Milk and Motherhood
BY SHEILA HETI & DOROTHEA LASKY
The novelist Sheila Heti and the poet Dorothea Lasky spoke over email for several weeks about their new books, Motherhood (Henry Holt) and Milk (Wave Books). Heti is the author of seven previous books, including the 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? which was a New York Times Notable Book and was called by Time magazine “one of the most talked-about books of the year.” Lasky is the author of four previous full-length collections of poetry, including ROME (Liveright/W.W. Norton) and Thunderbird, Black Life, and AWE, all from Wave Books.
SHEILA: I want to mention something right off, which is how amazing I find the blurring in Milk between the baby that was miscarried, and the baby that was born...as if somehow, maybe spiritually, or just in your imagination, it was the same baby. Like first the baby disappeared into blood and exited your body, and then the same baby—second try—actually came out as a baby. Is this blurring something you meant to do in your book, and if it’s something you meant to do, can you say more about that—the feeling in some sense that there’s this one baby that manifests itself in different ways, at one moment born, at another moment not-born?
DOROTHEA: I had hoped maybe it would feel that way, so I am so glad. The miscarriage in the poem is meant to feel like the same baby, because I do think all layers of creating things become the same thing, and have resonances of each other. Like you know when museums have those x-ray machines that can see all the layers of the first tries of a painting on one canvas. Or I used to have this VHS of Picasso re-painting a painting on the same canvas for hours and you see the millions of earlier versions. It’s that idea of all those earlier paintings being part of the one painting.
In truth, the poem itself is about actual miscarriages I have had and something that happened when I was pregnant with the baby in the book. At first the doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat and she tried to convince me to have an abortion right there, as she said it was too late for it to ever live. I don’t remember what week it was, but when I went home, with as she called it “an empty egg sack,” I remember reading online that it was too early maybe for the heartbeat—so there was something else driving her persistence, but I’ll never know what. A few weeks later, I went to another doctor and the heartbeat was there. But I imagined all the babies I bled out in my younger life and the idea that in some place I had bled this baby out too, but then she revived herself.
I have this hope or feeling that Milk is about motherhood, but also about creativity—to put it simply, that type of iteration where one thing comes out of another, as a trial and then another trial and then it sticks. Like the randomness of creativity, where we can’t completely tell whether one particular try will be the thing worth keeping, because it’s about emergence.
SHEILA: I love that—that layers of creating are embodied in the final thing, as much in a child as in a work of art. I have never thought of human life that way before. When did you start thinking about it like that? Is it just from the training of being an artist, a poet, and so that way of thinking (drafts upon drafts) starts to slide into everything else—including conceiving a child—or was it a deliberate choice to see things that way, which I think is much more beautiful (and maybe you chose to think of it that way because it’s more beautiful)? It’s such a peaceful feeling—the feeling of nothing wasted. I think the big tragedy of miscarriage for many people is probably this feeling of waste, “for nothing.” But if people saw that miscarried baby as a layer of meaning or an actual pre-embodiment of the final baby, it might not feel as tragic. (I think I am always searching for ways of thinking that makes life feel not as tragic—a kind of self-help impulse I guess, but maybe also a religious impulse.)
DOROTHEA: I love this idea of miscarriage and creativity as being not about wasting something, but as a feeling of pre-embodiment. I guess I’ve thought about life this way for a while, partially because I’ve seen myself get very upset when things don’t reach a full embodiment—poems, relationships, I guess everything—but then I will see something happen later and I will realize—Oh, I was waiting for that! I can’t explain it, but maybe it relates to this idea of waiting. That if you infuse work in the waiting that somehow you get to thing you want. But then I also think the need to make a good product, an embodiment that’s perfect, is the fault of our age. Not of our age. I mean, our age, in this moment in time. It is a great fallacy to strive for one perfect embodiment, I think, that the world puts on us, not out of love. Maybe out of hate, or at least out of lack of care.
SHEILA: I think we have a different idea about the sickness of our age, in relation to art. You say it’s that there’s a desire for a perfect object, but I think people don’t care about perfect objects enough. I think people race to publish, and don’t spend nearly enough time to perfect something. People write books too fast, I often feel. There’s a sense in our time that the world is ending, so why make something to last and last and last? Better just to speak now, and loudly, and to as many people as possible. It’s a kind of nihilism I think, and when I see people striving to make perfect objects, that seems to me a kind of faith—almost spiritual. I wish we would all slow down.
DOROTHEA: I’ve always felt like prose was this strange animal, but your writing is the same thing poetry is, it’s the same animal, but clearer and with all the layers being said that I leave out.
SHEILA: The way you feel about prose (“a strange animal”) is the way I feel about poetry. It’s hard for me to understand why people write poetry, when there is prose! But it is also hard for me to understand why people write prose that is not poetry. I think about the rhythms and the sounds of the words together, and the images and the absences and the patterns and echoes so much. Where is the fun in writing if those things are not a central concern? But I think writing prose has made my mind more standardized somehow, and when I see where poets go in ordinary speech (like you in this conversation) I see how much magic they’ve retained, that I’ve lost.
DOROTHEA: How do you feel your novels relate to the idea of ordinary speech and ordinary thought? And just to say, you have magic overflowing in every syllable you write. I am mesmerized by the openness and lack of standardization of your mind.
SHEILA: Thank you! I probably write my novels the way I imagine poets write poetry: out of the moment. For me, novels are a construction of authentic moments of necessary writing. The construction happens afterward, in trying to give the book momentum. At that point, I think of it very simply as: “How do I get the reader to the end of the book?” because I am someone who almost never finishes books. I think I also read novels like people read poetry: to get a sense of the writer’s language, their world, how they see. I don’t care what happens next. But I want people to get to the end of my books, and that means there has to be some sort of thrust that pushes the reader to the end. I gather up all my fragments of writing and spend lots of time trying to understand what they all mean together, what the order might be, whether something can “happen” in the beginning and “happen” at the end (however small) and how short the middle must be in order not to lose people, but in order (in the case of Motherhood) to still be long enough to convey the exhaustion of the question about whether to have a child—its irritating endlessness.
DOROTHEA: If you construct your novels as pieces that you fuse together— I think this is like poetry! Actually, yesterday when I was teaching, your words hung in the back of my mind while I told my students over and over again not to have a plan, but to collect things and poems and then put them together. This idea of emergence is a holy idea for me. You have given me such an entrance into what it’s like to write fiction, which I can’t even begin to understand. But I love the idea that the process is maybe somehow that things aren’t linear. I don’t believe in linear anything, and I think that’s what I love about the way your book is structured and how it spins around a question, then comes back to it, then comes back to it again, but the lens of life is what changes the shade of it. It reminds me of something my poetry teacher Dara Wier said to me when I was in her MFA program. She was like, You will have a first book (and I remember thinking, I will???) and the best thing you can do right now is to learn how to write poems, because the events of your life will be the things that will be a shade over the poems and you can’t predict those things now. I think she is so right. I feel that the cycles of being a woman—but also being a creative person, and maybe also creativity in general—are about that, because it’s about emergence and, for lack of a better term, the moon.
DOROTHEA: Did you want Motherhood to resist a particular genre in any way?
SHEILA: I don’t think about genre, I just think about all books as “books” and like there is no genre. I want to write books that I want to read, but then by the time I’ve written it, I don’t want to read it. Before starting a new book, I feel a hole in my heart for the sort of colour or tone of a book I want to hold in my hands right then, and then I write a book to match this colour or shape or tone. But by the end, I am revolted by it. Then a few years later, I can usually appreciate what I made.
When did you realise the thing you wanted to do in life was write? For me, it was when I was a child, and then again when I was a teenager, and I think I have never felt there was enough time in life, because of course if you want to write, there’s never enough time. I have always felt in a rush, death closing in—not on my life, which I love but don’t care about in itself, but I feel the sadness of dying in terms of not being able to write again. Like, the game is over. As if life is a game in which the game is to write.
DOROTHEA: Work is a fundamentally spiritual topic for me. I love how in your book the speaker is constantly weighing how the appearance of a child, how raising a child, is this enormous work that will take away from her life’s work. I think of that idea of labor, tied to creativity, and then the idea of purpose, and how in life we put in work and use our time to do things, but that there is a particular point in life where we think about it closely. And where we try not to waste it.
SHEILA: I waste a lot of time, though. I don’t think a person can actually write a ton. Writing can only happen in certain moments. It seems sickening to try to write more than is natural. It seems like eating too many hot dogs—like in a hot-dog eating contest—to force oneself to use all the hours available to write.
DOROTHEA: Maybe it was a few years ago where I imagined my fourteen-year-old self trying to pass through the days, kind of trying to waste time. When I was fourteen, I was anorexic and I would not eat anything but an apple until 5 pm. So I would do anything to pass through the hours until 5 pm, where I would allow myself several bowls of food. I remember I took up yawning as a way to pass the hours, probably because it is a bodily action that sort of overwhelms you and then replicates itself—you can make yourself yawn several times in a row just by giving over to it. Or at least at fourteen I could. Now I just think of all those hours as utterly wasted—I could have been doing things. It’s interesting that when you realize what you should do in your life—which the character in your book knows is to write—there really isn’t enough time. I feel that in my own life now, where I know there are all these things I want to make, and every day is a struggle to find a second alone. I wish it were just the fact that I have children, but I also know it’s part of the way I construct my life, which isn’t fully to be a creative person, but to be distracted and to waste time out of a fear of loneliness.
DOROTHEA: One of the many things I love is how the cycles of PMS and ovulation become organizing principles for what is happening in your book—because they are, for just about everything maybe, and it feels so wonderful that the book is like, yep, here we are, this is a truth. I would love to know how you constructed your sections and your titles, and did you want to cast a spell on your book in this way, or was there some other reason?
SHEILA: I wanted the menstrual cycle as an organizing principle from pretty early on, because I hadn’t seen it done before, and because I think it is a true organizing principle. I didn’t want it cartoonish: like when there’s PMS it’s all rage, or when there’s ovulation there’s just joy, but just that subtle tinge of slightly more anxiety during the PMS chapters, and slightly more hope during the ovulating chapters. I feel narrative that is building tension, then climax—people say that that’s modelled after the male sexual response and orgasm, and that’s why so many novels and movies are structured that way. So I was thinking about that and thinking: what’s a fundamental, also biological, narrative that’s female? And I thought: well, the menstrual cycle. And of course because the book is about time and reproduction, that made sense as an ordering principle. How did you order your book?
DOROTHEA: In Milk, I wanted a lot of sections, but I didn’t want some boring amount, as lots of contemporary poetry books will traditionally have 3 or 4 sections. So I chose a number that I thought would cast a spell on the book and that would be in excess and create small sections of poems, and I drew drawings to title them, versus words.
SHEILA: I love the drawings in your book! They remind me of the illustrations Kurt Vonnegut made for his books. They feel so similarly tender.
DOROTHEA: Why did you decide to use the I Ching? Was there something you have read or experienced that made you want to use it? I feel a thud in my chest when I read the parts of your book where the I Ching as the divining tool becomes the authority voice—when an answer has stuck. But then it is also about the self, too, answering the self. Your book searches in this way when it asks about God, because God can never be one thing, but a splintering, like the idea of iteration is.
SHEILA: The coin-toss writing is from 2010—it’s the earliest writing I did for the book, before I was even “writing a book about motherhood.” It was just after How Should a Person Be? came out in Canada. For me, when I finish a novel, it’s often been five years of concentrated work. Then I have this great emptiness inside, but I can’t not work, so I just do whatever I can. I had been working on a translation (or I should say, transliteration, because I don’t read Chinese) of the I Ching, so coin tossing was natural to me. The tossing for “yes” or “no” was a way of writing at a time when I didn’t know how to write, or what to think, and was feeling lost and empty and sort of impossibly distressed about various personal things. It also came out of a loneliness—wanting to talk to someone, but not any actual person. It was a way to touch my self, after writing a book that was so much about accessing other selves, and also a way to touch the divine—which in the case of a probable atheist like me, might just well be randomness.
SHEILA: Do you have any fears about publishing Milk? Are you excited? So many women are writing about maternity right now. Are you happy to be among these women or not?
DOROTHEA: I had a friend who used to call these books “mommy porn” and I would always laugh at that. Because it feels to me that it’s just another way for groups of women to create people who are in and who are out, and I’ve always felt out with these groups of women. I actually was freaked out when I was first pregnant that I was now somehow belonging to these groups of women, with my privileged life, and that somehow I’d find myself in five years in a horrible friend group, just being a mom. This actually felt so horrific to me, that combined with my daughter being born three months early and the isolation of her being in the neonatal ICU, I’ve tried to stay away from mom culture as much as I can. I guess that’s my fear in publishing Milk, that somehow I would not be speaking about being alone, but about being part of the club. Which I have felt shunned from in so many ways, in many ways I did to myself, and in many ways that the club has done to me by me being an unlikely member. Because I have always felt the most fear by being near a group of women, because of the inherent cruelty in the idea of being judged. Or maybe because in a group of anything, I become a clown and put on a show, but then that isn’t the real me at all. Also because although I am in many ways in love with all of the things surrounding any kind of creativity, I don’t want the idea of motherhood to have anything to do with me.
SHEILA: Everything you say feels so familiar to feelings I’ve had that are so hard to articulate. It’s for me certainly one of the fears of becoming a mother—or one of the loathings—that I would be part of a club of women, but also that I can’t be part of a club of women, that there is always a feeling of being ostracized. My strategy from childhood on has always just been to find one or two friends. Groups of women terrify me. But it’s very easy to love individual women.
What do you think is the thing we will all be writing about next, once that mythical day comes when everyone has said everything they need to say about motherhood? What is the next taboo, or the next frontier?
DOROTHEA: In terms of the spiritual, for me, the next frontier for anything is about witchcraft. Whatever that word means. To me, it means creativity. It means everyone placing their objects exactly as they wish or throwing them away as they wish and a world where any way to dial up another world is ok.
Sheila Heti is the former Interviews Editor of The Believer magazine, and has conducted many long-form interviews with writers and artists. She has lectured at MoMA, The New Yorker Festival, Columbia University, Brown University, the Hammer Museum, the Cúirt Festival, the Sydney Writers Festival, and many other places. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Harper's, The New York Times, n+1, and The London Review of Books. She lives in Toronto.
Dorothea Lasky is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She has a doctorate in creativity and education from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught poetry at New York University (where she directed their Writers in Florence program), Wesleyan University, and Bennington College. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She lives in New York City.