Motherhood & Words

I’m at the coffee shop (my “office”) for the first time in a couple of weeks, and it feels good to be back. Most of the creative work I’ve done over the last seven years has been done here, sitting at one of these red tables.

I hadn’t been consciously staying away. I seemed to have overbooked myself with mid-day appointments and teaching commitments. And with only two hours in the morning, I had been choosing to run instead of write. I don’t usually do that, but there was something about the almost-instant gratification of running that I needed.

If I run four or five days a week, very soon I begin to look and feel different. (Writing, on the other hand, more often fits in the very-delayed-and-maybe-never gratification category.)

But even though I don’t always get the results I want when I write, being away from my writing always makes me realize that I do need to write. When I step away, even for a few weeks, I begin to feel lost, unmoored. I am easily irritated and easily discouraged. And it affects my mothering: I’m less patient and more frustrated with my girls. I begin to question whether I’m even a good mother.

It’s true that sometimes when I take a break from my memoir, I return excited to dive into it. (I’m ready now.) And, of course, it’s not as if I haven’t been thinking about it. Those long runs give me a perspective on my narrative that I would be missing otherwise. But that perspective will be lost if I don’t actually sit down and do the work I need to do.

A couple of weeks ago, Teri, one of my coffee shop friends and a fellow writer, handed me Ann Patchett’s What Now?, a thin book containing the commencement speech Patchett delivered to Sarah Lawrence graduates a few years ago.

“I think you should read this, Kate,” she said.

I almost declined the offer because there are a dozen or more books on my to-read list. My stack threatens to topple across my cluttered desk if I sneeze too forcefully.

But then Teri said, “No really. I don’t need it back anytime soon, and it’s a fast read.”

I slipped the book into my bag, and when I got home, I put it on my precarious tower.

I hadn’t planned on reading it anytime soon. But on Saturday afternoon, after teaching a short memoir class at a local library, getting Zoë down for her nap, and turning on Benji for Stella, I just didn’t feel like editing or planning my upcoming class. A rumbling thunderstorm had just passed over the Twin Cities, and the sky was still close and oppressive, the air heavy. I was tired.

When I saw Patchett’s book on the stack in my office, I thought, perfect. I grabbed it and cuddled up to Stella, who explained who the “mean guy” in the movie was and why Benji was trying to escape him. It seemed like a complicated plot for a kids’ movie, but I guess that’s how we rolled in the ‘70s.

I alternated between Benji and Patchett, which, oddly, worked. Nothing like the encouragement of a commencement speech alongside plaid dress pants, bowl cuts, and seriously dated cinematography. And that ‘70s chase music. What could be better?

And just as Teri promised, What Now? is a quick read. (I finished it before the mean guy was arrested and Benji was safely reunited with his family.)

One of my favorite lines in the book is this: “I learned the most from sticking with my dream even when all signs told me it was time to let go.”

In the last year, I’ve had more than a few signs telling me it might be time to let go of writing and get a “real job.” And a couple of times I even searched local job boards and inquired about openings. But I knew I wasn’t ready to give up writing yet. And how I felt when I was away from my revision even two weeks makes me realize that I need to stick with this dream. Because of course it’s more than a dream; it’s who I am.

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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. Sarah Irene Dye on May 24, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Good for you for sticking with the writing, Kate!! You are a mother 24/7, so you already have much more than a *real job*. I believe you need to feed your soul and that of other mothers with your writing. After all, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.":) Hang in there! – Sarah

  2. Lynne Marie Wanamaker on May 24, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Keep on keeping on, Kate!

    Recently, the local newspaper showed interest in some things I'd written. I said to a friend (also a writer), "Now I know why I wrote all that stuff on that topic when no one at all was paying attention."

    She reminded me, "You wrote because you're a writer."

    Point taken. I don't think we can escape it.

  3. Myrna CG Mibus on May 24, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for sharing and keep writing. Your writing makes a difference!

    Maybe we should get a bunch of writing moms together and write a book about the struggles we have with the "real job" challenge. A collection of essays perhaps..

  4. cath c on May 24, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    ti's good to have those reminders, isn't it?

  5. Anjali on May 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for this. It's exactly what I needed to hear.

  6. sarah on May 24, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    "its more than a dream — its who i am" — that hit me hard. its why i write too. thank you for that reminder and inspiration.

  7. Kaethe on May 24, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Kate, I just played the speech for two of my classes. I love it. You can hear it on line (I haven't actually read the longer version) and it's kind of lovely to hear the way Patchett's voice shakes a little at the beginning. Good luck with the words. 🙂

  8. 6512 and growing on May 24, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I liked that book too. I'm glad it spoke important words that went right to your writer's heart.

  9. Cecilia on May 25, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Such a moving post, Kate – I loved the way you close it.

    I recently found this list of famous writers who had gotten rejected so many times before they found a publisher. I was amazed. They too must have ignored all the warning signs.

  10. Laura G. O'Brien on May 25, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Oh Kate! Please "keep going" with your writing and teaching. Taking Mother Words was the best thing I did for myself in as long as I can remember. You are substance and style. I can't wait for your books to come out!

    I turn to your blog constantly for reading referrals, website referrals etc. There is much of your impact as a writer and teacher that I'm sure your don't realize.

  11. kristenspina on May 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    I loved that book. I read it over and over again and try to get everyone I know to read it, too.

    What a beautiful post. And your ending says it all. It is more than a dream… And you must keep going.

  12. kate hopper on May 27, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Thanks everyone. As always, your words never feel to lift me. Thank you for reading and for your own wonderful words.