Tag Archives: Writers Resources

On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.


Shared Prompt: “Get Your Story Started” from The Writer magazine

English: penulis = writer

Image via Wikipedia

I came across an exercise in The Writer magazine that I thought would be fun to assign in workshop.  But first, I need to test it. “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, is featured in the January 2012 issue, and is a five-step process to jump-start a piece of fiction.  Lately, especially in this blog, I’ve been focused on nonfiction for whatever reason, so really, I’m not too far from the self-focused students in my soon-to-be ENG 210 class.  I am a pretty good specimen for this experiment.

Smolens prefaces his process by saying he’s used it with both novices and experienced fiction writers.  This exercise is meant to concentrate not on length, but on time spent writing.  The five steps are meant to be followed on five nights, respectively and consecutively, and each step has a prescribed amount of time.  I am following the steps exactly as they are described.

So, taken verbatim from The Writer magazine, January 2012 issue, is the first step:

1. Focus on where you write (45 minutes).

Write for a minimum of 45 minutes, describing where you are as you write, how you are writing (using pencil and paper, computer, etc.) and why you have chosen this particular time of day to write, Simply describe your physical location, what about it makes you comfortable–or uncomfortable.

…the first step prompt continues on for a while, so I won’t bore everyone with its description here.  If you’d like it, let me know, and I’ll find a way to get the article to you.

Here’s my response to the test.  Start time: 9:20 p.m.

1. To my left, there is a banker’s lamp from my grandfather.  My father meant to discard the lamp because he was skeptical it would work.  The glass shade was tilted, dusty, and loosely screwed on.  I took it from the back of his Jeep and told him I’d work on it.  Though I won’t leave it on unattended, it really brightens up my writing area.  I also like the irony of the “banker’s lamp” on my writing desk.

I’m sitting at the desk in my purple study, which was finished shortly before my second son was born.  I chose the color, and now I can’t remember the name of the specific shade, based on the responses I received on a Facebook poll.  Ridiculous.  Cory says it’s purple.  It’s more complicated than that.  A purply-brown, maybe?  The walls are covered with found art, photographs (new and old), and gifts from friends.  Some things on the walls are not photos or pictures at all:  I have a menu from Java’s on Gibbs, that I’ve framed.  I have a cowgirl coaster set from my friend, Anne, that is tiled precisely square, with looming horse heads on each, just below an old vintage bird “silhouette” art piece that my husband, Cory, bought for me for our four-year anniversary from the failing antique shop north of Main St.

Cory is nearly sleeping, leaning up against the wall on the built-in bench/hidden storage area he and his father installed for me.  I’ve just turned off the Sabres game, which was playing on the radio from a window behind my blog post.  They won, so I’m guessing he’s having a good dream.  He’s asleep at this point.  Though he was reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the novel that the Showtime series, Dexter, is based on, so maybe his dream is not so pleasant.  When I’m writing and he’s reading he takes a deep breath, and that’s when I know he’s going to interrupt me.  Then he’ll say, “Sorry to interrupt you, but…”  This time it was, “Do you remember the first person Dexter killed in the first season?”  Oh, seriously? I think.  Aren’t you about to read about it?  Dexter came into our life via Netflix (is this the right spelling?  I guess the spell check probably wouldn’t recognize it).  Cory found the series one day when he was off work and I was teaching.  Since, we’ve been pretty hooked.  We watched all five (or maybe six?) seasons before this last season began.  Now it’s over, and I have to wait until next fall, I guess.  This is probably why Cor bought the book.  He needed a fix.  Now, he’s snoring.  In twenty-five minutes, when the experiment is over, and I get up from the computer, he will deny falling asleep, like he always does.  It bothers me, and I’m not sure why.

I’m drinking a pomegranate martini.  This is unusual for me.  I’m not a desperate housewife, or raging alcoholic, but I had a rough day today, as far as cleaning up Johnny and Sammy’s messes go.  This was part of the reward.

Cory is still sleeping, but has sighed and rubbed at his nose.  I stop to look at him, and think the absence of the clicking will wake him, but it doesn’t.  He is so sleeping.  When he sat down to read, he said, “Man, sitting on this is like getting into a coffin.”  I know he’s never been in a coffin, but I let that go.  “At least you’re alive,” I said.

Directly in front of me is one of my favorite pictures.  Partly because it’s so unbelievably believable, and also because it’s of my brothers.  In the background of the picture is a large wall calendar.  It’s 1971, a year that I really believe I should have lived through.  My brother, Darrin, is sitting on a formica table in a white overall jumpsuit with what looks like a matching conductor’s hat.  It’s cute, but he’s a dork.  No, he’s actually only three.  Three-year-olds get a pass.  My other brother, Jamie, is barely able to sit up on the table.  My mother’s arm is holding him up, but I can’t see her fully.  All I can see is the dark outline of her arm, the shadow cast slightly just beneath.  Her arms haven’t changed.  They even had burn marks from the oven racks then.  Between my brother’s legs is a liquor bottle that reads Penn.  I’m not sure what type this is (if I wanted to stop, I could Google it), though I’m betting it’s whiskey.  In his mouth is an unlit (I hope) cigarette.  He is also wearing a conductor’s hat, though his is either pink or orange, not white.  He is not yet a year old.  I’m guessing less he is less than six months old.  I wonder where that table is now.  I would like to have it.  Gladly, I  know exactly where my brothers are: Darrin is the smoker.  Jamie is not.  Hmm.

My martini glass is persimmon in color.  I hadn’t heard that color in ages, and then I heard it on Phineas and Ferb, and have been dying to use it since.  Dalmation-like spots pepper the glass.  I love this glass.

Before I started writing, Cory and I were watching Teen Mom 2.  It’s one of my guilty pleasures.  Very few television shows can captivate me like this.  I almost didn’t write at all, but Cory turned off the tv before the second episode came on.  The third episode starts in one minute.  There were a couple reasons I didn’t want to stop watching: A baby girl had to be sedated for an MRI, and her parents were crying wrecks while she was slid into the machine, her big toe monitored by a gray plastic apparatus to be sure her heart didn’t stop.  Another reason, a little boy’s mother had left him to be with her boyfriend, and when she broke up with her boyfriend after a domestic dispute, his mother returned to the boy, who was being cared for by his grandmother.  He ran, smiling huge, with his arms outstretched to his mother.  I wanted to swoop in and pick up the poor boy, and then trip his mother.  (I think Cory just woke himself up with his own snoring.  It scared me a little.)

Cory just sat up and asked, “What time is it?”

I told him, “It’s 10:03.  I have two more minutes I’m supposed to write.”

He squinted at me.

“How was your nap?”  I asked.

“I didn’t nap,” he said.

One last sip of the martini.

End time: 10:05 p.m.


why blog?

if you could see the behind-the-scenes (a grandiose term for my minor little piece of the internet) drafts i have, you could tell that i’m not sure where to start.

here it is: i need to get writing. this is that nagging space that i cannot ignore–the cursor in a blank document on my mac, or my ipad, or empty surface on the antique desk i should sit at to make notes. children, husband, family, work, and sleep all seem more immediate. living is important, but i can live better if i write, too. “teen mom” is not more important than writing, so this blog will make me turn off mtv to write.

in class today, we workshopped two nonfiction pieces. these students had experiences that begged telling. we had the discussion of what was too much information, too personal to share, as i’m sure every cnf workshop has. i had to tell them, “listen, it is your story, but we can only know what you write. you can withhold what you want, but it won’t help your piece discover itself. and your reader will notice the gaps in your words.”

and then i decided i needed to take my own advice.
so here i am, typing the stories of myself, my family, the things that boggle my mind: why my grandmother has an extensive panty hose collection, why my son cries when i read him excerpts of my fiction (and why i read my son excerpts of my fiction), how i handle an invisible disease, my dog shedding on the floor, etc. if i can’t reconcile these pieces, i at least need to make some sense of them.

so i’ll write…