It was another rabbit-hole week for me, with my reading veering off into a book I’d never heard of but decided that I needed to read immediately when I came across a list of books in The Rumpus about what to read when you want to write like a mother. I wanted to know what characterizes “writing like a mother,” not just for one of my own writing projects, but also why this needs to be a separate category, as if “writing like a mother” makes the writing itself somewhat suspect or overly sentimental. And it would have been an extremely unproductive reading week for me if I hadn’t been on an airplane for many hours scurrying away from the cold and snow, since when I got to where I was going, the last thing I wanted to do was stay inside and read books, even if those books were calling to me, Siren-like, from my backpack (and of course, too many books took a vacation in that backpack–my packing skills are as bad as my estimation of how much reading time I would devote away from home).
MOTHERs is the opposite of sentimental. Rachel Zucker is a poet, and her memoir hovers between poetry and prose, with short paragraphs separated by white space that delve into the difficult relationship she had with her mother, the folklorist and storyteller Diane Wolkstein (New York City’s official storyteller from 1968-1971–did you know that there was such a thing?). Zucker writes also about the mentoring relationship she has with her poetic “foremothers,” the poets Jorie Graham, Sylvia Plath, Bernadette Mayer, and Alice Notley. Zucker had been a student of Graham’s at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and has co-edited an anthology of essays by thirty women poets about the previous generation of women poets who had inspired and influenced them, in addition to six books of poetry (and here’s yet another rabbit hole moment for me).
Zucker is concerned with writing about the challenges to ambition that motherhood presents, the the effects of the abandonment she felt that paradoxically became wrapped up in fascination when her mother herself was writing–being excluded by the closed door, yet also present at her mother’s storytelling performances. Zucker resolves not to become like her mother–she wants to be a poet, not a writer, as if poetry can expand into a place that makes room for the messiness of daily life with children and the demands on time that family life imposes on her and her own artistic ambitions. in a way that merely writing, merely “telling stories” cannot. In many ways, her motherhood becomes her poetry; she maps onto her own body as mother the site of poetic expression in a way that her own mother never was able to do. Zucker’s mother came from a time in which the difficulties of having a career and being a mother were not mutually exclusive, yet were still challenging, since the cultural norms on both sides of the debate became a direct critique of women and their aspirations. The messages were contradictory: one had either to ignore children’s needs in order to be fulfilled as an artist, or ignore one’s own artistic impulse to be a “good mother.” Zucker, in this moment we are in, aspires to be instead a “good enough” mother, the Winnicottian idea of centering one’s identity without the obliterating effects of “goodness” as responsibility only to being a mother.
And so the experience of being both a daughter and a mother leads Zucker to this place of poetic expression within this story of abandonment and resentment, The story also becomes the poetic expression itself, even as it cannot contain the fullness of human life. Here are some examples:
“The story of ‘what happened’ is always a lie. Because what happens doesn’t happen in story form. We storify to make it understandable, human, real. All storytelling, all art, is a translation of experience.
“All water comes from one source. All stories come from one story and those from music and speech. The voice. The eye. The breath. One person listening to another.
“What if it were possible to tell you everything about myself by quoting others?
“And then I was a mother. The mother. And all my mothers could not save me.”
This is a beautiful and painful book, worth reading for the exquisite writing and the depth of feeling that comes across in the language itself. And so if “writing like a mother” results in this kind of literary experience, then the pejorative connotations need to be eliminated. One can enter into this kind of expression through any kind of relational challenge, and so this does not need to be the exclusive province of mothers or motherhood. It’s just that the extreme visibility of motherhood in our society that both extolls and rejects the need to enter into mothering as a supposed requisite for writing that lays bare the depths of these emotions. I’d like to think that this unfair categorization can change, perhaps in the next generation of all the different kinds of mothers and mothering (not specifically to producing just children, and not specifically even female) that are available to us all.
And I was able to plow through Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (luckily, the quiz was cancelled: I went hiking with my son, and we concentrated on celebrating his 25th birthday instead of discussing the wonders of the universe, though I did get to see his incredibly messy desk in the astrophysics department at Berkeley). I am also mid-way through Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough about six women who are thought of as “tough minded”: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. Talk about rabbit-hole: I saw this book on the Instagram feed of another writer I admire and follow, Lauren Elkin…..at this point, I may never get back to the books I’d thought I needed to read in the first place. I’ll write about this book next week.
I am about 1,224 pages into the challenge, finally keeping track in a real notebook (an abandoned lab notebook made superfluous by digital record keeping), instead of the miniature notepad I tried to use last year which I kept misplacing and all the stickinotes I desperately wrote down random page counts disconnected from the actual books I’d been reading. But we’ll see if my digressive reading habits show any signs of consistency in the weeks that remain.