Into the Center of a Maze:Amy Amoroso on giving birth, motherhood, death, medical school, and writing

Interview by Jessica Powers

Amy Amoroso’s essay, “Hundred Year Old Soup,” was published in The Fertile Source on December 5, 2011.

1. One of the things that really drew me to your essay was the way you discussed how your understanding of what it means to be a writer helped you through the last final gasps of giving breath. Can you talk about that process a little bit more–both the writing process but also the fact that knowing this helped you give birth?


Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Giving birth to Duncan required going into a kind of dream-state. Seth and I took a class called Birthing from Within to get ready for the birth, and one of the things we learned is that the journey into labor is like journeying into the center of a maze. You (metaphorically) turn corners and twist through small places, moving further and further away from your rational brain and closer to your animal or mammalian brain. Our mammalian brain helps us to birth a baby without drugs or interventions. In this state, we don’t feel pain in the same way. But there are things that can take you out of this trance, like fluorescent lights, loud noises, or perceived stress of any kind.

 When things got stressful during Duncan’s birth, I did momentarily come out of the dream-state and it was very scary. I began to doubt that I could give birth at all. But I was able to get myself back into the birth trance by looking down, turning inward, and lots of deep breathing.

 When I’m writing and things are going well, I go into a similar place that allows me to turn off the part of my rational brain concerned with logistics, like the checkbook, the house cleaning, or the grocery list. In this state, I can transport myself to different times and places. I can be the people I’m writing about, and let the story unfold organically.

But coming out of that state in order to edit or revise, requires a different part of my brain. And if I come out of the dream-state too soon and start to layer in metaphor or play with the larger themes before the story has been “birthed,” I risk doubting my instincts, making a wrong turn, and losing the story altogether.

Maybe on some level, I was able to return to my birthing trance because I was familiar with the dream-state of a writer. But I think we all have access to this state. It’s just a matter of letting yourself go there.  

2. Knowing that Duncan was born without breathing, I initially had a very different thought upon reading those lines, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out.” Can you talk a little bit about the symbolic and metaphorical links between a) being an artist, b) giving birth, and c) that awful reality called death?

 When Duncan was on the cart not breathing and I was on the bed holding my breath, I was hit with the reality that he could die, and that everything we’d prepared to bring him safely and peacefully into the world and back to our home, all the love we’d already filled ourselves with for this child, would be for nothing. And that place was even darker than where I was when I was doubting my ability to push him out. I think I was also, on a subconscious level, scared to lose a part of who I was, if Duncan didn’t survive.

 Children carry on our gene pool and our legacy. Art carries a piece of the artist’s soul, and as long as the world is willing to read or look at it, art will live on forever. Birthing, parenting, and writing require my heart and soul. And pouring heart and soul into a work of art that may never be born or that will never see the light of day can be devastating because you’re giving up an integral part of yourself. My greatest hope is that my work, as a mother and an artist, will thrive long after I’m gone from this world.

3. Why do you think so many of us mother writers are compelled to write the stories of our children’s births? What compelled you to write “Hundred Year Old Soup”?

I initially wrote Hundred-Year-Old Soup to heal. When I began it, I was pregnant with my daughter and I knew that I needed to heal the wounds of Duncan’s birth before attempting to give birth again. The first version of this essay was three times as long. In that first draft, I did a lot of exploration to try to figure out why Duncan got stuck and why it happened the way it did. I went down many different paths— everything from blaming myself for my own patterns of getting stuck in my life to blaming Seth for having such broad shoulders and passing them on to our son!

What I finally came to was that none of it mattered and that I just needed to tell the story and forgive myself for whatever I thought I’d done wrong. I spoke at length with Duncan’s pediatrician about the helplessness I’d felt when his cord was cut and he was taken from me. She reminded me that I wasn’t helpless, and that I knew exactly what Duncan needed when I told Seth to go over to him and let him hear his father’s voice. This was a pretty big shift in the way I began to see the story.

I think mothers are compelled to tell the stories of their children’s births because they need to understand what really happened. We are so quickly thrust into raising these little people that it is hard to reflect on and process what happened on the day they were born. And too often we hold on to judgment of ourselves for the choices we made—sometimes without even recognizing it.

I’ve been teaching a class on writing birth stories here in Portland at a wonderful community center called Birth Roots. And the work we do to find the heroic moments in child birth is transformative for so many mothers who start the class feeling shame or guilt or remorse about the choices they made around their child’s birth. And it is not like we are just putting our rose-colored glasses on. There are always heroic moments in childbirth—for the mom and the baby. Always.

4. You left medical school to become a writer. Tell us about the process you went through to make that choice. How does your background in science/medicine inform your writing?

My decision to leave medicine is another essay (or book!) altogether, but it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. As a child, I was fascinated with the insides of things. I remember in seventh grade the day we dissected the cow’s eyeball was the day I decided I was going to be a doctor. And as I grew up and became more and more interested in stories, my choice of medicine was reaffirmed because what better position to be in than a doctor’s to hear the most intimate details of people’s lives? My plan was to be a doctor who wrote novels.

There were many heart aches in medical school for me. But in the end, I was not happy doing it. I kept a notebook where I was supposed to keep notes on various health issues and treatments, but instead I wrote about my patients’ lives. I wrote about the sterility of the hospital locker room. I wrote over and over again about how something was missing in my life. Something was missing.

In my second year, I took a class called Medical Humanities. In it, we read poetry and fiction, watched films and looked at paintings and sculptures all related to healing, death, dying, and medicine. It was probably the best class I’ve ever taken in my life. I remember sitting on the ground outside of my pathology lecture hall, reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I never went into my pathology lecture that day. I just sat their reading for two hours.

Eventually it became clear to me that what was missing in my life was writing. And when that reality hit me, it hit hard. I couldn’t go back to the hospital for one more day. I remember one of the mornings after I’d decided not to go back, my mom took me to breakfast and was trying to convince me to just finish out my surgery rotation—if anything for the writing material. It was good advice, because I probably could have gathered all kinds of good material. But I was done and it was the first time in my life that I decided I was going to follow my heart and not listen to the advice that everyone (even those I loved and respected dearly) else was giving me.

My two years in medical school left me with a great many stories and even more layers to weave into my work. Medicine is such fertile ground for writers because it is rich with tension, disappointment, humility, and miracles.

5. What are you working on now? And, how do you balance the demands of being a mother and being an artist?

 I’ve been working on a novel about a fictitious family who lived in the toxic neighborhood called Love Canal in Niagara Falls and lost a son to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The book begins with their twenty-two-year-old daughter, Ila, born seven months after her brother died, on a quest to find out who her brother was. Through stories from her brother’s high school girlfriend, his pediatrician, and her mother, she begins to uncover the circumstances that lead up to her brother’s death, while also coming to grips with her own surprising history.

Being a mother and a writer is a balancing act. I rent a writing shed that’s about two blocks from our house and if I wake up before the sun, I can usually sneak out of the house before anyone is awake and write for an hour at the shed. But if someone is sick or had a bad dream or sad about something else, I don’t get to the shed. And that’s okay, too, because everything feeds the work. If we are constantly running from our lives to get our writing done, we miss the opportunity to be there when life happens. And being there when life happens is the very best material for writers. I will write about all of it at some point.

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