Ten years ago (“the blink of an eye,” in Mama time) I wrote a post honoring this site’s 10th anniversary. I’m back for another milestone—20 years of Literary Mama! The editors asked for some thoughts on the Columns department, which is where it all began for me, having edited nine columns for LM.
I really did cut my teeth editing those columns, working with some of the most talented and creative writers around, including Ericka Lutz, Vicki Forman, Jessica Berger Gross, Cassie Premo Steele, Ona Gritz, and Marjorie Osterhout. Ericka was a founding member of LM and Marjorie was the managing editor who hired me in 2007, so it was more than a bit intimidating! But each of my hardworking columnists, with their wealth of credentials, wisdom, and experience, were all receptive to my queries and suggestions.
It’s amazing that I got to edit 61 installments of Cassie Premo Steele’s “Birthing the Mother Writer” from 2009-2015! This interactive column explored aspects of becoming both a mother and a writer, allowing readers to write their own responses, then receive feedback from the columnist. Cassie continues to inspire others through her writing workshops and “JOYWORK” series of audio lessons, has authored 18 books, including seven books of poetry and three novels, and has garnered numerous awards and nominations. Look for Cassie’s ecologically themed novel Beaver Girl, coming out in November.
Ona Gritz and I also worked together long-term, on “Doing it Differently” and “Calling Home.” Her son Ethan was 11 when we first began, and by the time we reached the last “Calling Home,” he was 20! What a tremendous gift to be the first to read Ona’s monthly draft about her adventures as a mom with cerebral palsy raising an able-bodied child with the help of her blind partner. And once that son had gone off to college, to learn about her new definition of home and its inherent challenges. Ona has been busy writing and publishing in numerous genres—poetry, nonfiction, and children’s (pre-K through middle grade), and earning many awards and nominations. Her most recent book August or Forever, about the bond between two sisters living on separate continents, was released this past February.
Like all the incredible work appearing on Literary Mama, much thought and organization went into the more than 50 columns on this site. During the early 2000s, writers directed their column pitches personally to Marjorie Osterhout, and those that made the shortlist were shared with then senior editor Caroline M. Grant for approval. Marjorie is sure that she “inherited” a few columns that were “hired” by Andrea J. Buchanan, herself a member of the LM staff, and whose column “Mother Shock” became the bestselling essay collection of the same name. Of those fledgling years, Marjorie writes:
“I have so many great memories. Good golly, the writers… Gail Konop Baker’s “Bare-breasted Mama” turned into Cancer is a Bitch: Or I’d Rather be Having a Midlife Crisis, which landed Gail interviews with Oprah & Friends, as well as Dr. Oz. Deesha Philyaw (“The Girl is Mine”) wrote The Secret Life of Church Ladies, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Vicki Forman (“Special Needs Mama”) authored This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood, which won the PEN Center Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction. And several others went on to write books and establish themselves as successful writers. I’m so proud of them!”
As the department grew, so did the need for a dedicated head. Alissa McElreath answered that call, as Columns Department Editor from 2012-2017. Like Marjorie, Alissa has fond memories:
“The time I spent as Columns Editor for Literary Mama was truly a highlight of my professional career. With each new pitch that made its way into my inbox I felt the thrill of anticipation. I loved, loved, loved, receiving pitches and I loved the thrill of not knowing whether each one would be The One. Still, there was a certain objectivity I had to maintain along the way. Even if the writing sample was strong and moved me to tears, I had to step back and think about whether the column idea was one that could sustain itself over the long term. … A column that stands out for me is Kate Ristau’s “Heartsong,” a poignant documentation of the journey she and her partner Bob took with their child Rowan, who needed heart surgery. Editing her writing was the easy part, because Kate is such a talented writer, but helping her dig underneath the layers of emotion during the raw immediacy of a most difficult time was sometimes very challenging for both of us. I had to maintain a level of emotional distance in order to help Kate tap into the story that was just underneath, waiting to unfold.”
I’ve barely scratched the surface on all the compelling work that came out of Literary Mama’s Columns department these past twenty years, but I hope I’ve given you a sense of how crucial these voices have been telling the story of this community. Every column is archived here, if you’d like to explore further. Which are your favorites? Let us know in the Comments below.