When DW McKinney’s flash memoir, A Black Mama’s Breathwork, or, The First Time I Had “The Talk” with My Daughter, first crossed my desk, my heart exploded. This, right here, was what flash nonfiction was all about. Her writing had an urgent vulnerability I’d rarely encountered as an editor.
As I got to know McKinney, I discovered that this was the tip of the literary iceberg for her. She writes in a wide variety of styles and genres, from lyrical essays to speculative fiction and more, but always with beauty and honesty. Her work consistently speaks to the nuance of motherhood and identity, addressing mental health and race in bold new ways.
I was thrilled to sit down and talk with McKinney about her writing process, the delicate tightrope we walk as mothers who write, and the challenges she faced and overcame as an emerging writer.
Hannah Grieco: How and when did you get started writing? What type of writing pulled you in?
DW McKinney: It’s frustrating that my writing origin story is rooted in a racist interaction. It would be nice to skip that part and start with me writing as an adult, but that would be too easy. Too clean. I started writing at thirteen. There was a school district-wide story contest, and I wanted to put the stories in my head down on paper. I’m also competitive, and I wanted to beat this boy in my class who had a strange rivalry with me and was also entering the contest. I wrote a horror story and won first place. My rival won second. A kid in my class, a racist who repeatedly bullied me, accused me of plagiarism. No one stood up for me, and the accusation shook me to my core. It squashed my ability to write and seeded some growing fears related to a mental health disorder I had (still have). I wrote in a journal after that, but I never shared anything I wrote with anyone else.
In grad school for anthropology, I started writing more and realized that I loved it. It was a gift. I had a talent for capturing other people’s stories. It took a while for me to write and publish my own stories, though. I wrote lifestyle articles for city guides. I copyedited a memoir for a terrible millionaire. I dipped a toe in cookbook writing. When I was pregnant with my first child in 2015, I realized that I wanted to write my own memoir. I worried that I’d never get a chance to write it once I had a child. So I wrote most of my memoir in a year. After that, the floodgates were fully opened. I began writing personal essays and a few stories.
HG: I think many other writers and artists will be able to relate to this kind of trauma, especially writers and artists of color. Do these fears stay with you, even now when you’re a successful writer with highly esteemed bylines, including Narratively, Publishers Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Rumpus, and a memoir you’re getting ready to shop around?
DWM: Unfortunately, these fears stay with you when they’re foundational. I think that in some universe, I would be able to look at my childhood trauma as a moment of misfortunate, a caution, and move forward, but it’s ingrained in me. I’m also a perfectionist and steadfast researcher, and I do my best to give credit where credit is due, so I worry about messing up in that regard. These particular anxieties have been greatest in recent years when I wrote for those highly esteemed bylines you mentioned.
HG: How do you address these fears? What do you tell yourself to help you keep writing?
DWM: I remind myself that I’m doing my best, that my writing is actually helping people. Letting someone else’s criticism overwhelm me and keep me from speaking up is the greater harm. I’ve had people send me hate mail before, so my concerns are not unfounded. I’ve had white men accuse me of lying, of passing off fiction as nonfiction, and I just laughed because I knew without a doubt what my real experience was. Those accusations can sting, especially when couched in harmful language, but I immediately remember who I am. I stand in the truth of my life, my heart, and my intent.
HG: I love this, and I think it relates so much to identity while on this path. It also leads me to a question I hate to ask, because it so often feels patronizing and inherently sexist. But it’s impossible to avoid for many of us who are mothers! How do you balance motherhood with writing? How do you honor your own need to put words on the page while also navigating everyone else’s needs?
DWM: Balancing writing and motherhood is tricky. There’s that haunting guilt that creeps up when you’re focusing more on yourself than on the needs of others. I’ve learned to embrace boundaries. I’ve learned that I have to remove myself and take care of my own creative needs or I’ll go haywire. Putting up boundaries helps my girls better understand how caring for myself helps me better care for them. When I need time to write or draw, or do whatever else related to my creative projects, I tell my girls that I need an hour or whatever of uninterrupted time. I shut myself in my bedroom and don’t come out until I’m done. I leave some of that mental load for my husband. I’ve learned that not every cry or shout for mama is urgent. They’re more than capable of working things out for themselves. The time is not always uninterrupted, but we’re working on it!
HG: Who are some of the writers and/or people, in general, who inspire you to maintain this balance? What advice have they given you?
DWM: Whenever I need a reminder about balance, I think about Toni Morrison saying her son, as a baby, had vomited on her notepad, and she wrote around it because she wanted to get her idea down before she lost it. Mostly I dwell on Maya Angelou spending time in hotel rooms to focus on her writing. That was the inspiration for me setting aside monthly hotel visits to rest and write after I gave birth to my second child. (Now, the hotel visits only happened for a year and then the pandemic began.) But those respites influenced my desire to apply to writing residencies. Recently I read an interview by Kate Baer in Writers on Writing where she addressed why she doesn’t write at nap time, and it very succinctly captured so much of my early struggle with trying to write when my first child was a newborn. Baer’s interview is a great example of the fragile balance mother-creatives try to maintain and all of the unrealistic expectations of mothering and writing simultaneously.
HG: How do you decide what to write about, in terms of parenting content and/or your personal experiences? Where is the line, when it comes to your children?
DWM: I’m pretty open about most of my personal experiences. The ones that require more processing or were deeply traumatic take longer to write about. They’ll come out on the page when they’re ready, and that’s fine. I don’t push. As I’m writing my memoir, I’m wrestling with what to include when it comes to some of the people closest to me. I agree with Anne Lamott when she said, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But I also believe that some acts—whether awkward or harmful— are meant for me to address alone and don’t always need the world as an audience.
When it comes to my girls, I write “around” them. I want them to have agency and consent when it comes to writing about them. Yes, motherhood is part of my life, my identity, and I will write about it. But I never want to write about every little detail in my kids’ lives to their embarrassment. I do not want them to be passive characters in my writing. So if they’re involved in some way, I write up until their involvement and then find a way to speak about whatever’s on my mind from a different angle so they’re not pulled into it too much. I think about my essay in JMWW, where I have “The Talk” with my eldest daughter. Even then, I asked her permission to write about our conversation. In the end, it was still more about Black motherhood, more about me, than her.
HG: Were there parts of your new memoir that you weren’t sure about including?
DWM: There was one part that I fully intended on removing from my draft. It was about a particular embarrassing issue related to one family member. I’m speaking about it vaguely because I would like the freedom to write about it unimpeded until the final draft. Because it was embarrassing, I wanted to remove it and help them save face. But it was so inextricably tied to an aspect of my OCD and to another significant narrative point that it was unavoidable. I’m cringing at the idea of what will happen after publication, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
HG: What is your favorite genre to write?
DWM: Speculative fiction is my favorite genre to write but is the genre I write the least of right now.
HG: Who are some of your favorite speculative writers?
DWM: I love N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Becky Chambers’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built came to me at a critical moment in the pandemic and is now a favorite book of mine. Last summer I had the privilege of being part of Voodoonauts, a summer fellowship for Black spec and fantasy writers. From that cohort, I’ve been reading Somto Ihezue and Voodoonauts founders LP Kindred and Yvette Lisa Ndlovu.
HG: Thank you so much for your time today. Last question: What advice do you have for emerging writers who are also mothers or caregivers?
DWM: Give yourself grace. That extends to being a writer and a parent or caregiver. We have to give ourselves more grace. I beat myself up a lot in my early parenting years. I was hard on myself. Hard on myself for not writing enough, for not writing “good enough.” And I was hard on myself for not meeting other people’s wild expectations for what a parent should be. I learned to go easier on myself and to give myself grace. We have to do that because it allows us to appreciate more deeply what we can do and have done. In giving ourselves grace we learn to love our progress whether it comes in small steps or big leaps. In giving ourselves grace we make space for the unexpected and learn that the unexpected, the detours, are also part of our journey.