Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Writerly Roundup – November 2018

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Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.

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What It Means to Write About Motherhood, Part I, (@lithub), Lithub

In Literary Hub, Rumaan Alam, Kim Brooks, Jessica Friedman, Sheila Heti and Megan O'Connell participate in a roundtable discussion on what it's like to write about motherhood.

Kim Brooks starts the conversation by asking the others if they feel writers, editors, and readers considered the subject of motherhood unsuitable for serious literary treatment. She asks whether there is "... something inherently un-writerly about motherhood?"

 

Kim Brooks: In a recent interview for a literary journal, an editor asked the person interviewing me to find out why, since I was “primarily a fiction writer,” I’d decided to write a book about parenting, the assumption being that writing fiction and writing about parenthood were in some sort of opposition. It reminded me of a line in Rivka Galchen’s, Little Labors, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.” Have any of you noticed a similar reluctance on the parts of other writers, editors, or readers, to consider motherhood a subject suitable for serious literary treatment within the broader categories of either fiction or nonfiction? Is there something inherently un-writerly about the subject of motherhood? When and why did you decide to start writing about it?

 

Jessica Friedman talks about her desire to incite change for the larger, more serious issues women (esp. mothers) face. Her book, Things That Helped was relegated to the Parenting section and her dreams of starting a broader conversation did not come to fruition.

 

When I gripe about being consigned to the Parenting section, that’s what I really mean. I had cherished dreams about precipitating a major conversation about maternal mental health that has just never happened. Some days I feel like beating men around the head with the book and screaming, “This is happening to a lot of women you know! At least pretend to give a shit about us!” But the conversation is still being had between women and it’s not getting to the level of funding and policy and I just don’t know what to do about that.

 

Megan O'Connell discusses how the postpartum period is a push and pull of sorts. On one hand there is no time to write and on the other, the conditions are ripe for creativity. Mothers think all day while doing the work of motherhood, but logistics fail to move in their favor.

 

My youngest is three months and there is something about the postpartum period that makes me absolutely desperate to write. I think because a) it’s impossible and b) my days are meditative and quiet, full of long walks and menial tasks and rocking and big feelings. It’s the perfect environment for inspiration and it’s impossible, logistically, to get any work done. I think this (temporary!) setup is partly why women always seem to write about motherhood + art—it’s when their babies are new and it’s all they can think about. I know that once he’s older or once we can figure out how to afford a few hours of babysitting a week (whichever comes first…), it will feel less urgent. You’ll ask me how I manage both and I’ll just laugh and say, “Childcare??” like it’s obvious.

 

Jessica Friedman makes a beautiful point where she contemplates how to maintain the privacy of our children when we're writing about them. She says of her son  "...he is the bridge between motherhood and art."

 

It has definitely felt a lot easier for me now that my child is bigger. I didn’t like being the mother of an infant but I feel well-equipped to be the mother of a funny, cheerful, sensitive, inquisitive little string bean of a boy. What I think about the most is how best to protect his privacy; how to mediate the conversations about my illness, how to make sure I write about parenting in a way that is honest for me but respectful of him; which parts of my book he will be allowed to read and at what ages. It’s a constantly evolving relationship and one that in its way answers its own question; he is the bridge between motherhood and art. I am miles ahead as a writer because of how he’s enriched my life.

 

There is always a place for motherhood in writing and literature. Motherhood is rich with complexities that make it such a beautiful and a "larger than life" genre.

 

What It Means to Write About Motherhood, Part II,  (@lithub), Lithub

All of the authors agree there is a sentimentalization of motherhood that is simply inherent in our society, but what purpose does it serve?

Rumaan Alam says people are "invested in the myth of sentimental parenthood." However, there is an ugly, real side to parenting and writers must choose when they want to expose a side and bare the consequences of exposure.

 

Rumaan Alam: I think plenty of writers have taken a different, more considered view of parenting than the mawkish middlebrow, but the sentimental is the most popular or prevalent register for writing about parenthood. It’s like romantic love; sure, there are the boy meets girl stories, but there are plenty of other ways to write on that subject. Personally, I’m not sure there’s transcendence in the moment your kid barfs down your shirt and all over your bare back. But maybe there is, what the hell do I know? True, if you write about the complex reality of parenthood, people might think you’re a monster, because everyone is invested in the myth of sentimental parenthood; I guess you have to decide whether you can live with yourself after telling the complicated truth. 

 

Megan O'Connell brings up an issue that may be common to many mothers. It is the question of "more." The "status quo" makes mothers feel shame for feeling any degree of dissatisfaction or wanting more.

 

Meaghan O’Connell: God. The sentimentalization of parenthood upholds the status quo and makes you feel guilty or feel whiny or entitled for wanting more or feeling dissatisfied. I think I’ve successfully internalized that by now, but it’s breathtaking witnessing it in other people, their insistence that everything is great and these are the days and let’s soak it all up. I figure some people are just lucky and content, some people are lying, and some people are completely repressed. I mean what could be more sentimental than my relationship with my kids, but that’s between us, not us and the state, or us and the general public.

 

Sheila Heti believes sentimentalization is a detriment to mothers. Sentimentalization puts mothers on a pedestal where everything is good and nothing can be bad. But in the end this approach actually prevents mothers from getting the help they may need.

 

I don’t know if it will ever be the case that humans can wash from the word Mother the symbolic associations of pure love and pure givingness; meaning one of the functions the ideal serves is to give us hope (that such a love can be). Perhaps the aim should be for us to more definitively separate the universal symbol of Mother from the lived experience of the mother—which I think many contemporary writers on motherhood are striving to do. It’s important because the sentimentalization of motherhood allows society not to help mothers. The sentimentalization of motherhood allows us to turn away from caring for mothers because it leads us to believing that motherhood is so rosy, so innate, such a given happiness, that the mothers don’t need our help.

 

The authors mention their favorite books about motherhood and Megan O'Connell states writing about motherhood is not new. It has been written about, it's just not discovered until people become parents themselves and sink into their new identity.

 

I would say there has been a lot of rich writing about motherhood lately, and that maybe publishers have been more willing to publish it the past few years, and that it seemed, for a few months this year (around mother’s day, naturally), that there was a “glut” and it was starting to annoy people on Twitter and/or that it was a useful organizing principle or cultural peg for critical essays. Motherhood has always been a subject, it’s just often been considered niche and people tend to “discover” it when they become parents themselves. “Why does no one talk about this?” is the famous new mom refrain. And everyone who has come before is like, Ugh, we have been but you just weren’t listening. (I say this having been a classic offender myself!)

 

Motherhood is indeed a beautiful thing, but it's not always rainbows and unicorns. We are mothers, but we are women too.

 

How to Monotask Your Way to Writing Productivity, (@ReedsyHQ), Reedsy

In today's fast-paced world, we are taught to multitask. Do things, do them all quickly. If you're not multi-tasking you're not working hard enough. The truth is, multitasking may not be the best approach. You may get things done, but how well are you doing it?

 

Not quite. Unfortunately, while we may feel that our productivity increases when we multitask, practical results and countless studies tell us otherwise.

When you multitask, you’re not working on two tasks at the same time — you’re actually rapidly switching between tasks without giving your brain the time it really needs to completely focus on each one. Bouncing from one task to another and back again results in “attention residue,” clouding your concentration.

 

Multitasking impacts the writing process. We sit down to write, fully intending to get a chapter completed today, then it happens - we respond to emails, scroll our Facebook feed, and click on the ad that pops up on the page.

 

But because these tasks seem so basic and unavoidable, we rarely stop to consider that this could be having an impact on the quality of our work or our productivity. 

Multitasking and switching between screens can make you feel more productive in the moment, but in the long run, it’s eating up time that you could be spending on your hobbies, creative projects, or relaxing with family and friends.

If you want to step up your performance and reclaim your time to have more opportunities to do what you love, it’s time to say goodbye to multitasking and get familiar with the concept of “deep work” and the practice of monotasking

 

Monotasking allows you to move beyond "doing just one thing." Monotasking proposes  you focus on only one thing. You must eliminate all distractions so that you can produce higher quality work in a shorter time frame.

 

This might involve working in strict isolation: in other words, turning off your notifications, ignoring your inbox, and putting your smartphone on silent. Sure, some soft classical music in the background won’t hurt, but you don’t want to invite anything into your workspace that could pull your attention away from the task at hand.

Deep work monotasking will enable you to finish more high-quality work in a shorter period of time — it’s a win-win method for both performance and overall productivity. You’ll eliminate the problem of attention residue, and when your workday is done, you’ll have more time to intentionally spend on the activities you really want to be doing.

 

It's no secret that eliminating distractions is crucial to productivity. Monotasking may be just what you need to finally finish that novel you're working on.

 

Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we'd love to hear your input!


Sharon Brandwein is a writer living in California. Her work has appeared on ABC News, Motherly, Scary Mommy, 40 Plus Style, and ParentMap. You can find her writing about motherhood and documenting her life as a writer at her website.


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