Michelle Herman's most recent book is Stories We Tell Ourselves. She directs the creative writing program at Ohio State. Find her online at www.michelleherman.com
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
It’s been so much a part of me for so long, I have no idea where one ends and the other begins.
What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?
I've been working on a book project on and off for years—this month marks my tenth anniversary of this particular project, actually, which sounds alarming but doesn’t feel bad at all to me. It’s a collection of linked essays—not quite but almost a straight-through booklength narrative—that looks at motherhood, family life and home (the very idea of “home”), music and its performance (especially singing, which is one of my greatest pleasures), and community. For ten years I’ve written parts of it, published versions of many of the essays in it, written notes for new essays and for how to remake even the already published ones, done research for the part of it that’s about the brain science of singing and processing music versus processing language, done research for the part that includes musical theater history (of all things), written more essays, set aside some and replaced them with others, and revised and revised and revised. I’ve put it aside again and again to work on other projects—projects that were easier for me, projects I could complete on a reasonable timeline—and I think it was always because (though I didn’t know it was because) I couldn't see the central line through this one.
But now that I’ve found it, I am very excited about it. I discovered the book’s “central line” when I found something like a central line in my life. As my daughter prepared to leave home for college—which I fully expected to traumatize me (but not her—as it should be)—I looked at what I might throw myself into, to ease the transition back, after so many years, into a life of “just” writing and teaching and so on. And so I joined a 200-voice choir that in addition to singing (and the singing is no small thing: we perform sold-out concerts four times a year in Columbus, Ohio’s splendid, acoustically magnificent, hundred-year-old Southern Theater) also undertakes a dazzlingly wide range of community service. When I chose from our the Harmony Project’s “menu” of service to work with a group of adults transitioning from homelessness, I began to recognize that I was on to something (in life and in the book project) and when I recently spent a day—the first of what will be many days—with children in foster care and their biological families (and served as a bridge between the foster families and the biological families), something in my life—and in this book project—clicked into place for good.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I started out thinking I didn’t want to have children—or, rather, that I could not be both a writer and a mother, that I had to make a choice. In my mid-thirties, I thought, Absolutely not—I am not making that choice. (And at that point I met Tillie Olsen, who lectured me on the subject: she urged me to wait—she in fact demanded that I wait—until I published my second book [I had just published my first, a novel] before having a child. I decided it wasn’t good advice—not for me. But I understood, given her own life and how motherhood and her writing played out, why she was so insistent. And I loved her for it.)
I was thirty-seven when I met the man who would become my husband; I was pregnant a year after we started dating, and I named our daughter Grace because that was how I felt about what had happened and was happening. I still feel that way. (And—and I so wish Tillie were still around for me to tell her this!—I published my second book when she started kindergarten (having written two—two!—that remain unpublished between the first and second); I wrote my third published book, nonfiction about my “motherhood journey,” on a laptop I finally invested in, while sitting waiting for her at various classes, camps, birthday parties at ice skating rinks, etc. It seems I became more, not less, productive and focused after I became a mother. I think once time and concentration were at a premium—when I no longer had the luxury, ever, of a whole day, or even very many unbroken, uninterrupted hours, to write—I learned to focus quickly and accomplish much in short periods of time. (I also learned to write while there was noise, and while children—my daughter and her friends, once they were old enough not to require constant supervision—wandered in and out of my study, sometimes pausing to read over my shoulder and offer comments.)
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
Well, that too—I have probably already answered it. But then there’s this: I began to write nonfiction only after I became a mother, and most—though lately, not all—of my nonfiction is about this experience. My husband is an artist, too—he’s a painter—and although we are usually in our separate corners working (his studio is out back, in a converted garage), the very fact that so much of our lives have been devoted to making art has shaped the way our family lives in the world. (When Grace was small, she would dress her Barbies and Kens up—in ball gowns and tuxedos—and they would go off to work: the women to their writing rooms, the men to their painting studios.)
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
Oh, yes! Not only has my subject matter changed, and my concentration patterns changed—and my daily habits changed! (I used to be so precious about writing: only in this particular spot, in this chair, at this time, after doing these several preparatory things, and only if I had at least three hours to spend at it!)—but the shift from all my eggs (no pun whatsoever meant here) being in one basket, the meaning of my life entirely bound up with my writing, to the opening up of life that motherhood offered—the sense I had, from early in my pregnancy, that my life’s work was to be found here, too—changed me and changed my work forever.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
Once again, as noted above. I write about my daughter all the time. She doesn’t mind; sometimes she likes it a lot. I have always told her that I’d quit doing it any time she wanted me to. (When she was young, and I published a book that talked about what she herself referred to as her “problems”—which I wrote about it with her permission and encouragement—she told me it was a relief to be able to direct people to it when they asked her about those problems. She was twelve when that book, The Middle of Everything, came out [and it dealt with some things that had happened when she was six, which she was open about, but which she found hard to explain]. This makes it all sound very rosy, and it isn’t—and I don’t mean to oversimplify or to be naïve about the perils of writing about one’s children. But Grace has always been very comfortable with my writing, and takes it as a matter of course that I am going to write about her—because I write about every aspect of my life: she has never known anything else, never known me any other way.)
When The Middle of Everything came out, and I suddenly became panic-stricken myself (what would people think of me? Surely they would think I was a terrible mother! At certain points I called myself a terrible mother!), Grace dismissed my anxiety. “The only one who gets to say how good or bad a mother you’ve been is me.” And of course she’s right about that. (But I will also never forget that a few weeks after the book came out, a woman I didn’t know grabbed me as Grace and I made our way downstairs after her modern dance class and said, “I just read your book! I can’t decide if you are very brave or very stupid!”)
How does travel figure into your art? Do/did your children come along? How has that worked out?
I’ve never been much of a traveler (I should probably be ashamed, but am not ashamed, to admit). I am happiest when I can stay at home and write and read. (I do like a beach vacation, however—because then I can read while waves splash my feet, and periodically look up at the ocean, which is my favorite landscape. But that’s not what you mean, and I haven’t done much of that either. I’m hoping to persuade Grace to take a beach vacation with me for a week this summer—we haven’t had a vacation, together or apart, since she was three.)
What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?
When Grace was young, my husband would draw and paint with her every morning while I wrote—every single day, from the day she was old enough to hold a crayon or a brush. Once she started school, we went to her classes and did workshops—poetry writing and still life and portrait drawing and writing—every year. I was constantly in and out of her classrooms writing with the kids, and when she was in middle school my husband started an art club, after school. But Grace’s passion has always been the theater—since she was seven, at least, and perhaps younger than that (because I do remember that she had the uncanny ability, as young as two and a half, to quietly, raptly sit through plays. One of my gladdest memories—it still makes me laugh out loud!—is of taking her to see a children’s abridged version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—her first experience of Shakespeare, which has come to be among her greatest loves—and the way she climbed up to stand on her seat and shriek, “Oh no, Mama, she is GOING TO FALL IN LOVE WITH A DONKEY!”). I began taking her to the theater when she was very little, and we went to the theater all the time—we’d go to New York, where I’m from and my parents still live, and see four, five shows in a single weekend. And she has been acting, taking classes and going to day camp and attending theater intensive programs and acting in local children’s theater productions and in school, since the second grade, with such pure joy from the beginning that it was obvious to me long before it was obvious to her that this was going to be major part of her life. As it is, literally: she is now a theater major (concentrating in directing). I got to see her directorial (and playwriting!) debut last fall. (And it is a source of immense satisfaction to me that after many of years of her insisting that she is not a writer—that a writing life would be too boring for her—she is writing. And not only plays, though we are both fairly sure that will be her genre. This last semester she took a fiction-writing workshop and loved it. [And she tells me that there is a character in one of her stories who is “based on” me. At last: turnabout.])
How do you escape?
When Grace was young, you mean. I didn’t. But I didn’t want to, either. This is probably because 1) I was nearly forty when I had her—I felt I’d had plenty of time “to myself” before then, and I can’t remember ever feeling that I needed to get away from her, needed time to just “be me” (though I understand absolutely that need, and I’m sure I would have felt it had I had a child when I was thirty-two, or—gulp—twenty-two), and 2) I had just the one child. One of my dearest friends, a woman nearly twenty years younger than I am, has three—a six-year-old girl and four-year-old twin boys—and she is desperate to get time to herself. And I am always glad to take the three of them off her hands for a few hours so she can have that time. (In fact, since Grace is at college six hundred miles away and I miss her every day—and I miss her childhood very much—I feel very sneaky about this “help” I provide my friend Sandy. I do the same kinds of projects and games with her children as I did with Grace, and the time I get to spend with them is some of the happiest time of my life these days. (So that’s how I “escape,” now, from being “just me”: I get to be Auntie Michelle, or an extra mother, to these lovely children—who, thank goodness, recently moved in next door, so they are now in and out of my house, and on my porch (where the bin of Barbies, the bin of dinosaurs, the art supplies, all now reside).
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Write as much as you can before the baby arrives because afterwards, it’s going to be a little while before you can, again (I think it took me nearly two years). And then enjoy the time, if indeed it takes you the kind of time it took me—your writing isn’t going anywhere; it’ll be there waiting for you when you get back to it—and it’s not only your child who’s going to benefit from your complete attention. You will, too. You won’t believe how much you’ll learn from it. And the down time (such as it is: down time from writing) isn’t a time of “no work” on your writing anyway: you’ll be thinking even when you don’t know you’re thinking. When you get back to it, you will be so much better and have so much to say, you won’t believe it.
And then, once you’ve started again, learn to work with the rhythms of your new life. Don’t listen to what anybody tells you to do; figure out what you need to do to make it work. You will make it work. There’s nothing in the least incompatible about being a mother and being a writer. I’m living proof.