Behind the Page: Laura Rock Gaughan

Stories function as a time capsule for me, a place to preserve emotional truths—the feelings, if not the facts.

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to express myself through writing—that began very early, although I didn’t approach it seriously until adulthood. I studied English literature in university, but I was always attracted to other things, always divided. I pursued those other studies and the jobs that came with them. And I was raising my kids.

I began taking continuing education classes at George Brown College in writing for children. Even though I soon switched to other forms, it was an opening. Having an instructor take your work seriously, critique it as though it were much better than it was—that’s a gift.

At some point I submitted a children’s story to a contest sponsored by the Writers’ Union of Canada. I remember getting the results letter in the mail, telling me that while I hadn’t won, my story had moved to the next round. They sent along the readers’ comments. They sent encouragement. I stood in the post office and read the whole thing, right there.

Later, I was working on a poem cycle and submitted it to the CBC literary awards contest. I was shocked when it was shortlisted. This was a long time ago, before they began publishing the shortlist online. I still have the letter somewhere telling me how many submissions they had, how many on the shortlist. My husband photocopied it and took to showing it to relatives, which was funny and embarrassing, because they had no context for it. Poetry, okay. And you didn’t win?

I began writing short stories and submitted some. Occasionally, I’d receive a note from an editor giving feedback on submissions—rare and generous.

So, these were signposts along the way. They kept me going.  

I took more classes. I sought out workshops, retreats, and online courses that fit my life, finding dedicated teachers. I’m not ashamed to say I needed them to understand what I was trying to do. And their books, of course. I studied their books.    

Originally, I wanted to write a children’s story, probably because I was reading them all day long to my kids. Which takes me back to another beginning. My love of writing is rooted in reading as a child. Books were the one purchase my parents never questioned—they bought books, believed in books, allowed me to spend hours reading books. Lucky me.  

The stories I was writing revealed my preoccupations. There were a lot of babies, and I hadn’t set out to write about that subject. There were women circling the idea of motherhood, the changes that come with that, and caregiving that wasn’t specifically maternal but could be read that way. Eventually, I had published some stories in journals and had completed others. I began to see the possibilities for a collection with the shady, expansive, contentious notion of mothering as a through-line.

On some level, elements of my experience are in every story. The story “Transit” begins with an incident that happened to me. I was hugely pregnant, dressed in impractical footwear for winter in Toronto, leaving work for the day. It was dark out, snowing, and I made a run for the streetcar. I fell, and the way I remember it, there was this embarrassed silence from the other commuters. Total Toronto reserve; no one helped. It was humiliating and seemed to crystallize all my doubts about coping with a new baby, my changing body that could no longer run, my boss who didn’t take me seriously anymore—and then some crazy things happened during the streetcar ride. Or, more likely, I took multiple experiences and layered them into a narrative. With a typically long gestation period for my stories, it’s easy for me to lose the details of what really happened, the sequence of events, and what is invented or embellished. Increasingly, I think that stories function as a time capsule for me, a place to preserve emotional truths—the feelings, if not the facts.

Another example is in the first story, “Good-Enough Mothers”. The POV character—the main mom, let’s call her—obsessively watches over the neighborhood. She’s home with young children, feeling dull and depressed as her partner flies off to out-of-town work meetings and is generally unavailable. Her daughter, six years old, has been learning about careers in school—active jobs like firefighters, nurses, plumbers. She comes home after one of these lessons, turns to the mother, and says, “How did you decide to be nothing?”

How indeed, the mother thinks. And that’s what I thought, too, when my daughter said it to me, all innocence.

The experience of feeling pulled in more than one direction, of being judged, of not being good enough, of being so in love with these small human beings, of being a token figure in society, pilloried and idealized—much lip-service paid, but the actual work of mothering not valued by the world, not really. All of that is in the story.  

Writing Motherish, going through the whole process from manuscript to finished book, has been everything I could ask for. I loved the editorial process—my editor was great. Responses from readers—by email and at readings—have been offbeat, funny, and gratifying, a source of wonder. Having the book exist as an object outside my head, is something I’m still not quite used to, but there it is, my book.