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"Nobody Cares if You're a Writer, Except You"
A Conversation with Kate Baer
It can make a person feel very bad, reading Kate Baer’s poems and realizing that she only needs a couple of lines to make the same (hilarious/devastating/comforting) point that someone else might hypothetically try to make in a two- to three-thousand-word essay. But there is pleasure in it too, of course, and that intersection of good and bad feelings is where Baer’s poetry lays a foundation and builds a home. Her New York Times bestselling first book, What Kind of Woman, took on the complications of bodies and marriage and children. In an Instagram-oriented world of posed and coordinated golden hour photography, its poems were a reminder that the complicated feelings that creep in when the light fades are far more universal than what is staged and perfectly captioned. I Hope This Finds You Well, which publishes on 11/9, shines a light on yet another aspect of social media performance: the sometimes supportive but often abusive messages sent to women who put themselves/their words/their lives on display. The book’s erasure poems gather in the bad feelings of the internet, its bottomless need to respond, and turns down the noise until it sounds a little more like inner peace. I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising to hear that the book was painful to write; reading through mean messages while trying to homeschool your kids during a pandemic isn’t a recipe for happy tranquility. But it was still a good reminder that, even when we find the time to create art amid the chaos, the light doesn’t always shine down beatifically and it doesn’t always feel like transcendence.
Read on for our conversation about fourth pregnancy depression, writing in nationwide food chains, and being done with guilt.
I want to start with the obsession of mine that powers this newsletter, my preoccupation with the career paths of women writers and particularly women writers who are mothers. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey? I like the twists and turns.
I went to college for English lit. I was really encouraged to get my education degree from all parties: parents, faculty. Everybody was like, ‘It's fine if you major in English, but also get a teaching degree.’ And so I did up to my senior year and then I was kind of a little snot about it. I started to get into the classroom because, I don't know if you know this but as you go on in your education degree, you start to have to actually teach.
And I was doing that and I was like oh, I don't want to do this at all. So I dropped that at the eleventh hour and graduated with an English lit degree, which as you know means you graduate with no degree basically. It's like not having a degree. And so for a long time in my twenties, I just did a lot of those kind of non-degree jobs like cleaning houses. I worked at a coffee shop. I took any job. Definitely was writing the whole time, always wanted to be a writer, did a lot of office jobs that I could just dick around and also just write. Working, but not. The blogging era was really coming up at that time and that was becoming a thing to do, a way to write where people would read it and you didn't have to submit to a publisher, so I started to do that. I probably had like 25 readers. And then I got married, starting having kids. Still wanted to be a writer, was still writing. Mommy blogging was starting around then too and I was kind of coming into all of that. Glennon [Doyle] was starting to get really big then. So I started to do that as well, which was nice and terrible because I started to feel very reduced to mommy writer. I even started to think of myself like that because that's where I had success. And it was wonderful in the way of here I am, having this experience of being a mother and I have all these other people saying, ‘Me too, I also didn't realize it was going to be this difficult. I also have anal fissures. Why is no one talking about how terrible it is to take a shit after you have a baby? No one's talking about this.’ All these people re-posting and now I'm writing for Huffington Post about motherhood because we're having this me too of motherhood movement. So it was wonderful because I felt validated and also I was getting to write and people were reading what I was writing. But I was getting paid zero dollars. This is before sponsored posts so I'm just doing this for free. It was great because I could write, it was terrible because I was boxing myself in. But that's when I got an agent. She reached out to me when one of my Huffington Post pieces went viral. It was a piece called, "When You're Tightly Wound." I have since deleted all of those articles because I'm tired of people talking about them. People magazine wrote about me, which is very lovely that People magazine wrote about me. But they called me a mommy blogger and I was tired of, ten years later, even though I hadn't been blogging for so long, still being called that. So I started deleting things off the internet, which says a lot more about me than anybody else, being insecure and still not wanting to be reduced to mommy writer. But really it was an incredible opportunity because I got an agent and she's been so wonderful. Her name’s Joanna and that's kind of when I started to reevaluate things. Joanna and I were having these conversations and she was like, ‘What do you want?’ And I realized I don't want to do this. Probably anybody else would've thought this is what I was going to do the rest of my life because I was succeeding. But we kind of talked about genre and I was really interested in writing a literary thriller. And she's like, ‘Well, let's do that.’ And so I shut down the blogging part and I worked on a novel, a literary thriller novel for four years.
When was this? And more importantly, how many children did you have at that point?
At that point I had two and I think it was 2013 or maybe 2014. I stopped blogging in 2016. It's hard to keep the timeline and now time is so warped.
Time is weird. It really is.
Because now I just thought 2020 was a while ago, but it wasn't, it was last year. Anyway, I worked on that novel for four years. I paid a sitter and I like to call it my less expensive MFA program because while it was expensive because I was paying for childcare to write every day, it wasn't as expensive as an MFA program. And I wrote an entire book and got a lot of great feedback. By great I mean constructive, I learned a lot. But towards the end of that editing process, I started cheating on the manuscript, because I was so sick of it after four years, with poetry, which was such a surprise. I'd always written poetry my whole life but I never focused on that, I never shared any of that besides in school when you're sharing things and doing that sort of thing. So I started cheating with that and that was really fun because it was new and it was exciting. And, just like any affair, you're like this is so exciting, it's like something else that feels so much better.
All of this is making me think about that poem in the new book, "Re: Being Called a Mommy Writer,” which is about how women often get those prefixes instead of just being allowed to be or do something. And I think and write about the way we fear that mommy or motherhood label in particular, the kind reflexive shame of ‘well, I guess this is all I can write about.’ Or that's what gets published. We're used to thinking success has to come in a different genre.
While I was writing that novel I definitely thought that. And it's only now that I realize, well I was contributing to this idea that writing about motherhood is less than. I was doing that because I'm internalizing all the shame and then making anyone else feel bad. I'm only realizing that now, or at least right before What Kind of Woman came out. I was really thinking about how I internalized that so much, when really the best thing to do is to really confront that and realize that writing about motherhood is not less than. It's not a niche. Motherhood is such a universal topic, everyone has a mother, for better or for worse. We read so many coming of age stories about baseball and everybody reads those and that is somehow universal but motherhood is not. And I started to get really angry about that. And while I was writing What Kind of Woman, I really started to think about that in a different way.
And did getting that response of ‘this speaks to me,’ I guess you had gotten that before, does it feel different getting it in response to your poetry than it did when you were writing for the Huffington Post?
Yeah. I mean, I still found myself in interviews being boxed in. I still felt that kind of shame sometimes. I remember very early on, before What Kind of Woman came out, I did a few podcast interviews that made me feel really bad about myself because I felt there was this feeling of ‘tee hee, motherhood. This is so fun that we get to do this and that you get to do this as your hobby.’ And that was hard. It's not like it's gone away, it's just I really try to think of it in a different way. It's more about my response.
Do you still feel like you need to write something else in order to feel legitimate?
Not anymore. No. No. That's a good question. No, I don't.
You have four children which is my personal writer holy grail because it seems like most people who manage to publish have one, maybe two kids. A handful have three. Four is usually considered too much. Did you ever weigh the having more kids versus what you wanted to do professionally or creatively? Was that a thing for you? Two sides of the scale?
Well, having a third was really a difficult decision because I felt like it's pretty obvious two is an ideal number, for a lot of different reasons, and it felt like that's a good stopping point. You're evenly matched, they'll be in school pretty quickly together. We really deliberated about that. I did have pause at that because I was starting to work on the novel then and I thought if I have another one it's going to put this even further on hold, but I was not ready to let go. I really did want him, it turned out to be a him. Having a fourth was very difficult. Now I like to kind of frame the narrative for myself in a way that if my fourth wouldn't have been born, I wouldn't have written What Kind of Woman. Just because the third pushed me right off the edge. I didn't realize how difficult having a third would be. It was very difficult. I wanted him, it was lovely, he was a terrible breast feeder, it was very stressful. But it was fine. It was like, we wanted this. And then we were trying to make that work, I got more child care. I felt like I was drowning, but I was really, really trying to kind of take back parts of my body and myself. Sex was changing in a great way. I'd started to accept my body. I felt like I was just starting to get ahold of myself again. We scheduled the vasectomy and then I found out I was pregnant. And that was a very low point in my life. I was very depressed, it was just a terrible time. As soon as he was born, it was a little bit better just because I felt like I had some agency over my body. I breastfed him for six months, which is the shortest, but I could barely do that. And then I really changed my work life. I started doing lots of different jobs so I could afford more child care so I could write. I don't know if I would have done that if I wouldn't have been- I was already pushed over the point and then the fourth, because it was an unwanted pregnancy, I was so pushed past my limit and my mental health was suffering in such a way that I just kind of had to change everything. And so I started working so much more. And that's kind of where What Kind of Woman came from. And so, in so many ways, I have him to thank. I have tequila to thank. I'd like to thank tequila. We were on vacation and I was like I think I'm ovulating. He's like, you've never gotten pregnant on your own. I had fertility treatments to have the first three. So I didn't think I could have children naturally.
So, walk me through the writing of What Kind of Woman. This is post fourth baby, right?
Post-fourth baby. I stopped breast feeding him so he was taking formula. At that time we lived in a 1,200 square foot house, which is fine, but I had no office. So I wrote it at Panera because it was only 30 seconds away and it had free wifi and they never kicked me out and it's really comfy in there, you can sit in the booth and then put your feet up. I really miss it. I have my own office now.
It's funny, when I was writing my dissertation, I had kids at home so I needed to go elsewhere. And I would always go to Starbucks because I could get free ice water and they would never tell me to leave. So it used to come up and I'd say offhand to people, ‘Oh, I work at Starbucks’ and they'd be like…
…I didn't know you were a barista.
It's like no, that's where I do all of my writing because I can't do it at my house.
Same, same. I always would say I'm going to work at Panera. I worked at Starbucks for a while too. I got really sick of the smell at both Starbucks and Panera. I don't know why. After a while, the smell really got to me. I almost wanted to plug my nose, Panera especially. You'd think it would be great because it's bread. And I would email myself and take notes when I wasn't there but that's where I kind of put things together. I had never written a book of poetry before and I got signed with this great publisher so there was a lot of pressure, a lot of panic. A lot of panic like I have no idea if I can produce a whole book of poetry. No idea. And it was a very solitary process because I had no feedback, I had nothing. I just wrote it by myself, nobody saw it. My editor would give me some feedback every few months, but that was it. No friends read it, my husband, no one.
Was that by design? You didn't want them to?
I guess I didn't really know any other way. I wasn't part of a writing group. I don’t know, I guess it was by design, because I just did that again and showed no one.
Right. Sometimes I feel bad that I don't have a writing group, and maybe if I happened upon one it would be helpful, but I think that's just how some people do it, like you need to go into your own cave and then emerge with something.
And I need to go into my own cave and then emerge in the evening and not think about it and not talk about it and not be part of it, because it feels so immersive that to leave it feels like, it's such a relief. And I don't really want to talk about it. It's like I'm so bored of it now, after looking at it for eight hours in one day, that I don't want to think about it anymore until I have to look at it again. Maybe if I had ever been part of a writing group that was helpful, then maybe I would be different. But yeah.
It is what it is. So then this book comes out, it's very successful. But it's a pandemic? What was the timing on that?
Yeah, it came out in November 2020, which was the middle of the pandemic, the height of the pandemic. Had very low expectations. I'm so not part of literary culture, writing culture, that I didn't even know about the New York Times- I obviously know what the New York Times bestselling list is but I didn't know when it came out. I didn't even think it was a possibility to be on it with a book of poetry. I wasn't revved up for that, if that makes any sense. I wasn't like oh my gosh, set my alarm-
Checking all the things, right.
No, no. I had no idea. So that was really shocking. Obviously it was great, it was really like oh, this is incredible, but I had no idea and the publishing world tells you nothing. They help writers not at all. Well, some publishing houses. I had no guidance as to how this might go. So I just had really low expectations. Part of it obviously was because it's in November of 2020, it was a terrible time. And right before What Kind of Woman came out, they asked me to sign for a second book because I think preorders looked pretty good for a poetry book.
That must have been so exciting.
Yeah. I was like oh, you're going to pay me to do another one? The first time, they offered me an advance for What Kind of Woman, I was so dumb. I didn't agree to anything right away, but I would have taken anything. I would've taken any amount of money because I had never gotten paid to write before. So I would have taken $1,000. Thanks, please. So the second time, I was like oh this is going to happen again? This is great. Really helped with childcare, because that's pretty much where all my money goes.
Right, it's like a straight pipeline.
Straight over. So when they offered me to do a second book, I was excited and so I signed for that and that was supposed to come out Spring 2021. And then they approached me to do erasure poetry, a third book that would come out before that next book. They wanted me to also do that and push the other book off. And I said no. I was like, ‘I don't want to do erasure poetry, it's so depressing.’ They asked me again and I was like, ‘I really don't want to do this. It's soul sucking. How am I ever going to have enough content? I don't want to have enough content for a book.’ But I kept taking these meetings and talking about it more. And we came up with some sort of plan to not just be messages directed at me and to also include positive ones. Which then I regretted.
It was kind of a cluster because I wasn't quite sure what I wanted out of this book. And I was afraid of bragging in the positive messages and then I was afraid of triggering people, women, in the other ones because they're so horrible. I just wasn't sure if I even wanted to have anything to do with that. So I had to really put my agent and my editor through the whole ringer of, basically, therapy, like, ‘Are you sure this is a good idea? Does anyone even want to read this? Because I'm not sure.’ Anyway, we ended up kind of shifting things around. I'm writing the third book right now, that comes out Fall 2022, so three falls in a row. Which, again, I never planned on doing.
It's pretty amazing.
It's wonderful. I'm so lucky. I'm so lucky to be able to do this because I can afford childcare, I can work all the time, which is what I want. And it's wonderful. It is a lot, but it's great. Writing the book was terrible. I wrote it in the Panera parking lot because it was the pandemic and I couldn't go in. Or I wrote it in my bedroom. I was trying to homeschool my kids. It was awful, I cried every day. I was already depressed because I was homeschooling against my will and now I'm reading these horrible messages when I do have a minute.
Right, not the picker-upper you needed.
It was not the picker-upper. I was so glad to turn it in. I was like, ‘I don't even want to see this again.’ Every time they send it to me to read again, I'm like, okay, I'll read it one more time, see if there are any typos. I guess I shouldn't say that, that doesn't sell the book very well. I'm so happy people are enjoying it and connecting with it. It was awful to write. I have to just be honest. It was not fun to write. It was depressing.
But you had been posting them on your Instagram, that was what was getting everyone so excited for this kind of book.
It was like a party trick. That's how I looked at it. Like here's my party trick that I can do on Instagram while I'm writing my work. I also was like this is taking back the narrative. I enjoyed that aspect of it and that was great. But I didn't intend to write a whole book of them.
I think the experience of reading them is quite the opposite. There's something so therapeutic or soothing about seeing all of that noise become rhythm and turn into something more peaceful. I mean that's erasure poetry in general, but particularly these hateful messages. And actually, I was thinking about this the other night when I was reading the book before bed, it kind of reminds me of the way that I parent when I'm at my best. I mean, you have four kids, you know, it’s just chaos, there are voices everywhere, a total din. And I kind of triage and I try to speak very softly and to the point, firm but loving. And that's kind of the voice that I hear in these poems. It’s very soothing, when we're just constantly surrounded by that kind of internet noise in particular, the misogyny, angry people on the internet. So my question was going to be about the effect of writing them on you but I think I have my answer, which is: a real psychological toll.
Yeah. First of all, I love that. Now I'm going to take that about parenting, I'm going to lodge that away for future interviews. That's a great comparison, as far as when you're trying to talk to four kids who are all asking for a sandwich. You do kind of have to go into that space. And it also is a great way to illustrate what it felt like to write the book because I did feel myself going into that place of zen, of like reading them and then creating them and feeling that reward. It's almost cathartic. The problem is, when you have four kids, which you probably know, there's only a certain amount of it you can take, the yelling, before it breaks you and makes you feel terrible. Then you start yelling or you just feel like you can't do it anymore. It's like sensory overload. And that's what I mean. It was like I had a very different capacity for writing this book than I did with What Kind of Woman. I could only work on it for a certain amount of time before I needed to take a break because I would feel myself just getting dragged lower and lower into the ditch. After you read so many messages about how terrible you look on the internet, you start to have that voice in your head. And so, sure, I would be making messages out of it and it felt good but then there'd be a point where I couldn't even read another word of that. I wrote a bunch of poems from spam emails. I was going through my spam folder and you wouldn't think that would be so soul sucking, because it's just stupid spam. You don't normally equate a person behind those messages because spam just feels like it's computer generated but after a while, even that just felt so yucky. It felt yucky, which is a dumb word to use. I don't like that word. It's like “belly” to me. Anyway, it just felt gross. It was gross. I started to feel like I needed to take a shower after I read a certain amount of spam emails. So yes, there were very cathartic moments in writing this book. But I would say there were many days, especially getting close to deadlines, where I just felt very sad and wanted it to be over.
I want to ask you one last question about motherhood because, as we know, it is a literary subject and I think that your poems do so much to elevate it to where it should be in the literary world. And quite a bit of it captures so perfectly how unbearable it can be in the moment but also how much we will miss it one day. I'm thinking of one poem in particular, I forget what the title is, but it was like a hug and a knife in my heart at the same time. And I'm always thinking this way, when I take the time away from them to write, that that’s the part I'm not going to get back. And yet I know that I need to do the writing for myself, in order to be a good mother to them, actually. But do you ever feel that guilt when you sit down to write? Thinking like oh, in 20 years I'm going to miss the sounds of their little voices and not this particular hour when I sat in front of my computer? Obviously it's a very privileged question to ask because many parents don't have a choice. But how do we live with those feelings, I guess, is my question to you.
Yeah. That is a very valid question that I've been asked so much. And to be honest, my answer is no, I don't feel that anymore, really at all. I'm about to travel for a book tour – if people get vaccinated and don't cancel it – for two weeks. And I'm sure I'll miss them and feel a little bit like that. I don't know why I feel so emotional, I feel like I could cry. I feel like I've given up so much that I don't feel that way anymore. No. I feel like I have done my best. I breastfed my first son until he was like two, two-and-a-half years old. I remember just times of carrying that car seat – I can just feel the weight of that car seat – taking one to preschool, taking another one out, putting them to bed, trying to quickly write in the hour and 45 minutes that this person will nap, Daniel Tiger in the background. I feel like a decade has gone by where I have been so worn down by them, that I feel like this work is the only way that I'm going to survive. Because having my fourth was such a trauma in a way. My mental health suffered so much. I went to the doctor a year after he was born and I was like, ‘I think I have a brain tumor. My heart's racing all the time. I'm so unhappy. I've lost my appetite. I'm having all these weird symptoms.’ And I did all this blood work, only to realize I just needed child care. I just needed help.
That was me after my third. I went to the emergency room.
Oh yeah, right? And this is a tale as old as time, that mothers have been so worn down that they think something's wrong with them, when really they just need more help. And we're not designed to take care of four, six, one child, all the time, without help. Just evolutionary wise. So anyway, I don't feel that guilt, only because I know the alternative is to give up, to be with them, is not actually helping them at all. It's actually just making things so much worse. I was not in a place where I felt like I could even take care of them. So no, I don't feel that guilt. Although I understand that when people ask me that question, because I get that question a lot, I think people want to hear the answer that I do feel guilty, so that makes them feel better. Because I do think that feeling is normal. I absolutely feel that. I felt that way so many times. I just have lost that completely, in a way that I don't even know if I'll ever get it back, to be honest.
I wonder if it's about that balance because I know that I only feel it when I have enough childcare, when I’m able to do everything I need to do, when work is happening. Then I'm like, oh, their voices. Whereas when I’m totally tapped, I feel that I would give anything for 15 minutes to just sit here. You put in so much, do you feel like you've gotten yourself back to a certain degree in this process of publishing one book, soon to be publishing two?
Yes. And I feel like it is an incredible privilege to be able to say yes to that. I was able to get this book deal, I was able to be paid enough to pay someone else to watch my kids. Without that, I wouldn't be able to say that. So, yeah, I feel better than I've ever felt, coming off of feeling the worst I've ever felt. Not to say that won't happen again. And the pandemic was definitely a setback. When they have to be home from school, I worked so hard to get to this point and now they're back with me, asking me to teach them fractions, which I do not know. Mothers were so punished in this pandemic. Which is just a continual source of frustration, for so many people.
You spent so long writing – and you were having success, people were responding to it – but you weren't making money from it.
Something no one talks about, but yeah, no one talks about money in writing.
And it's particularly critical to think about it when you have children because every minute that you spend is money you’re paying somebody else.
There's this idea that if you go off and write, away from your kids, ‘well I hope you're getting paid because why else are you doing this?’ You're often made to feel silly, to go off and write if you're not getting paid and you have kids because then why are you away from them?
There’s that but you also have to believe in yourself enough. If you're getting paid for it then it's the way anyone does a job: ‘I'm away from my child because I am making this money for myself and my family,’ whereas if you're not being paid, you have to say ‘I'm doing this just for me, or for some future reward which may never come.’ And it takes a lot of faith to do that. And I know a lot of people who might be reading this interview are in that part of things now, kind of toiling, not knowing whether it's going to pay off and having to make that decision, to put the resources they do or maybe do not entirely have toward childcare.
And to face lots of Beckys at family reunions that are like, ‘Well, what do you do? I heard that you work? Oh, you're writing? Where's that going?’
Oh, you're home with the kids? Yeah.
This is something that's so important to me. I have this balance of when I'm asked in interviews, especially by a man, about child care, I get this feeling of ‘do you want to ask my husband? Because I can get him on the phone. You want to ask him where his kids are when he's working?’ And then at the same time wanting to reach women who are grappling with this. I guess what I would want to say is that nobody cares if you're a writer. Nobody, nobody cares if you're a writer, except you. If you want to be a writer, then you have to take control of the situation. You have to think of yourself as a writer, you have to treat yourself as a writer. You have to treat this like this is a job. Which is kind of harsh but I had to go through that. I'm the kind of person that was a late bloomer. I got my period late, I had my first kiss late, lost my virginity late. Bloomed late in everything so I had to learn lessons the hard way, that I'm the only one who cares. Nobody cares. My husband doesn't care. I mean he cares but not really. He wants me to be happy, but he doesn't care if I'm a writer. My kids don't care, my parents don't care. I have to care. I have to be the one who cares so much about being a writer. And so I think part of that is just filtering out that noise and just taking yourself super seriously, taking the work super seriously. Being like no, I am going to write. I'm going to work this Tuesday from 2 to 6 PM and those are my hours and that's when I'm going to go do that. And not treat it like when I can get to it. I had to learn all of that stuff, just in the worst way possible. With a lot of crying and do we need to go to marriage therapy? What's wrong with me that I'm so unhappy?
I’m not laughing because it’s funny, I'm laughing because it's so familiar.
No, I know. I felt Rachel Yoder's novel so deeply because she grapples with that so much in that book. It's so hard to name. It's so hard to name that feeling. And you feel so stupid. And you're like well I chose to have this dumb baby and now I have to grapple with the consequences of this wonderful thing I've wanted my whole life. And yet it's ruining my life.
Yup. They are simultaneously the best and the worst.
The best and the worst.
Preorder your copy of I Hope This Finds You Well here.