Some say you're born with it—a gift, a talent, a flair for language. This was certainly true for me. I wrote my first "novel" at the age of four; it was five pages long and illustrated. Starting in the first grade, I kept journals. I numbered them so biographers would know if one went missing after my death. Words poured out of me—poems, short stories, outlines for screenplays, and character sketches of the other children in my classes.
I continued to write creatively all throughout high school, college, and graduate school. These writings came out of me like steam from a pressure cooker. I often felt I would explode if I couldn't translate something I was learning or feeling into a form that felt right to me—and usually that form was a poem.
Poetry was my map.
I’ve just returned from a five-month hiatus from this Birthing the Mother Writer column. My life has changed in incredible ways during this time, and yet, through it all, it is always poetry that I return to, that returns me to who I am—the deepest, most solid part of me as a woman and mother and teacher in the world.
Over the next year, I will take what I have learned and teach you how to birth your own mother writer. So think of yourself, as you read this column, as having enrolled in a Birthing the Mother Writer Class. The column will still be interactive and give you opportunities to write and submit your own writing. We will cover poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. I will balance columns about the deeper wisdom of writing, as I am doing this month, with more technical, how-to lessons. The full syllabus can be found at the end of this post.
Let’s begin with poetry.
My early poems were full of rhythm and rhyme. They came easily. I would start with a feeling—not necessarily an emotion, but more of an actual sensation in my body—and I would know that a poem was on its way. Out would come witches and nightmares, fear and foreboding—all delivered in a sing-song voice, like this one which I wrote for the daughter of the man I would later marry.
He carries you up high
I walk beside below
You call my name and sing
A song for me alone:
"If, if I was a witch
I was a good witch good"
Not were but was, I think:
I was a witch, and good?
"And ride a horse in sand"
A horse in sand, you sing
I dreamt a witch, on horse
You sing some more, I think:
Was I your age, at three?
Which witch was I, at five?
Was I a witch, or she?
Where was that horse, at night?
Or did she come on horse
To frighten me below?
Like you on him, so high
And me below, so low.
This poem was written during my early 20s while I was in therapy for the flashbacks and memories of childhood sexual abuse. Like many other poems I wrote during this period, it asked more questions than it answered, but it also gave me an outlet for the images and feelings that would have otherwise poisoned me from within.
I spent a decade healing from my childhood—attending individual, couples, and group therapy, as well as receiving regular massage therapy and bodywork—and then I felt I was ready to make a major commitment to myself and another: marriage.
After the wedding ceremony, I felt myself open up to the world in a way I’d never before experienced. I was sensitive and raw, as if I’d just been born. The ceremony initiated for me a new period of feeling loved, and this love extended to the natural world around me. This world, its flowers and birds and trees, were speaking to me.
Surely, all of this
cannot be for me.
The wasp who flies
like a cripple,
making lines in the air.
The robin on the
green grass, always
The cicadas in the tree
above, getting louder,
telling me to pay attention.
The hissing cry of the hawk
in the woods, where
I can't see her.
The grasshopper near the
butterfly bush, grown
so large, he just sits there.
tipping into their drinks,
loveliest drunks in nature.
And further, seven heads
of green buds of roses,
with nothing to do but wait.
And more flowers I cannot name,
orange, yellow, red, and purple.
Did my mother miss me
this much, that she did all this in celebration?
I was the married Persephone, returned to the world of the living, loved in a way I never before had been—by my husband and stepdaughter, by the goddess of flowers and bones, by the universe itself which spoke to me through my fingers. I saw signs in trees and birds, felt wisdom in the wind, heard rhythms in my mind, and was not afraid to let it all come in, move through me and onto the page.
Beginning when I was pregnant with my own daughter, I began a creative streak that lasted through six manuscripts—a memoir, a book of short stories, two novels, and two poetry manuscripts. If anyone had asked me how to write then, I would have responded, "Listen to your dreams. Pay attention to the world. And then write a poem.”
Walking on the Backs of Whales
The night you were born I dreamt
I saw whales in the ocean, large humps
of backs rising out of the sea, grey
like your hands, and lingering there,
in the air, skin full of urchins and
moss. The sight was wondrous, like
your eyes, the first time you looked
at us, into the blue of me, the hazel
of your father, your gaze a miraculous
mix of us both. And when I was done,
with the whales and your birthing,
I began to walk back to the land,
and the water was shallow, the pain
was not bad, I was still amazed
at what I had seen, and I realized
I'd been walking on the backs of whales
the whole time. What I'd taken for earth
was the wet of their bodies, hovering firm
beneath the surface of water, providing
a path over ocean, allowing me to meet you
half way, between that world and this,
taking me gently back home to the shore
where I never before had been.
It wasn't always as simple as that, of course. There were days when I didn't want to write, and I would have to discipline myself to do it anyway. There were rejections that would come in the mail and send me into a black mood. But mostly, from childhood until my late 30s, the ideas came quickly and the words flowed.
Ten years ago, when my daughter was four, I had a breakdown. That’s a shorthand way of saying medication-doctors-surrender-therapy-dark night of the soul. Many mother writers throughout history have had them. Many did not survive. I did.
I survived by learning to write poetry—again.
The first thing I did was to ask for help. I called an old friend from graduate school—a soul mate friend—and told her I wasn't writing. She suggested books. Writing exercises. Timed prompts. All the things that helpful people always suggest.
The second thing I did—and this was perhaps the most important lesson of all—was to listen to her suggestions. I took down an old book from a shelf—a book that had been tremendously helpful when I was first starting out, and I dipped into it.
Then I began to write. I gave myself an assignment, a quiet place, and a specified amount of time in which to complete it. And then I did it. And then I did another.
The next thing I did was to look back at what I'd already done. This suggestion came to me from another friend—also a non-writing writer. She told me at lunch one day that she'd made a list of everything she'd already accomplished, and it was already much more than most people would ever do in a lifetime.
This look back made me realize, as my therapist predicted that I would, that even on the days when I didn't write in my journal or write something new, there was still much to be done—revisions of old manuscripts that I'd found "perfect" earlier but that in the clear light of mind still needed work, or submissions of manuscripts that really were done but still hadn't found the right home.
So in poetry—and revision—I found my map again.
On Facing Limitation
It was at the end
of my rope,
dangling by a thread
like a spider,
or all those spinsters,
that I saw essence.
when there’s no
And so poetry was my map, in the beginning, because it gave me a place for my mind and body and soul to speak. And then later, from a place of silence, poetry guided me again by teaching me to ask for help, and revise, then ask for more help and write again. It's what I tell my writing clients—you learn to write by writing.
For in the end, poetry is a gift. But it's not a gift in the sense of an inborn talent, nor simply a firing of neurons in the mind. It's a gift that you receive on the page—when you are open to it, when you sit yourself down and let language lead you, when you find a way to believe again that words are magical and that what wants to come out of you is bigger than you. Poetry is bigger than whatever dirt you need to dig up to get to the center of what you are trying to say.
Yes, I have changed. And yes, my poetry has changed. My poems reflect my growing acceptance of myself and of all of life. I also work at a slower, more patient rhythm. I revise again and again, mindful of how the loved ones in my life will receive my words, and I am better able now to discern what I want to share with the world with wisdom and insight. And while the catalyst for many of my earlier poems was finding a map away from pain, I often find now that only joy joins me on this road.
Woodpecker flies to the daughter tree.
Cardinal chips from the mother to me.
Sunrise is before me. Cricket sings
with the memory of night behind me,
story of darkness still lingering. My body,
raw and scooped clean of all she has seen,
laid out in the bed where I left her to rest.
Like a dog, this moment is best. Hummingbird
whirl. I am still my mother’s girl, and the
mother of daughters, yet like gossamer
thread in the angel oak tree, I have been
woven by spiders, am fragile, invisible,
until sun sister dances on me. Love
struggle yearning hunger desire emptiness–
it all comes down to this. Bliss. This.
I once had a dream, watched fear walk
down the street from a high night window.
It was coming for me. I thought it would
never go. I put it in words, pinned it on
paper, the only place I was allowed to
throw. And those words became seeds
for a vision to grow. Mother-daughter
tulip poplar trees to shelter me–
with leaves in flow, roots running deep,
waited for me until I could wake from
the dream and know: fear no longer lives
in my body house here. Only birdsong.
Only trees. Only joy. Only light.
So bright, even at night, it glows.
Grateful Acknowledgment is given to the places where these poems first appeared:
"Laura's Song." The Carolina Quarterly 48:3 (Summer 1996): 39.
"Persephone." Avenues 1:5 (December 1998/January 1999): 3. Reprinted in The New Review 5 (1999): 40-41; and The Pomegranate Papers (Unbound Content, 2012): 80.
“Walking on the Backs of Whales.” AveNews (March/April 2000): 14. Reprinted in Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering 3:2 (Autumn 2001):
54; and CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Vol. 21, no. 2 (Summer
2003): 95; and The Pomegranate Papers (Unbound Content, 2012): 26.
Call for Reader Response Submissions
How has poetry been your map? I invite you to submit up to three poems that show how poetry has been a map for you in your journey as a mother writer. Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by September 29th. Be sure to do the following:
-Put "BMW 1 RR" in the subject line of the email.
-Include a brief bio.
-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email.
By sending in your submission, you agree that your poems, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.
Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with “Due Dates!”)
Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering.
And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we’ve got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class!
Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I’m so glad you’re in this class!
Unit 1: Poetry
- September—Poetry is the Map
- October—Reader Response to Poetry is the Map (Submit up to 3 poems about how poetry has been your map. Due September 29, 2014.)
- November—The Deeper Stuff of Poetry
- December—Reader Response to The Deeper Stuff of Poetry (Submit an essay of 800-1200 words about claiming yourself as a mother poet. Due November 30, 2014.)
Unit 2: Fiction
- January—The Arc/Ark of Narrative
- February—Reader Response to The Arc/Ark of Narrative (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that demonstrates the principles of narrative timing and scene making. Due February 1, 2015.)
- March—The Role/Roll of Dialogue
- April—Reader Response to The Role/Roll of Dialogue (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that shows an adept use of dialogue. Due March 29, 2015.)
Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction
- May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
- June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
- July and August—Summer Break
- September—Life is a Book
- October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)
Reader Response Submission Guidelines
Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:
-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”
-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.
-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.