Motherhood & Words

The other night I went to see Chang-rae Lee read and talk about his new novel, The Surrendered. I haven’t read much of his fiction, but I absolutely love his essay “Coming Home Again,” which he was gracious enough to let me use in my Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class at the Loft.

I like to use this essay when I talk about character development because it’s such a lovely portrayal of his mother, a first-generation Korean immigrant, and of Lee’s relationship with her. The essay describes the last months of Lee’s mother’s life and her quarrel with herself over sending Lee away to Exeter for high school. This is one of my favorite scenes:

I remember washing rice in the kitchen one day and my mother’s saying in English, from her usual seat, “I made a big mistake.”

“About Exeter?”

“Yes, I made a big mistake. You should be with us for that time. I should never let you go there.”

“So why did you?” I said.

“Because I didn’t know I was going to die.”

I let her words pass. For the first time in her life, she was letting herself speak her full mind, so what else could I do?

“But you know what?” she spoke up. “It was better for you. I you stayed home, you would not like me so much now.”

I suggested that maybe I would like her even more.

She shook her head. “Impossible.”

On Tuesday night, Lee read the beginning of The Surrendered, which is stunning, and then spent over a half hour answering questions. I asked him, as I am wont to do, how he balanced teaching—he teaches at Princeton—and writing and family. (He has two young daughters.)

He admitted that it was challenging, especially when his daughters were very small. But he said that because his teaching predated his publishing, he’d always been a writer who taught. But he also said that it’s difficult to teach when he’s writing and write when he’s teaching. He needs to compartmentalize these two things because writing involves turning inward and teaching involves turning outward, being empathetic and supportive. (I’m paraphrasing badly here…)

I guess I agree with this, though I don’t know when I’ll have more than a month at a time when I’m not teaching, when I can really immerse myself in my own prose. Maybe I’ll never have that kind of time.

And maybe that’s okay. What I like about teaching and writing simultaneously—juggling the two—is that the elements of craft I’m discussing with my students are then at the forefront of my mind when I’m writing. As I sit down for my twenty minutes here or an hour there, thoughts about craft are swirling in my busy brain. I like to think it makes me a better writer.

And there is no doubt that teaching energizes me. Oh, the prep and getting myself in my teaching frame of mind can be exhausting, but it also feeds me. When my students have break-throughs or get a piece published, I take great pride in their work and the part I’ve played in it.

And that brings me to Brain, Child. One of my lovely and talented students has a wonderful essay in the latest issue. If you don’t already subscribe to Brain, Child, you should. And when you do, check out Andrea’s “Raising Private Milo,” which she started in my online Mother Words class last year. Congratulations, Andrea! You can also read Andrea’s writing online—she writes the wonderful blog Remains of the Day.

Now, I’m off to write for twenty minutes before I start my teaching prep.

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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. Elizabeth on March 25, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Great post! I love his writing and am envious that you had such a great encounter with him! Thanks for the links, too — I'll check out the essay (I haven't looked at Brain, Child in a while!).

  2. Andrea on March 26, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Thanks for the plug, Kate! And thanks for being such a fantastic teacher. I'm really looking forward to the advanced class this summer!

  3. 6512 and growing on March 29, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    I'm hoping to teach a writing course this fall. And also hoping thatthe teaching energizes my own writing rather than sapping energy. Likely it will.

    I've subscribed to Brain, Child since my 1st baby was born. Such an excellent publication.

  4. unfinishedportraitofsam on March 30, 2010 at 8:39 am

    this was a nourishing post this morning. i've been missing teaching pretty hard, recently.
    i agree with you completely, by the way: when i taught developmental writing at our community college, i found it was making me a much better writer at the most basic level–grammar, word choice, sentence structure. (things you forget, ironically, over the course of four years of a college English education, writing complicated critical papers, and, well, not sleeping.)
    my students were making me better, actually. probably, yours have made you better.