The Association of Writers and Writing Programs held their annual conference in Chicago last week. I didn't have the presence of mind to plan for attending during the week (like my friend Ann did while her generous musician husband took over kid duty), but truth be told, these conference-thingies can be exhausting - intense and occasionally mind-numbing (not this time) lectures, a wealth of choices, miles of ballrooms and exhibition halls, endless lines .... So my single Saturday was enough for me.
I'm new to the organization so I wasn't sure what the crowd would be like - turns out the "writing programs" part means lots of baby navel-gazers. I should be understanding and patient of the twenty-something students, I should be supportive. After all, John Updike's generous advice, rebroadcast last week, was, "any life has in it enough material, enough points of departure to fuel a writer's career." But I had little patience for the lazy questions (after an informative panel discussion of small press acquisition editors, one child asks: "I'm overwhelmed by all the tables downstairs in the exhibition hall. How can I learn about small presses?")
After a reading of recent memoir work by four poets, Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, ha ha), Carolyn Forche, Honor Moore (The Bishop's Daughter) and former US Poet Laureate Donald Hall, I overheard one of the twenty-somethings confess to being "humbled" - Young Woman, who did you think you were before the reading?
Sorry. Enough unkindness. My notes:
You know there is no way I could resist "The Mama Drama: The Challenge of Writing About Mothers in Creative Nonfiction." The five participants are all Minnesotans and contributors to the recent anthology Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers.
-Sheila O'Connor spoke of the loneliness and fallout of writing about family, the sense of taboo and the silence after publication. Of her mother, who ran a construction company, "My mom didn't do the things mothers care about - she didn't cook, she didn't clean or take care of us..." But in her traditional Irish Catholic family: "you don't dish the dirt on blood."
What are intended as tributes can change the family dynamic in unexpected ways. Writers can rest with the claim of truth, but the truth is a troublesome assertion... "WHAT truth would I tell?" asked O'Connor. "Whose truth is it? Was my truth enough to do my mother justice? Does putting the woman on paper diminish or broaden her?"
O'Connor's solution was direct address: she wrote TO her mother instead of about her.
When O'Connor made a strikingly true comment about how quick we are to judge women who aren't the kind of mothers who expect them to be, I suddenly thought of Nadya Suleman, the vilified octo-mom , who has been receiving death threats as well as nearly universal derision.
O'Connor ended with: Writing about our mothers' failings can make us look at how WE have failed to make our own marks in life...
-Poet Heid Erdrich, sister of Louise, asked, "What if typical narrative structure fails to describe the communal nature of motherhood? How does the 'I' of traditional narration fail the 'you of the subject, that is, our mothers?"
When she thinks of her mother, she thinks of "nesting bowls, eggs within eggs, mother within mother...we follow each other but never truly unite."
-Carrie Pomeroy shared her writing process as she struggled to understand and write about one difficult episode in her childhood. Her widowed mother had reached the end of her rope and frightened her daughters with the threat of self-violence. In writing about this, Pomeroy decided to take the anti-victim stance, following the advice of Vivian Gornick in The Story and the Situation: "I needed to be willing to implicate myself and take responsibility for my own role in the conflict." She read us an early draft, then the revised scene; the result of her work is a passage that shows compassion and understanding. Pomeroy was left "awed and humbled by what my mother had managed to give."
-Morgan Grayce Willow, from whose essay the title of the anthology was taken, is a poet whose often reticent mother was opposed to disclosure. Willow's life work with poetry and language kept her distant from her mother. In her remarks, Willow's language was often formal and sometimes obscurely technical and I pictured her mother as a woman who communicated in other ways. I was surprised to find myself terribly moved by Willow's account of her mother's last words, "have a nice life" and Willow's description of them as "awkward." She came to realize through the work of memoir that these words were a gift, but the story illustrated the miles of distance between the two women.
-I was fascinated by Wang Ping's story and the soft, off-hand way she told it: "My mother was supposed to stay with me for three months, but I started to bleed and my skin started to peel off so I could not have her stay with me...so she traveled through the US for a year and a half working as a nanny even though she only knew "thank you" and "hello" in English...she is a tiger and I am a chicken and the tiger will eat you up...she set up a clinic in my apartment and started healing my writing friends whose left fingers were growing longer than that on their right hands...My writing is my long conversation with my mother..the irony is that I write in English which she cannot read - but Mother knows - she knows."
In the Q and A, one woman stood and asked with great passion, "Why do we write about them instead of talking to them?" Wang Ping's response included this lovely image: When we talk to our mothers, there are lots of bags and buttons.