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.


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Conversations by Flavia Testa

Conversations by Flavia Testa

Welcome to the “Extraordinary” edition of Understorey Magazine, a diverse collection of stories, poetry, and visual art on mothering through social, physical, and mental challenge. We are excited to publish work by both new and established writers and artists — Canadian women living in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia, the US, and the Netherlands.

Our title, “Extraordinary,” is meant to skirt (at least temporarily) sometimes disputed terms such as “disability” or “special need” while at the same time raising questions about what these words and categories mean to the people who live them.

Literally, extraordinary means outside or beyond the ordinary. But the word draws no definite or permanent line between inside and out — and makes no obvious value judgement. Extraordinary can mean rare, distinctive, atypical, and sometimes fabulous.

Likewise, through essays, fiction, poetry, and art, our contributors show that there are many ways to define, surpass, or simply live with our particular challenges — and those of our kids.

Andrea Nicki, in her poem on personality disorder, and Renate Lindeman, in her essay on mothering two daughters with Down syndrome, for example, raise pointed questions about definitions and authority. What is, or should be, the role of doctors, patients, and parents in proclaiming a diagnosis? And why should that declaration — the finding of an extra chromosome, for instance — trump all other ways of describing who we are and what we can do?

In fact, contributors Alice Evans, Kristin Proctor, and Carol Bruneau ask — in very different ways — whether Down syndrome, selective mutism, or schizophrenia are adequately described as a deficit. Are such conditions simply an absence that needs to be filled or fixed? Or can they be better described as the presence of something that, yes, brings challenge but also creates a new way of viewing and being in the world?

Indeed, for some people, symptoms and struggles are constant and unwavering. But for many, the lines between ability, disability, and even super-ability shift with age or task or surrounding. Poets Tracy Carruthers and Paula Follett-Comeau look at everyday events, a shared meal or a visit to the theatre. They ask, as everyone has asked from time to time: Is this normal? Do we need a name for this, a label? Do other kids and other mothers experience this too?

Motherhood, of course, adds layers of complexity to these questions. Mothers are supposed to protect. They are supposed to help their children. They’re supposed to want the best for their families, even at personal cost. Already, this is extraordinary. But contributors Sheila Morrison, Debra Reynolds Banting, and Susie Berg explore maternal responsibility, expectation, and love through the added challenges of autism, depression, substance abuse, and mental illness.

Cecile Proctor and Rita Kindl Meyers examine the flip side of these issues. What happens when a mother coping with traumatic brain injury or multiple sclerosis must learn to depend on her children, and learn to ask for help rather than provide it? How do mothers and their kids face this unexpected reversal of care, vigilance, and trust?

In all of these situations, the private slips into the public — and therefore into the political, the bureaucratic, and sometimes, as Rachel Edmonds finds in Sue Goyette’s new book, the legal. But while our social institutions might provide necessary guidance through our individual challenges, we can gain no deep understanding of ourselves, our families, our community — our motherhood — without telling our own, personal stories of everyday experience.

And so we present the “Extraordinary” edition of Understorey Magazine.

Thank you to the writers who sent in their work. Although not all submissions are published here, all took time, energy, and much courage to set down on screen or paper.

Thank you to the artists whose incredible work brings this magazine to life. Not coincidentally, several of the stories in this issue demonstrate an essential link between art, wellness, accomplishment, and empowerment. Written stories tend to get centre stage in our editorials, but the stories told through visual art are vital to Undertorey‘s mission, message, and aesthetic appeal.

A sincere thank you Disabled Persons Commission of Nova Scotia and the Family Development Centre for their enthusiastic moral support and generous financial support, both of which made the “Extraordinary” edition possible.

And, of course, thank you to all of our readers. Please leave a comment or two and tell us what you think!

On Rejection and Snow Angels

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I'd Rather Be Reading than Ironing hooked rug by Laura Kenney

I’d Rather Be Reading than Ironing. Hooked rug by Laura Kenney

Winter. Discontent. There’s a reason Shakespeare bound those words for eternity.

When I was a kid, winter meant a puffy new coat, tunnels through giant snowbanks, and sweeping, ephemeral snow angels. Though I loved that first day of spring—running shoes on pavement!—I loved the whole winter, too. It was simply part of the year, part of life.

Now, as a trudging adult, winter means work. I blindly hope it won’t happen, that it will somehow pass me by. When winter arrives, as it always does, I feel injustice: What? Snow, again? I shovel the driveway, find mitts, wipe salt from the kitchen floor, find mitts, dry boots on the radiator, and find those very same mitts once again. The possibilities of winter are stifled beneath the weight of getting things done.

Of course, there are parallels to the creative process. Watch a kid who loves to paint or write. The first brush stroke or sentence, like that first plunge in the snow, begins an adventure, opens a portal to everywhere and nowhere at all. It’s thrilling. It’s magical. And then, well, it’s time for dinner….

But to be serious artists we must indeed be serious. Product matters. Success matters. We must buckle down, finish our work, package it neatly, and ship it out to the world. And then we wait as our creative offspring is surveyed, judged, scrutinized, and more than likely shipped right back home again. Turned down. Rejected. Like the fifth winter storm in February, rejection is unfair, infuriating—and inevitable.

The literary world is infamous for copious and cryptic rejection. Top literary magazines reject 99.9 per cent of submissions and most with a form letter or cold silence. The writer is left with nothing but their boomerang prose and a creeping sense of failure. No doubt visual artists vying for their first show experience the same.

I’ve dealt with rejection from both sides. As a writer, I’ve amassed my share of eternal question marks and Dear Submitter letters. As an editor, I can attest that sending rejections is the very worst part of running a magazine. Understorey is small and dedicated to nourishing creativity, so we try to respond to each submission with a personal note, either an acceptance or a reason for rejection.

Still, every writer and editor knows that rejection is part of the deal. Like winter, it will come. To ease the blow, we offer Understorey‘s alliterative emergency kit: four small Rs to better prepare for the the Big R.

1. Revel. Go on, take a moment to wallow. Feed your rejection letter through the shredder. Toss your writing guides in the compost. Furiously clean the house because that, at least, is productive. You might even co-wallow at places like Literary Rejections on Display, a nine-year-and-counting collection of merciless brush-off. Raise a glass with fellow failures everywhere!

2. Reframe. In the sober moments following your rejection-fest, you might consider the wise words of researchers who study failure for a living. Carol Dweck, for instance, suggests we reframe failure as “not yet,” as a necessary, neuron-building rung on the wobbly ladder to success. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell concludes that greatness requires a degree of aptitude and a ton of work—10,000 hours of work to become a virtuoso. So, yes, the early stages will be tough, collect yourself. In the immortal words of Debbie Allen: You want fame. Well, fame costs….

3. Recruit. You need to get to work. But given that two-word rejection letter, where do you start? How can writers improve when writing markets provide little or no evaluation? Some guidebooks are great; retrieve yours from the compost bin now. Writing websites offer valuable insight, too. People are best, of course, but finding available, willing readers to provide honest, constructive critique is tough. I’ve considered starting a match-making service through Understorey where writers can exchange work and feedback. What do you think? Would you use it? (Leave a comment or contact me.)

4. Regress. Yes, we need to work hard, get things done—but not all the time. Nearly every instruction on writing (and no doubt on other creative pursuits) suggests daily doodling, a time to create without critique. Natalie Goldberg popularized the idea of free writing, during which “the correctness and quality of what you write do not matter; the act of writing does.” There is no goal, just childlike freedom play. Goldberg and many others promise this practice will restore your spirit and improve writing. So put down the snow shovels, writers and artists, find your puffiest coat and the fluffiest snow drift. Fling yourself backward. Make angels.

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!

Photos from Authors’ Reading

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We had a wonderfully literary afternoon on July 27 at the Second Story Women’s Centre. Three local authors read from books released earlier this year.

Kate Inglis read passages describing Missy Bullseye, the junk-scrapping pirate heroine from Flight of the Griffons.


Linda Little read from Grist and poetically described the life of Penelope, a single mill-owner in nineteenth-century Nova Scotia.


And Natalie Meisner entertained with excerpts from Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family.

Thank you, readers and audience!

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]