Sweating It Out With a Writing Exercise

Today I’m not blogging about finding fitness in the chaos of motherhood; I’m blogging about writing the chaos of motherhood for posterity. Yes, especially those moments you think you’d like to forget. Every mother has her own way of cataloguing her memories, from elaborate scrapbooks, to pulling out anecdotes–the most embarrassing ones–over large holiday gatherings. My way is through essays, writing as many words as I have pictures stored on our hard drive.
My twin girls were two and my youngest daughter had just turned one when I discovered nirvana in a class for mother writers at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I took Kate Hopper’s class for mother writers over and over again. Partly because I connected with Kate and that inaugural class of writing moms, which helped me feel more grounded after moving to Minnesota from Texas. Six years later we continue to meet monthly; we even occasionally escape for a weekend to write together. Many of these same women have also become running partners, becoming not just Sweaty Sisters, but Sweaty Writing Sisters.

But the writing–and specifically writing about motherhood, because as a freelance writer I was already writing–became essential to my survival. OK, survival sounds a little dramatic. But it is essential for me. Essential to thrive as both a mother and a person. Writing about motherhood is more than capturing the memories and the narrative of my story as a mom. It gives me proof. I can go back and laugh and realize, even when I felt I didn’t know what I was doing, when motherhood seemed so hard and I felt like screaming, “I can’t do this,” I read those essays and I know that I did do this, and did so better than I felt at the time.

I have to give credit to Kate for her gifts of drawing out the real story (it’s never what you think it is), extracting peripheral memories from our sleep-deprived subconscious, and creating vivid images of our children so we truly capture their essence at that moment in time on the page.

Now Kate’s genius has been published into a book called “Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers,” (Viva Editions 2012). I’m giddy that moms everywhere can experience the coaxing, nudging, and nurturing from Kate to get their experiences down on paper. To make sense of what perplexes us as mothers; to illuminate the highs and lows; to capture in words the story behind the picture that you didn’t think to take, because, as everyone around you always says: “You have your hands full.”

See for yourself. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 4: Our Children as Characters.

You want your readers to feel a connection to the characters in your writing, and in order to make that happen, you need to write them in enough detail so readers really know them. Sometimes when I mention that I’m working on character development with my students, someone will say, “I thought you were teaching nonfiction.” There is an assumption that because the people in a work of creative nonfiction really exist, there is no need to concern ourselves with character development. But nonfiction writers need to write believable and three-dimensional characters precisely because these characters are real people; writing them accurately is a way to honor them. We also need to think about character development when we are writing about ourselves. How does the reader know us? How do we reveal who we really are?

One of the wonderful things about writing about our children is that we, as writers, get to decide how the reader first “sees” them. What do you want readers to notice first about your child? How do you get readers invested in your children as characters? Keep these questions in mind as you write about your children.

You want this book, don’t you? But what you really want is a one-on-one session with Kate to help you figure out where to start or help you along with your writing. You can win both if you enter the writing contest that Kate is hosting as part of her virtual book tour. To participate you have until this Thursday, May 31 to write 600 words or less in response to the writing exercise below. Email it to me at kara@karathom.com. I get to judge round one, which I’ll announce on the Hot (Sweaty) Mamas Facebook Page on Friday. The winner will receive a copy of Use Your Words and I’ll forward the winning entry to Kate for inclusion in the grand prize, which she will select from the best writing from all the participating blogs on her virtual book tour. The grand prize winner will receive an hour phone or Skype session with Kate and get their writing published on Literary Mama.

The writing exercise is: Character Sketch

Think of your child (or one of your children if you have more than one). Try to convey his personality by using dialogue, gestures, and facial features. Ground your writing in detail. It may help to think in terms of objects—what your child eats, what he likes to play with, his hobbies. What does her face look like when she is absorbed in a task? Write as if you are watching your child from the other room. What does she look like when she doesn’t realize that you’re watching?

Writing babies can sometimes be challenging because they don’t do that much. So if you have a very small baby, you might choose to describe her while she’s sleeping, or crying, or gnawing on her hand. Or you can try this exercise with another person in your life.

Note: Some of my students who have twins have found that they cannot write about one without writing about the other. If you have multiples and feel this way, go ahead and write them together in a scene. Think in terms of differences and similarities. When are they most alike, most different?

Are you ready to write? If you have to skip a “sweaty” workout to get this writing exercise done,  you have my permission!

Can’t wait to read your entries. Get busy Hot (Sweaty) Writing Mamas!  –Kara

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May 29, 2012 · 6:30 pm

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