Welcome to our newest blog series: Where Are They Now?
In this series, our editors interview past Literary Mama contributors to see what they’ve accomplished since publishing in LM and talk about their writing journeys.
This week, Senior Editor Christina Consolino talked with LM Contributor Shawn Nocher. Shawn recently published her first novel, A Hand to Hold in Deep Water, and has another novel set to release in 2022.
Christina Consolino: In 2014, Literary Mama published “Plenty of Air,” which reveals raw truths about motherhood. Your other work is just as honest, whether you’re writing about death, illness, marriage, and everything else. How do you go about deciding what truths you’ll write about and how deep you’ll delve into them?
Shawn Nocher: I think it’s more a matter of working out the truths I’m discovering in the moment. When I wrote “Plenty of Air” I was a young mother struggling with my responsibilities to both my young child and my husband. I was overwhelmed by the choices I had to make and with the arrogant notion that I was shaping every part of this little being’s personhood. I was wrong about just how much of who my daughter would become was up to me, but regardless—I was stressed by the idea that I could screw her up. All of those things were examined as I wrote that piece. They weren’t resolved by any stretch but looking at the relationship and how it bled into everything I did was what prompted and shaped the piece. I think it’s fair to say that most of what I write comes out of my own need to examine whatever it is I’m going through in my head, and I go as deep as I need to in order to understand my character and—in the end—myself.
CC: What has your writing journey been like since publishing with Literary Mama? How did publishing in Literary Mama and elsewhere bring you to where you are now? Did anything surprise you on that journey?
SN: Getting my piece in Literary Mama was an absolute thrill. I had only published one short story before that and it was picked up by an editor who knew me personally, so I always think of my piece in Literary Mama as the first piece I published. It was validation, of course, but so much more. I had been telling myself for years that I would keep writing even if no one ever published a single piece of mine, and I probably would have, but not as joyfully! That small notch in my belt helped me make the decision to go back to school and get my masters in writing. From there I threw myself into my classes and really worked on craft. I began to call myself a writer, and that was a huge step for me. From there I went on to place many more stories and then I went back to one of my earliest and let it grow into a novel.
CC: Your debut novel, A Hand to Hold in Deep Water, was just recently published, and it features motherhood as a theme, much like “Plenty of Air.” What is it about motherhood that draws you to write about it?
SN: Motherhood is so complicated. There is a story in every facet of it. I will never tire of this theme. Full disclosure, I’m not sure I was very good at motherhood, at least not when my children were small, but I knew I was trying, and I knew it was important and I knew I loved these strange beings and that their appearance in my life had forever altered the way I saw the world and my role in it. I was constantly examining my relationship and responsibilities to them. I expected, as they got older, that all of this would slow down and I would coast into being the parent of adult children. But that isn’t what has happened. I am still fascinated by—and sometimes struggling with—my role as the mother of two grown adults. Our relationship with our children and our relationship with our own parents is messy and complicated. It is a strange balancing act between our own needs and those for whom we have the deepest love, and we are likely to make mistakes. Likewise, we have moments of perfection and I can’t resist waxing on about all of it.
CC: Your writing has inspired other parents to pick up a pen or laptop and begin their own work. What other mother writers or writers in general have inspired you?
SN: Anna Quindlen writes beautifully and authentically about motherhood, as does Laurie Frankel. Elizabeth Stroud examines much of the disappointment inherent in motherhood because of the way it is tied to our own egos. They inspire me in that they expose the truths of parenting—the way the act of parenting requires self-examination, patience in the face of urgency, and the way the best kind of parenting happens when we are clear-eyed and able to separate our own needs out from our relationship with our child. Loving my children is the easiest and hardest thing I have ever done in that it was easy to fall in love them the moment they came into this world but the accountability to that love can be staggering. My writing is where I try to untangle all of that.
CC: Do you have any tips for those just beginning their writing journey?
SN: Read like a writer. Think about how a piece makes you feel and then go back and try to figure out what the writer did to make you feel that way. Think about more than “the message” and focus on tone, pacing, and word choice. Then, as you sit down to write, keep your eye on what you want your reader to feel and work slowly and steadily towards that. Journals are a terrific way to start writing, but it is easy to become whiny in one’s private journals. At least—that was the case for me. A good exercise that I employed when I first started was to take a journal entry and change it to third person, create an alter ego around the entry and rewrite it from a character’s point of view in third person. It was magical. Not only was it more interesting, but it freed me up to be more honest and truthful because it was no longer me. It was some fictional character I had created saying, doing, and thinking these things.
CC: What message do you hope readers take away from your writing?
SN: My husband always says that no man is an island. We forget sometimes that we are tied to those who love us, especially family, in a profound way. We don’t carry either our pain or our joys alone. The weight of them is often divided among those who love us. We are not as alone as we sometimes think we are.