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Reader Response to Gathering in the Harvest of Girls: On Mothering, Desire, and Writing

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Last month’s column explored the theme of claiming your voice and your desire as a mother and as a writer. In this creative non-fiction piece, Kezia Willingham discusses the ways marriage and mothering have inspired her writing. As her essay shows, even when these experiences are difficult and painful, writing can be a bridge to finding one’s voice and strength.

The Power of Words

By Kezia Willingham

The written word has always been important to me. Words can be sources of escape, wonder, and encouragement. Whenever there’s been an absence of audible words that I need to hear, I have found what I am looking for in books and magazines. The wisdom of others fills magazine racks and books shelves all across the country, and now, the Internet.

My mother is the one who nurtured this literary passion. While we didn’t have much money when I was growing up, she always found a way to give me books. My mom knew well their healing, magical nature and wanted to share that knowledge with me. We were frequent visitors at the library and an independent used bookstore called the Book Bin, of which I have many fond memories spent browsing dusty shelves.

When I had my own daughter, I made sure that she also had this same love of the written word. She was reading chapter books in kindergarten and had typewritten 50-page stories by the time she reached third grade. I raised her as a single mother for ten years. Then I met someone who would change our lives forever.

That was when I began to write in response to a rapid series of events that occurred in my life: an unplanned pregnancy, a new relationship, the invasion of a government agency and then the sudden loss of the support system that had, until then, sustained me through severe economic hardship. What became an important theme for me was not to let fear control my choices.

I made a commitment not to do things because I feared the outcome.

Instead, I wanted to make choices based more on faith than fear.

When I was three months pregnant, immigration notified my boyfriend that his temporary legal status in this country was denied.

As we sat in front of his attorney, I blurted, “What if we get married?”

“It’s your only chance,” said the lawyer.

This was easier said than done. While the actual process of getting married couldn’t have been simpler, the life we began to live together wasn’t quite so smooth. Once we made the decision, we filled out a marriage license application, and were married in the courthouse a few weeks later. I wore old jeans and a white t-shirt. There were no flowers, or luxury honeymoon. The whole thing was quite ordinary.

Living with someone you don’t know well is not so easy. And that, perhaps, was the devil in the details.

I didn’t want our differences to be what defined us. As two people who were raised in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and had differing religious beliefs, there was a lot to sort through.

That’s when I began writing. I wrote because I could no longer hold in all that was happening. There was no clear right or wrong to our situation. I didn’t understand why doing what was supposed to be the right thing felt so hard. I didn’t know why it wasn’t easier to live with another human. I didn’t know why, in many ways, my life had seemed easier as a single mother. And I had no idea how long my marriage would last.

As my marriage progressed, my daughter began to have problems. Once an outstanding student, she began to fall behind. She developed an aversion to school. Eventually she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. One day I came home from a Sunday morning excursion to the park with my son and stepson to be confronted with the scent of weed inside my house. “What in the hell are you doing?” I shouted before I called the cops.

As my youngest son grew into a toddler, he, on the other hand, was doing quite well.

I knew my marriage was hard on my daughter. But it seemed to benefit my son. I was not prepared for the experience of being torn between two of your own children, who seemed to have such different needs. And my stepson, who initially was troubled, also seemed to thrive as the years progressed.

Was it simply puberty that threw my daughter off track? Or was it really my marriage?

The man I was married to did not yell, hit, or call people names. He was a quiet man. He tried to avoid conflict. He did not drink or use drugs. He helped around the house.

But over the course of time, I saw that in his effort to avoid conflict, he began to avoid me. And not just me, but also my daughter. It is hard to parent a child when you are ignoring him or her.

My daughter and I are passionate, vocal women who believe in expressing our feelings. I did not raise her to keep her voice held inside. From her earliest years, I taught her to label her feelings and speak her mind. The consequence is that she’s always been very good at articulating herself. To some, this can feel threatening.

The more my husband withdrew into himself, and stopped engaging in open dialogue with me, the more distant I began to grow from him. I felt like he started taking his anger on me out against my daughter, by also withdrawing from her.

As the silence between us began to grow, the tension in our home did too. I knew when I stopped speaking my mind that our relationship was on the decline.

The night that sealed the deal for me was when my daughter, in her 16-year-old earnestness, chose to articulate her feelings to her stepfather.

“There is something I want to talk about,” she started as he loaded the dishwasher.

“I am really disappointed that you are so angry about the foster cats we brought home. Caring for them is really important to me. I don’t go to school anymore. I don’t work. I don’t have many friends. But taking care of the cats makes me feel like I am doing something right. It’s the only thing I really feel good about. I have stopped hurting myself since we started fostering them. I don’t use drugs anymore. They really help me. I like taking care of them.”

My husband kept fiddling around in the kitchen.

As tears rolled down my daughter’s cheeks, he finally responded. “I know you like the cats, but I feel like you are out of control. I need to limit you.”

He did not make eye contact with her. He did not seem to care. This moment was when I knew for certain that he and I were on different pages, that we would no longer continue as a couple.

About a month after my husband stopped speaking to my daughter, I told him I didn’t want to continue in our marriage anymore. It was not healthy. It was time for us to move on. I needed to be free to speak my truth, raw, and real. And to have my feelings and opinions valued. More importantly, I needed my daughter’s feelings to be valued. My husband and I had grown into different people than those we were at the time of our union. We had made it until our son started school. We surpassed any of the goals that we had initially. And in the process, I found my voice. I hope, in turn, my daughter continues to raise hers.

Kezia Willingham is a freelance writer whose work can be found in xoJane.com, The Seattle Times, and Literary Mama. You can follow her on Twitter @KeziaWillingham

~

Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:

I love giving mother writers a chance to develop their writing voice. Kezia’s first published piece appeared in this column back in 2010. Since then, her writing has taken off and she has been published many times.

When she submitted this essay, however, I asked her to revise it in an important way—by adding scenes with dialogue. I often find that creative non-fiction writers who are in the first years of their craft tend to leave out this crucial aspect of the genre.

Perhaps because it is an essay, beginning writers stay in an essay voice and forget that creative non-fiction includes all of the elements of creative fiction, including developing scenes with characters who interact with each other through dialogue.

I want you to think of dialogue as the slippery water slide on a long, hot summer day. When we use dialogue, the pace quickens for the reader. Quite literally, dialogue is faster to read on the page, and it takes readers into a back and forth interaction with the characters, which lends itself to rapid switches and turns.

Compare the difference between these two passages in Kezia’s writing:

So, when I was three months pregnant, and immigration notified my boyfriend that his temporary legal status in this country was denied, we decided to get married, hoping he would be able to remain in this country until our son was born.

~

When I was three months pregnant, immigration notified my boyfriend that his temporary legal status in this country was denied.

As we sat in front of his attorney, I blurted, “What if we get married?”

“It’s your only chance,” said the lawyer.

~

Notice how the dialogue makes the scene come alive, as the narrative becomes a flesh and blood conversation between people.

Dialogue can also allow us insight into the emotional specificity of an event, such as in the difference between these passages:

As my marriage progressed, my daughter began to have problems. Once an outstanding student, she began to fall behind. She developed an aversion to school. Eventually she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

~

As my marriage progressed, my daughter began to have problems. Once an outstanding student, she began to fall behind. She developed an aversion to school. Eventually she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. One day I came home from a Sunday morning excursion to the park with my boys to be confronted with the scent of weed inside my house. “What in the hell are you doing?” I shouted before I called the cops.

~

In the first version of the essay, the final scene where the stepfather and daughter discuss the cats does not appear. And yet it is in this scene that the heartbreaking impasse is revealed.

Perhaps there is such a scene that is missing from your writing. I encourage you to go back and look for the places where you have glossed over and summarized what could be the very exchange that makes your essay come alive for the reader.

Why does dialogue help so much in our writing? Because writing shows changes in the characters, and dialogue allows us to witness quick changes—in mood, attitude, and choice. In the end, we change through our relationships with others, and nothing shows this better than dialogue.


Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.


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Beautiful. Kezia, I love how you stay true to yourself. What valuable wisdom here: "I made a commitment not to do things because I feared the outcome. Instead, I wanted to make choices based more on faith than fear." Cassie, thanks for the dialogue tip!
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