Motherhood & Words

I spent the weekend at my mom’s cabin up north (which is what we natives say when we’re talking about Northern Minnesota.) The weather was perfect: sunny and warm during the day, cool in the evening. Stella played and argued and played with her cousin, and Zoë played in the sand and ate the moldy bread intended for the sunfish. It wasn’t relaxing in the way that, pre-children, I would lie on the dock and read all afternoon, but still, there were moments of relaxation, and more than anything, it was a needed change of scene.

I didn’t check e-mail or my cell-phone for messages even once. And I was able to read most of a novel–a non-motherhood, non-reviewing novel. It’s been a while since I’ve done this, and I couldn’t have picked a better book: Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, the third novel in her Regeneration trilogy. These novels are based on the real-life experiences of British army officers who were treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. I’m reading the book for my book club, otherwise I probably would have begun with the first in the trilogy, and indeed, I find myself floundering a little in spots, knowing I’m not getting the full story on the characters. But still, the book stands on its own, and indeed, it won the Booker Prize in 1995.

Sometimes I become so consumed by my daily life and the juggling act of work and family (and weaning) that I lose sight of my place in history. I lose sight of the expanse of human experience. Pat Barker is an expert in capturing the complexity of human experience. Her characters in this trilogy are based on real people, true, but she brings them to life for us. The pause, the uncertainty, the lust and love, shame and confusion—it’s all there, and it’s there in the smallest gestures, in word choice, in the way a gaze lingers too long.

This book (though it is a novel) reminds me of why memoir and strong characters must go hand in hand. I’ve had more than one person ask me why I was teaching character development in a memoir class. (I’m serious.) There is an assumption that because the people in a work of creative nonfiction really exist, there is no need to be concerned about character development. But nonfiction writers need to write believable and three-dimensional characters precisely BECAUSE these characters are real people. It’s a way of honoring them. And this is exactly what Barker does: she honors these men by making them real for us on the page.

Go get this book. Hell, get the whole trilogy. She’s that good.

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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. Ines on July 8, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I was running out to a meeting when I remember to read your blog. These words (yours)"Sometimes I become so consumed by my daily life and the juggling act of work and family (and weaning) that I lose sight of my place in history" resonate so much with me. I copied them into my special book of words (otherwise known as diary in my previous life). Thank you, Kate.

  2. The Blue Suitcase on July 8, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Kate, how I wish I had taken classes in character development from you. I worry that I have not paid enough attention to filling out the people in my memior. Yikes! I'll take any tidbits you have! (but not moldy ones. those are for the sunfish.)

  3. Anonymous on July 11, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    I've never commented here before, but I just wanted to agree with you so strongly about the Pat Barker trilogy. I read them in order and cried when I finished Ghost Road, something I haven't done with a book in a very long time. Just tremendous. Thanks for highlighting the trilogy. I enjoyed your thoughts on character development.