Motherhood & Words

I love that moment in class when a light goes off for a student or when someone tells me that her writing is going in a completely different direction than she expected. I love being a part of that discovery. (And yes, I do realize that I sound like a sap.)

Yesterday we read “Mother Love” from Andrea Buchanan’s Mother Shock, and “Memory and Imagination” from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories. I almost always use Hampl’s essay to kick off creative nonfiction classes because it gets students thinking about what memoir is, and makes them realize that, as memoirists, we don’t “write about what (we) know, but in order to find out what (we) know.”

One of the most important things I hope my students get from this essay is that a careful first draft is a failed first draft. In a first draft, “the piece hasn’t yet found its subject.” You should write from your heart without censoring, then go back and figure out what you’re trying to say, what the piece is really about.

One thing that I didn’t anticipate was how nicely Hampl’s and Buchanan’s pieces went together. I picked Buchanan’s piece as a way to start dialogue about motherhood models and this idea of “mother love” (and because I really like her writing, of course). But it turns out that the way Buchanan looks back on her early months of mothering in this essay perfectly mirrors the way Hampl talks about first drafts. At first, Buchanan worries that her daughter isn’t really connecting with her. (And in the midst of those first months of crying and burping and changing diapers, who doesn’t worry about this?) But it’s only when Buchanan looks back on videos of those early months that she finally can see how attached her daughter really was to her, “how clearly (she) was her whole world.”

You need to be able to look back in this same way on your writing. When you’re writing a first draft, you don’t know if it’s any good. (At least I don’t.) You’re in the middle of it, and it feels like a mess (just as the early months of parenthood do). Then, when you look back on it, you can see what really exists there—you can see what your piece is really about. (Or in Buchanan’s case, she could see her child’s intense connection to her.)

I just love when two pieces of writing talk to each other. All I have to do in these situations is eavesdrop.


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. Sari on February 12, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Great blog!

    And now you have me curious to read “Mother Shock” by Buchanan. I love the title.

  2. Kara on February 12, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    As a student and fan–so glad you’re doing this. This way, if I get stuck in the snow and can’t make it to class, I can still get my Kate fix! Oh dear… do I sound obsessed? Promise no stalking!

  3. bryan on February 13, 2007 at 10:05 am

    I like the idea that my years of writing first drafts are preparing me for parenthood. The only drawback seems to be that I can’t toss the kid out and start over again if it isn’t working.

  4. sara on February 14, 2007 at 8:16 am

    Hi Kate, it’s great to see you out in the blogosphere! I’m looking forward to reading more!

  5. kate on February 16, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    So glad you guys are reading this. And Bryan, if you need to drop a kid at my house someday, I’ll give you a break.

  6. Mardougrrl on February 22, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    As someone who is working on a first draft of her novel (and is terrified of it), thank you! I think about the parallels between mothering and writing all of the time, but that one escaped me. So thank you.

    BTW, I’m in Minneapolis too! 🙂