Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Stephanie McCarter’s nonfiction piece, This is Love, This is What Love is
Sommer: This is a fairly personal piece of nonfiction. What challenges (if any) did you have writing something so close to your heart and life? Did you find yourself using any particular techniques or methods in order to access and write the truth of your experiences?
Stephanie: The biggest challenge, I think, has been to convince myself that these personal experiences are worth telling and that others may find a dissection of my own maternal love compelling. Our culture has made motherhood, especially new motherhood, into something private and personal, but for me it was a time when I longed for connection. I desperately wanted to know other women’s stories and speak about my own. Our expectations for new mothers are so high, and we often struggle in silence and confusion. I wanted to give voice to these experiences as a way of claiming their value, both to myself and in the larger scheme of human life.
Another big challenge was to let go of the fear of being judged, especially around the struggles I had with breastfeeding. I wanted to be honest about how hard that was for me, especially given the high expectations I had for it beforehand. I cannot say that any of this involved a particular technique other than letting go of the reader and writing for myself.
On that note, sometimes personal stories are interesting only to those writing them. Your piece, however, is grabbing and moving. How did you go about shaping your essay? Did you use any elements of fiction writing to help in this process?
I didn’t use any particular elements of fiction per se, but I was certainly very inspired by fiction when writing it. This is going to sound strange, but the work that was in my mind the most as I was working on it was Homer’s Iliad (a work I think about a lot since I am a Classics professor). What strikes me in the Iliad is how centered it all is on Achilles’ intensely personal emotions, and how complicated those emotions are—a brew of love, wrath, grief, joy, and sadness. I hoped I could build some of that complexity into my examination of motherhood, which brings a similarly potent brew of emotion, but one that is nutritive rather than destructive. We humans—whether a hyper-masculine Greek hero or a 34-year-old new mother—are complicated creatures, after all.
Who are some of your favorite creative nonfiction writers? Why?
My reading tends to be all over the place, but I do find myself drawn again and again to creative nonfiction, especially when the author manages to draw unexpected and interesting connections between themselves and other works of literature and art. I really liked, for instance, Leslie Jameson’s Recovery, where she grapples not only with her own alcoholism but also ties it in beautifully to the romanticized myth of the alcoholic writer. Daniel Mendelsohn is wonderful at reading and illuminating his own life through the lens of ancient literature, and vice versa. An essayist I especially enjoy is Gabrielle Bellot. The pieces she’s written for Literary Hub and elsewhere often bring together the personal and the literary in really thoughtful ways. I also have a lot of admiration for writers who can move between non-fiction and fiction, such as Jesmyn Ward. Her memoir Men We Reaped stands alongside any of her novels.
I’m a big sucker for travel writing. A few years ago I read everything written by Bill Bryson, who combines an engaging academic interest in the world with self-deprecating humor. Another favorite travel narrative is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I’m really drawn to her feminist take on the adventure tale. The journey is gendered masculine going back to the Odyssey, but she nicely inverts that—and she can write a movingly beautiful sentence. And I really enjoy Helen Morales’ Pilgrimage to Dollywood, a work on Tennessee, Dolly Parton, and country music written by a fellow Classics professor. It’s an unexpected and insightful mash-up that has a lot in common with who I am.
I know there has been a lot of nonfiction writing about motherhood lately, but my favorite book on this theme is fiction, The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. She perfectly captures the seemingly conflicting emotions of motherhood and makes them interesting and moving. It is also another great take on the adventure tale, with those who normally stay at home (mothers and children) hitting the road instead. And she knows that toddlers can eat a prodigious amount of string cheese.
What advice do you have for writers on handling rejection?
I wish I knew a good way to handle it! Someone (I can’t now remember who) once told me rejections hurt for three days. This isn’t entirely true of course, but I enjoy thinking it is.
What else are you working on these days, and where can we next read your work?
Most of my writing is very different from this piece. I tend to write about intersections between Greco-Roman antiquity and today, but I occasionally venture into personal topics, especially about family and motherhood. My biggest focus at the moment, though, is translation. I’ve just finished translating five books of lyric poetry by the Roman poet Horace and now am working on a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into iambic pentameter. You can find out more about my work on my webpage: https://stephaniemccarter.wordpress.com/
Thanks for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you! I’m grateful for your support of the essay!