your own time so that you can write. You have to keep it sacred. I find that when I leave my work for too long, I lose it. My characters hide, the story falls apart, and I feel scared of going back to it. This is why we have to stay in practice. If you do stop or take a break. You simply return to the work and begin again. No drama. No story. No judgement.
Be free. Like my children, open time and open space creates new energy and new ways of thinking. Nurturing our writing can be the same. We are looking for our voice or we are developing it. We are trying to find a way to articulate the parts of life that feel wholly voiceless and without words or taboo and shameful or too sentimental and precious. Go into the woods or the museum with a paper and pen, sketch pictures or images that have to do with your work, dig in the garden, swim in the ocean. Do nothing for a day. Find ways to break up your routine and breathe new life in to your work.
Fail. Failure is essential. Brene Brown talks about the essentiality of failing. If you’re going to be innovative, creative, and successful, you’re going to fail. Let yourself fail big time. Stretch yourself out. You will fail to keep your schedule, you will fail to hit your word count, you will fail to finish that story, you will abandon your novel. What matters is that you keep going. That’s all. Head down, keep writing. Don’t listen to the critics in your life, especially the one on your shoulder.
Risk everything. If you want to connect with your readers, if you want to be a good writer, you must take risks. In my first graduate writing workshop, one of my instructors, Clint McCown, gave us two pieces of great advice. First, whenever your character cries on the page you miss an opportunity for your reader to cry. But more importantly, because my characters never cry, he said, good writing risks sentimentality, it drives write up to that cliff but never falls off (well, it does, but that’s a fail). In writing, we expose ourselves either by writing about our own lives in intimate ways or creating characters that expose our greatest hopes and fears. You know the feeling you get when you’re onto something. That feeling comes from pushing up to the edge of an idea, a character, a feeling, a longing and laying it bare like an offering before your reader.
I’m filled with it. It’s a tension in my spine. A desire to pummel. I sick echo in the belly. A longing to turn away. A desperate sadness that women are dehumanized, that my body is not considered my own in this country.
The white female governor of Alabama is now signing a law that criminalizes not only abortion but women who choose to go out of this state to have an abortion. So, one can easily imagine how this terrorism will play out. How women will be hunted down and locked away in the institution of deep trauma, abuse, rape, and torture AKA our prison system. They will take these mothers away from their real children to lock them away if indeed this law is allowed to stand. Of course, the grand master plan is to get this to the supreme court where keg party Kavanaugh sits making it a ruling conservative majority.
Please, women, run.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the effort it takes to keep on trying to say the same thing over and over again in a million different ways, hoping to be heard. Abortion is not murder. My body is my own. I have the right to own my own body and to make my own medical decisions.
Growing into middle age, there are moments now, I glance down the long hallway of my knowing –the long education of coming to know– what it is to be woman in this world. I hold on to the acute awareness, the visceral sensation, of knowing that my body is only tentatively my own. That my life is secondary to the lives of men. That because I fit into categories of privilege I am somewhat safe or safer for now. But if one, as a woman, remains vigilant in her looking, does not turn away into illusion, blow the candle light out, she maintains the knowing truth that her body is no safer than those brutalized, murdered, locked away and beaten bodies of the others who share her gender but not her class, color, status, sexual orientation and cis-bodied-identity. Or those others who have not been so lucky.
Run for office.
Please, women, run for office. Hundreds of us must run and continue running if we are to make this change possible. The white men in suits from the ruling class minority are not going to change. They work for the boss and the boss is not you.
I think of women’s art and how so much of it is called craft though the skill and expertise of say, making a quilt, goes well beyond most paintings we decide to call art.
I think of the way women tell stories—of the lyric, of the body—and how close, how intimate we draw up to our readers.
I think of the back-handed obsession with denouncing certain ways that women write—just a journal entry, a mess of self, navel-gazing.
We are not hiding behind the walls of high art or the institution of such and such,
For a few weeks now I have been working with some fabulous writers on a panel proposal for next year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio. Before this, in preparation for a job interview lesson I was to teach, I had returned to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric and while I re-read it I began to think about how I could create a panel on the White Imagination, which is what I have been working on. In many ways, whites do not understand what this constitutes because we can’t always see it. It is the water we swim in as fish. The struggle for even well-meaning, white allies who want to address racism in our nation, is the internal discomfort and fear that our whiteness, when called forth for examination, creates in us. We want to wiggle out of it. We want to “but” our way through it. We want to point our finger at other “bad” whites. But not ourselves. We don’t want to be white anymore, not during this examination.
This array of emotions–shame, guilt, fear, humiliation, mild discomfort–leads to and perpetuates our blindness. Our unwillingness to sit silently and listen. The irony, of course, is that people of color have to live in this feeling of discomfort every day. A woman of color never knows who might consciously or unconsciously judge her, misrepresent her, slight her in hopes of creating intimacy, ask her to join as a representation of her “race,” expect her to be certain ways, speak a certain way, and so on. The irony is that as white people we can’t tolerate discomfort and yet we not only perpetuate discomfort, but we–our very whiteness–uphold the institution of white supremacy in our country that has determined it’s okay to kill, cage, and destroy bodies of color. This is the hard truth of our whiteness. The truth we keep pushing away because it feels bad, it really does. We don’t want it to be this way. And yet it is.
I will say this. My ignorance is vast but I continue to work on the issue of whiteness and to work towards dismantling the white imagination because it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that one and three black men will be imprisoned in this country while only one in eighteen white men will go to jail; it’s unacceptable that our police are legally allowed to kill/ lynch Americans of color; it’s unacceptable that every week we have new shootings aimed at minority groups in our country because radicalized white supremacists continue to terrorize our nation, their power unchecked, their crimes not considered a reflection of all whites but an anomaly of concentrated hatred.
But all of this should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that whiteness and white supremacy is upheld and proliferated by the white imagination, which limits the identity and the narratives of people of color to only those in relation to whiteness and stereotypes — always in relation to the dominance of whiteness. For example, the story of a woman of color overcoming/ coping with racism, the story of a Begali woman in relation to her cultural identity, the story of a Native American as living on a reservation, in poverty, drunk, and so on. These narratives are prized over narratives that might go in other directions, say, discussing an interest in sculpture, a novel about a haunted swimming pool, a collection of interviews of women artists or a history of farming, and so on. That’s not what white publishers want (that’s not what sells?). They want a story in which the identity of oppression is held up and examined and we get to see that despite all this terrible hardship the individual is able to find the beauty in their life and the good in people, or whatever. (This is not to say that those narratives aren’t important, but they are not the only narratives.)
Why do we want these narratives? I suspect that they make whites feel better about their whiteness and the consequences of oppression. We think, see, they’re okay, they overcame so much. What a victory! I suspect too, that we want to examine the “other” under the microscope of oppression. There is something thrilling in the voyeurism of hardship and pain.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan, in her keynote at NonfictionNOW, Iceland 2017, titled “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” discusses the way her MFA program pushed her away from her original scholarly and creative interests into writing narratives that fit the white imagination. She didn’t feel like she could write for black readers. She explains what happened to her writing: All of the overtures that are made to “explain” the experience of being a minority are tiny coded signals that the reader is presumably unfamiliar with this experience. And the reader who doesn’t have to guess at that reality can feel those signals as a distancing. In some cases, these are teeny, tiny gestures. But the reality is, even the smallest of those gestures can feel huge.
These words carry a certain sorrow, perhaps, that she was pushed to write in a way that would distance a reader like herself. Sloan wondered where her work might have gone if she hadn’t felt this pressure to conform and had been able to pursue her passion projects. If she had not been forced into the small box of the white imaginaire. Luckily, she has returned to that former self and is pursing the projects and work that she feels inspired by.
What I return to as a white woman, an American, a writer and activist, is the need to sit in discomfort and not attempt to slough it off on other white people. To point a finger at the actual racist. To deny my part in it. I say this because just as people of color are forced to represent their otherness, white people represent the life of racism in this country. There is no way around this in our current moment.
The fact of the white body is supremacy. The fact of the white body is oppression. The fact of the white body is violence and death. The fact of the white body is erasure of all others that don’t bare sameness.
Rankine writes: because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black people are dying
What imagination does she mean? The one that fears the black body his culture has created as a figure onto which the white imagination has projected all it’s ugliness. Just think for one moment about the way black men were turned into rapists to be feared by white women (and lynched by white men) when in fact it was white men, slave owners, with the most egregious history of rape of Black female slaves.
But that isn’t what this is about. This is about learning to listen, to absorb, to feel, to hear, to read about, to know with great familiarity the legacy of whiteness that a white body carries. And then, brick by brick, to dismantle your own imagination. To find your own way through this history that unless we come to recognize, to know with great intimacy and vulnerability, we will continue to pass on. Trust me, when I tell you (with great love) that it is your own work to do.
It’s that time of year. Time for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and this year it’s in Portland, Oregon. Come see me talk about writing and find out what the game Neon Daycare, which I played with my sisters and cousins as a young girl, has to do with writing.
S228. The Landscape of Memory: Writing Places That Don’t Exist. (Kelly McMasters, Miranda Weiss, Emily Casey, Jericho Parms) While setting is often seen as the purview of fiction writers, place has become its own sub-genre in the creative nonfiction community. Whether tracking breaking stories in situ or casting generations into the past, the writer’s job is often to create the landscape of memory out of the ether. How, aside from Proust’s madeleine, can we gain access to places to which we no longer have access, and landscapes that are essentially make-believe? How do writers render a remembered landscape real?