Real Moms Creating in the Margins: An Interview with Callie Feyen
"But there is an ache all the same, and it is from there I find the stories."
Hi, friends. It’s officially 2023! My book, Create Anyway, comes out in 85 days (not that I am counting down with extreme amounts of anxiety or anything).
This is the time people in the publishing industry affectionately refer to as “book launch season”—a chaotic few months where I am supposed to talk about my book as much as humanly possible, in as many venues as possible, to as many people who are willing to listen as possible.
To be honest, the whole marketing/PR aspect of launching a book into the world makes me feel on edge, sweaty, and extremely nauseous, but toward the end of 2022, I asked myself, “Is there anything I can do to actually … enjoy this part?”
Enter: Real Mothers Creating in the Margins—An Interview Series.
I like talking about my friends a lot more than I like talking about myself, so I thought it would be fun to interview a bunch of them, over the next few months, about motherhood and creativity.
My first interview is with Callie Feyen, who emailed me this note on July 7, 2014—six days after I launched Coffee + Crumbs:
Hello Ashlee --
I discovered Coffee + Crumbs over the weekend, and loved the idea of a place where people can read gorgeous stories on motherhood that are created from chaos and confusion. I am wondering whether you are looking for writers for the site?
She attached an essay to the email that made me cry, and we’ve been writing together ever since. Without further ado, here’s what Callie had to say about creating in the margins of motherhood … enjoy!
Callie, you and I have been writing together about motherhood for eight years. If I’m doing the math right, this means your daughter Hadley was eight years old when you joined Coffee + Crumbs, because she is now sixteen (!). How has writing about motherhood changed or shifted for you over these past eight years? Has anything stayed the same?
Eight years! Goodness, Hadley was starting second grade, and this morning she and I were discussing who gets the car.
It’s never occurred to me not to write about motherhood, so in that respect, motherhood writing has been a constant force (and desire) since October 23, 2006. I think this stems from my belief that I am called to create. I believe I am made in the image of God, and if God is the Creator, and I am made in God’s image, then it is my privilege and responsibility to create, too. Writing about motherhood, writing about anything, is my way of telling God, “Here’s what you gave me; here’s what I did with it.” It is very much my attempt to commune with God.
I’m typing this in my office at work (I’m an assistant to the Registrar at Concordia University in Ann Arbor), and, “Hadley was here,” is written on the whiteboard on the wall. Underneath that is a heart and a little doodle that Harper drew. The girls came here for lunch one day when they didn’t have school, and I guess that’s one way that my motherhood writing has changed—we do not spend our days together as we once did. We are not exploring the world together. I’m not showing them how to explore the world, instead, I’m doing my best to live that great Frederick Buechner quote: “Here is the world—terrible and beautiful things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Ugh. But also, “Can I take you to the park and buy you ice cream just one more time?”
So I type this and there is this ache, right? Not so much for what was. I’m not interested in going back. I’ve loved every stage of my girls’ childhood. But there is an ache all the same, and it is from there I find the stories. That’s how “Society of Breaking Hearts” started. The ache was so palpable I could barely move, and then I was in the kitchen making dinner and texting with a friend about the event that gave me that ache, and I said, “Her heart isn’t broken. It’s breaking.” That’s what launched the essay. It’s the same with “Something About Sixteen,” and “Prayers in the Time of Midriff.”
So I guess what’s stayed the same, and what I hope will always stay the same, is my willingness to sit with that ache, because that’s where my stories come from.
As a mother of teens, how is your actual writing practice different now, compared to when your daughters were very little? Do you feel like you have more time to write in this season? Or less?
I’m teaching an Advent workshop at my church, which means that on Sundays I’m there from 9-12. What I do is have one cup of coffee and read prior to going to church, and then when I get home, I save the “big writing time” for when I know that I won’t be rushed. (My big writing time is the following tried and true formula that I’ve been using for over a decade: 1 cup of coffee + 30 minutes + 1 kitchen timer x 3 = 90 minutes of writing time. The walk downstairs to refill my mug and to reset the timer is the perfect mini break, and having the timer take care of the countdown allows me to stay at my desk and not pick up a phone, open a computer, etc.)
OK so this last Sunday, Jesse was out of town, so it was just me and the girls. Harper was practicing her French Horn and making friendship bracelets and listening to One Direction. Hadley was working on “APUSH” - AP US History -, listening to Taylor Swift, and probably also making TikTok and/or SnapChat posts. All the while the three of us would bump into each other, give hugs, ask each other how our day is going, etc. It was very reminiscent of the days when they were 2 and 4, or 5 and 7, and we’re all in each other’s orbit doing the things we love and giving space to the other to do that thing.
This is all to say that I think I have as much time in 2023 as I did in 2010. I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture at all. Writing is so hard. It’s excruciating. There’s always going to be doubt and sorrow and fear. But I’ve never doubted that I’m a writer because I don’t doubt that I am a mother, and so it’s always been a matter of how for me. Because I must mother, so I must write, too. It’s who I am.
My boys are 8 and 10, and it feels like only recently that they’ve started expressing an interest in my work. I’m so curious—how do your daughters feel about you being a writer? Do they ever read your stories?
They do read my stories, yes. I’ve never gotten the sense that they are upset that I am a writer. We’ll have conversations around the table at dinner and one of them will say, “Mom, you can’t write about this,” every so often. My friends do this, too. I think in both cases there’s a hint of joking in it as well, and my hope with both my daughters and my friends is that they see that the reason I write about anyone specific is because I care, I’m intrigued, I’m inspired. I don’t spend too much time writing about people I don’t like.
If I were to give some advice on writing about one’s children, I’d say to keep in mind that we must write the motherhood experience, and not our child’s experience. The greatest example I have of this in my own life is my essay, “Society of the Breaking Hearts: A Plenary Address.” Something happened to one of my daughters and while it stung, I also knew it wasn’t happening to me. This was not my story. Except so many of us could relate to what had happened, and like I said, there’s this ache that won’t go away until I create from it. So, I imagined I’d been assigned to write a plenary address to a very important group of people who were all experiencing symptoms of heartbreak. So I gave away my stories instead of my daughters’. It’s still relevant. It will still resonate. Nobody needs to know the specifics of my daughter’s experience.
Also, I think everyone is going to make a different decision on what feels right, what is OK, and not OK to write when writing about children or anyone for that matter. Every essay, poem, book is going to be different.
At this point in your life, what poses the greatest barrier to your creativity? (I.e. physical distractions, lack of time, mental hurdles, etc?)
It’s the same as it’s always been: I am a hypersensitive, anxious person with a lot of energy. When I’m not regimented (eating and sleeping well, exercising, doing something that gets me out of the house), I start to become the worst version of myself, and no kind of writing or anything creative happens. I suspect this is how it’ll always be because I know I’ve been this way since I was in Kindergarten.
Do you have any tips or tricks that help you create anyway?
Carry a small notebook with you everywhere and jot down whatever tugs and shimmers, whatever gives you pause during your day. When it’s time to write, return to your notebook and piece together a story. Give yourself 400 words. Then try for 800. Next, 1200.
Bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. While they bake, sit down and write. Works with brownies, muffins, and cupcakes.
Tell yourself if you can push one of those grocery carts with a fake car on the front while your kids are in it asking for more Teddy Grahams and can we also get Fruit Loops as you reach for the organic granola, then you can also write a blog post. In fact, that IS your blog post. Tell that. Write that. Make it funny. Make it universal. Make something that makes us all feel seen.
For the woman reading this who cannot seem to make the puzzle pieces of her motherhood and creativity fit together, do you have any encouragement for her today? A mantra, or a pep talk that might nudge her to keep going?
I ask myself: What can I do right now? I got this tip from fellow writer and poet Kelsi Folsom. When I am overwhelmed with all the writing life entails, this is the question I ask myself. Sometimes the answer is to make a list. Sometimes it means putting my butt in the chair and cranking a horrible first draft out on paper. Sometimes it means walking away from it, and going out with friends. Sometimes it means reading good books, or InStyle. The point is to stay curious about my dilemmas and toils as they pertain to writing (well, and really all of life), and what ends up happening is I see all the options I actually have.
Callie Feyen lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband, Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. She's written two books: Twirl: My Life in Stories, Writing, & Clothes, and The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet, both published by TS Poetry Press, and she has essays in Coffee + Crumbs' Magic of Motherhood book. Callie holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University.
You can read Callie’s Coffee + Crumbs essays here, follow her blog here, and keep up with her on Instagram here. Callie also has a number of offerings in the Exhale marketplace, if you’d like to work with her! (Fun fact: I hired Callie to edit my entire manuscript. Trust me when I say: she’s the real deal.)
If you enjoyed this interview, you’d probably love my new book, Create Anyway: The Joy of Pursuing Creativity in the Margins of Motherhood, available for pre-order now! ❤️
Oh my goodness I love this!
-Writing about motherhood, writing about anything, is my way of telling God, “Here’s what you gave me; here’s what I did with it.- I felt these words deep in my soul Callie.
So excited for this series Ashlee!
This was so fun to read! Callie is the real deal. I wish I had one ounce of her confidence in being a writer as much as a mother. Maybe someday. ;)