Monday, March 7, 2011

Guest Blogger Lisa Catherine Harper on revisions and her new book, A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood

A few weeks ago, while prepping an online lecture on the tangled topic of writing about people we know and love (or have known and loved), Lisa Harper pointed me to a post she'd written for the Poetry Foundation blog. In that post, she describes discovering she was the subject of several poems in a book by a former lover. Lisa teaches in the University of San Francisco's MFA program, and in more of the writer community coincidences I love, Lisa grew up only a few miles from where I live and has written a new book about motherhood (a favorite writing subject of mine).

Please welcome Lisa Catherine Harper.

A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood, tells my personal story against the backdrop of science, focusing on how the physical changes of motherhood give rise to its profound emotional and psychological transformations. The book was informed equally by personal experience and the kind of research available only in medical textbooks and journals.

From the get-go, I aimed to write a nonfiction narrative about motherhood which looked beyond a personal story to something universal. But this posed problems for some agents and editors who told me it was “too quiet”; neither “self-help” nor “straightforward personal narrative.”

My book didn’t focus simply on pregnancy or on baby’s first year, but spanned the period of tumultuous change between conception and my daughter’s first nine months—a time that defined for me my transition to motherhood. Editors didn’t know what to do with the book, how to sell it, or where it would find its home in bookstores. I responded by working hard on two aspects of my manuscript: 1) Dramatizing the personal story; and 2) Ensuring the research emerged organically from the narrative.

To bring out the narrative I added more scene, increased the use of direct dialogue, and made setting more vivid. I also included significant character development of my husband. Early readers had asked for that, and I responded, and the result has been constant feedback about how much my readers now appreciate his presence. I cut whole chapters that didn’t relate to the larger story of change, and I completely rewrote a few that were cast in more lyric modes—which were lovely on their own but defied the structure of the book.

To integrate the research I worked very hard to translate medical language for a lay reader. Right up through the copyediting stage my editor and I continued to make sure the tone, diction, voice, and syntax of the medical language was consistent with the story. Also—I cut details and facts that, while interesting, did not have direct bearing on the story. So there was significant development, refining, and cutting, as well as some structural revision.

The passage that follows is a good example of a strategy that I urge my students to employ: the speedy anecdote, which is a summary that has the force of scene. The lists of food came later, and both were a way for me to show just how greedily and omnivorously hungry nursing made me. In the passage I try to move swiftly through a period of time that lasted a few weeks, but to give the episode immediate and urgent presence through the details (sweat soaked bedclothes, the showers, the lists of food.)

The medical passage is a good example of one which made use of more graceful transitions (During this period…after birth) and more straightforward syntax than you might find in a medical text. In the passage, I cast the list of facts so that it tells the physical story about what happens in during this difficult postpartum time. In fact, this material was gathered from several different chapters of the texts I worked with, then synthesized into one cohesive “story.”

My persistence paid off: my book won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, found a home at Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, and has been praised by Publishers Weekly as “universal, moving, and relevant.”

Below is a passage from “The Fourth Trimester,” which moves from story to research then back to story as it explores those impossibly hard first postpartum weeks.

After the pain [of labor], after the bone soaking fatigue, came the hunger. No one had prepared me for this. No one had warned me just how hungry I would become in the days after I gave birth. Even as the fluid left my body through urine and sweat—a horrible, cold sweat that soaked the bedclothes and necessitated two or three showers and two or three changes of pajamas each night—the milking left me ravenous, as if my stomach had been emptied along with my breast of every scrap of food and nutrient it might have possessed in reserve. I could never eat enough. Every few hours my blood sugar dropped precipitously, and it was all I could do to load myself with calories. I ate handfuls of nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, crackers, cheese, olives, meats, antipasto vegetables, cold pasta, cold pizza, salads gifted by friends. I was grateful to the point of speechlessness for the food my friends had dropped off, because even the ready-to-eat meals I had stored in our freezer took too much energy to prepare. Truly, it took Herculean effort to defrost and reheat and serve. Then, on day three of Ella’s life, an enormous, cement-heavy box arrived via FedEx from New York. I sliced it open and revealed a half dozen cheeses, olives, artichokes, flatbread, a loaf of dark rye, dolmas, roasted peppers, black olive tapenade, marinated mushrooms all slick with green olive oil and pungent with vinegar, and a large box of buttery, orange shortbread. Ravenous, I gazed at the bounty and wept. It was exactly what I needed. I could hardly believe my friend’s goodness. We ate our fill, and then, like the loaves and the fishes, the food sustained us for many days.

The first six weeks postpartum, often referred to as the fourth trimester, is a deceptively arduous time. During this period, the mother’s body must reverse all of the processes of pregnancy. Every system of her body, not simply her reproductive organs—from respiratory to gastrointestinal to hematologic to neuromuscular—has undergone dramatic physiological change in order to assume the additional functions and capacities of pregnancy. After birth, the mother’s blood volume, which has grown 30 to 50 percent, by up to a liter and a half, must decrease to pre-pregnancy levels. Her heart rate, which has increased progressively over the pregnancy until it beats fifteen to twenty times more per minute, will slow. The concentration of thyroid hormones, which have been elevated in order to support the altered metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids, must return to normal. Placental hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, diminish rapidly. The mother’s uterus must shrink and resume its proper relation to the rest of her abdominal organs. The cervix, bruised and distended from delivery, must heal, or “form up” and shorten. The site of placental attachment also must heal (which it does, amazingly, without scarring). And, of course, breasts, under the influence of two powerful hormones, prolactin and oxytocin, must undergo the final transitions that will enable lactation. This is only the best case scenario: there are many complications—from surgery to depression to placental retention–that can make recovery even more arduous.

And then, there is the practical matter of the baby.

Notes from Lisa (Romeo): To learn more, visit Lisa Harper's website and watch the cool (and short) video book trailer. Her book is now available for pre-order. You can also follow Lisa Harper on Twitter.
If you'd like to win a free, signed copy of A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood, please leave a comment on this post by midnight, March 21 (must have a U.S. postal address). One commenter will be chosen at random.


Melissa said...

Ah, the practical matter of the baby! I need to read on to hear what happens next. :)

Lisa McKay said...

I'd love to read a copy! I found this snippet very interesting already. I'm pregnant with my first child and finding it a whole new ball game than a career as a stress and trauma psychologist. I have heaps to learn in this department.