Last time I was stuck in Minneapolis airport, I spent a desultory five hours doing what one does: having no fun. Next time, I think I'll call Kate Hopper and ask to hang out with her for a few hours. We'll have a lot to talk about – writing, motherhood, teaching writing, and the intersection of all that and more. Kate is a fellow contributor to the anthology Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing, and this is the third in a series of guest posts from some of the book's contributors.
Please welcome Kate Hopper.
How many years were you writing before you could say “I’m a writer” and really believe it?
I didn’t call myself a “real writer” until after my daughter, Stella, was born in 2003, even though I had been writing for a few years and was just beginning my third year of the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Clearly I was writing, but I still felt uncomfortable claiming the title “writer.”
Then I developed severe preeclampsia and Stella was born two months early. She spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and the two of us spent the following long Minnesota winter months at home. I withdrew from graduate school, and spent my days walking my fragile and very fussy infant around the dining room table.
For the first time in my life, I was desperate for words. I craved stories that revealed something other than the rosy versions of motherhood so often perpetuated in our society. I wanted to know that the exhaustion and despair I felt some days did not make me a bad mother. But I didn’t find much out there that validated the complicated emotions I was experiencing as a new mother.
So when Stella was five months old, I left her bundled in her daddy’s arms, and went to the coffee shop near our house and pulled out paper and a pen. The images of her—writhing on white blankets, beamed from the NICU into the television set in my hospital room—came spilling out, and after an hour, words covered the page. For the first time since she was born, I felt grounded, and the world felt a little bigger. After that, when I had a free hour, I wrote for an hour.
I started calling myself a “writer.”
And an interesting thing happened: When I began to believe in myself as a writer, I started to carve out more time to actually write, I took myself more seriously, and I began to write more than I’d ever written before. I no longer waited for inspiration, no longer spent hours rearranging the spice cupboard instead of tapping away at the keyboard. Part of this certainly had to do with the fact that as a new mother I had very limited writing time, and I wasn’t about to squander it making sure that the cumin was next to the coriander. (Who needs coriander anyway?)
In calling myself a writer, I also learned to see my writing as work, which helped me value the time I spent at my computer. I discuss the need to view your writing as work in my Women Writing on Family essay, “It’s Not a Hobby.”
If you were starting a career in business administration, it wouldn’t be unusual to have one or two (or more) internships before you landed your first “real” job. These months, though often unpaid, are invaluable, helping you learn the ropes of the business world. The same goes for your writing. You need time and space—and many months—to make headway with your writing, to learn the craft of your trade. If you’re not making money from your writing yet, think of it as a long-term unpaid internship.
Once you reframe your writing as work—whether you’re working on a paid freelance article or a short story that’s unlikely to ever make you a cent—you will be more likely to treat your writing as work. Set a schedule that’s realistic, and on those days, show up to the office or dining room table or coffee shop and log in your hours. (This may be only once a week or even once every two weeks. Don’t set yourself up for failure by planning to write every day if that’s not feasible.)
And if you don’t already, start calling yourself a writer. (Buy an “I’m a writer” a pin and wear it proudly if that helps!)
Kate Hopper’s first book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, has just been released from Viva Editions. Kate teaches writing online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she lives with her family. She blogs at Motherhood and Words.
To read more on this blog from Women Writing on Family contributors, click here.