Is There a Poetics of Motherhood?

Intrusions, collaboration, and a writing prompt-permission slip to help move from frustration to iteration.

Lesser Ury, Woman at Writing Desk, 1898

Toward the end of a conversation with Sarah Manguso and Sheila Heti on poet Rachel Zucker’s podcast Commonplace in 2017, Zucker asks her guests about the possibility of a “poetics of motherhood.”

It’s a complex question and one she frames carefully, and at length, about kinds of writing that, “complicate, subvert, undermine the novel, the memoir, the poem, the collection of poems, the fragment, the aphorism the, you know, serious book, the slight book.” One needn’t be a mother to write this form, she says, since Heti’s book, Motherhood, then in manuscript form, is a prime example.

“If we’re talking about motherhood as this way of subverting or expanding an idea of what a form is in writing then…it makes me a little uneasy,” says Manguso. “I feel like I must not quite be understanding the question”

“No, I think you are,” Zucker says. “I think you’re helpfully resisting the essentialism of my question.”

But Heti puts up no such resistance. “I have a really direct answer,” she says and begins to quote Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write:

But I digress. I could lie to you and say that I intended to write something totalizing, something grand. But I confess that I had a more humble ambition — to preserve for myself, in rare private moments, some liberty of thought. Perhaps that is equally 7

My son just typed 7 on my computer.

“It’s a completely new sentence because the child has come and put his hands on the keyboard,” Heti says. “And instead of getting angry at him and erasing it and trying to sustain the thought and show, ‘Look, I’m a writer with all this time to sustain all these thoughts, you know, this floating mind that doesn’t exist on the physical plane,’ she leaves it in there and makes it part of the work. I thought that was one of the most exciting things that I’d read.”

“Thank you, Sheila,” Zucker says. “That rescues me a tiny bit.”

What if we were to continue the rescue as an exercise? Ruhl preserves her child’s addition, one that was not part of her initial thinking, and then makes something new of it. How can you do that in your own work?

I think here of Reut Asmini, whose work was recently featured in a New York Times story, “Why Do We Make It So Hard for Artist Moms to Flourish?” Before the pandemic, Asmini worked in her studio three days a week when her daughter was in daycare. Without that routine during lockdown, the boundary between Asmini’s life and art began to blur.

“The Covid-19 lockdowns and staying in a small apartment with a one-and-a-half-year-old baby with one pack of paper and several pencils and crayons, all gave birth to this body of work,” Asmini writes of the series “Mia & me” on her website.

The project transformed her practice and “led me to abandon every other medium I dealt with as an artist and to return to the initial medium of art making, drawing on paper.”

A poetics of motherhood, if it exists, must be many things—and perhaps I feel a series coming on—but what if we take up this piece right now:

How might writing motherhood embrace collaboration and chance? Can your child’s mistake or intrusion be the start of something new? How might you incorporate your child’s intent into a shared artistic vision?

I offer this as a writing prompt, thought experiment, a permission slip from frustration to iteration.

One final example and inspiration by writer Helen Chandler for the project Shutterbug, which invites writers to write in response to archival photographs and turns the whole new beautiful thing into a postcard: