Author Michelle Brafman on “literary mamas,” writing mentors at the right time and place

Michelle Brafman   washing-the-dead

When my daughter was six years old, she desperately wanted to jump off the diving board at our community pool. All summer, she eyed her friends climbing up the ladder, walking the plank of the board, and flying into the water with glee. I tried everything to help her muster up the courage to take that leap. On one of the last days of the summer, my husband took her to the pool without me. I’d been staying home with the kids full time and had treated myself to a few hours alone in a dark movie theater. When I walked into the house and found a huge smile on my daughter’s face, I knew. “How did it happen?” I asked her. “Mrs. M.,” she said.

I was feeling pretty zen after indulging in a matinee, a bucket of popcorn, and a Diet Coke, but I still I felt a twinge. The big-hearted Mrs. M., now my friend Amy, simply walked next to my girl, held her hand, and offered the right words of encouragement before they jumped into the pool together. Boom. My daughter went off the board again and again. And I wasn’t there.

Sometimes we must rely on other people to mother us. And this is a very good thing.

My novel Washing the Dead is about a woman whose mother has an affair, causes the family to be exiled from their tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, and then takes off. Half the book tells the story of Barbara Pupnick’s spiral into a dark place, and the other half recounts her journey back to the emotional and spiritual home her mother had burned down. But this is not the story I’m telling today.

Barbara survives her mother’s abandonment, largely because her former preschool teacher steps in to mother her. During her final year of high school, Barbara volunteers in her teacher’s classroom, babysits her son, and on the nights her mother sneaks out with her lover, accepts a warm meal and help with her calculus. Barbara’s mentor even takes her shopping for underwear.

This case of substitute mothering is extreme, but as my daughter’s diving board experience taught me, we find mother figures when and where we need them. My mother is a terrific reader and has dried my tears after some of my toughest rejections, but I find my most productive literary nurturing elsewhere. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all mother. What a relief for all of us!

My literary mamas are writing instructors, savvy readers, and/or writer-friends (actually male and female) who can read me and for me without any skin in the game. They might wonder while critiquing my fiction if in real life I’ve stolen a family heirloom from a dead aunt or lied to my husband, but they won’t assume it’s because I wasn’t raised well, and they won’t ask. They’ll simply probe, sometimes gently and other times firmly. They’ll hold my hand while I venture into what my friend Dylan Landis calls “the basement,” the deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

And when my literary mamas read my memoir pieces, they’ll shine a light on my blind spots and take a tuning fork to the notes I’m not hitting, and I’ll thank them. We won’t do that messy dance we do with our mothers, where we ask them if they like our new haircut and they tell us, verbally or not, and then we get offended. My tone deafness won’t embarrass or anger them, and they won’t hedge about my bangs.

My literary mamas will listen to my publication woes, but they won’t take my rejection personally and rip apart the character of an agent or an editor they’ve never met. I’ll move on more quickly that way. They’ll wait for me to vent, and then they’ll brainstorm and sometimes make introductions. I’ll seek their guidance in writing query letters or blurb requests (with one literary mama I take straight dictation). They’ll throw gorgeous book parties after readings where they’ve beamed with perhaps not the pride of a real mama, but a joy devoid of the worry that I’ve written about them or that I will somehow humiliate myself.

I learn from my literary mamas, writers whose stories have taught me alternative ways to think about love, grief, redemption, and motherhood: Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Faye Moskowitz, Amy Bloom, Rebecca Brown, Lidia Yuknavitch.

The common denominator for all literary mamas on and off the page is that in their own way they inspire me to serve in this capacity for someone else, be it a student or a friend. The cycle continues, making me a proud literary grandmama.

Over the years, I’ve periodically thanked my friend Amy for teaching my daughter to jump off that diving board, and she’s looked at me quizzically, perhaps wondering why I’ve held on to this anecdote for so long. My daughter has since found other secondary mamas — teachers, coaches, summer camp counselors, and random adults — who believe in her, who will coax her into taking various leaps. And I will continue to be grateful to them for doing for her what I can’t in that moment, even as a small part of me will be wishing that I could.

Michelle Brafman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at JHU’s MA in Writing Program, George Washington University, the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis’ New Directions Program, and workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. She is the founder of Yeah Write, a writing coaching business. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children.


Guest blogger Kristiana Kahakauwila on The Writer’s Family Tree: A Tribute to Joyce Carol Oates

kahakauwila   This is Paradise cover art

Win a SIGNED COPY of Kristiana’s brilliant short story collection, THIS IS PARADISE!

Simply comment below with the name of your mentor (or the writer you’d like to be mentored by) AND share the link to this essay on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. and you’re entered. A winner will be randomly selected by number generator on Dec. 31. 

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Kristiana Kahakauwila is one of the brightest lights among young writers, one who is in my “5 Under 35” category (even if the National Book Foundation hasn’t chosen her as such yet). Her first book, 2013’s This is Paradise, is a compelling look into the lives of people who live in Hawai’i, the land of so many others’ dreams. She pulls back the curtain and shows us the real Hawai’i and real Hawaiians. Although her father was born and raised in the islands, her mother is Norwegian-American, and Kristiana was raised in Southern California (though she often visited family in Hawaii). She earned a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton and an MFA from the University of Michigan. 

She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines and taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu. An assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, Kristiana splits her time between Bellingham, Washington and Hawai`i.

This is Paradise was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2013 selection of the Discover Great New Writers program, as well as for the Target Emerging Author program. 

Recently I returned to Princeton University, my alma mater, to celebrate the retirement of Joyce Carol Oates, who was my creative writing instructor and undergraduate thesis advisor, and has remained a mentor. A collection of her former students, spanning more than two decades of teaching, spoke of Oates, her influence, and their own work. Walter Kirn, who wrote Up in the Air, detailed the oddity of seeing one’s fictional self represented by George Clooney; Jennifer Anne Kogler described the frenzied responses of her YA fandom; Pinckney Benedict debated the term “regional fiction” in his warm Appalachian drawl. Each writer had a completely different aesthetic and set of interests, yet we all had Oates— her teaching, her editorial sharpness, and her presence.

Several themes arose from this disparate group of writers. One, that Princeton was a socially awkward endeavor for all of us, and that as undergraduates we felt, in one way or another, outside of the social constructs of the university. And yet, this “outsiderness” influenced our writing, shaped our observational skills and ability to empathize, and made us more resilient to criticism. Too, we all owed a debt to the teacher we were honoring, for her early support of our work (and of us, as nascent humans) and her insistence on the two-fold goal of excellence and production. (The woman publishes a book-length project annually and still finds time to Tweet! She embodies productivity.)

The third theme of the event was that of lineage, of feeling—even in one’s outsider-ness—a part of something larger. To read Oates is to read her early mentors, which included the works of Faulkner, Thoreau, and Dickinson. More than that, to read Oates and be taught by Oates is also to read and be taught by her students. I was introduced to Benedict’s crystalline stories in Oates’s class, first read Jonathan Ames’s hilarious essays as I was graduating from college, and discovered, more recently, Julie Sarkissian’s fantastic plays with voice. In reading these authors I deepened my understanding of place, humor, irony, point of view, and other craft techniques, both those particular to these writers and those influenced by our teacher. After the retirement party, when I returned to my own classroom, I was reminded of how significantly Oates shaped my pedagogy and how my students, in years to come, will continue the growth of this writerly family tree.

I am fortunate to have studied directly with Oates, and I delight in the time I spent in her presence. But I am not bound only to her influence. In fact, I can take a cue from Oates, who had no direct contact with her models. We choose our mentors, and even if we can’t know them in person, we can know them through their work.

JCO Fest 11-7-14Former writing students of Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton pay tribute to her guidance and inspiration at her retirement in November 2014. L-R: Christopher Beha, Walter Kirn, Oates, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Pinckney Benedict and Jonathan Ames. Photo courtesy of Kristiana Kahakauwila

I have, for many years, adored the writing of Michael Ondaatje. I’ve never met him, and can’t imagine I will, but he has become a mentor of sorts. When my prose lags or becomes too dry, I turn to his and read a few pages to remember what lyricism and poetry can sound like in fiction, and what narrative can do in poetry. I recently learned that Ondaatje studied under John Berger, so I’ve decided to read Berger. A new project for the new year! Similarly, when I discovered a conversation between Colum McCann and Ondaatje (in conjunction with the PEN World Voices festival in 2008), I set upon reading McCann. No surprise, I found his novels to be lyric, imagistic, transportive, and otherworldly– just as I find Ondaatje’s.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, calls this method of studying along lines of lineage or influence “scratching.” In one of the many excellent exercises in her book, she encourages artists to “read archeologically.” By reading backwards in time, moving from a contemporary work to a text that predates it (sometimes via the author’s direct mentors but also around the author’s themes, style, obsessions, and sources) a reader can travel alongside the writer. We can glimpse the evolution of what will become the artist’s style, genre, philosophy or other artistic hallmark, and if we read back far enough, we often find an idea in its embryonic, unadulterated form. Then, if we dare, we might borrow that idea, attend to it, and make it our own.

What I love about Tharp’s exercise is the reminder that we can place ourselves inside any artistic lineage we please. We do not have to be born into a lineage, nor do we have to luck into a classroom led by a master. Instead, we choose a writer we love, we read their work, and then we look to who inspired them, and whom they inspired. We read our way into that lineage, and by reading deeply, with engagement and breathless wonder, with admiration and a critical eye, by focusing on craft as much as we do the tidal shifts of our own emotional response, we teach ourselves how to write like those we love.