Author Archives: Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett

About Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett is Understorey’s founder and editor in chief. Katherine is a writer, editor, researcher and mother of three. She has worked on women's and environmental issues for many years and has edited for Literary Mama, the feminist publisher Demeter Press, the Afghan Women's Writing Project and the Canadian environmental magazine Alternatives Journal. Katherine has published academic papers as well as short fiction, monthly columns and literary essays. She believes writing and sharing stories can empower, shift attitudes and build community.

Time to Grow Up, Mommy Lit

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Waiting for the Parade by Kat Frick Miller

Waiting for the Parade by Kat Frick Miller

The “second oldest profession,” Erma Bombeck wrote of motherhood in her 1983 book on caring for “children, a husband, and oneself.”

Motherhood is indeed an ancient profession—or job, or calling, or stage of life—yet Bombeck’s book was among the first to discuss it candidly. We have printed and distributed books since the 1400s. Women have mothered since life began. And yet the history of books about motherhood spans roughly 40 years.

Feminist scholars have debated the role of mothers and motherhood at least since the 1960s, but Adrienne Rich opened the discussion to a broader audience with her 1976 book, Of Woman Born. Like Bombeck, Rich drew on her own experience as a mother and included entries from her personal journal. In this sense, Rich and Bombeck were forerunners of today’s mommy bloggers. Of Woman Born takes a broader, more political and feminist point of view than Bombeck’s book of humour and advice, but both authors aimed to dispel the idea that motherhood is easy, natural, private, and the most significant way to define a woman.

Following Rich’s book, motherhood studies gained some traction in the publishing world with The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), The Myths of Motherhood (1994), The Mommy Myth (2004), and The Maternal is Political (2008), to list a few. Despite this relative boom, books on motherhood remained fringe, a serious read for a dedicated few.

Mother-writing moved toward mainstream with first-hand accounts from the trenches. Anne Lamott published Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year in 1993. At twenty years old, the book is considered a classic of motherhood memoirs. Subsequent works by Ariel Gore, Rachel Cusk and others portrayed the messy reality of motherhood: hard, diverse, ungoverned yet public. These were raw, brave works that ushered a new age of mommy lit.

And then there was blogging.

Weblogs, as they were first called, provided an easy platform to chronicle motherhood as it happened. Blogging opened the doors to thousands of homes and the mothering within. Heather Armstrong’s Dooce (2001), The Mommy Blog (2002), Her Bad Mother (2006) and the many blogs that followed have shown motherhood uncensored. Projectile poop, morning swigs of vodka, post-partum sex (or lack thereof), toddler tantrums captured in video—nothing is too real, too irreverent, for the mommy blog.

It’s the irreverence that seems to sell. The most successful mommy blogs have become books, and the most successful of those have become bestsellers. From Armstrong’s It Sucked and Then I Cried and to the current hit, I Heart My Little A-Holes, mommy blogs-turned-books have given voice to the anti-mom. Popular mother-writers are self-described naughty, slacker, slummy, scary and/or sh*tty moms.

We ought to thank the anti-mom—the one on our bookshelf and the one in our head. Her swearing, drinking, and willingness to publicize her children’s toilet-training have freed mothers (in North America, at least) to rage, I’m so much more than this! Her storming through major publishing houses in pajama pants and stilettos has allowed books about “holy-crap moments” of motherhood to breach the New York Times bestseller list.

But it’s time to move on.

The toddler years of mommy lit, Adrienne Rich and the women who followed, broke the silence. We learned to speak and write about the everyday of motherhood. The delinquent teen years, rife with slummy mommies, let the world know that both kids and moms can be “a-holes.” The teen years shook us up, grabbed our attention—and that of publishers.

Let’s now move toward a sophisticated adulthood of mother-writing. Let’s move toward Pulitzer-winning journalism and memoir about the ways motherhood shapes women’s lives and every element of our world: schools, violence, medicine, garbage, farming, war. Let’s move toward Booker-prize-winning fiction with complex, diverse and fascinating mothers as protagonists. Writers like Maggie O’Farrell, Jenny Offill, and Ann-Marie MacDonald have led the way, crafting motherhoods neither sentimental nor snarky, women whose lives neither begin nor end with—but are clearly changed by—motherhood.

At Understorey Magazine, we hope to inspire this next wave of mother-writing. We hope the essays, fiction, poems and excerpts published here will spark the literary prize-winning books of tomorrow. We invite you to read our current and past issues, to consider, to comment—and of course, to write.


If you like what you read in Understorey, please consider making a donation. We are a non-profit organization and rely on grants and donations to continue our work. Thank you!

Three Quick Reviews: Writing Guides for Women

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Check Goodreads or Indiebound, and you’ll find a virtual bookcase of writing guides: books on verse, dialogue, and plot; books for academics, Christians, and preschoolers. Precious few, however, have been created for women. Of course, women don’t always need or want gender-specific writing advice, but for some of life’s changes and challenges—motherhood, for instance—tailored guidance can provide just the right incentive and inspiration.

In the first in our blog series, Three Quick Reviews, we suggest three women-centric books on the craft of writing.

Use-Your-WordsUse Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers
Kate Hopper
Viva Editions; 2012

In this excellent guide to creative nonfiction (CNF), Hopper draws on her life as a writing teacher and mother as well as on her memoir, Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. She covers essential elements of CNF such as finding a voice, choosing a tense, reflecting on personal experience, and getting published. Hopper also advises on aspects particular to mother-writing: dealing with pain and fear, revealing details of family, and finding humor in the everyday. Many examples of published CNF illustrate how these elements work. Enticing exercises invite new writers to get started and experienced writers to hone their craft.

penonfirePen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Finding the Writer Within
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
Harcourt; 2004

DeMarco-Barrett begins with that gigantic, looming hurdle to a successful writing life: time. We’re busy. We have families and jobs and a messy kitchen and an urgent deadline. When could we possibly write? Now, she says. Write in those few minutes before the kids wake up or that single minute while the kettle boils. You don’t need a quiet morning and a cozy office, just a notebook and determination. In short, engaging chapters, DeMarco-Barrett provides advice on getting organized, avoiding distractions, mining your life for ideas, and polishing your drafts—even if that draft is written on the back of your kid’s homework.

writingpastdarkWriting Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life
Bonnie Friedman
Harper Collins, 1993

While not explicitly for women, Writing Past Dark, deals with emotional obstacles to the writer’s life felt, perhaps, more keenly by women. Friedman says she wrote the book because “I wanted a companion I could reach for” during the lonely writing process. Historically, women have been lonely, isolated writers indeed. But even now, the new mother who ekes out time for a blog, the single mom who gets up early to write poetry, the MFA mom in the midst of the “ten-year nap” who watches childless colleagues publish books and win awards—these women surely feel the envy, fear, distraction, and paralyzing writer’s block Friedman describes so beautifully.

Do you have a favourite writing guide? Can you recommend a guide for women or mothers? Do you have an idea for our next Three Quick Reviews? Add a comment to this post or email your idea to [email protected]

What Did You Do Today?

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Family by Jay Leblanc

Family by Jay Leblanc

No doubt you’ve been asked, perhaps by a partner, an acquaintance, your own child returning from school: “What did you do today?”

Maybe you have asked yourself: What have I done today? What have I achieved?

How do you respond?

“I sold two paintings.”

“I closed a deal.”

“I ran 10K.”

Do you respond with the big things we tend to count as true accomplishments or the smaller things, the hundreds of smaller things we do every day?

“I made coffee, fed the cat, took out the garbage and washed the kitchen bin, put in a load of laundry, helped three boys make their breakfast, swept Rice Chex off the floor, wiped jam from the chair backs, unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, made three (different) school lunches, and pumped a flat bike tire… all before 8 am.”

Not world-changing.

Not glamourous.

Sometimes not even noticed.

But necessary.

We “do” so much as mothers, caregivers, partners, working women. Our days are filled with accomplishments both monumental and mundane. For some we receive, or allow ourselves recognition; for many we do not. For some we feel satisfaction and pride; for others guilt, resentment or sheer boredom.

We invite you to keep track—for an hour, a day, a week—of what you do. Not a “to-do” but an “I’ve-done” list. Send your list to Understorey and we will publish it on our new blog (anonymously, if you prefer). See our contact page for addresses.

In his book Material World, Peter Menzel documented possessions; households around the world were emptied onto the street and photographed. In What I Eat, Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio documented the daily food intake of people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. And in Where Children Sleep, James Mollison captured the sad and startling places children rest at night.

In a similar way, the “I’ve done” lists are meant as art of the everyday, a literary gallery of the number and diversity of womens’ daily achievements. The lists are also a way for all women—writers and non-writers, from Nova Scotia and away—to contribute to the magazine. Not a competition but a celebration. Not a challenge but a small tribute to ourselves and each other.

I hope to hear from you.


PS. Need inspiration? See recently posted lists by Linda Roe, Lesley Crewe, Sheila Morrison, and Su Rogers. But remember, you don’t have to provide your name!

A Conversation with Alice Burdick

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holler I met poet Alice Burdick on a snowy morning at the Biscuit Eater Café in Mahone Bay. We sat in winter sun made cozy by the scent of baking, Latin tunes on the CD player, and shelves stacked high with books, including Alice’s latest collection, Holler.

We planned to talk poetry and motherhood but first took a few minutes to enjoy lattes, muffins, and marvel of leaving the house. It has been a cold winter in Nova Scotia with a lot of storms and school closures, times Alice spends at home with her children, Hazel, aged 6, and Arthur, 4.

Alice Burdick: I usually write at home, even when the kids are at school, but I do miss those days of leisurely writing in cafés like this one.

Katherine Barrett: When did you start writing poetry?

Alice: I took an extra-curricular writing course in high school called The Dream Class. It was run the by the Toronto school board, taught by Victor Coleman, and introduced me to the major poets and poetry movements of the twentieth century. I got hooked and later started making my own chapbooks—complete with hand-painted covers and pages—and selling them at book fairs and bookshops.

Katherine: And you’ve published a lot since then.

Alice: Yes, several chapbooks, three full-length poetry collections, and poems in literary magazines across Canada.

Katherine: How has motherhood changed your writing practice?

Alice: Other than spending less time in cafés? I’m much more focused than I was before kids, I just sit down and write. I treat it like a job and that way I’ve kept writing straight through motherhood, even when the kids were babies. I have to write to feel fully human.

Katherine: Your latest collection, Holler, contains many poems about children and mothering.

Alice: More than my previous collections, yes, and readers have said Holler is my most accessible book. I’m not sure how those two points are linked but it likely has to do with the immediacy of motherhood.

Body House
(from Holler)

Hazel stands in front of me
and points to her eyes.
They are windows, her ears,
they are windows, and her mouth,
she says it’s a door.

Her body is a house,
and she’s home
for now.

Katherine: Tell me about “Body House.”

Alice: My daughter, Hazel, was about three when she came to me with these pronouncements about her eyes, ears, and mouth. I saw her trying to situate herself, her body, in the world; trying to process the information that flows in and out. Three is such an innocent age, free of insecurities about bodies but I know that she’ll one day become aware of how others see her. That’s why I added “for now.”

Ghost Feet
(from Holler)

Please make me a book
from salad and tears. I cry at condiments.
My ghost feet light up the sidewalk.
Will you forget a book or a person so easily?

Arthur makes a series of sounds
that will one day be words.
He gets his point across
the floor, straight to the cat’s dish.

Katherine: To me “Ghost Feet” is about that crazy headspace of motherhood. Why am I crying at condiments? No, my kid is crying at condiments. We’re both crying. Never mind because there goes Arthur to the cat dish….

Alice: I’d say a lot of the poems in Holler share that quality: the brain on tangents brought home by the physicality of parenting. But “Ghost Feet” actually started with Michael Jackson. A friend challenged me to write about him; a “literal” video for Billie Jean and the line “my ghost feet light up the sidewalk” stuck in my head. So the poem is a reverie of sorts: the beauty of life; our quick acceptance of its disappearance; and the everyday strangeness of kids and parenting.

Katherine: What are you working on now?

Alice: I have a new poetry manuscript in the works. I’m also trying my hand at collaborative fiction, co-writing with another author. And now that the kids are a little older, I’ve started carrying my notebook around again, taking notes. We’ll see where it all goes.


2014: The Year of Reading Women

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mary reardon

Winter Tree Holds a Jay Blue Torn From Summer Sky by Mary Reardon

This year, 2014, is the year to read women authors—or so declares writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh. Her campaign began modestly: a few New Year’s “cartes de voeux” with a suggested reading list and a #readwomen2014 hashtag on Twitter.

The Guardian picked up the story in January, however, and readers, writers, booksellers, and literary journals have since joined the challenge if not to read women exclusively, at least to read and promote more women writers than in previous years.

Why? Because to date, newspapers and magazines have marketed books by men more vigorously than books by women.

The US organization VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, has kept track of the numbers since 2010; their most recent report was released yesterday. VIDA’s now-famous pie charts show that, in general, publications review more books authored by men than books authored by women. In some cases, the difference is striking. For example, the New York Review of Books reviewed 307 books by men in 2013, but only 80 books by women.

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) keeps similar stats. Some Canadian literary publications, The Walrus and This Magazine for example, reviewed more books by women than by men in 2012. But the big newspapers, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, reviewed far more books by men.

Book reviews are important. They guide readers and buyers who then guide agents and publishers—who, in turn, release more books into the market. Publishing more reviews of books by women and reading more books by women will help shift that cycle in new directions.

Of course, we’re doing our part here at Understorey Magazine. In this, our second issue we feature both new and established women writers, as well as women visual artists, from across Nova Scotia, from Yarmouth to Cape Breton.

Please join the conversation—and the campaign. Share your thoughts on what you’ve read here, and who you’re reading next, by leaving a comment on the Understorey website or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Thank you and happy reading!


About the Artist

mary reardonMary Reardon

Mary Reardon is a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1993. Her work has been the recipient of numerous awards and she has exhibited in galleries in Nova Scotia and Toronto as well as internationally. She has most recently exhibited in solo and group shows with the Nova Scotia Art Sales and Rental Society. Her work is in private and corporate collections nationally and internationally, and with the Nova Scotia Art Bank. Mary presently lives and works in north-end Halifax. “In my work I am concerned with creating visual metaphors that describe the moment when something is remembered or forgotten. The intricate network of trees is used to re-create the interwoven process by which our minds store and retrieve our memories. The titles of my ‘Branch’ series are composed to reflect the complex and poetic nature of the process.” Please see more of Mary’s work on her website.