Author Q&A: Jill Christman

Author Q&A: Jill Christman

smiley_color_cropJIll Christman is the author of the essay Leading the Children out of Town, which appeared in our October 2015 issue. We connected with her about the writing process. Here are her answers.

What inspired you to write this essay?

The interaction with the running-loose baby, his silent father, and my own non-judgmental mother that day in the street wouldn’t let me go. Images from that afternoon persisted in spinning through my mind, so I took a hint, and wrote down everything I could remember, but I still couldn’t figure out why that moment nagged me or what felt so complicated. That’s where most of my essays begin: with something I can’t figure out.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

This essay took years to finish—in and out of the proverbial drawer—primarily because I couldn’t put my pencil on what the essay was about. Now that I know the baby-alone-in-the-street scene was fluting me toward the dark cave of my own childhood abuse, I realize why this essay was such a challenge: it was leading me to a place I didn’t want to go—not so much the abuse itself, but my mother’s failure to protect me. As I say in the essay, I have long forgiven my mother, but being a mother has forced me to reconsider many of the questions I thought I’d put to bed.

How do your children inform your writing?

I teach and write literary nonfiction of all kinds, and while having children has indeed affected the way I write, I would argue that rather than being an obstacle to writing, my children—and by extension, all children—are the reason I write. Here is a question I ask of my students and their writing, over and over, day after day: What’s at stake in this essay? Why does it matter? For me, the urgency behind nearly everything I write can be traced back to the kids, the world we will leave them, and the preparation we are giving them to make their own journeys. My mother once sewed a wall hanging with this beautiful line by an unknown author embroidered into the cloth: Children are the message we send to a future we will never see. When I parent, and when I write, I look hard toward that future message.

In a recent presentation, I was speaking to MFA students about our necessity as writers to stay engaged with the world around us, the absolute imperative to really look. I showed a slide of my then five-year-old son, Henry, in that easy squat position of small children, poking his finger along the waterline at the beach. Think about the last time you saw a child arrive on a beach. Or in the woods. Or the edge of his own backyard. What did he do? Children drop to their knees, I told my students. That’s what I want you to do when you write. I want you to go out into the world and drop to your knees.

How do you balance writing and motherhood/fatherhood?

On a pragmatic level, having children has changed my writing habits. I don’t waste time, because there is no time to waste. I no longer require the smooth expanse of clean desk, the perfect cup of tea, and a matching set of impeccably sharpened pencils. I schedule time to write and I stick with that schedule. If I can grab an extra moment, I take that, too—even in the days when I had to balance my notebook on the head of a nursing baby, or now, when I steal a few minutes during tennis or tap class. (And, yes, sometimes I take on nursing or dance as my subjects, as well as my opportunity. This is my motto: love the one you’re with. And I do.)

As a mother and a teacher, I already have two full-time jobs before I sit down to write, but writing is the only way I know how to live in this world—with my children and for my children. My job as a writer is to pay attention to our complicated world—as my children do—and to interpret that world on the page, to make some sense of it all by locating patterns and connections through my work with scene, character, metaphor, image, and language.

Do you share any of your writing with your children (if they are old enough of course)

I’ve thought a lot about the question of writing my children, and in fact, published a whole essay on the subject’—”Chewing Band-Aids: One Memoirists Take on Telling the Truth”—in Joy Castro’s fantastic edited collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (University of Nebraska Press, 2013). The answer to your specific question is absolutely yes—I let both my children (eleven and seven) read my work (in fact, they often help)—but I don’t let them read everything. Yet. The bigger question you’re asking here might be answered by a quotation from “Chewing Band-Aids”:

This might be the most important thing I know to be true: secrets help no one. Maybe it’s because I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and I know the danger of a well-kept secret. I saw how the secrets of my childhood mutated, dividing and growing into malignant cells of shame and isolation, multiplying until I had the choice to cut them out or be consumed.

Writing Darkroom [my first memoir] was healing for me, and to a lesser degree for my entire family. I’m finished with secrets, and I know my determination to live in the light of full exposure has led me not only to the writing of nonfiction, but to my children themselves.

Return to the October 2015 Issue



Author Q&A: Alice Callahan, PhD

Author Q&A: Alice Callahan, PhD

Science of mom Callahan_Alice_HeadshotWhat was your inspiration for writing The Science of Mom?

There were really two stages of inspiration. The first stage was starting the blog, and the second was writing the book.

I started my blog, also called Science of Mom, when my first child was around 9 months old. I had devoted the last decade of my life to scientific research, but after my daughter was born, I decided not to go back to the lab, at least for the time being. I wanted to spend more time with her, and I’d always thought about trying to be some kind of writer.

The thing was, I couldn’t stop thinking about science. As a new mom, I had lots and lots of questions about how to best care for my baby, and as a scientist, I knew that science could help me answer them. I started digging into the research literature while my daughter napped. I started the blog in part as a place to put the neat things I was learning, but also because I was feeling isolated in new motherhood, having just left the workplace and moved to a new town.

Once I started blogging, I was thrilled to find a community of parents who were equally as curious as I was. They read my posts and commented to share their experiences and ask more questions. They made me realize that there were other parents who did not simply want to be told how to care for a baby without also understanding why. They weren’t interested in promoting one or the other philosophy or the parenting debates that invariably put someone else down. They – like me – were interested in how science could help us to better understand our babies and how to care for them. I knew that I could put my scientific training to good use by tackling some of these questions in book format, and I was excited to have to opportunity to grow my craft of writing through this project.

What was the most surprising aspect of your research?

I was surprised at how difficult it was to find neat and tidy answers to some of my questions, even after reading hundreds of studies. Is it safe to bedshare with my baby? When should I start offering her solid foods? What can I do to prevent food allergies? What are the benefits of breastfeeding, and how big are they? Questions like these are actually controversial among researchers, and the science is still evolving. The science is fascinating, and we can learn a lot from it, but it also has limitations. And really, it shouldn’t surprise us that there may not be one right or best way to care for a baby, given how different babies and parents can be.

There were other questions where the evidence is much stronger and more certain. For example, vaccinating your baby, getting the vitamin K shot, and laying her on her back for sleep – these are all clearly evidence-based choices. Seeing where the science is strong and where it is still uncertain can help parents be confident in some choices and feel comfortable following their gut for others.

How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?

While I was writing the book, my daughter was two and three years old, and parenting brought new challenges on a daily basis. This reminded me that we’re all learning as we go, and we’re bound to make some mistakes or do whatever we need to in order to get by sometimes. We’re almost always too hard on ourselves, and sometimes others, when we talk about parenting. That’s why I think compassion and empathy are essential ingredients to writing about it, and I wanted my book to show that, even while it was focused on science.

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

I hope that readers understand the big picture of how science works and how to find answers to their own questions as their children grow. Science can’t give us a tidy instruction manual for how to raise kids, but it can help us sort facts from fiction in parenting advice, especially when we’re looking for information online. It can help us to stay curious and open-minded, seeking knowledge and asking more questions, which is exactly the same attitude about life that I hope to pass on to my kids.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

During the 18 months that I was writing this book, I had three miscarriages. The first was just a month after I signed the book contract, and the grief brought me to my knees. The next two grew my despair and made me want another baby even more. It was one of the toughest periods of motherhood for me. It was a struggle to show up at my desk every day to work on a book about babies when I wasn’t sure I would ever have another one. On the other hand, I was glad to throw myself into the work, and it was good that I had a major project to focus on. I know this experience also made me a more careful and compassionate narrator in the book. The fourth pregnancy stuck, and the book was due right at the end of the first trimester. I had to work through a little nausea and fatigue to finish the book, but the nice thing about a looming deadline is that it makes time go faster!

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

In the year or so before I started writing my book, I read several that showed me that science writing could be accessible and could help us be better parents. Among these were NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin, and Coming to Term by Jon Cohen. Equally important for understanding parenting, I think, are books that make us question our assumptions and shine a light on the importance of cultural influences and individual experience. Books that did this for me were Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small, Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, and Bottled Up by Suzanne Barston.

How do you balance motherhood and writing?

Oh, this is a constant struggle for me. Writing this book was more work and took longer than I thought it would. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to meet my deadline if I just wrote in little increments of naptimes, and if I tried to work late at night, I wouldn’t be able to get enough sleep. Making real time to write meant compromising time with my daughter more than I intended. But in a way, I think it was good for me to commit to writing the book and prioritize writing. It meant that my husband and daughter grew closer, and my daughter saw me working hard at something that was important to me.

Finding enough time to write has gotten harder since the birth of my son, now 8 months old, but I think I’m getting better at making space for it. The beauty is that, as an introvert, writing is also my best way to reenergize and restore myself. I don’t crave pedicures or shopping. My favorite “me time” is a couple of hours at a coffee shop to write. When I can find that balance, writing and motherhood are a perfect pair for me.

Read an excerpt form The Science of Mom.


Scince of Mom Cover

Author Interview: Amy Yelin

Author Interview: Amy Yelin

IMG_0450Amy Yelin is the author of this month’s feature story about raising our children while also caring for our parents. Here is what she had to say about writing this feature story.

What was the most surprising piece of research you found while writing the article?

I was blown away by the predicted number of aging baby boomers expected by the year 2029: 61.3 million people!  I must also thought the phrase “silver tsunami” was kind of brilliant.

What interested you most about this topic?

I had a personal interest in this topic because I am one of the sandwiched…although I didn’t really realize it until I started writing. The opportunity to research and write this piece came to me only shortly after my visit with my father in March, and after I’d spent time writing about a local assisted living facility for a freelance client. The universe apparently wanted me to focus on the sandwich generation and elder care. I was really interested in both the history of “the sandwich,” which Stephanie Coontz kindly shared, and Carol Abaya’s advice, particularly her advice not to move your elderly parent. That was new to me, and reassuring because I’ve often felt badly that I don’t live closer to my father. Also: discovering Caring Across Generations and learning about the work they are doing, which I think is just brilliant. And hopeful.

What was the most challenging part of writing the article?

I think it was synthesizing so much information: the research, with my story, with the interviews, both the families and the experts. Connecting all the dots–which I find both challenging and, when it eventually works, satisfying.

If you were able to include more information what would you have added?

Perhaps more resources for people who are living in the sandwich. Writing the story it became clear how confusing and overwhelming navigating the current system can be. And perhaps advice on how to have “the conversation” with your elderly parent(s)– about their wishes for end of life care, and whether they have the proper documents in place. It can be a really difficult conversation to have. I admit I have yet to approach the topic with my own father.

What do you want the reader to take away after reading this feature?

I hope readers find something to connect with–something that makes them feel better about their own situation, and to know they are not alone. One piece of advice I really love came from Stephanie Coontz who said that despite how hard the situation is for those of us who are sandwiched, in reality this is a positive development because we are doing much more for our families than people did in the past. That we can take a little solace in this.

How do you balance motherhood and writing?

It’s pretty challenging. Because it’s not just just motherhood and writing–it’s motherhood, writing and making a living. I recognized before kids how much joy writing brings me, so I find ways to do it, no matter what. Sometimes I run away, to writing conferences; last summer I went to to the Vermont Studio Center for two whole weeks! This was thanks to a fellowship from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which offers money and fellowships for writing residencies to parents who have kids under age 18. Mostly it’s a crazy juggling act. I’m most prolific when I commit to getting up early in the morning and writing. I really need the quiet. And I’ve gotten better at not beating myself up when I’m not writing much. I know i’ll get back to it.

Return to the September 2015 Issue