Cow-milking lessons from mom: Life (and writing) skills from my mother

Once I discovered that writing a story was like digging a ditch or milking a cow every day, I knew I had a chance

Published October 3, 2015 11:30PM (EDT)

Bonnie Jo Campbell   (Bradley S. Pines)
Bonnie Jo Campbell (Bradley S. Pines)

Anyone who writes a book called "Mothers, Tell Your Daughters" has to expect to be asked about her own mother, so let me get that conversation started here.  

In my novel "Once Upon a River," the protagonist Margo Crane’s mother was a runaway. My mother, Susanna, was the opposite—she stuck around home. When everybody was running around and running away in the 1960s and '70s, my mom had to be there to milk the cow twice a day.

Susanna has lived a life full of challenges and personal trials, mostly brought on by her own strong and determined character. She raised a heap of kids by herself, her own kids and other people’s—the price she paid for always being there was that other people showed up for the free babysitting. Sometimes neighbors or cousins stayed the whole summer.

Mom was a horsewoman, and she became a horse trader. She also became the one the local farmers all called to help to deliver their difficult calves. She also has drunk plenty and smoked like a chimney for decades. She loves to spend time listening to music and laughing and telling and hearing funny stories. She wants literature to entertain and relieve her from stress, to smooth life’s rough edges.

This is why Susanna doesn’t love my writing. She’s very proud of me, but she wishes I’d write something funny, like slapstick or folkloric humor. Or she wishes I would write a series of murder mysteries in which a clever woman outwits criminals before the book’s end. Instead, I write about problems that have no solutions. My stories make a reader think more and worry more.

Nonetheless, an awful lot of what I’ve learned about writing has come from her.

The first thing I learned was to work hard.

From the time I was 7 years old, my mom was a single parent struggling to feed at least five hungry kids at any given time. She had eight acres of land, a few outbuildings and a pasture where she’d kept a horse. Well, as soon as she got divorced, she figured out that she could get free runt piglets from the local pig farmers (the ones that wouldn’t survive).  She bought a mean old milk cow named Red, a Hereford-Ayrshire mix, some cheap calves at auction to raise for meat, and some chickens for eggs. She also grew a hell of a garden and canned 200 quarts of tomatoes. I have seen this small woman lug 50-pound feed bags, 80-pound bales of hay, and when it was time to restring the pasture fence, she wrestled railroad ties for us to use as fence posts. I shouldn’t say this, but she may have stolen some of them from alongside the railroad tracks. Furthermore, once she saw how big and strong I was growing up to be, she put me to work.

When I was 9, she taught me to milk the cow, and I often did the evening milk duty. We didn’t know any better than to just pour the milk through a coffee filter and drink it just like that.  Now I think that the raw milk lifestyle we enjoyed is illegal in about 11 states. The winter I was 10, our barnyard pipes froze, so for months I carried dozens of five-gallon pails of water before and after school. We chopped wood to keep the fire going to keep the house warm. Some summers we brought in thousands of bales of hay. (I think that working kids the way we got worked might now be illegal in a few states, too.)

Among the many realizations I’ve had in my writing life, most important was realizing that writing well was not a matter of being brilliant. Writing, it turns out, is just more hard work. I learned this when working on a story called “Sleeping Sickness,” which ended up in my first collection. It happens to be about a mother and daughter, and the mother’s manifestation of depression is that she sleeps for 12 or 14 hours at a stretch (this is not my mom). And I kept working on the story every day, going through it over and over again, week after week, and then month after month, and my attention to the story was making it better, not in any glorious rush, just bit by bit it was getting better. I sent it to a magazine called Kiosk, and the editor sent it back with some suggestions, so I worked every day for another couple of months.

Once I made that discovery, that writing a story was something like digging a ditch or chopping wood or weeding a garden or milking a cow every day, then I knew I had a chance in this writing business. Brilliance, I can’t count on, but hard work, well, I can do that. I was raised up for that.

Case in point: “Bringing Belle Home” is a story in my collection "American Salvage," and I worked on that story for 24 years before I got it right. But I did get it, finally. There’s another story in that book that I wrote in five months—that was the quickest I ever wrote a story. That was the title story, and I wrote it in a kind of panic.  Funny, the same thing happened in writing the title story of "Mothers, Tell Your Daughters"; I decided on a title for the book, and then felt I needed a story with that same title. It took about five months for that story, too.  

Maybe some of you new writers out there think that writing a story is  going to get easier and faster as your career progresses. If anything, now that I know what I’m doing, it takes more time and more agonizing for me to write a story. Same goes for novels. My first one was the quickest; because I didn’t know any better, I was able to write a first draft of "Q Road" in six weeks.

Oh, as an aside, some writers are always saying how their characters take over the story and write the story themselves. Well, give me some of that! My characters are like the laziest of actors, lying around in their comfy lounge chairs waiting for me to tell them what to do. When I get up in the morning to write, which I do seven days a week, three hours a day if I can, the characters are all staring at me out of my computer screen, waiting for me to direct and finesse their actions, dialogue, moods and attitudes. They want me to do the hard work.

The second thing I learned from my mom is that reading is really great.

Recently I heard my mom tell my brother she wasn’t going to do something like haul wood anymore, because it was a man’s job. I nearly choked on my stalk of raw asparagus. Well, there’s got to be some advantage to getting older, and now she spends a lot of time reading. She reads about five books a week, more than anybody else I know.

She read to us kids when we were little, and we had a lot of books in the house, including the Nancy Drew series and a lot of horse books like "Black Beauty" and such. We did not have a TV in the house for most of my growing up. We didn’t get one until my brother started dealing drugs and bought one himself. But it was locked in his room. For the record, my brother straightened up his act decades ago and is a productive member of society.

OK, let me confess something. I am not a bookworm. I know this sounds sacrilegious coming from a writer, but reading has always been work for me. Satisfying work, wonderful, important, meaningful, but work nonetheless. When I listen to other people talking about reading, it sounds like it’s as easy as floating down a river; when I read, it’s like rowing upstream. (And if you’ve read my work, you know rowing is a kind of work I like.)

So I did not go to bed with a flashlight so I could read under my covers. Usually I fell to bed exhausted from running around all day and hauling wood and hay bales. If I didn’t want to sleep, my inclination was not to read, but to sneak out my bedroom window and run out into the night and have adventures with my friends and especially with boys. You can ask my mother if this is true. I used to go out into the night and travel miles to hide in shrubbery and peek in the windows of the bedrooms of boys I liked.

Reading is to me like exercising and it’s like writing and like eating healthy. I do all these things every day, religiously, and I love doing them, though maybe not at any given moment. I’m telling you this just because in our work of trying to create reasons to read, I think we sometimes assume that for everyone reading is really fun and easy, and I want to suggest it might not be. Nonetheless, even if it is not exactly fun, it is hugely rewarding.  Even today, my reading style is to read about four pages, and then get up and move around and then sit back down and read again, a few more pages.

Reading is always worthwhile. I know as a writer that if I want compelling language and stories to come out of me, I’ve got to put compelling language and stories into myself. It’s that simple.

Still, I occasionally lose my willpower, and then you’ll find me sitting in front of the TV eating cupcakes. Or more likely eating cupcakes while staring at the inmates, most of them sex offenders, at the minimum security prison next door playing basketball. In case you’re wondering what minimum security means, it means they don’t lock the inmates in.

Watching my mom has taught me to take an interest in the people around me and engage them in conversation willy-nilly.

So I am reading every day, but what I love best is to talk to people. My mom is, and I am, too, the person who talks to everybody in line at the post office. I love to chat with the postal clerks and grocery story cashiers, and the librarians and the guys at the oil change shop—no matter if they tell me to stay in the car, I get out and watch what they’re doing. I love to hear people’s stories and to learn how they feel about life and its challenges. (And I have learned that if you show some interest, people will indeed share their stories with you.) Most of what I’ve learned in life beside what I’ve read, I have learned from talking to folks. I’m happy when I’m sitting at a table sharing stories, jokes and anecdotes with friends. I’m happy to meet someone new who has an experience I’ve never dreamed of, and it turns out most people do have such experiences. My mother’s mother, Betty, used to do the same thing, though she lived a life very different from my mom. Betty was a proud active lifelong member of the Chicago League of Women Voters and attended and took notes at the Metropolitan Sanitary District meetings for decades.

Occasionally I get story ideas from the people I talk to, but more often what I’ve gotten are glimpses and insights into the human psyche and soul, and that is worth more than any story plot.

I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but I think of all my writing as communication first and foremost.

Men are great to have around, but they have their limitations and you might not want to depend upon them too much.

We’ll just leave it at that and say Susanna taught me to be independent. And I’ll make the case that being capable and independent has helped me stay happily married for 28 years to the same dude, my darling Christopher. You might have noticed that fiction writers, novelists especially, are most often people who need to live calm, sensible lives. A novelist needs a life without drama in order that she can deliver all the drama to the page.

She also taught me to keep an eye out for what’s most interesting around me, right in my own neighborhood.

My mom could always find lots of interesting people in her own community. Though her parents had been city people, from the time Susanna was young, she hung out with the old farmers and talked to them about how to raise animals and garden and drive wells and build barns. If anyone is interested in saving a dwindling resource, it would be the knowledge of the old men and women from American farms. They know how to do everything, and they know how to do it cheaply.

If my biggest revelation was about writing being hard work, then my second one was the realization that I should write about the Michigan people with whom I’m familiar. In other words, I should write about people from my own tribe, who have special knowledge and skills that I know about, such as how to scrap out metal for money and steal railroad ties and castrate pigs. These are poor and working-class people and some farmers, people who fix their own cars and work low-paying jobs that aren’t very satisfying, and maybe they drink too much, these people, and maybe they love uncarefully. So many people say “write about what you know,” that it’s tempting to discount it, but I came around to understand that old saw in my own way.

I lived for years in Chicago and then in Boston and Milwaukee, and I used to try to write about generic people who didn’t live any particular place, or else I wanted to write about city people, because they seemed more exciting than my own people. But when I lived in Boston and I’d tell people about my mom gathering everybody up to go haul a dead frozen cow out of a neighbor’s pond where she’d fallen through the ice and drowned. The neighbor had said we could have the meat, so the whole family went to go retrieve this cow with a boat and a chainsaw. Well, I could tell by the looks on their sophisticated city mugs that this sort of activity was new and interesting to them. Turns out my knowledge and experience of life has given me some stories to tell.

Keep things lively

In the moral universe, where we live our real lives and eat breakfast and go to work, the worst crime is murder, or maybe torture-and-murder. But in the writing universe, the universe of stories, murder and torture and mayhem are just fine. In some genres, murder is required! The real unforgivable crime for all writers is the crime of being dull.

When I’m revising, which is 95 percent of what I do, maybe 98 percent, I’m continually searching what I’ve written to eliminate places where the story is bogging down, where a character is feeling self-pity or being melodramatic. In the moral universe, we all feel self-pity and indulge in melodrama and whimpering and whining, but there’s no need for it in the pages of a story, when our reader can so easily put down the book and turn on the TV to a cop show and eat a cupcake. Every moment of a book has to be interesting.

Don’t take myself too seriously

If I could show you a couple of photos right now, I’d start with one of Mom and me butchering a rooster last year. This rooster started out as a nice enough Plymouth Rock fellow, big and strong with glossy black-and-white plumage, but then he started picking on the hens, causing the hens to peck on one another. Everybody was losing their feathers. Then he started attacking my great-nieces when they went in to collect eggs. For the next photo I would then show you a photo of three things on a blue-and-white plate: two testicles and a chicken heart. You would notice that each of the rooster’s balls are bigger than his heart.

The job of a writer is twofold. One half of your job requires you to take yourself and your vision and ideas and sensibility very seriously, to have confidence that what you write matters. And it matters enough for you to neglect your family and friends, and especially your housework. As Jane Smiley told the New York Times, “mess reminds me that I can choose to write or I can choose to clean, and I have always chosen to write.”

And the other half of your job as a writer is to be humble and open to constructive criticism that can make your work better. This might come from friends or editors. Or even from your mom. But mostly it has to come from your own critical self. You must be prepared to admit and acknowledge that you are just plain wrong at times, that your work is not good enough. Yet. And then you have to go back to having confidence again, because you have to believe you do have what it takes to be able to make the writing good enough.

And sometimes, when it’s rough going with the story I’m working on, I need to remember that writing is just part of my life. There are other things, like family, friends and food. And wine. And my donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, who don’t give a fig about my success or failure. And there’s the joy of talking to the people in the line at the post office and in the line to where we’re all waiting to renew our driver’s licenses.

Mom taught me that it’s OK to hide the really good chocolates away from your kids and your husband.

Honestly, are they going to appreciate them the way you do?

Always keep in mind how things affect those who are not doing as well as you are. Don’t be fooled by what seems respectable—keep in mind what helps people get by.

The only time I saw my mom get politically active recently was when she found out that our little Michigan township was going to pass an ordinance that said that people could not work on their cars in their driveways. It seemed that some people who did not have to fix their own cars thought that fixing one’s own car in the driveway made street looks messy. Well, my mom gathered up everybody she could find to go to that meeting and remind the folks on the board (who did not fix their own cars) that this was a community in which poor people, many of whom didn’t have garages, were trying to survive and keep their cars running as best they could with few resources in order to go to their low-paying jobs.  She reminded them that it’s an important skill in the community for kids to learn how to fix cars, and the driveway was where they learned it.

And I have found much of my inspiration comes from understanding how poor people and the working poor make it work in America, where the cards and laws stack up against them. And I consider it an important part of my job to show readers a picture of those who are struggling near the economic bottom, even if they are a little less attractive than those at the top.

Mom is still teaching me to live passionately and not play it too safe.

While my mom is still usually the smartest woman in the room (have I mentioned she knows how to build a highway bridge as well as how to make great cabbage rolls), she is getting older, and she’s frail. She just had her shoulder replaced, and she’s had five other recent surgeries on her arteries and her back. I’d like her to slow down and take it easy, but she lets me know she doesn’t intend to. She still parties heartily—she has the same passion for partying as I have for writing. She has a good guy friend who’s about my age who often takes her out to rowdy events, and he pulled me aside recently and said, “You know, this could kill her. Somebody threw her in the swimming pool last week. If you don’t want me to take her out, I won’t.” And though I’d like to put her on a diet of healthful foods and moderation of all kinds, I say, “Take her where she wants to go, and make sure she has fun.”

She has taught me to prevail!

Without saying as much, she taught me to keep going, keep working at whatever it was I was trying to do, and to thus prove myself more powerful than the opposing forces.  She has used this word "prevail" rebelliously, saying she would personally prevail when she got divorced, when somebody cheated her on a horse trade, or when some jealous wife put the kibosh on some of her fun, even when her own body threatened to fail.

For me as a writer, though, my own self-doubt is often the toughest force opposing me. If the problem is that I’m feeling crappy about myself and my writing, then the solution is to write some more and keep writing, to write better, to write something else. The cow has to be milked, morning and night, and the story needs to be written, no matter how lousy you might feel.

I took the long way to writing. Though writing was always my dream, I studied philosophy in college and then education, and then I went on to get my master’s degree in mathematics. I went on for many years afraid to commit to a life of writing, or afraid to commit to trying. I was afraid of failing in such a competitive field. And yet, I could not give up writing. And at age 35 (with the encouragement of my mathematics Ph.D. adviser), I took my first serious writing course. There I met the powerful force of nature that was soon-to-be National Book Award-winning Jaimy Gordon, who has been a whole other kind of mother to me. And ever since then, I’ve just had to keep on working hard, keep on keeping it lively, and employ all those other lessons I learned from Susanna. And from the other mothers I’ve picked up along the way.

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of several books, including "Women and Other Animals," "Q Road" and "American Salvage." Her forthcoming collection of stories is "Mothers, Tell Your Daughters," to be published by W.W. Norton on Oct. 5. She now lives with her husband and other animals outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, and she teaches writing in the low residency program at Pacific University.

By Bonnie Jo Campbell

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