Motherhood & Words

Stella is on spring break this week, and something about that and the fact that it is surprisingly—strangely—warm outside makes me feel as if I should also be on vacation. I’m not, of course, but things have slowed down for me a bit. One class has ended and the other is winding down, so I find myself feeling oddly lethargic. It’s not as if I don’t have plenty of other things that need doing—Lordy, you should see my list—but I feel incapable of doing any of these things.

Today, after my mom came to get the girls for the afternoon, I even lay down to try to take a nap. A nap of all things! What sacrilege. But of course I only dosed for a few minutes before I roused myself to read. And read I must—I have five or six (or twelve) books I’d like to post about, so I better get reading. And I must read during the day. I find that at night—and I know I’ve mentioned this before—I am so tired of looking at words (I spend far too much time at the computer each day) that I simply cannot pick up a book, even if it’s a book I’m really enjoying. It makes my eyes hurt (and sometimes my head and sometimes my neck).

In my lethargy this afternoon, I opened The Best American Essays 2009, which I have been ignoring on my shelf for months, and I turned to Patricia Hampl’s essay, “The Dark Art of Description.” I love her essays on writing and memoir, so I thought this might be just the thing to jump-start my tired brain.

In it, she describes doing a Q & A with a group of Freshman Comp students. There was one student who seemed particularly disinterested in what Hampl had to say, but at the end of the Q & A, he sat up in his seat and he said that he understood. He said, “Nothin’s ever happened to you — and you write books about it.”

In the essay, Hampl, says this:

He was right, of course. And in pronouncing this acute literary critical remark, he touched on the most peculiar aspect of the rise of the memoir in our times — namely, that fundamentally it isn’t about having a more interesting life than someone else. True, there is a strand of autobiographical writing that relies on the documentation of extraordinary circumstances, lives lived in extremity, often at great peril. But such memoirs have always been part of literary history. What characterizes the rise of memoir in recent times is precisely the opposite condition — not a gripping “narrative arc,” but the quality of voice, the story of perception rather than action.

She goes on to talk about style and the importance of description and then ends the essay with another story of an encounter with a student. This student was worried that he didn’t have anything important to write about because he came from Fridley, a northern suburb of the Twin Cities. Hampl assured the young man that being from Fridely was actually good news. She told him, “The field’s wide open. Nobody has told what it’s like to grow up in Fridley yet. It’s all yours.” Then she ends the essay with this:

All he needed to do was sit down and describe. And because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, you find the world you have lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued. The world you alone can bring into being, bit by broken bit. And so you create your own integrity, which is to say your voice, your style.

Caressing detail into life. I love that. And I also love the idea that each of us has a world that we, alone, can bring into life.

I guess it’s time for me to get off the couch.

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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. Jennifer Bostwick Owens on March 31, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Excellent little bits of inspiration. Thank you, Kate. I admire you for holding tight to your writing dreams even while your children are little. It's not easy!

  2. Elizabeth on April 1, 2010 at 1:45 am

    I need to pull that book off my own dusty shelf. Thanks for the tidbit of inspiration, Kate!

  3. Mummy mania on April 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Thank you for this. Isn't it funny how things sometimes happen for a reason? I haven't read many blogs recently – pregnancy tired, worried about my chromosome dysfunction, busy with the girls and focusing any time I do have, on my novel. And finding my voice has been the hardest part. and what you've just written has given me an 'Aha' moment – so thank you. Serendipty rules!

  4. Kara on April 3, 2010 at 6:26 am

    Such good news for those of us with boring lives:-) Ah, but the challenge of it! Which starts, not with caressing those details to live, but finding the time to get those details on paper! I hope those details are still with me in 20 years.

  5. unfinishedportraitofsam on April 5, 2010 at 10:09 am

    that's interesting–that's the sentence my eye stuck on too: "caressing" detail into life. it's a lot gentler way to look at rendering a scene, a moment, a person. i think i find that when i'm writing hard and just am…STUCK on trying to render that thing "right," i start yanking at the details, trying to force them onto the page–and correctly.
    caressing sounds more like coaxing. and it's more successful…

    good read, Kate. Hampl's not one i've ever read, i think, but now i want to.