Andi Buchanan: Memoir writing involves sometimes brutal honesty and a level of intimacy with readers can be intense. Writing about mothering can be a loaded act, especially given how harshly mothers are judged — and it can also be difficult to do well. Have you found writing about mothering to be more difficult than writing about other parts of your life?
Jennifer Lauck: I believe all honest writing is intense and, therefore, a loaded act. I also believe the most powerful critic we have lives within. In writing about myself and my childhood, I was reporting what I had experienced and was also trying to make sense of those experiences. I went into both Blackbird and Still Waters thinking that I must have been this terrible kid who deserved all the heartache that came in my early life. In writing about the experiences, though, I saw that I was just an innocent child being battered about by a brutal world. With this change in perception about myself, I could act differently in the world.
When writing about being a mother, I was debriefing in the same way. I went into Show Me the Way thinking I was not a very good mother but came out thinking that I was a relatively good mother, but not really the kind of woman that I wanted to be. I had adapted myself to be a good wife who was faithful and supportive of her husband but had forsaken all my pre-marriage dreams of myself. I was surprised to see that, as this “wife,” I was not acting in a way that made me feel strong, wise, confident or even maternal. Rather, I saw that I was an unnecessarily insecure mother, albeit competent, but still riddled with doubt. If I stayed in that place, my long-term effectiveness as a mother would have been horribly undermined.
Show Me the Way was probably the most difficult book I wrote because after it was done, I realized I had to make important changes in my life. I confronted the problems in my marriage, saw it come to an end, and had to make a new home for my kids and myself.
Now that I am on the other side of changing my life, I know I did the right thing for my children and myself. I am nowhere near being a perfect mother, geez, I am sure I’m a bad mother by the standards set today, but I don’t care. I am real, I am present, and I am kind. I try to be equal measures of wise and caring and I am horribly flawed all at the same time. I struggle, like everyone else and I fail, like everyone else. My children get to see all this about me and that was the result of writing Show Me the Way. Yes it was hard, but it was worth it.
AB: You wrote two memoirs about your life before you wrote Show Me the Way. How is writing about motherhood different from writing about healing from childhood?
JL: The most direct answer is this. Blackbird and Still Waters were about me as a child. Show Me the Way is about me as an adult taking care of children. What was different was that the stakes in my mind were higher. I can handle my own screwed-up childhood, I can accept the mistakes that were made and I can even carry the weight of the losses and abuses. It was (and is) very hard to accept that I may be screwing up my own kids and nothing shows you more about yourself than the act of writing. It was brutal to see my mothering style in black and white. It woke me up in a lot of ways, not necessarily meaning I would become a better mother, but that I had a clearer picture of myself.
AB: What was it about your experiences with motherhood that sparked in you a need to write?
JL: The act of memoir writing was born from the realization that I wanted to have children. I knew I had to go through some deep self-examination before bringing forth a child and I knew traditional avenues of therapy would never give me the insights and relative self-mastery I needed to be a competent mother. Once I became a mother, I was deeply humbled to see that all my self-examination didn’t truly prepare me for the realities of mothering, though. It was as if the journey of knowing myself had just started, so of course, I had to go back and write about it.
AB: Who are your writing role models and mentors?
JL: For six years, I studied under a man named Tom Spanbauer. He taught a technique called Dangerous Writing, which can best be summarized as writing about truth skillfully. I am not a formal student now, but read a great deal to draw inspiration. My favorite writing is clear, honest, humble, and focused. I find a great deal of inspiration in the work of poets like William Stafford and Mary Oliver. I have also been deeply moved by the writing of Andrew Harvey, specifically his book A Journey in Ladakh.
AB: When did you first know you were going to be a writer?
JL: When I was a junior in high school, my honors English teacher, Karla Nuxoll, said I had a gift with the word. Of course, I didn’t believe her at the time. In fact, I still don’t believe I have any gifts beyond persistence and hopefulness, but her encouragement led me into the field. I have been a writer since I was 18 years old and hope to be one until I cannot type anymore.
AB: You have a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. When do you write and how do you fit it in?
JL: I am the sand and my children are the sea. I am pulled, pushed and rearranged constantly by their ever-changing tide of need and demand. My primary frustration is that I can’t seem to accept this reality. I am constantly trying to establish a regular schedule, which is sheer folly! No regularity exists until both kids are in school and even then, I must deal with illness, holidays and teacher planning days!
I have my official writing days Friday through Monday. I take Tuesday through Thursday to manage my house, fulfill volunteer duties in my son’s classroom and take full-time care of my little girl. I also make a special date with my son on Friday afternoons (after I write), and this way there is some extra time for us that he doesn’t have to share with his sister.
This is a routine created from the reality that I don’t live with the father of the kids. He’s a mile away, in his own house and I have molded my mothering/writing/creative self around his work schedule. I am bothered by the fact that I have to accommodate his world of work more than my own, but this has been the way we’ve worked our lives, even when we were married.
AB: What words of advice can you share with women who are balancing motherhood and creativity?
JL: If a woman is fortunate enough to have a situation in the home where she is respected as an individual (much in the way we respect the individuality of our kids), she will have little difficulty finding her balance.
If she is in a situation where her partner treats her like an object, ie: the wife, the mother, the ball and chain etc., then balance is very difficult because much of a woman’s energy will go into the relentless cycle of self definition. She may end up spending a great deal of time trying to explain herself to her partner, in an attempt to break through his rigid perception of her (which has also become her perception of herself).
Most women are hopelessly caught in the latter versus the former situation and this makes our lives extremely challenging. We are up late at night or early in the morning; we snap a little personal time during naps and buy a little free time by using day care. All the while, though, it feels as if we are stealing somehow — from our spouses, our kids or our many child/spouse related obligations. We are then riddled with guilt for taking any time to ourselves to get tasks done and to pursue a creative life. It would be no different if we had a job that was completely not creative. Working mothers feel terrible for being away from their kids, too. Those who stay home are bitter because they don’t have enough money/time/an understanding supportive spouse, etc. We are all caught in the same swirl, but I don’t think it’s about time or how we balance it. I think it’s more about how we perceive ourselves and how we fit our perception of ourselves in this large glob of our society.
I think it’s probably best to take the time we have, in our roles as mothers, to establish a new identity, which accepts being in the grasp of powerful feminine energy. Once we understand what feminine energy is, we will understand how to work with it. I don’t mean all that new age hoo-hah about embracing the womanly self. I mean we need to understand what feminine energy is about. I personally am just learning to grasp this, but I think it’s about having a strong enough sense of yourself to always trust your intuition, to move fearlessly and swiftly based on this intuition, and to build a strong community of support around yourself. I think we underestimate the power of the feminine and even fear it.
Historically, men have made a mess of it by turning women into mere property and objects of inspiration. As woman, we continue this cycle. We become wives who become mothers, often losing our grasp on our financial freedom and in turn losing the ability to make choices according to our changing needs. We also try to maintain an impossible physical ideal in order to remain an inspiration to our partners, which actually makes us more bitter than beautiful, because we are trying to maintain a masculine version of ourselves rather than accepting that the feminine is a constantly changing presence. We are sometimes svelte, sometimes round, sometimes swift, sometimes settled. The feminine is never the same, she changes with every hour and this is something that is very hard for us to accept and then to have others accept about us. But, that’s the way it is.
It’s like when we got pregnant. We didn’t need to do anything. There was no schedule to keep or control. We didn’t change our gestation to accommodate a man’s routine. The baby was inside of us, it grew and all we needed to do was take good care of ourselves. Our lack of control at that time, and since, was probably the most powerful lesson we all learned. It’s no different now our children are in the world but we think it’s different. This is where we are frustrated.
I think acknowledging this difficultly and being honest is the most important first step. The next thing may be for mothers to let go of their structured ideas of productivity (and thus creativity) that were honed pre-children. Unless they are very unique women, they have been taught patriarchal models that are structured for a society dedicated to the assembly line production of goods and services. Creativity is unbound, much like children are unbound and we need to learn how to be creative when creativity strikes. We need to let go of the “perfect woman/mother” mode, leave the dishes, screw the housework and let the creativity flow when it flows. This requires a lot of external support and even more internal confidence. Perhaps it’s like this, we need to follow our children’s models. We live with them, and see how they create. Perhaps we can do the same.
AB: Did you perceive any difference in the way Show Me the Way was received or reviewed compared to your previous memoirs, which had nothing to do with mothering? Do you feel as though you are perceived differently as a writer when you take motherhood as your topic?
JL: Before I wrote Show Me the Way, an agent asked, “Are you going to be a serious writer or are you going to disappear into the abyss of motherhood?” I said I was going to be a serious writer, of course. I had been a writer for 20 years, why would mothering change that? Now that I am eight years into mothering, I see what she was asking. The day-to-day of mothering is so consuming that it’s tempting to give yourself up to it completely. Still, I believe that I can be lost in the abyss of motherhood and be a serious writer too. It isn’t a black and white choice because this isn’t a black and white life. I write because I must and I mother because I must.
When I suggested that I wanted to write a memoir about my experiences of mothering, the idea was met with a pretty lukewarm response. “Every mother thinks her story of mothering is interesting, but it’s not,” and that kind of thing. I don’t really trouble myself (too much) with what other people think about what I write though. I wanted to write the book, my publisher agreed to publish it and I wrote it! It’s out in the world and like my children, will make its way. Most of all, I hope it’s helpful to mothers. It certainly was helpful to write about mothering, it helped me see myself more clearly and be a better human.
Show Me the Way was blessed to receive very good reviews. I have yet to see one bad review, which isn’t because there aren’t problems that could be critiqued. I just don’t think it’s on the radar of “serious writing.”
AB: What’s your next project? Do you plan to write more about mothering?
JL: I am writing a novel — big surprise. My novel is a book that tries to give voice to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene in a contemporary setting. It’s good to write and I’m glad to have more than just the genre of memoir, but I am really burning to write a book about how I am balancing motherhood with the pursuit of a devoted spiritual path, which deals with the end of my marriage, the day in day out of mothering complex, energetic, and constantly changing children while also studying the precepts of Buddhism and meditating two to four times a day. That’s interesting to me, but does anyone else care? Can I make a living that will support my children and art from a fourth memoir?
Here I am, in the thick of an intuitive insight about what I really want to do but am not acting on that insight because of doubt and a strange need to adapt myself to the standards of the publishing industry. I’m also a little spooked about writing a fourth memoir since so few people do that kind of thing. I am no Maya Angelou. I guess I am thinking to myself, “Who the hell do you think you are to write so much about your life??”
I should probably look at this very closely, watch my dreams, trust my intuition and then act fearlessly and swiftly! I’ll let you know.