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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Harriet's Principles for Creative Mothers

by Katherine Hauswirth

The year my son was born, 2002, marked the 150th anniversary of Uncle Tom's Cabin. This anti-slavery book was revolutionary for its time, but before my son's birth I had never read this classic.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's words had such power: Lincoln called her "the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." But beyond her literary heroism, I discovered another realm of Stowe's life that made me eager to learn more: she had seven children before she wrote the book that changed America.

Stowe's approach to writing while mothering her seven children still resonates today. Her personal papers (letters and journals compiled by her son) shed light on how her seemingly mundane routines and creative life intertwined to create a masterpiece. I was so heartened by Stowe's insights that I started thinking of her as my friend Harriet. Here are the lessons she taught me:

  • Nurture hope for the future
    In an account of trying to cut out clothing patterns while the twins were screaming and making an impossible mess, Harriet wrote, "I am but a mere drudge with few ideas beyond babies and housekeeping. As for thoughts, reflections and sentiments, good luck!" She took the time to write even when she perceived herself as completely empty-headed: "I am a dolefully uninteresting person at present, but I hope I shall grow young again one of these days..."

  • Despite the stress level, recognize the gift of your children
    Harriet fretted about the struggle to find writing time. But she added, "My children I would not change for all the ease, leisure and pleasure that I could have without them. They are the money on interest whose value will be constantly increasing."

  • Mine every experience
    Harriet wrote about day to day life in her home. A household experience that was not uncommon for her time informed her famed account of the fugitive's escape in Cabin. A freed slave from Kentucky came to Harriet's house to work. Harriet's family learned that the girl's former master was searching for her nearby, and was likely to kidnap her and return her to slavery. Harriet's husband spirited the girl away into the country, where she could hide.

  • Surround yourself with support
    Harriet's determination was bolstered by friends and family who read, wrote and encouraged her to write. The Beecher family maintained a circular letter that traveled from state to state, each family member adding more news. Her husband was a gem of encouragement, especially for his time. In one letter he wrote: "My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is written in the book of fate. Make all of your calculations accordingly."

    One friend wrote a funny account of Harriet's struggles to maintain a balance. When her friend asked about her latest piece, Harriet talked about the baby's teeth and the baking: "It is really out of the question, you see." Her friend persisted, even when Harriet insisted: "We must give up the writing for today." Finally, maybe to silence the friend that hounded her, Harriet finished the piece she had put aside, and sent it off to her editor.

  • Despite the guilt, seek your own space
    Harriet struggled with ambivalence in the same way modern mothers do. She wrote, "Our children are just coming to the age when everything depends on my efforts...[they] need a mother's whole attention. Can I lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?" In the next paragraph, she committed to her creativity pursuits and planned a private writing space: "If I am to write, I must have a room to myself."

  • Know your purpose and plan your time accordingly
    As she lay in bed after the birth of her 7th child, Harriet was writing editors and reading historic novels. Her papers show that she was driven by her purpose, even though writing consistently appeared at the end of a long list of interruptions. "I have been called off at least a dozen times...to nurse the baby, then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner, and now I am at it again, for nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write: it is rowing against wind and tide...the spirit moves now and I must obey."

  • Honor your spiritual side
    Harriet thanked God for guiding her way. At a communion service, Harriet was struck so powerfully by a vision of the scene of Uncle Tom's death that she had to restrain herself from weeping aloud. She grabbed pen and paper when she got home and, of course, the rest is history.

  • Embrace your experience of motherhood. It will shape your work
    Later in life, Harriet reminisced with her child about the winter she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. "I remember...weeping over you as you lay sleeping beside me, and I thought of the slave mothers whose babies were torn from them." Her bond with her children heightened her compassion for slave mothers. It was the force that willed her to write her plea to the world.

Next time you struggle to maintain your creative drive, remember that Harriet thought about giving up, too. Not long before she wrote her famous story, she declared: "I can earn four hundred dollars a year by writing, but I don't want to feel that I must, and when weary with teaching the children, and tending the baby, and buying provisions, and mending dresses, and darning stockings, sit down and write a piece for some paper." I am grateful that Harriet found a way to carve out those moments to write, even though it surely seemed impossible.

I know how Harriet felt. My intense workday, finish race to day care and attempt a smooth transition back to parenting wore me out today. And I have only one child to tend!

I have a pencil portrait of Harriet here on the desk, and she is looking right at me, rather pointedly. I'd better do some more writing.


Katherine Hauswirth is a freelance writer who lives in the shoreline area of Connecticut. She is the author of Things My Mother Told Me: Reflections on Parenthood, as well as articles and essays for Pregnancy, The Writer, The Writer's Handbook 2003, Byline and Pilgrimage.
 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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