Kate Hopper had her thesis all planned out: She would write about three generations of women who made ceramics in a small town in Costa Rica. Hopper had spent two years with these women while on a Fulbright Scholarship, and she had observed firsthand the changes modern life was bringing to this traditionally matriarchal society.
And then she signed up for memoirist Barrie Jean Borich's writing class at the Loft Literary Center. To her surprise, out poured Stella's story.
Hopper was pregnant with her first child in 2003. It was a busy time; she was married, teaching at the University of Minnesota, working on an MFA, and writing her thesis, which was not exactly flowing. She didn't feel well — swollen and sluggish and slow. She figured it was just part of being pregnant, but in early September, she was rushed to the hospital with dangerously high blood pressure: pre-eclampsia. Her life, and her baby's life, were in danger.
Stella was born by C-section, six weeks early and weighing less than 4 pounds. "A miniature thing, smaller than a doll," Hopper wrote later. "A white ventilator is taped over her mouth, scrawny legs are splayed like a frog's, goggles cover her eyes, purple veins track across her skull like a spider web."
No more teaching. No more MFA. No more thesis. Hopper's whole life became this tiny infant, a baby so ill and so fragile that Hopper felt herself holding back in fear.
"I was so scared that Stella was going to die, I didn't want to love her," she said.
Writing a woman's life
The story of Stella became Hopper's thesis for her MFA, which she resumed in 2004, and now, years later, Stella's story is Hopper's second book, "Ready for Air," published this month by the University of Minnesota Press.
Writing about Stella meant exploring what it means to be both a woman and a writer. At the time, Hopper said, "nobody was writing the real hard stuff of being a mother." The books and essays on motherhood that she found were relentlessly happy, often sentimental. But Hopper was looking for more than that — she craved stories that got at what she considered to be the secret, hard truths: conflicted feelings, depression and boredom, difficulty in bonding, being so sleep-deprived and exhausted that you don't fully trust yourself.
"What do you do when you're scared you're going to throw your baby down the stairs?" she said. "I didn't see anything out there about how hard and isolating it was. I wanted to get my voice out there. I wanted to push back against the stereotype of perfect motherhood.
"When I started to write in Barrie's class, I thought, 'This is the book.' "
Hopper's husband, Donny Gramenz, worked full-time, so her father stepped in as baby sitter while she wrote. She went back to school, finished the MFA, graduated in 2005 and began querying agents.
Big thud back to Earth.
Years to publication
Agents were not interested. One told her, "Nobody wants to read about preemies. It's too dark." Another told her that, no offense, but the book made Hopper seem deranged.
She set the manuscript aside, started over. "I was a better writer by then," she said. "It took me two years to rewrite it," and during that time she began teaching classes at the Loft and elsewhere geared toward mothers who write.
Her first book, "Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers," published by Viva Editions, grew out of those classes.
"Ready for Air" eventually found an agent, and was accepted last year by Todd Orjala, then the senior acquisitions editor at the University of Minnesota Press. In late September, a few days before Stella's 10th birthday, the completed book was delivered to Hopper. It was such a powerful experience to finally see it done, she said, "I cried all day."
Hopper still conducts retreats and online classes for women, but she is beginning to branch out. She's ghost-writing a memoir for a couple who have a profoundly autistic son, and she's working on a novel — not about motherhood, although the protagonist is a mother.
But she is grateful that her ordeal helped her to find her voice. "Motherhood made me a writer," Hopper said. "In writing this book, I was writing something that feels urgent to me."