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



Writer/Reader Profile

Writer/Reader Profile

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

By Kris Woll

Once a month we talk with one of our writers. Here, some thoughts from Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser.

BT_Sarah ButterweiserFirst, tell us a little about your family.

I have a very lovely husband I’ve been married to for nearly twenty years (how did that happen?) and four kids – turning 18 in September; 15; turning 11 in September; and five-and-a-half (the half is important to her). There are three boys and a girl.

Tell us a little about what you’ve written for Brain, Child.

Much of what I’ve written about for Brain, Child is about the experience of being an adoptive mother in an open adoption. We adopted our youngest child.

When do you write, and where?

I work from home. The blessing of that is early in the morning before anyone is awake, I can get to work. The obstacles include sick days, home days, laundry and summer. Mostly, I work when they are in school. I do get childcare or use other time (play dates) to work on weekends, etc.

How does parenting impact your work/writing?

I guess the biggest truth–aside from the ways the work of parenting can get in the way of the work of writing–is that parenting provides so much fodder.

Where do get your inspiration? 

I don’t have to look far. I wrote an essay last week about making a sincere apology to my daughter after I got really pissed off that she was making me late to a Zumba class at the Y. Life is compelling and I feel lucky to be alive, so inspiration is not at all hard to find.

What books are on your nightstand right now? 

I am reading Andrew Solomon’s epic Far from the Trees, which is fantastic – and very long. My next read is Lisa Jahn-Clough’s young adult novel Nothing But Blue. I am a big fan of her picture books.

Which blogs/sites do you frequent for good writing? 

The New York Times Motherlode and Modern Love columns; Brain, Child’s offerings of course; Salon; and so often what people recommend captures me, too.

What is your favorite Brain, Child essay, story, or feature?  

I wrote Motherwit for Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens. I do not think of myself as a funny writer, and to be on that page was a thrill. There are many essays I’ve loved over the years; I think I was one of the very early subscribers. Like so many of us, Brain, Child turned me on to Catherine Newman’s work — and she remains a favorite essay writer (and a very lovely person, to boot).

Any advice to other parent-writers out there? 

My best advice is to write because you want to write. Writing with an end goal muddies the most important part, which is to do the thing you love to do.

Read Sarah’s work: First Day of Kindergarten, Remembering Adoption, She’s Lucky, Read More

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer and Brain, Child contributor. She blogs at

Melissa Uchiyama

Each month we talk with one of our readers, here’s what thinking mother Melissa Uchiyama of Tokyo, Japan  has to say.

Reader Profile_Melissa Uchiyama ArtTell me a little bit about your family…

It is Isaac, my amazing husband, and our awesome clan: Kariin, our spritely, just-last-week-turned-three-year-old, going on thirteen; Jude, the irresistible five-month-old with massive thighs; and our two doxie-brothers, Sammie and Riley. The dogs we had shipped to us; they are the originals. Then came the kiddos.

I am now going on my sixth year in Japan, from a very different life in South Florida. My husband was born here, but grew up outside of DC. Life here is delicious, a bit simpler (no car, but tons of walking and trains), and pretty extraordinary.

I am a teacher by trade, a mom, and a bit of a food writer.

How long have you been a subscriber?

Secret’s out—just…one measly, life-filled month. After a few summers leafing through my cousin’s Brain, Child magazine, beachside, and lazing in hammocks, I knew that one day, when I became a parent, I’d surely subscribe to Brain, Child. That it would be as essential and as nourishing as prenatals kept in the diaper bag.

Well, I became a mother after leaving the US to live in Tokyo. I thought, for sure a subscription is no more. Not in the cards– it will cost far too much. However, now with my punky girl and my sweet bruiser, that same cousin gifted me with a subscription that is actually mailed all the way to Japan. Incidentally, she was also the one to talk me through contractions from her Vermont home to my Tokyo cab, via Facebook messages. Some part of me feels that this is some wonderful rite of passage, the magazines are now mine to recommend or loan out

Why do you subscribe to Brain, Child? (e.g. What does the magazine mean to you; how does it compare to other magazines you read?)

This magazine, my gift, helps me connect with savvy, smart parents, not glossy commercials but rich insights. I feel like it focuses on what we already do well and naturally, rather than focusing on what we lack or what we fear we will not have, materially. Pieces generally bring the reader to some change, some peace. The writing helps me to appreciate just where I am and recognize the beauty in these moments, poetry in even the spit-up moments. Encouragement to jot my own notes, take stock, and exemplify a courageous woman who can laugh at herself. It is honest, well-crafted writing. I appreciate that.

What is your favorite Brain, Child essay, story or feature?

Well, being that I am a newbie, there is a whole treasure trove for me to delve into online. For now, I memorize my dog-eared August copy, waiting for my next installment.

What would you like to see more of in Brain, Child?

Bicultural, bilingual (or trilingual) families, stories and features about growing roots in new places, stories of frustration, growth, and faith.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.