Write Here, Write Now: Phone Calls With Mom by J. Delaney-Howe
In this episode of Write Here, Write Now: A Vocal Podcast, author J. Delaney-Howe talks with host Erica Wagner about how his deep gratitude to his mother sustains him as well as the power of expressing vulnerability in writing and life.
After a reading of “Phone Calls with Mom,” author J. Delaney-Howe talks with host Erica Wagner about how his deep gratitude to his mother sustains him as well as the power of expressing vulnerability in writing and life.
ERICA: Write Here, Write Now is sponsored by Scrivener. Used every day by best-selling novelists and aspiring writers alike, Scrivener unites everything needed to write, research and arrange your manuscript in a powerful package. Without Scrivener I could not have written my last two books. Scrivener is available for iOS, macOS and Windows, allowing you to take your manuscript with you, wherever you go. Sign up using the coupon code VOCAL at checkout and receive a 20% discount on the writing tool that seriously changed my life.
J. DELANEY-HOWE: We talk about those hard topics and my hope is that people will be reading my work and realizing, "You know what? I'm not alone in this, there are other people that are going through this.
ERICA: This is Write Here, Write Now, a podcast brought to you by Vocal, an online platform for creators of all kinds and all levels of experience. It’s a place to post, to read, to be inspired. I’m your host, Erica Wagner.
This season, we’ll hear eight essays, all posted to Vocal by independent creators. Afterwards, we get to hear from the creators themselves- about what inspired them, what they’re working on, and what keeps them going. If you have any questions that linger after the episode, head to vocal dot media to leave a comment for the authors, right on their essay. Who knows- you might be inspired to write something yourself.
Here’s Write Here, Write Now.
ERICA: This week, we have a special essay. It’s a love letter of sorts from a son to his mother. J. Delaney-Howe’s “Phone Calls with Mom” takes us through all stages of their relationship- from childhood, through a tumultuous early adulthood, to their dynamic today. I got a chance to speak with Jim about his process of writing this piece. You can hear our conversation after the reading. This is “Phone Calls with Mom.”
ERICA: That was “Phone Calls with Mom” by J. Delaney-Howe. When I got to speak with Jim, we talked about his past, what it was like to write this piece, and the kind of parent he wants to be.
J. DELANEY-HOWE: My name is Jim Delaney-Howe. The piece that we're talking about today is called, Phone Calls with Mom.
ERICA: I think it's a wonderful piece about a complex love, and I'm so grateful that you wrote it for Vocal.
It's really great to have you on Write Here, Write Now, our Vocal podcast today. Tell me a little bit about yourself to begin with, where did you grow up?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: I actually was born right in Central New York, same area that we live in now. I grew up for most of my childhood, just outside of Boston, about a half an hour, 45 minutes outside of Boston. So still live in Central New York after we moved here, I love the changes of the season. So, this is a good place for us to be. I live with my husband. We've been together for seven years, we've been married for almost four. My middle child, he lives with us, he's 21. And my daughter, who is 13, who is actually transitioning into they/them, she lives with us just about three weekends a month.
ERICA: When did you first get started in writing?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: I don't remember the first thing I ever wrote, but I remember the first thing I ever wrote that was published somewhere. It was a fifth grade poem that I wrote about stranger danger, and it made it into the school newsletter and I was hooked. So, back throughout school that was my favorite part of school projects was the writing, the research and the writing. So, I would definitely say school left a big mark on me. I had a great English teacher, my 10th, and then again, my 12th grade year she was just a wonderful teacher, the materials we would read, she brought them to life. She made them more accessible and yes, there were book bannings going on when I was in high school and she always had the banned books. So I don't know how she got away with it, but she did.
J. DELANEY-HOWE: And then I've just been writing over since, I've had a couple blogs here and there, write poetry all the time, many family and friends have received poems from me or writings from me. And then last year I got this crazy idea that I was going to put a compilation book together of all my poems. And so that's still a possibility a little bit further down the line. And it was actually one of my friends who messaged me on Facebook about this writing contest that this place Vocal was having. And it was the Doomsday Challenge. So, I've been on Vocal for a little less than a year now.
ERICA: You say you started writing in the fifth grade, but we change a great deal as writers. And I wonder how you feel your writing has developed from when you were a very much younger person until now.
J. DELANEY-HOWE: Well, I mean, whereas before, for a while, most of my writing as it usually is in school, most of my writing was to inform or a report on something. As far as the poetry goes, that probably really started for me a couple years after high school, and I think my poetry has become a little bit more... In other words, with my poetry now I'm sending a point or a message, or a feeling, or I'm setting the scene for a specific moment. So that's gotten better in that aspect, but the rest of the writing, it's funny, I still use the same format. I still do an outline every time I'm about to... Other than poetry. I still use an outline, I still write from that outline, so.
ERICA: And tell me what inspired you to write this particular piece on Vocal? What prompted it?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: It was actually a show that was on TV, it was an interview with an elderly person who had been alone for most of COVID. And it got me thinking, I think for everybody, it got us thinking about our families, it got us thinking about our family relationships, especially when you couldn't be around a person. And so, that's pretty much how this started. It was inspired from that article and I'm really lucky to still have my mom, I'm really lucky to still talk to my mom as much as I do. And so yeah, this piece was born out of that.
ERICA: And what did it feel like to put those feelings that you have about your mom into words on the page or on the screen?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: Some of it was a little challenging, rehashing old things, rehashing situations from a while ago. So that could be a little challenging, but when I was finished with the piece, I said, "Yeah, this is good. This is what I wanted to say."
ERICA: That really struck me in reading the piece because you write more than just about your wonderful, warm relationship with your mother. You share, in fact what is a very difficult story of your challenging upbringing, your illness, the breakdown of your marriage and the way you deal with mental illness. What prompted you to, after writing? Because there's a distinction, there's the decision to write something down, and then there's the decision to share it with an audience. How does sharing your work with the Vocal community... What does that mean to you?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: I write pretty openly about my mental illness. I've written pretty openly about relationships and family issues. I feel like, especially as it relates to bipolar disorder, there's such a stigma around mental illness still that I think that one of the ways that we deal with that stigma is we talk about it. We talk about those hard topics and my hope is that people will be reading my work and realizing, "You know what? I'm not alone in this, there are other people that are going through this." So as far as the mental illness piece, I think I share as much as I share just because I think that's the only way we're going to remove the stigma, is to talk about it, is to get it out there.
ERICA: How does writing help you when you're in difficult situations?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: Writing for me, especially if I have a lot going on mentally in my head, if there's a lot of noise there, writing is for me a way to get some of those things out. So they're not stuck ruminating in my mind and I'm not playing them over again and again. I actually have bipolar, so writing is a huge part of my treatment plan. Especially like I said, just to get the thoughts out, to get thoughts on paper. So there's the emotional side of it that it really helps with. But I think writing also helps me put things in perspective, like for instance, if I'm writing about a situation after the fact, I think writing helps me see different perspectives and different angles from that specific situation. When I'm writing fiction or writing poetry, I'm not necessarily writing it to send a crystal clear message or to remove any kind of stigma with my fiction and poetry. That's more about feeling, that's more about emotions, that's more about setting a moment.
ERICA: Different motivations for different kinds of writing?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: Definitely. When I was talking about the relationship parts and how my marriage fell apart, that's always catharsis for me. That always makes me feel better to get that idea on paper and I can look at that idea instead of having it ruminate in my head over and over again. So, that part of it was cathartic,
ERICA: Are you glad to have written the piece?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: I am. I am. Anytime that, especially when it comes to my mom, I can lift her spirits or let her know how much she means to, not just me, to my siblings as well. Anytime I can communicate that to her, let her know that. And the memories that I talked about in that piece. It's important, I think she hear about are good times from her childhood. I think it's important for her to hear exactly how great she made the holidays. She thinks a lot like myself, and so when we can do things like this and talk about the good times, I think it helps her, maybe reframe some things into a more positive, a good light.
ERICA: It's a really valuable thing to recognize, it seems to me that things can be difficult, but we can also recognize the good and beautiful things that were there at the same time. I think sometimes we tend to polarize that too much and say things were either all bad or all good. And that's almost never the case.
J. DELANEY-HOWE: No, that's absolutely not the case. It certainly hasn't been the case in my life.
ERICA: What was the message that you wanted to convey?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: I think the message that I wanted to convey specifically to my mother, was I think I wanted her to know that I'm aware of a lot of the challenges and a lot of the heartache and a lot of the hurt and anxiousness I've created for her. I think I wanted her to know that I'm aware of that, and that... Yeah, that I'm aware of it and that I appreciate it. And like I said, the last line is, and thank her for being my mama. I think that's pretty much what I wanted to portray was that I'm aware of these things, I'm aware that they've hurt and they've caused you some grief and thank you for being my mom. That was in essence what it was. I'll say one thing my mother was always really great at was loving us. Whether we were horrible, rotten kids who just gave her the day from hell, before my dad got home or everything was going fine and we were... Everything was operating smoothly. My mom always, always made sure that we knew that she loved us. So, I try to do the same thing with my kids. Three of my boys are grown, so that has some challenges when your kids are grown and out of the house. But I do, whether it's through messaging, when I do get to see them all, I do, I try to love my kids the same way my mom loved us.
ERICA: Is there anything you would add to the piece now?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: I think I would talk a little more about, because I mentioned in the piece, I haven't always been close to my parents and that was a pretty dark time. For them it was a pretty hurtful time, I know because we've talked about this before. But I think if I were to add anything to this piece, it would be probably explaining a little bit of the relationship dysfunction in the past. So, if I were to add anything, I would probably touch on that and explain that a little more thorough.
ERICA: What do you think you'd say about that? I know that speaking isn't the same as writing. But it's such an interesting topic, the way we try and analyze things that happened in the past to solve our relationships in the present.
J. DELANEY-HOWE: Hmm. What would I say? Well, I would... A part of it, especially the relationship dynamic, it's not that my mother and I were ever at odds, it's not that my mother and I were ever estranged. But I was at odds and I was estranged from my father for a little while. And so my mom, it's such an awful thing to say when you're describing a person, but my relationship with my mom was collateral damage because of that. It wasn't anything because my mother had done, it was the dysfunctional relationship that I had with my father, and she got the brunt of that as far as not seeing us, as far as not talking. So yeah, I would add that in there because I think that's part of the story that needs to be told too, is that, it's not that my mother and I have ever had a bad relationship, it's just the collateral damage. Part of the fallout from me having such a bad relationship with my father for so long.
ERICA: At the end of your piece, you say... You're talking about, I'm going to... Let me take that again. At the end of the piece about your mother, you say, "I think I'm going to go give her a call and tell her I wrote about her." I have to ask whether you did and what she said?
J. DELANEY-HOWE: I did. I told her, I wrote about her and she said, "Oh yeah, when am I going to be able to read it?" And I said, "Well, when it's done." So then after it was published on Vocal, I sent it to her, and she read it and she sent me a message back. And she said, "Thank you so much for writing about me that way. And thank you for your kind words, and I'm proud of you." The whole thing that moms do. But yeah, I did. I called her as soon as I was done and said, "Hey mom, I wrote about you." And I believe her response was something like, "Well, I hope it was all good."
But she's never said anything specific or voiced any specific, "Well, maybe we should do this or maybe you could write about that." I would love it if she did. I would actually love to sit down with my mom and pick her brain, and write a bunch of stories from her because she's had an interesting life too.
ERICA: Well, maybe when she listens to this podcast and hears you say that she'll be inspired to do that.
J. DELANEY-HOWE: Yeah. "Yeah, mom. I want to write your story."
ERICA: It’s a special privilege to be allowed into such a vulnerable space, let alone welcomed, as Jim has done for me, and for everyone who’s encountered his piece on Vocal.
Next time on Write Here, Write Now, we touch again on a mother-son relationship, but our focus is on a much broader dynamic- our relationship with the natural world. Tune in for “What is Plant Blindness” by Farmer Nick.
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If you like what you hear, join us for season two of Write Here, Write Now, when we dive into stories from the Vocal plus Fiction Anthology. And of course- be sure to rate, review and subscribe to Write Here, Write Now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Erica Wagner- thanks for listening.
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