Kimberly Greene Angle: Tell me how you came to consider yourself a writer.
Amy Hudock: Strangely, I never defined myself as a writer even though I was writing, both creatively and critically, in my academic life through graduate school. I don’t know why I didn’t see myself as a writer. I think I imagined writing as a vocation more lofty and poetic than the critical work I was doing. I went online and found mothers who were writing about their experiences and the questions we grappled with were about what it means to be a writer and why it’s so hard to call yourself a writer while you’re mothering. It helped me to see that I could say to somebody that I was a writer without having a book on the bestseller list. I had a difficult time thinking of myself as a writer if I didn’t have something to show for it. It was hard to claim that identity.
The best thing that happened to me as far as my writing goes was deciding to stay home full-time when my daughter Sarah was born. I was living in northern California and joining these mothers groups in the San Francisco Bay area, and all we had in common was the fact that we had children the same age. It wasn’t very satisfying for me. I wanted to be around other mothers who were also writers and readers and to be part of a community. So I started teaching classes called “Journaling Through Motherhood” at birth education centers. I would take Sarah, the other mothers would bring their little children, and we’d have a childcare provider while we wrote. I quickly realized that being the teacher really didn’t work well for me because I couldn’t talk about my own writing in class. Eventually I said the heck with the teaching and, with some of the students, we started a writing group.
KGA: What was it about this group that affirmed your decision to write for yourself?
AH: One of the biggest influences for me in that writing group was Heidi Raykeil, author of Confessions of a Naughty Mommy. She showed me how to write about my emotions, to include my feelings in my pieces. I had been writing from an academic point of view during my career. Even when I was working on my personal writing, there was a wall up between me and the material. I was accustomed to hiding my voice to create that sense of objectivity and detachment that academic writing needs. Heidi sat down with me and asked, “All right, what were you feeling here? What were you feeling here? What were you feeling here?” Her critiques really opened up my own writing, helped me be more honest, because she was so honest. The writing group met once a week and we really pounded on each other’s writing — in a very supportive, loving way. It was a very supportive group without any of the nastiness you get sometimes in writing groups.
So that’s the other kind of tough issue about mother writing: sometimes it seems that mothers and women are quick to judge “good” mothers and “bad” mothers. What happens in writing about motherhood is you are often revealing your weaknesses. That’s what makes the writing interesting, especially when you are in creative nonfiction. It should feel like someone’s opened up a private journal and read something they’re not supposed to see.
KGA: How did Literary Mama come about?
AH: We were sending out our work to the glossy magazines and we weren’t getting published. Our stuff was just too complex or too deep; the words were too big, sentences too long. We weren’t writing in the proper “how to” format. So we tried the literary journals and we weren’t getting in there either because the topic was motherhood, and I guess it wasn’t considered literary enough. At the same time, I was learning to make web pages, so I just started publishing our pieces on a website we called Books and Babies. The website attracted Andi Buchanan, who had just published Mother Shock and was the editor of Philly Mama, and Dawn Freedman, an editor at E-Pregnancy. Soon we wanted to publish an anthology of our work, but that was a really big leap. We needed an audience, so we decided to expand Books and Babies to attract people to our kind of writing. At that point, there was Hip Mama, but that was really for younger moms. So we created our own space.
KGA: That’s amazing . . .
AH: I think we actually created an audience for ourselves. Readers identify with us and publishers can see that Literary Mama does attract an audience. We get tens of thousands unique visitors a month and our anthology, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined was among the top 10,000 books on Amazon over Mother’s Day weekend. We are selling what we’ve written and I think that’s an eye-opener to the publishing market.
KGA: So, Literary Mama really connected you, the writers, to readers by essentially creating a cohesive space for them?
AH: Yes, I think so. I had recently moved to California, I didn’t know anyone and I was a new mother. Sometimes it’s easier to find your community, your voice, online, especially for a mother, because you can do it anytime — it’s not a phone call that interrupts something.
KGA: . . . and now Literary Mama is thriving.
AH: Definitely. Several of our writers have published books based on their columns for Literary Mama — they’ve made it “big.” Heidi Raykeil wrote Confessions of a Naughty Mommy; Rachel Sarah’s book Single Mom Seeking is out; Andi Buchanan’s two books It’s a Girl and It’s a Boy are doing great; and the Literary Mama anthology is doing well, too. What’s interesting to me is that now many of our Literary Mama writers are doing a lot more service writing for the glossy magazines.
KGA: Do you feel like they’re bringing a more literary voice to the glossies?
AH: I think so. The magazines seem to want to make themselves more edgy and I think that means they’re open to more literary writing. I still pick up these glossy magazines when I’m in the doctor’s office and glance through them, and I still see mostly the standard service writing, but occasionally I see something really interesting that was written with a distinct voice.
KGA: Did you think you’d be a writer when you were growing up?
AH: I kept journals starting when I was eight and they’re filled with poetry and little short stories and, you know, the usual kind of journaling. Looking at back at the stack of journals I accumulated over many years, I can see I’ve always been a writer and a journaler, but then I didn’t consider myself that way because I didn’t write every day, I didn’t write enough. Then, once I became a mother and was working to define myself as a writer, I went through and read all of my old journals, and I had 20 years worth of journaling. It helped me see that I am in fact a writer and a journaler.
KGA: Did you ever remember wanting to be something other than a writer?
AH: For me, wanting to be a writer went hand-in-hand with wanting to be a teacher. Matter of fact, when I was young, my parents set up a pretend schoolroom for me and my three siblings. It had school desks, a chalkboard and bookshelves with books on them. I would teach my siblings and all the neighborhood kids. I read Poe to little ones and gave them nightmares. [Laughter] So I always was interested in teaching as well as writing.
When I hit college, though, I thought I had to major in something other than English because you couldn’t make any money teaching and writing. It was the 80s and everything was all about making money. I went through six different majors in college, but I kept going back to English just because that’s what I loved. Even so, my senior year I sent my resume to many of the same places as my business school friends who had been making fun of me for being an English major. I got as many interviews as they did. They were mad. [Laughter.] It shows you that it really doesn’t matter so much what you major in; it’s more important to be creative, write, communicate.
KGA: You went to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for your undergraduate degree, which is known for its wonderful English program. Was there anyone there that mentored you or had a big influence on you?
AH: There was one professor, Dr. Shapiro. I took a couple of sophomore-level courses with him at a time when I was still into partying a lot. I would sometimes come into his early morning poetry class hung over and sit in the back with a hat on, trying to disappear. Of course I hadn’t done the reading and he’d say “Miss Hudock, come and sit in the front row.” Then he would direct all of his questions to me. He made my life miserable [laughter]. Then one day after class he asked me what I was majoring in and at that point I was in Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures — I wanted to be a film director and he said, “You know, if you want to make great movies, you have to know how to tell great stories and the best way to learn how to tell great stories is to read the best that has been written. That way you’ll become a good writer and reader and teller of stories — then you can go back to film.” I thought he had a really good point, so I transferred back to the English department and that’s where I stayed. I went on to graduate school at the University of South Carolina and pursued a teaching career.
KGA: Have you always considered teaching as much a part of your identity as writing? Were they ever in conflict?
AH: No, they haven’t been in conflict for me — especially since I have come back to creative writing and now am teaching at the high school level. In our department, we link creative writing into the entire English program. That means I’m teaching the same type of writing that I’m doing myself. I can take a piece that I’m working on, pass it out to my class and say, “All right, edit it.” That’s been really fun and it forges a bond between me and my students because they get to see me not only as a teacher but also as a writer.
KGA: Do you feel like the approaches you learned in your writing group help you create a similar atmosphere in your classroom?
AH: The biggest thing I learned from my writing group was the importance of revision; to model for each other what revision is and ultimately being able to reveal the self. That’s very difficult in a high school classroom because the students have known each other, many of them, since kindergarten. They know each other’s stories; they know each other’s private lives. So, let’s say in English class today someone reveals something about himself that’s slightly embarrassing — they’re going to hear about it the rest of the day. Getting these students to open up or reveal anything in their writing has been an incredible challenge. So, they’ve gone — and this is okay — they’ve gone funny, especially the guys. The girls are more gentle with each other, but the guys are terrible on each other. So they write these very humorous, funny, satiric poems . . . and it works. They write good poetry about not writing good poetry; they do parodies of the great writers.
KGA: Do your students know about Literary Mama?
AH: Yeah, they know. I don’t try and hide it. Although teaching has changed what I do on my blog because I know my students could read it, so I have to be aware of multiple audiences. No swear words. I also realize that I can’t write about my dating life or my frustrations with my job or even about my students.
KGA: What made you start a blog?
AH: Actually, I was kind of blog-resistant in the beginning because I thought of blogging as basically journaling and not even interesting journaling. After looking at more and more blogs, I decided you could make it whatever you wanted it to be and I thought it would be a little bit of an incentive for me to write something on a regular basis. I see my blog really as the birthplace of ideas. I just kind of put things out there that I’ve been thinking about. When I blog, it keeps me focused on the audience.
KGA: Do you encourage your students to blog?
AH: Actually, there was a big to-do about blogging at our school. A lot of our students were going on MySpace.com and writing inappropriate things about our rival school and using inappropriate language. Five students were suspended. I didn’t think the disciplinary action was all that was needed, so I created blogs for each of my students in my tenth grade honors class. We talked about how to comment on each other’s blogs in a way that’s not damaging to others. We talked about power over language versus power with language. It’s really changed what they’ve been doing on their blogs. Now they’re posting their papers and they’re commenting on each other’s work that way, as well as doing face-to-face editing.
KGA: How do your students feel about blogging?
AH: They love it. They love knowing they’re being heard and I think that’s what blogging is all about. It’s immediate gratification through immediate publication. When I write something, I want to know what people think right then — I want that kind of interaction. It’s almost like doing a poetry reading and then seeing people’s faces.
KGA: If you could give one piece of advice to writing teachers, what would it be?
AH: Writers — even student writers — need an audience, a real one. Blogs provide that in a fun and engaging way. These kids were on the Internet over the weekends reading each other’s papers and giving comments. They went back and revised their own papers by looking at other people’s work to see how they’d written something. For students who are learning to write, the value of immediate gratification from online publication is immense.