Oct 2, 2012

Please join me in Pasadena, California, on October 18 for the Women's Leadership Legacy Conference, sponsored by LA County. It's open to the public and more than 600 women are expected to attend. I'll be one of the keynote speakers, talking about how to locate the inspirational journey in the story of your life. My dear friend and fellow author Christine Schwab will be speaking there as well. Looking forward to a full day of inspiration!!

Jul 24, 2012

New Children's Book for Grandmotherless Kids

My Name is Rebecca Romm, Named for My Mother's Mom is a new children's book by Rachel Levy Lesser about a girl who learns about the grandmother she's named for, who died before she was born. It's a lovely idea, and may inspire talk with kids about their namesakes and/or grandmothers they never knew. Click here to see the book's Amazon page.

Jul 22, 2012

Research Opportunity for Motherless Daughters

I'm posting this on behalf of a graduate psychology student doing a dissertation on women who've lost mothers to suicide. Please feel free to contact her if you fit the description and would like to participate.

Olivia Schlapfer Colmer, a PhD candidate in the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program at Nova Southeastern University, and survivor of her mother's suicide is looking for help for her dissertation. She wants to interview women who have lost their biological mothers to suicide, preferably but not exclusively while in their twenties.

These in depth, approximately one to two hour face-to-face interviews will explore daughter’s experiences of loss, how these experiences have affected their sense of self, and their relationships with others including their deceased mother.

She will travel to do interviews if needed. For more information, questions or concerns, please contact her at oscolmer@gmail.com or 305) 299-9490 .

Jun 4, 2012

Mothers, Cookbooks, and Apple Pie

For years, my daughters have been asking me to teach them how to bake an apple pie. I suppose they view it as a gold standard of domesticity, the kind of task and knowledge that mothers naturally pass on to their girls and that they therefore expect to receive. Problem is, I’m not much of a cook and can hardly claim expertise in any matters domestic, partly because I lost my mom before I realized these things were valuable to learn—she knew how to bake an apple pie, though lemon meringue was her trademark—and partly, I suppose, because willfully refusing to learn how to bake pies effectively separates me from my mother and therefore, in a form of twisted logic, from her fate. I’ve felt guilty about having two daughters who want to bake, though, as if somehow I’m not stepping up to the maternal plate in the manner they want or need.

Isn’t pie baking (and knitting, and sewing, and knowing how to use a Crock Pot, and all the things I’ve taken halfhearted stabs at during the years and then promptly abandoned) just part of what mothers do?

And then this past Sunday while my husband was on a trip to New York I found myself home with the girls with a leisurely afternoon and no plans, a rarity for us three. For a reason that still escapes me, even as I sit here writing, I decided it would be a fine day to learn how to bake an apple pie.

I started by Googling “basic apple pie recipe.” The ever-trusty Cooks.com came right to the rescue, but something about referring to a laptop or iPad screen while baking felt fundamentally wrong. I decided to look in my rarely-touched stash of cookbooks for a useful alternative. My new-ish Better Homes and Gardens cookbook didn’t have a recipe for apple pie. (I know. That surprised me, too.) An older New York Times Cookbook I picked up somewhere years ago didn’t have one, either. It started to occur to me that cookbooks either a) assume that everyone with an interest in cooking already knows how to cook an apple pie; or b) an apple pie is just too basic for their readerships, who’d rather learn how to make apple-strawberry-rhubarb gluten-free latticed cobbler extravaganzas, or some such.

In the end, the recipe I found was almost exactly the one on Cooks.com and came from my mother’s old Better Homes and Garden cookbook from the early 1960s. I inherited the book when I left for college, or maybe I just took it with me without asking; I honestly don’t remember, but I’ve carried it with me from state to state, house to house, for the past 30 years. The book was a staple of my childhood, with its red-and-white checked hard looseleaf cover and silver-ring binder interior. The printed looseleaf pages have turned sepia with age, and over the years someone (my mother? me during college?) unclipped some of the baking recipes and tucked them inside the front cover without clipping them back in. But there about 2/3 of the way into the book, right where they belonged, were the recipes and instructions for double pie crusts and a simple apple pie.

The girls and I had most of the ingredients on hand – flour, salt, butter, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. We also had my mother’s wooden rolling pin and her big, plastic Tupperware mat with the concentric circles that tell you how wide to roll the dough for 8-, 9-, and 10-inch pies. My daughters love that mat. It looks progressive and vintage at the same time. They also like knowing the rolling pin we’re using is the one from my childhood home. Baking this pie was practically a three-generational effort, or as close to it as we could get.

With three people on the job, the pie took about 45 minutes of prep time and about 30 minutes of oven time. And the result was much better than you’d expect from three cooks who’d never tried it before, even after Eden and I got absorbed in a logo guessing game on my iPad and didn’t hear the oven timer go off for at least five minutes after the pie should have been done. Oops.

I don’t harbor any illusions that I’ll become a master baker, or magically transform into a crafty mom. I still don’t knit, and I still can’t sew. Most nights will still find me playing board games or proofreading high school papers rather than wielding a Cuisinart. But there was a certain, deep satisfaction that came from tackling that pie, from discovering it wasn’t as difficult or as mystifying as I’d imagined from a distance, and from having my mother participate in the enterprise with the two granddaughters she never met, even if it was just through her possessions. My older daughter, who took most of the pie to school to school today for a lunchtime picnic, asked if she could inherit the cookbook one day. Which will be exactly the right place for it to land.

May 13, 2012

An Open Letter to Motherless Daughters on Mother's Day

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table just a few hours before Mother’s Day officially begins. Motherless Daughters Day – the day designated by motherless women nationwide to honor mother’s who are no longer with us – is about to draw to a close.

Today I spoke to a group of forty women in West Los Angeles where Irene Rubaum-Keller, the therapist who leads Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles, has been organizing annual Motherless Daughters Day luncheons for sixteen years. At the end all the women joined hands to create a Circle of Remembrance and we went around, one by one, and said our names and our mothers’ names out loud.

“Hope, daughter of Marcia.”

It’s been thirty one years since my mother died, and a lot of life stepped in to start filling the void. I’m married now, with two daughters of my own, and I don’t get to say my mother’s name out loud nearly as much as I’d like to. I very rarely say it in the same sentence as mine. Except, once a year, the Circle of Remembrance presents the opportunity again and I’m so thankful it does.

My mother died of breast cancer in 1981, when I was seventeen and she was 41. Ten years later I started writing Motherless Daughters, the kind of book I’d gone looking for when she first died. Since its publication in ‘94 I’ve traveled around the world speaking with groups of motherless women and hearing their stories. I’ve met extraordinary women, and heard phenomenal stories of loss, recovery and rebirth. This year, more than any other year—though I’m not sure why—I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned these past eighteen years, especially from the women I’ve met, and three truisms quickly come to mind:

1. Mourning takes a lifetime. This is hardly groundbreaking news today, but in 1994 when MD was first released it was a revelation to many readers who didn’t realize that Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief had been developed for those who had terminal illnesses rather than those who were grieving their deaths.
I remember saying to my editor when I first started writing Motherless Daughters, “I can’t tell readers that mourning lasts a lifetime. Nobody wants to hear that.” But then I thought, “Many of these women, as children, were denied the truths about their mother’s death, and about grieving. Even if they wind up resenting me for it, they deserve to be told the truth as adults.” What happened was exactly the opposite: readers appreciated learning that they weren’t abnormal. They thanked me for validating their feelings and giving them the facts. After a mother dies a new kind of “normal” settles in, one in which the mother is always missing and forever missed, and that’s okay. Only when we accept and make peace with this we will find this new equilibrium.

2. Healing comes through community and from sharing our stories with others. In 1995, the Motherless Daughters non-profit organization started to field the flood of requests for support groups for motherless women. To our knowledge, no such groups had ever been held before. We ran some trial groups in New York City before sending the template out to other sites. Today, dozens of groups are being led around the country, both therapeutic and social, including Motherless Daughters of Chicago; Motherless Daughters of Orange County, California; and Metro Detroit Motherless Daughters, as well as many others organized through Meetup.com, including Motherless Daughters of Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, Miami, Charlotte, North Carolina; and the more than 200 women who belong to the Mamma Mia Sisterhood in Atlanta, Georgia. The long-term survival of these groups reveals that through community we can regain the very comfort, courage, and strength we once lost.

3. When bad things happen to good people, good things can nonetheless result. It’s so much easier to focus on what we don’t have than on what we do. But as individuals, we always have the power to reframe an experiences so that something negative can be seen as positive. A very smart therapist (who also happens to be my mother’s sister) once told me, “If you believe, ‘My life is difficult because my mother died,’ then your life is always going to be difficult, because your mother is always going to be dead.” But once we let that initial belief start to thaw, to melt down to “My life is difficult right now, but it won’t always be that way,” and then to “Not everything in my life is difficult” eventually leading to “Good things have come my way because my mother died,”—as unlikely as that may sound to some of you at the moment-- our perceptions start to take on a different hue. I would venture to bet that any motherless woman can identify three or four things in her life that make her feel fortunate, or that bring her joy, and if she traces them backwards through the series of life choices and events that made them possible, like a flow chart in reverse, I’d bet that at least one or two of them would relate back to circumstances surrounding a mother’s death.

In my case, my husband, my children, and my community all date back to that pivotal event when I was seventeen, because if I hadn’t felt the need to write Motherless Daughters I never would have joined with other women to start a national organization, which wouldn’t have needed to rent cheap office space in New York City, and then I never would have met the man who rented us a piece of his office suite in Times Square, the man who became my husband and whose job moved us out to Los Angeles, and who became the father of my two daughters, whom I can’t imagine living without. I could say it was the book brought them all into my life, but I never would have written the book if my mother hadn’t died.

All of this has taught me…well, what, exactly? Something so simple it feels almost glaringly obvious. It’s that I’ve learned how to practice gratitude for my loss. This may sound impossible to anyone who’s still actively grieving—and who is right where she should be, right now-- but over time it becomes apparent that the death of a mothers does, eventually, lead to blessings in a daughter’s life. She will be stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient than she otherwise may have been. She will find joy, often in unexpected places. Over time, she will help younger women cope with their losses as role model and mentor.

When I first saw the “It Gets Better” project for LBGT teens I wondered if we all should do something similar for motherless girls. Because I receive emails every week from teens whose losses are still very recent. They wonder how long this feeling will last and if it will ever go away, and ask me if they will ever be happy again.

It gets better. Truly, it does.

And so today, on Mother’s Day, I encourage everyone to take a moment to practice gratitude, and to identify just one thing in your life that is good, and that you can trace back to your early loss. Just one thing.
What I choose to be grateful for today is the opportunity to have been the one who got to write the book I needed to find so badly myself when I was seventeen. And also for all the readers (that’s two things to be grateful for, but who’s counting?) who’ve supported the book, and the motherless daughters movement, for the past eighteen years. You, more than anyone, have taught me that from shared experience comes solidarity, and from solidarity comes community, and from community comes a unique and special form of strength.

Many blessings to you all on this Mother’s Day, 2012.

With thanks and all best everything,

(adapted from a talk presented to Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles, May 21, 2012)

May 4, 2012

New Survey for Motherless Daughters Online

Are you a woman who lost her mother before age 16? Would you be willing to help a psychology trainee in Surrey, England, with her research? This quick online survey will help further research in parental bereavement. I took a look at it and it's designed very sensitively. I'd take it myself except I was 17 when my mother died. Please participate if you're interested!

Mar 5, 2012

Motherhood and Writing: Thoughts from AWP

I just spent the weekend in Chicago at the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual convention, where 10,000 writers, teachers of writing, and students of writing packed into two Loop hotels listening to panels and readings for two and a half days.

It was fabulous fun.

The AWP conference is a once-a-year opportunity to reconnect with far-flung friends from graduate school and the writing and teaching worlds. It’s also the way to stay current on developments in the field and hear writers I admire read from and talk about their work. I usually sit on one or two panels each year and this year’s was a highlight. Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of the memoir Lost and Found, brought together five women writers—including Kate Hopper, Katy Read, and Jill McCorkle--to talk about motherhood and writing. Two hundred audience members filled the room, indicating this is a subject writers want, even need, to hear more about.

Several writers came up to me afterward to say how much they’d enjoyed what we each had to say, so I thought I’d post a slightly edited version of my eight-minute talk here for those who couldn’t make it. The title of the panel was “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk.” Try to imagine me at a podium in a cream sweater, a long black skirt, black boots, still battling slight jet-lag, as you read:

“Like some of my fellow panelists, I was already a working writer when my kids came along, and so instead of finding a way to fit writing into family life, my writing life needed to expand to include room for a child. At first, I’d thought it would be possible to step sideways and create a natural space for a family, and then we’d all happily coexist on the same plane. It didn’t take me long to discover the naivete of this plan. Two weeks with a colicky infant, to be exact.

Before motherhood, my days were largely unstructured. I ate when I was hungry, sped out the door to literary events on short notice, and wrote until late in the night. My subject matter was mainly mother-daughter relationships from the perspective of a daughter, specifically a daughter without a mother. After my own two daughters came along, I still wrote about mother-daughter relationships, only now mainly from the perspective of a mother.

Now my daughters are ages 14 and 10, and on a day-to-day basis I have very little separation between my life as a writer and my life as a mother. I write about family life, in the midst of family life, not at a critical remove from it. I have an office outside of the house to give me some physical distance from the constant flood of requests that would otherwise fill my waking hours, but I try to fit my writing hours, which are usually flexible, into the family schedule, which is not always so flexible, given school schedules, babysitter availability, and my husband’s work and travel. In an ideal world, my writing hours would be my daughters’ school hours, from 8:30 to 3. With the help of a babysitter twice a week I have a thirty-six hour work week, which certainly sounds reasonable for a writer.

It’s just too bad I can hardly craft a usable paragraph during daylight hours.

If you’re a born and raised New Yorker like me, it’s always easier to focus on what you don’t have than what you do, so I’ll share that list first.

Because I’m a mother and a writer, usually in that order, here is the list of things I absolutely cannot do:

1. Spend three months, or two, or even one, at a writer’s colony starting, working on, or finishing a book. (Thirty whole days? Seriously?)

2. Shower every day.

3. Take a visiting professor job, or any teaching job, anywhere but in our hometown.

4. Be a travel writer. Unless it’s possible to make a living off one assignment per year that just happens to fall over Christmas or Spring Break.

5. Be a foreign correspondent. Unless Pasadena counts.

6. Be a mom who can volunteer in the classroom on the same day and time every week and still hope to get work done by deadline. Instead, I’m the mom who goes on random field trips and takes over at the last minute when others can’t make their shifts.

7. Stay at literary events past 9 p.m. on a weeknight (not with a chronic 6:15 a.m. wake-up call to get the kids to school).

8. Write every day during my peak creative hours, which are between 5 p.m. and midnight.

9. Be the kind of wife who feels nothing but gratitude when my husband spontaneously says, “I’ll take the kids for the next half-hour, honey, so you can sit down and write.”

10. Expect with any semblance of reason that when I wake up on any given morning, my work day won’t be interrupted by a forgotten lunchbox; an urgent need for violin rosin; a book report left on the kitchen table; a half-day of school I forgot about; an emergency trip to Michael’s Art Supply store to buy numerous tiny, expensive items to build a California mission; a headache; a stomach ache; a broken retainer; or a case of head lice. Again. And all I can say about that is -- if you’ve never been pulled away from a crushing book deadline, the kind where the editor is tugging on your pages all the way from New York, by a call from the elementary school nurse at 10 a.m. saying that ¼ of your daughter’s fourth-grade class has lice, including her, and that every member of your family needs to be checked since you probably all have it, and every piece of bedding in the house needs to be washed in hot water, and all the stuffed animals quarantined in garbage bags, and all the mattresses vacuumed, today, then … you weren’t living in my house last month.

Now, having gotten all that out of the way -- here's the list of things I can do precisely because I’m a writer and a mother:

1. Fully appreciate the importance of detail. As in, “What exactly did Mr. Cott say when you were sent to his office? I need to know the exact dialogue before I call the school.”

2. Budget my time very efficiently. Because my writing time is so pre-circumscribed, I have to get as much done in six hours as I possibly can. This is where setting realistic expectations is essential. Thinking I can accomplish ten hours of work in six only sets me up for disappointment. Most of us simply can’t produce as much work after children as we could before them, except for the select and enviable few who find motherhood jumpstarts their creative writing energies and inspires them to produce.

3. Write from first-hand knowledge about pre-natal tests, complicated deliveries, home birth, the Tooth Fairy, and the week my 11-year-old daughter had to bring a flour-sack baby to school and pretend to be its mother.

4. Help my kids ace their spelling tests and edit ninth-grade English essays. Algebra II, however, is a lost cause.

5. Bring a nineteen-month-old on a book tour, which was a whole lot more fun than I thought it would be.

6. Write a comic essay with my teenage daughter and perform it together (Look for us on stage March 12 at Spark Off Rose in Pacific Palisades!)

7. Take my kids to see where Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Anne Frank once lived, as well as drag them to all the former log homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

8. Discover a whole new list of vocabulary words and idioms I can now use in essays and stories. Like “Chill,” “Bro,” “and “Epic Fail.”

9. Recognize the ironies, the metaphors, the character arcs, the turning points, and the dramatic high points of everyday life as they occur.

10. Discover a whole range of emotions I never knew existed, and wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.

I’ve long thought that as a mother writer (or a writing mother) – it’s a very good thing that I’m creative. Because creativity, flexibility, and adaptability are the three main prerequisites for this job. My biggest challenge in the workplace has been finding a way to carve out enough consecutive hours, on a regular basis, to produce quality work. The gift of a quiet, solitary half-hour, while greatly appreciated, is only long enough to start clearing the mind of clutter and barely starting to sink into the work. On a good day for me, a half-hour’s worth of writing can produce one decent paragraph.

Long before I was married, when I was still in graduate school and working on my first book, I discovered that my natural Cicadian rhythm makes me most creative between five and midnight. After my first daughter was born I tried to shift my writing hours to daytime, with very mixed results. Daylight and I do very well together for administrative tasks and teaching, but my creative hat won’t stay on my head until 5 p.m., no matter how hard I try to make it stick. And for parents, those key hours between five and midnight mean dinner, dishes, homework, bath time, bedtime, and first feedings – events that can’t be skipped over or ignored in favor of crafting a perfect page.

My solution, when I’m on deadline, is to function as a binge writer. That means every third or fourth weekend my husband takes the kids from a Friday school pick-up through Sunday night and I check into a hotel up in Ventura, California – strategically chosen because it’s an hour and fifteen minute drive from our house, close enough to get home quickly in an emergency but far enough away that I won’t get any surprise dinner guests.

I stay in the hotel room for three days straight, leaving only for meals – and sometimes not even then – and crank out as many pages as I can. The immersion in the work, without interruption, allows me to write better and faster than I can during a regular day. I produce more pages in that one weekend than I normally do in two weeks of weekday writing. It’s not an ideal situation, and it sometimes extends my deadlines, but it’s worked moderately well so far: I’ve written three books this way since 2004. Not a book a year like some writers can produce, not even close, but it’s a pace that allows me to be both mother and writer and – at least some of the time – allows me to feel that I’m doing both pretty well.

And so for me, writing and motherhood are neither a balancing act nor a juggle, but more of a pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other. I’m either working very hard on a book (some of the time) and making that my primary focus, or deliberately reducing my work load (as often as I can afford to) to spend time exclusively with my husband and kids. It makes for a feast-or-famine family life to be sure, and I’ve often wondered if or how it adversely affects my kids to have me so fully present much of the time but so lightly available some of the time. It’s all they’ve ever known, since I’ve been writing for as long as they’ve existed, and I imagine that to them while it’s not always preferable it’s a certain kind of normal. I’ll have to wait until they’re older and can tell me, to know for sure.

I once read an interview with the Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht, in which she said that every child a woman has is a book she doesn’t write. And although that sounded awfully harsh to me the first time I heard it, I thought about it a great deal and would say that for me, it’s been pretty true. The first two years of each of my daughter’s lives—about the time it takes me to write a book—were years when newborn care and sleep deprivation and the awe of having an infant and toddler in the house made it impossible for me to work full time. I did sell a book proposal when my second daughter was six months old, but it took four years for me to finish it. So while it’s true that I probably would have been more prolific if I didn’t have two children to care for, that equation begs the question: would I rather have eight books and no children, or six books and two children? As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t any question there."

For a series of postings about the AWP Conference, check out the Minneapolis StarTribune blog. Here's a link to the final installment by writer and teacher Barrie Jean Borich.

Feb 13, 2012

Free Teleseminar About Writing!

Please join me on February 14 at 11:30 AM PST for a one-hour discussion about the writing life, hosted by New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Lauck, author of the memoirs Blackbird, Still Waters, and the recent Found, as well as the essay collection Show Me the Way. Read about all of Jen's books here.

When: Valentine's Day, Tues, 2/14 @ 11:30 AM PST

How: Call (218) 632-0550 & enter access code: 854364#
Announce your name, where you hail from and then mute your
end of the call by hitting *6.

Questions: If you have a question for me or Jen, send it to Jen at jclauck@gmail.com
and she'll open the call live so you can speak.

And check out Jen's memoir writing site and her list of fabulous upcoming classes at her writing web site.

Hope to be speaking with you soon,