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, Literary Reflections Editor and Senior Editor Andrea Lani catches up with Anne Liu Kellor.
The first essay I edited when I came on board as editor of the Literary Reflections department at Literary Mama was “Open Receptivity: On Becoming a Mother-Writer” by Anne Liu Kellor. In the essay, Kellor, away at a writing retreat and temporarily relieved of the demands of motherhood, reflects on her early adult life as a student and a traveler and on the ways in which motherhood both constrained her time to write and solidified her belief in writing as her calling.
I didn’t stay in touch with Kellor after her essay was published in our October 2014 issue, and a few months ago I was pleasantly surprised to run across her name as the judge for the Minerva Rising memoir contest and thrilled to see that her memoir, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging, was published in 2021 by She Writes Press and has received multiple accolades, including as a winner of a bronze IPPY (Independent Publisher Award) and a finalist for the Foreword Indies Award and Washington State Book Award.
Andrea Lani: Congratulations on publication of your memoir and the glowing reception it has received. Can you tell us a little about it and your process for writing it? Were you working on the book already at the time of the writing retreat you describe in your Literary Mama essay?
Anne Liu Kellor: Thank you so much! Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging traces my migrations between America and China, the birthplace of my mother. During my twenties I traveled through China and Tibet, then taught English and lived for a couple years with my boyfriend, a Chinese painter, in Chengdu. My memoir traces my search for connection—with my mother tongue of Chinese (that I gradually lost as I grew older), with my family and roots, with friends and lovers, and with my innermost heart of longing. And yes, I was working on it—or at least it was composting—during that time I was on retreat. I wrote much of it originally as stand-alone essays, and then it took me a long time to figure out how to make it more of a whole. I had to shelve it during early motherhood when sleep deprivation reigned, but once my son started kindergarten, I started editing and thinking about the overall structure again. Altogether, this book took me twenty years from the seed of its inception to publication!
AL: When you were traveling to and living in China as a young adult, did you know, on some level, that your experiences might eventually become the foundation of a book, or did the realization that you had the material for a memoir come later, with time and perspective?
ALK: I already knew then that I was a writer, and that I wanted to write about my experiences in Asia. But back then, I thought that my essays needed to be more researched or outward facing—that they should be “about China” or something more important than “just me” and my travels. Patriarchy had already schooled me in believing that a young woman’s coming of age story was not significant, especially if nothing especially dramatic or traumatic happened. And the publishing industry reinforced that, in the way that it doesn’t favor so-called “quiet” memoirs, where the growth that happens is more interior, nuanced, and cyclical, versus the familiar story arc of a hero’s journey where the protagonist comes home distinctly changed and healed. It took me a long time to fully embrace that, yes, my story was enough. And also to figure out how to shape it in a satisfying way for a reader—the classic questions of where to begin and end, what point of view to use, and where in time to narrate from. For example, I had to decide to leave my motherhood journey out of the book—to end it before then—even though I was working on it as a young mother, and could see how everything I was newly learning was an extension of the lessons I was learning earlier in life. I had to make the editorial decision to document the earlier layer of learning that I went through and save some of my newer layers of insights for future writing. I believe we learn the same core lessons, over and over, deepening over time. And we return to the same obsessions in our work—those core questions that our particular lives have shaped and gifted us.
AL: In your Literary Mama essay, your son was four and you were just coming out of the fog of sleeplessness and constant demand for attention of babyhood and toddlerhood. The title, “Open Receptivity,” comes from what you describe as a practice of “not just writing, but remembering how to let myself sink into spaciousness, unhurriedness,” which you were able to do alone at an artist residency but had not experienced since his birth. How old is your son now? Is open receptivity a practice you’ve been able to tap into in the maelstrom of motherhood, or does it remain one that requires removal to a cabin in the woods?
ALK: My son is about to turn thirteen! Oh, this is a good question. The answer is a little bit of both. Now that he is in school each day, I have been able to return to my beloved ritual of staring out the window with my coffee and journaling nearly every morning. I work from home as a writing teacher, editor, and coach, so I set my own hours, and it is essential to me to preserve this quiet reflective time when possible. But I do still struggle to find time to make substantial progress on new writing that goes beyond freewriting, especially on my manuscripts-in-progress. For these, I still rely on week-long retreats—once or twice a year. It’s amazing how much I can get done in one week when I know it’s my one big shot at advancing my deeper evolving relationship to a book. When I can sink into that intuitive level of work that comes from living in a book all day long, rereading the whole thing, and re-envisioning things like structure. I find I can get more done on a book in a week than I can in a whole year sometimes, sadly. But I’ll take what I can get, even if my progress is slow.
AL: In “Open Receptivity” you write about your commitment to writing as a central part of your identity: “Despite the fact that so few people had actually read my work, I clung to my truth: writing was my calling and my practice.” After your son was born, you did what you could to keep your writing going and, looking back over those writings, you were reminded “how desperate I was to be writing more often, and how whatever little I did accomplish felt like the bare minimum to keep my old identity alive. . . . Forget trying to work on the two manuscripts I’d put on hold, sending pieces out for publication, or teaching workshops; I had to be realistic with my goals or else my own disappointment would be unbearable.” You have since then had great success writing and publishing your memoir. What advice do you have for mom writers who are still in that desperate stage?
ALK: On one hand, I would say, we have to adjust our expectations and goals. Be okay with publishing one essay in a year, if that’s all you can manage—celebrate what that took. Or be okay with a book taking ten or fifteen years, instead of the five that you once considered to be a “long time.” Trust that more time will come to you, either as your child gets older or as other seasons in life change, but also know that it’s okay to put things on hold. And that any topic or project that is essential to you will still be there down the road, even if by the time you’ve returned to it your perspective has aged, and thus the vision or shape or voice of the project too has necessarily evolved. Perhaps you will not be as prolific as some writers who do not have children or who have more help or privilege. But perhaps too your work will be more steeped in layers, and feel more necessary and urgent—the most important work rising to the surface because if you have little time it becomes more clear how you must use it.
On a practical level, being in writing groups, freewriting with my students in my classes, and journaling most mornings are essential ways that I keep the thread of connection to my work alive, so that when I do finally have time for a deeper dive, it’s not like I’m revisiting a stranger; ideas and connections have been percolating beneath the surface. List forms can be great ways to go in and out quickly on the page. Reading work that that builds on fragments can be super inspiring when it comes to seeding ideas for how to build a larger work out of many small pieces—allowing our forms to adapt to the constraints we naturally have. Regardless, having some form of ongoing practice, so that we remember to trust in and write down those little lines or glimmerings that come to us is important. And having writing community—whether that’s an accountability partner, a friend you exchange drafts with, a class, group, or mentor—I feel is essential. We need other people in our lives that get it, that get how important our writing and creativity is to us, people whom we don’t have to explain or justify it to. And finally, if you can’t write, if it’s too much and you are just trying to get by, see if you can still find time to read or doodle or go on a walk alone in nature—and keep trusting that all of this is feeding your inner artist, all of this is composting inside of you, readying yourself for the day or season where you can seize the time to return to the more focused work. It won’t go away. It will still be there for you, waiting, when you are ready to come back.
AL: What are you working on now and where can readers find more of your work?
ALK: After I published Heart Radical (which took over 100 agent and small press submissions before finding a home), I finally got an agent to work on my next project (and beyond) with. That project, an anthology of mixed-race writers, called Both/And, was born out of my interest in racial identity work and the workshops I’ve facilitated for multiracial people, and as such it will include writing prompts and a diversity of voices and nonbinary perspectives. We are working on the proposal now, and it’s going to be amazing! I’ve also been working on a memoir that explores the aftermath of my divorce, online dating for the first time during the pandemic, attachment theory, and my desire to be seen and known. But recently I realized that this newer material might actually be a part of yet another memoir I’ve been working on—on and off for over a decade—about marriage, gender roles, desire, and the story of how I inherited a cabin in Seattle (where I now live) from my old neighbors. It’s too much to fully describe here, but I can’t wait to get back on a retreat to work on it!
Thank you so much, Andrea, for inviting me to answer these rich questions. You can find links to my newer essays and more information about Heart Radical here: http://www.anneliukellor.com/publications.
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