Kate Hopper is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers (2012, Viva Editions/Cleis Press). Her memoir about her daughter’s premature birth is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press in October 2013. Kate teaches writing online and at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, and a Sustainable Arts Grant. Her other writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Brevity, Literary Mama, and The New York Times online. She is an editor at Literary Mama. For more information about Kate’s writing and classes, visit www.katehopper.com.
I didn’t realize that I wanted to be a writer until my late twenties. At the time, I was at a crossroads, trying to decide if I wanted to pursue a PhD in Anthropology. I had recently completed a year and a half of research with three generations of women in a small Costa Rican village, and these women’s stories were clunking around in my head. But I wasn’t interested in their stories as academic research, and I didn’t want to write them that way. That’s when I realized that I wanted to connect with people through writing, that I wanted to be able to craft stories and essays that break down rather than reinforce barriers. So I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing.
Of course, being in an MFA program doesn’t necessarily transform you into a writer. It took me years to say, “I’m a writer” and really believe it. The thing that actually made me believe in myself as a writer was becoming a mother. My first daughter was born prematurely in 2003, it was a very challenging time for me. It was isolated and lonely (and it was winter in Minnesota, so I was stuck inside alone with my tiny, vulnerable baby for months). For the first time in my life I felt really desperate for words, for a way to express the texture of my new life. Stella’s birth story felt urgent to me, and when I began to write it, I was amazed by how much more grounded I felt.
What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?
I have been (very slowly) working on a novel, which is so much fun. After finishing Use Your Words and my memoir, I wanted to try something different, something that relied less on examining myself on the page. And I have to say that writing fiction is liberating. I don’t have to concern myself with facts and truth; I get to explore and experiment and invent!
My reading time is very limited right now, but I am loving Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. I am absolutely mesmerized by her narrative, and that is so exciting. (I’m taking notes.)
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I mentioned above that my older daughter was born prematurely. She was two months early and spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home. We had ups and downs in the hospital, certainly, and then a very challenging few months at home together. I had felt so completely unprepared for those early months of motherhood, and I think that’s one of the reasons that writing our story felt really urgent to me.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
I can’t say much about my pre-kid writing process. It was pretty pathetic. I spent many hours procrastinating and waiting for inspiration (and getting very little actual writing done). Motherhood has taught me discipline. When I have two hours to write, I write for two hours.
I would love to have a little more time during the week to dedicate to my novel—my day job and teaching keep me pretty busy—but still, I’m plugging along. And even if I’m not at my computer typing away, I try to keep my main character in mind, check in with her so she stays close to the surface.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
Ha! They’re all up in each other’s faces.
I told a story as part of a panel presentation at AWP last year, and I’d like to repeat it here:
One morning last fall, my older daughter, Stella, woke up on the wrong side of the bed. She’s not really a morning person, but this was a particularly challenging morning—her pants were too tight or we didn’t have any eggs left or Zoë, her younger sister, who is always naked, sat too close to her on the couch. I can’t remember exactly what precipitated Stella’s flinging of her body onto the dining room floor with whining laments. But I was clearly not responding the way she wanted and she finally looked up and wailed, “Mom, you don’t even love me!”
I knelt down, took her shoulders in my hands, and said in my most reassuring mother’s voice, “Honey, you know that’s not true. I love you and Zoë more than anything in the whole world.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Do you love us,” she said, “more than your book?”
I must admit that at the time I was neck deep in copyedits for Use Your Words, and I’d been spending a lot of time either at the coffee shop or in my tiny office with red pen in hand. I was waking up at 5 to try to get an hour of editing in before my girls got up, before the lunch-making ritual, before wrangling Zoë into some clothes, and getting myself showered and off to my day job.
That morning, I hugged Stella and said, “Of course I love you more than my book. If I had to choose, of course I’d choose you girls.” I squeezed her tight, and then I added, “But I’m glad I don’t have to choose.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and I was able to coax her off the floor.
When I thought about this after the fact, though, I realized that when I said I was glad I didn’t have to choose between my daughters and my writing, I meant in a life or death kind of way. Like a bad joke—my writing is in one boat, my girls in the other. I can only save one boat from going down. My daughters would clearly win that contest.
But I also realized that regularly—weekly, daily—I make a choice between my family and my writing. Some Sunday mornings, I decide to skip the coffee shop and take the girls to the park. But other Sundays, I pack up my lap top, leave the girls at home with my husband, and head out the door even though I know they’d rather have me stay home with them. It’s a constant give and take.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
As I already mentioned, I’m more dedicated to my writing since becoming a parent. But I’m also braver, more willing to take risks on the page. So I definitely think I’m a better writer since becoming a mother.
I’m also a better mother because of my writing. Writing helps slow me down, notice the details that we so often take for granted. It also helps me process motherhood, allowing me to gain perspective, to figure out what I think about where we are all at right now.
Are your children ever subjects in your art? [If yes, how so? If no, why not? / How do you feel about the concept of parents using children in their art?]
Yes, my memoir is about Stella’s premature birth and our first year together, so my children clearly enter into my work as subjects. But usually, the story really isn’t about them; it’s about some shift in me. I try not to write about them too much on my blog because I am concerned about their privacy. With that said, I think we, as mothers, also own our experiences, and we deserve to be able to express those. But I’m not willing to do that at the expense of my children. It’s a tricky issue, and the line is always shifting.
How does travel figure into your art? Do/did your children come along? How has that worked out?
I dragged my whole family (my husband and the girls) on an almost month-long West Coast book tour this summer, and it was really amazing. When I was doing readings or workshops or interviews, they would hang out with my husband, but we also had a lot of down time to do family things together.
I also travel on my own quite a bit for my writing. I go to writing conferences and visit other Midwestern cities for readings, and I love to have that time to really immerse myself in the writing life, reconnecting with writing friends. It feeds me and my work.
What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?
Both of my girls love art projects and drawing, and Stella is very excited about writing her own stories now, which is really fun. Mostly, I let them take the lead. But I also think leading by example can be powerful. I hope that seeing me relax with a book in my hands will encourage them to do the same.
How do you escape?
Running is a great escape for me. I love how I can literally and figuratively “run out the door.” It rejuvenates both my writer and mother selves.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Be patient and give yourself time, and then develop a realistic work schedule. You don’t have to write every day—that’s not always realistic. But figure out what does work, and try to stick to it. Writing doesn’t have to be your first priority—that’s not realistic as a new mother—but it has to at least make the list.