Nora Gould's Letter to a Young Mother

Nora Gould
In March I was very fortunate to be able to bring Nora Gould in to visit my poetry class at the University of the Fraser Valley. During the class, one of my strongest students (and a mother of twins), Sydney Hutt, asked Nora how she juggled poetry, work, and family, and Nora replied that for many years she didn't - the writing simply didn't happen.

A few days later Nora followed up with this letter, sent via an email I was fortunate to be cc'd on. As a parent of a young child myself (and someone for whom the idea of focused writing time seems like a fantasy), I found Nora's words both comforting and useful, and believed other would too, so with both Nora's and Sydney's blessing I am republishing Nora's letter here.

Nora's husband's frontotemporal dementia, which she speaks of in the letter, is the subject of her second poetry book Selah (Brick Books, 2016).


Dear Sydney,

Truth is, I wasn't trying to write when my kids were little. Yes, I was stressed about Farley having an autoimmune problem and I home schooled him for grade one; and, for years Zoë had undiagnosed stomach aches; and, I tried to go back to work at the vet clinic (I did but only part time) and when it was for sale, I (unsuccessfully) looked for another vet to buy the practice with me ... but the bottom line is I wasn't trying to write then. I had pretty well figured out that I'd never write anything worthwhile, that I'd never have an opportunity to learn about writing, and that I had made an error by studying vet med and I should have taken an arts degree then I might have been doing something I loved. I felt nailed down on the farm with 4 kids and a husband who was what? I hadn't begun to define anything. (yes, it started that long ago ... my notes about Charl changing go back to the mid 90's ... it's been a long slog).

When I finally started writing seriously, really working on it, I was crazy busy with kids and all their activities (nothing here that a person can walk to), outside farm work, record keeping for the farm, Georgie eating with us twice a day, a student living with us from the beginning of May to mid August ... and all the stuff that comes up in a life ...thyroid disease, endometriosis, my father's death and all the et cetera. There was never time for writing until I decided to do it then I fit it in and worked. Early mornings, late evenings, while I was driving tractor or whatever physical work I was doing, while I stirred something on the stove, in the shower ... whenever and wherever I could let words and phrases run around in my head.

This writing started when I dreamt the first stanza of a poem —

do not view me naked
running through the stubble
pricked and bleeding

It sat on my head until I hammered out another 4 stanzas (many days work) and I must have written more too because I had to submit several pages to get into a weekend workshop with Steven Ross Smith at Red Deer College. I used that same poem in my application to an on-line writing class at Queen's with Carolyn Smart. Not a great poem but it worked ... that was a weird application — just email one poem and she'd get back to you one way or another.

Keep writing. Concrete nouns. Verbs. Not too many modifiers. Small details. Trust your reader. Avoid words like very that are filler.

And of course, keep reading. And more reading. You don't have to analyze and study. The book of poems is a box of chocolates. Jane Kenyon. Don McKay. Betsy Warland. Lorna Crozier. Hopefully you have access to a decent library. Barry Dempster. I'm suggesting these poets because they don't make me tear my hair out trying to figure out what they are talking about. I like Anthony Wilson too but he's a Brit and it's been hard for me to find his books. And lots more but I don't want to make you crazy. Todd Boss Pitch.
Jim Harrison.
Galway Kinnell.
Eamon Grennan.
Tomas Tranströmer.
Robert Bly.
Ok. I'll stop.
You (or anyone) could send me the name of something/someone I need to read.

And good fiction.

And books about writing —
Anne Lamott Bird by Bird
Natalie Goldberg (it doesn't matter if she's talking about writing fiction)
Frances Mayes The Discovery of Poetry (I worked through most, if not all, of the exercises in this one)
Stephen Dobyns Best Words, Best Order. Essays on Poetry
Alan Bennett Six Poets, Hardy to Larkin

I read lots to my kids, poems, stories, everything. Our TV mysteriously didn't work for years. It was a blessing until one day someone plugged it in. The Olympics were on.

I coached my kids in poetry. Each child learnt 2 or 3 poems by heart and spoke them at a festival for school. We had a ball doing this and branched out on our own, choosing poems (lyric, narrative, and Cdn were the categories I think) and for a few years they also did a little play together. We had a great time finding material and adapting it. I learned lots about poems in those years before I started writing.

Try paper and pen. No computer. No internet. Just the page and wait for something to happen. It will. I'm sure of it.


No comments: