Motherhood & Words

I always mean to do an extensive recap of my co-panelists’ presentations, but then the panel is over, and I’m so relieved to be done that it’s had for me to remember what was said. Okay, not really. I remember what everyone said. But this time it was more challenging to remember what I said because I was not only me—um, Kate Hopper—I was also the wonderfully talented Jill Christman. (And as I told the audience: I always wanted to be Jill, so it actually worked out really well.)

Jill and another panelist, Joe Mackall, were both stranded due to the severe storm that hit the Midwest last week. I was so disappointed not to hear their thoughts (from their own mouths), but luckily, I ran into my friend Kevin Fenton and he quickly and graciously agreed to join the panel at the last minute.

Our panel was “Flinging the Inkpot: Resisting Messages About Off-Limits Subjects in Memoir.” First Jill (or me posing as Jill) wondered why so many memoirs are lumped together and discarded. In Jill’s words: “What is it with memoir?  Why is it that narrow marketing categories used by publishers, reviewers, and booksellers lead the industry to lump and dismiss entire categories of human experience? Memoirists shouldn’t talk about abuse, especially sexual abuse, or addiction (seriously, aren’t we better yet?), or sexuality (unless, you know, it’s really sexy); off limits, also, is any kind of dying grandparent (anybody we might expect to die), children (too cute, too precociously wise, too altogether plentiful), or parenting of any stripe.  This last scorned category spawned the flagrantly derivative sub-genre monikers ‘Momoir’ and the ‘Dad Lit’…”

Then the wonderful Sue William Silverman discussed the fact that memoirs written by women on “home front” subjects (child abuse, addiction, etc.) aren’t taken as seriously as books written by men focusing on foreign wars. Why, she asked, are male warriors heroes while women surviving domestic horrors are victims? (My sister, who slipped into for the presentation, had tears in her eyes after Sue’s talk.)

I (the real Kate) followed Sue, and I discussed how motherhood literature in particular is often discarded or seen as “less then.” I also talked about the necessity of staying true to not only your subject matter (whether it is one of these subjects that is deemed “not literary” or not), but also to your voice. I described how, when Ready for Air was first shopped around (before I rewrote the whole damn thing), I was told that the subject matter was too difficult, but that if the book was funnier, it might sell. (Blah.)

I also talked about the fact that though it was unlikely that the kind of categorization we were talking about on the panel was going to stop—because publishers want to put books into categories because they feel it will make marketing these book easier—I do think we can affect real change in this matter—slow as this change may be—as readers and reviewers.

Whenever I review motherhood literature (or any kind of literature) I’m always looking for the universals—I’m looking past the situation and searching out the real story, or as Vivian Gornick said, “the insight, the wisdom, the thing the writer has come to say.” And that lets me discuss a book not as a motherhood memoir, but simply as a memoir about longing or faith or fear—or any of the other universal themes I regularly find when I open a memoir having to do—in small or large part—with motherhood.

So, I said, we have a responsibility—in our classrooms, on our blogs, in our literary journals and magazines, and at our own dining room tables—to help break down the walls of these literary boxes and make room for the crafting of true literature.

I was followed by the wonderful Paul Lisicky, who talked about how shame—not obvious shame, but class shame, for instance—and the fear of looking foolish can enervate our thinking and writing. He talked about being at a panel himself and listening to Toi Derricotte talk about wanting to write a series of poems about her dead goldfish, but feeling embarrassed to write about her deceased fish. (You can read the paper from which Paul’s talk arose in Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis.)

And then Kevin stepped up and talked about the issues of categorizing and discarding groups of memoirs from the perspective of a marketer. (In addition to being a novelist and memoirist, he also is a marketing and advertising writer.) And his take was that most publishers don’t have a sense of who is really buying books. Fascinating. I wish you all could have been there. It was wonderful to see those of you who were there and who came up and said hello after the presentation. Thank you so much!

On Saturday morning, I was delighted to listen to a conversation with Richard Bausch. I love Bausch’s short stories, but I had no idea that he was such a character. He talked about how terrified he was years ago when he was at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He was hilarious (dropping the f-bomb, telling jokes) and he was inspiring. Here are a couple of his nuggets of wisdom:

“Doubt is your talent. People who have no doubt usually don’t have much talent.”

“I’m writing for anyone who can read.”

“Don’t read books, read writers.”

“Good dialogue always does more than one thing. If your dialogue is doing only one thing, write it again.”

I had lovely dinners with my sister and wonderful lunches with friends, and then yesterday, I was ready to be home with D and my girls. And after an uneventful plane ride, I was. The girls had decorated my office and drawn me pictures, and D had cleaned the house—thank you!—and as always, it was lovely to be home.

Think about attending this conference next year (in Chicago) or in 2013 (in Boston), or if you want to hold out until 2015, it will be in Minneapolis!

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Anjali on February 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    You've peaked my interest. I've always sort of fantasized about going to AWP, but I think I'm going to try to put things into motion so I can be there next time around!

  2. Matt Tullis on February 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Loved your panel. We were talking later about how it's amazing that even though you were reading Jill's remarks, it was still so clearly Jill's voice coming through. I wish I had that kind of voice in my writing.

  3. Elizabeth on February 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I wish that I had been there and thank you for your tidbits! And I love the Richard Bausch quotes, particularly "I'm writing for anyone who can read."

  4. Amber on February 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks, Kate!! Loved reading this. What a great panel! I'm thinking that next year may work for me to attend. I was drooling as I scrolled online through all the talks that were available. Wow.

  5. Andrea on February 7, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Sounds like a great panel–wish I'd been there! (Or wish you'd been there last year). AWP is so invigorating, but also exhausting/ overwhelming. You've inspired me to go back over my notes from last year and get re-energized.

  6. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities on February 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    "…we have a responsibility—in our classrooms, on our blogs, in our literary journals and magazines, and at our own dining room tables—to help break down the walls of these literary boxes and make room for the crafting of true literature."

    This is so important. So so important.

    So pleased to be here reading your words. Look forward to reading and learning more.

  7. Brenda on February 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I don't get around much … anymore (!) … but I do love reading about writing.