I was thrilled when Rachel Pieh Jones invited to me to participate in a ‘blog hop’ about the writing life. I have admired Rachel’s work from afar (read this and this) and I knew we had (at least) two major things in common: we are both expats and mothers of girl/boy twins. I was also excited to be given the opportunity to consider not only what I am writing these days, but how and why I am writing it.
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1) What am I writing or working on?
I am a contributing blogger for Brain, Child Magazine, which means that every two weeks I write an 800-1200 word post for their signature blog – Brain, Mother – about some aspect of parenting or other. There are many venues in which to write about motherhood, the web is saturated with them. But when Brain, Child took me on in August of last year, it felt like an incredible stroke of luck, because they are, in academic parlance, my intellectual home: Brain, Child calls itself ‘the magazine for thinking mothers’ and I am a mother who cannot, for the life of me, stop thinking! Occasionally, I also freelance for other publications, depending on the subject matter, where ‘freelance’ is a fancy way of saying that I submit coldly and keep my fingers crossed tightly.
This week I happen to be working on a couple of humor pieces. Most of my essays lean either towards the analytic or the poignant. But, every now and again, I like to try my hand at something dry and witty. (One of my favorite posts in this ilk is an open letter I wrote to my toddler about his obsession with my iPhone). I’ve just come up for air from the depths of two weighty essays – one about religion and one about the essence of motherhood – so hopefully this will provide a little light relief, for both my readers and myself!
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My first real foray into writing was as an academic and this background still informs much of my ‘style,’ even as a ‘mommy blogger.’ I am logical and linear, almost to a fault, and I don’t feel satisfied with an essay unless it is ‘tight’ in this respect (see, I use expressions like ‘in this respect’!). My academic work was in classical literature and also in philosophy. As a result, I tend to look at the world analytically. And with a critic’s eye. This allows me, I think, to write about my children and my parenting in a way that is more detached, and perhaps more objective, than is the norm. I look for reasons behind my choices as a mother; I like to explore the connections between them, using my personal experience as a launchpad to tackle the bigger, more universal, themes.
One of my favorite sub-genres of parenthood writing is ‘taking sides’ on a single issue. Every other month or so I will do this on Brain, Child’s blog as a ‘two different perspectives’ (the one linked to here is with my good writing friend Rebecca Hughes Parker), and I have recently become the editor for the print magazine’s quarterly ‘debate,’ which is a squaring off on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. Coming at a subject from different angles is not, for me, about right or wrong. It is about the philosophical revelation that there is, almost always, more than one ‘truth’ on the matter. Parenting is rife with division these days. The ‘Mommy Wars’ are alive and kicking. I don’t feel as if my debates fuel this vitriol. Quite the opposite: what better way to dispel the myth that there is only one way to do it than to read a well-reasoned, heartfelt and honest account written by somebody doing it the other way?
3) Why do I write what I do?
Here I have to steal a quotation from Ernest Hemingway that I’ve seen used recently by a wonderful fellow blogger of mine, Lindsey Mead: ‘I never had to choose my subject – my subject rather chose me.’ Having children opened a floodgate in me. It changed me in all the obvious, cliched ways, but it also shifted me away from some of the more introverted, disconnected aspects of my personality. I think because I genuinely felt, not to be too grandiose, that it was the first truly universal thing I had done in my life. There was so much humanity in the experience, so much about it that pulled me out of myself. I wasn’t one mother, alone in her exhaustion and exhilaration, I was, at once, every mother I had ever known or ever would know. From the minute my first child was born, I couldn’t stop talking about what was happening to me and listening to other mothers talk about what was happening to them. My writing is a natural extension of that passion.
4) How does my writing process work?
Sometimes I think of myself as an editor, who happens to write. I spend a lot of my ‘writing’ time editing myself, probably a disproportionate amount compared to other, more natural writers. I am constantly reading parts of my work back to myself. Often, to the annoyance of the people I live with, in a stage whisper. I’m doing it now, as I type this. I need to hear my words to get the rhythm right, to get the flow. I love the beauty of language and of syntax and I put a lot of effort into making my writing as aesthetically pleasing as possible. If you saw me hunched over my laptop in a coffee shop, I’d look like a crazy person, muttering to myself…but it works.
Writing, for me, is not just about sitting at the computer and touching down on the keyboard. I script in my head throughout the day. Phrases and ideas hit me at unexpected times: in fact, most of my big ideas come when I am ostensibly doing something else. Like taking a shower. Maybe it’s the ambient noise, maybe it’s the solitude, which is a commodity for a mother of four young children, but this is where I have my Eureka moments or solve my latest structural problems. Or if not the shower, then at a red light.
When I ‘finish’ a first draft of a piece (and finish means different things for different pieces), I always send it to Denitza Blagev, whom I affectionately refer to as ‘my reader, my friend.’ If you don’t have one of these magical friends, find one!
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As part of the ‘hop,’ I will now pass the baton on, as it were, to three other writers I admire. These women impress me continually with their insight, their depth and the great care they take with the written word.
Debra Liese is a writer of essays and mother to a 3, 4, and 8 year old. She lives near Princeton, NJ, where she works as a publicist for scholarly books. Find her at debraliese.com and @DebraLiese. (Lauren says: to get to know Debra, read this incredibly thoughtful piece about her daughter’s decision to become a vegetarian at age four.)
Zsofi McMullin lives, writes, and wrangles a four-year-old in Connecticut. Visit her blog at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @hunglishgirl. (Lauren says: to get to know Zsofi, read this heart-stopping essay about the nature of love, past and present.)
Ariana Kelly lives and writes in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about phone booths (forthcoming from Bloomsbury in August 2015) and a collection of linked essays. She can be followed on Twitter at @ArianaDKelly and on her website: arianadelainekelly.com. (Lauren says: to get to know Ariana, read this fascinating account of what role is left for the phone booth in today’s world of ubiquitous mobile technology.)
photo credit: oliver tomkins (age 8.5)