Mother. Writer.

Nov 19

In her classic essay, “Why I Write,” Joan Didion talks about “images that shimmer around the edges” and the way that the shimmer indicates to her, as a writer, that she’s stumbled upon something she’s going to write about.

She explains, “…certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.”

For the past year or so, an image has been shimmering for me. It’s been shimmering and I’ve been simmering, feeling called to learn more about it. I saw it in Louise Erdrich’s gorgeous The Blue Jay’s Dance (which my friend Stacia was so kind to send me when I was pregnant with Baby Sister). I met it again in this blog post at Brevity by Betsy Andrews Etchart. And then in an essay by Jane Smiley. And another by Tillie Olsen. And this one by Ann Patchett.

The image is of a woman. She’s nursing an infant, cradling his fuzzy head in one hand while scratching notes for a new character in her Moleskine with the other. She’s lingering a minute longer in the bathroom, sequestering herself from the noise beyond the door to be alone with her thoughts. She’s sitting on the sidelines of her daughter’s soccer game, announcing an idea into the memo function of her iPhone.

She looks like Adrienne Rich and Alice Munro. And Toni Morrison and Pearl Buck. Like Mary Shelley and J.K. Rowling. Marilynne Robinson and Jennifer Egan.

She is a mother and a writer.

Since the invention of writing, most women have not written. Among those who did – and especially among those whose names we know – few were mothers. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott: all childless. Virginia Woolf, also not a mother, dubbed the expectations placed upon her contemporaries, “The Angel in the House.” Woman, she wrote, “must charm, sympathize, conciliate…be extremely sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own…[and] excel in the difficult arts of family life.” Of that Angel and her own choice to eschew traditional domesticity, Woolf wrote, “It was she who used to come between me and my paper…who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her…or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.” Sylvia Plath agreed: “A woman has to sacrifice all claims to femininity and family to be a writer.”

But since the middle of the last century and the rise of the women’s movement, more and more women have donned the mantle of mother and writer, writer and mother. And I am fascinated by – no, obsessed with – the stories of how these women do it. These are my shimmering images.

I know from my own life that balance – any kind of balance – is elusive and ever-shifting, maybe even apocryphal. The stories of these mother writers show a seesaw, teetering toward the demands of children and then tottering toward the call to the page. Erdrich writes resonantly about that particular tension:

Her smile is so touching, so alight. I put my head down on my desk and within the dark cave of my hands a shout gathers. I’m at the moment. I will turn to her and lay aside this story, but with loss. I will play with her but part of me won’t be there. Conflict has entered our perfect circle in a new set of clothes, and I’m torn between wanting to be with her always and needing to be – through writing and through concentration – who I am.

I want to tell the stories of these mother writers. To learn from them as I carve out time and words of my own. So it is with pleasure that I announce a new series here at Motherese: Mother. Writer. Each month I will bring you the story of another woman whose life has been filled with words and children and how she’s woven them together.

Please tell me you’ll come along for the ride. (And please let me know if you have a favorite mother writer you’d like to know more about!)

Image: thank you 80s. thank you leg warmers by emdot via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

corinne November 19, 2012 at 7:42 am

I am so to see where this takes you and who you will be sharing! obviously, I struggle with the balance. At this point I feel like there will be a time for diving further into , but there are seasons to it all. I think if you find a successful mother writer you also find a successful cheering and helping squad :)


Kristen November 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Madeleine L’Engle referred to the years that you and I are in – with little kids at home all day – “the tired years.” She still wrote during those years, but not on anyone else’s deadline. I think there’s a lot of wisdom there – as well as in your comment about any successful mother writer having a support network behind her. Amen to that!


Lindsey November 19, 2012 at 8:35 am

I LOVE this idea. I think you know how deeply I care about this topic, and have since I was in college. I believed then, without any first-hand knowledge but fiercely, that being a mother could enrich, not detract from, being a writer. Now that I am the former and working on being the latter, I know that I was right. I can’t wait to read what you share. xoxo


Elizabeth Grant Thomas November 19, 2012 at 9:07 am

As your friend, it has been so exciting for me to watch this journey unfold for you, to watch you find your voice, your heart, your “shimmering edge.” I would LOVE to learn more about Barbara Kingsolver, who is one of my literary heroines. I believe I read somewhere that she learned that “The Bean Trees,” her first book, would be published the day her eldest daughter was born? Talk about giving birth simultaneously!


Kristen November 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that story. How amazing! As you know, Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers (even though I just heard some snobby commentator say that her writing doesn’t meet the highest standards of literary fiction – pshaw!). I think she would be a great mother writer to learn more about for this series.


Shannon November 19, 2012 at 9:10 am

I think this idea sounds quite enlightening and I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Good for you for harnessing your passion of this topic, for investigating the “shimmer,” and for sharing it with the rest of us.


TheKitchenWitch November 19, 2012 at 9:24 am

Oooh, this is gonna be good! It is such a merry dance (sometimes not so merry), this writing and mothering. I wrestle with it constantly. I’ll be here!


Kate November 19, 2012 at 10:37 am

A deep and worthy project.


Melissa November 19, 2012 at 11:19 am

I LOVE this! I think I have told you that Julia Glass is one of my favorites. Her depictions of the richness and conflict within families are absolutely wonderful.


Kristen November 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Yes! She is one of my favorites too. Did you read her latest, The Widower’s Tale? It didn’t quite reach the level of perfection of Three Junes, but I really enjoyed it.


Contemporary Troubadour November 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I think this is the reason I read what I do in my petite blog circle — to know that you can be a parent and still write. I had to wait to start a family for many reasons, but writing was definitely one of them. And I knew the way I’d cordoned off the time and space to do the writing wasn’t going to be practical if I wanted to be the kind of mother I also wanted to be.

Always, always hungry to hear about and talk about the ways other women make it work.


Cecilia November 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Oh Kristen, I need to introduce you to my former writing instructor, Kate Hopper:

She’s one of the editors at Literary Mama and this is her life work, to make the wider public understand and appreciate the writings of mothers. She’s just incredible, and she’s supported me so much in my pursuit of writing.

Becoming a mother is what pushed me to write, and I love that I have been able to meet so many other writer mothers. It’s such a unique experience, but such a huge challenge. I’ve heard of many mothers getting up at 4 a.m. in order to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the world and their kids wake up. I can’t do that, but I’m very fortunate to have a flexible and seasonal work-from-home job that allows me extra time. I’m looking forward to reading your new series!


Kristen November 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Wow, Cecilia, I didn’t realize you had taken a class with Kate! I follow her on Twitter and have her book, Use Your Words, on my must-read shelf. I love her voice and can’t wait to find a good chunk of time to dedicate to the book and the writing exercises inside. In the meantime, I’ll definitely check out her blog. Thanks for the link!


Christie November 19, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Bring it. I too am fascinated by this. Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind. And Mary Karr. Great idea.


Galit Breen November 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Love this.


It’s so very you.

And ohmygoodness that shimmer. I live for that shimmer.

Way to go, woman! Can’t wait to read, and learn, alongside you!


Perfecting Motherhood November 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm

You make a great point about the mother/writer being a recent phenomenom. I never thought about this until now but it’s true. I was even thinking about French female writers and most of them were never mothers. And if you think about it, older books written by women didn’t talk about motherhood at all, for a good reason! Can you imagine if Cathy had had Healthcliff’s baby?

I’m looking forward to reading your series. I bet it will be very insightful.


ayala November 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm

I am looking forward to it. :)


BigLittleWolf November 19, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Strangely, I tend to assume (no doubt wrongly) that the writers I will love are, in fact, mothers… whatever their age.

As I say, wrongly perhaps. But I expect layers of experience and poetry from those who have parented which, somehow, I don’t think I anticipate from those who haven’t.

Never thought about this before…


Heather Caliri November 20, 2012 at 12:18 am

I love this idea, too, Kristen. Go! I was reading Margaret Atwood a while ago and found her really inspiring as well. Will be so happy to follow along.
One of the teachers from my MFA program was also inspiring for me, and I need an excuse to get to know her work better. Her name is Joanne Meschery, and she’s lovely as a writer and as a person.


Rebecca November 20, 2012 at 9:34 am

I see no one better equipped to take on this challenge than you Kristen. What an awesome combo. And yes, how do you all do it?!?! How does one remain (or at least appear) thoughtful, insightful, clear headed and optimistic while juggling the demands of the kiddos and home?

I too was thinking Barbara Kingsolver, one of my most favorite writers. But also, what about children-in-peril author Jodi Piccoult?


Carinn @welcometothemotherhood November 20, 2012 at 9:59 am

Oh I just love this. Your first post was just beautiful, can’t wait for more. Count me in as one of those who struggles with the balance.


amber_mtmc November 20, 2012 at 10:43 am

This is a fantastic idea. The struggle that women face as they attempt to do two roles, be that a writer and a mother, a lawyer and a mother, a professor and a mother is not only fascinating but inspiring. I am excited to read your series and learn more about these women.


Justine November 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I will be hanging on to your every word, as I did with this piece. A wonderful undertaking, that’s for sure. You’ve named many of my favorites, and I, too, struggle with the balance of making time for my writing. But I realize that, like Erdrich, whose own work, The Blue Jay’s Dance, is one of my favorites, as you may know, it is not about putting aside a hobby to tend to our daily tasks. It’s about who we are, and how we need to find a way to make space for that in our life so our Self is not entirely consumed by the needs of the larger collective, important as they may be. Without a clear sense of our own Self…how can we help our kids develop theirs?

I can’t wait to see your next installment in this series.


Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri November 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm


I love this idea. Looking forward to meeting those mothers who show their personal shimmer.


Rachel @ 6512 and growing November 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I’m so in. Barbara Kingsolver, yes! And how about: Anne Lamott, too.


rebecca @ altared spaces January 21, 2013 at 11:18 am

I am here for the second time. Reading again about your project.

Madeline L’Engle is my favorite. I resonate with her the way she talks about faith, love, marriage and raising children.

My favorite year reading her was the year just after my mother died and my husband was in graduate school. I’d left “home” and had no friends to lean on. I was alone in a town with a toddler and a kindergartner. I was writing my “second book.”

Each day I’d write for the napping hour, then, when that little boy awoke, I’d rock him in the the red chair and silently we’d bond for 30 minutes while the cobwebs cleared. I’d think about Madeline’s words and how she let her books “simmer” on the back burner until they were ready to be brought to the front to be truly worked on. So much in my life was simmering. I had energy for very little true work.

The rocking of motherhood healed me.

It is all one.

So glad you are doing this.


Kristen January 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Rebecca, can you remind me (and all of us) which of Madeline L’Engle’s books and journals you’d recommend for a novice to start with?


rebecca @ altared spaces January 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm

So sweet of you to ask!
My favorite of her books will probably always be “A Wind in the Door” because she talks about “kything.” I believe kything is how we all talk to one another when we are tuned in to our intuition. When we are listening with our hearts we can hear deeper than with merely words. But it’s best to read “A Wrinkle in Time” before “A Wind in the Door.” Your oldest is ready for this series as a read aloud. My daughter, who was also a hungry reader got this read to her after the Little House series…probably around 6 or 7. But I think it’s suggested for 12 year-olds.

My favorite L’Engle book on marriage is called “2-Part Invention.” I may be wrong, but I believe she wrote it while her husband was dying. It is the story of their fabulous love affair. They were married for their lives and it is one of the GREAT love stories. He was an actor, and made his living in soaps. She, of course, a writer. Their story is about life in New York and also about moving to the country to raise a family. She talks about sleeping in when the kids are old enough to get their own breakfast because she believes teaching them that she loves their father and staying up late to be with him is worth something more than feeding them breakfast. I love this book almost as much as I love my husband.

“The Summer of the Great Grandmother” is about the summer her mother came to be with her…before her death. Again, Ms. L’Engle writes about what she is living. I find this to be very brave. Perhaps this is why I admire her. She simply lives, doing what she knows is the right thing to do and then writes about it, telling us about how her kiddo learns to read when school wasn’t doing the trick and a grandmother’s gentle listening ear was all that was needed. She shows me over and over that story = love. This I believe.

There are MANY others. These top my list.


Kristen January 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm

I just had a very nice chat with our library’s research librarian and all of these books will be making their way to me forthwith. Thank you so much for these knowing, thoughtful recommendations. xo


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