Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, recently spoke with Dinh Prince, author of Issue #5’s “The Origins of Minor Injuries”. Here’s what she had to say about the effect of writing—and parenting—on her life and work.
I have to tell you, my wife was nearing the end of her pregnancy as “The Origins of Minor Injuries” went to print. Five days later, we welcomed our first baby. Many of my expectations about the delivery and early days with our first child—the exhaustion, the interior drama, the sense of frustration and wonder—were colored by your essay. Did you read any literature that affected your view of parenting prior to Benjamin’s birth? If so, how?
No, I had never read a literary account of a natural birth story prior to giving birth to Benjamin. My only exposures to other women’s natural birth stories were through the videos we were made to watch in the Lamaze class my husband and I had taken, and through the documentary, The Business of Being Born. However, watching another woman give birth is very different from the experience of giving birth. Outwardly you see only a woman vaguely moaning, occasionally switching positions, and very little action until the impossibly enormous baby emerges. Watching a video doesn’t allow you to see the interior drama that is happening in a woman’s mind, which for me ended up being a surreal near death experience, being drunk with pain. I really didn’t know what to expect prior to giving birth. I just felt a fearful anticipation of the unknown.
What was the impetus for “Minor Injuries”? Did it develop more out of a desire to explore your own childhood or to deal with new parenthood?
I thought the experience of Benjamin’s constipation throwing both my husband and me into an existential crisis was a funny narrative arc—all this hand-rending self-doubt, hashing up of past grievances and traumas, and eventually giving up on life, all because of a night of constipation. Many of the early months of parenthood were like that for us. We were learning how to nurture a human life. It’s an enormous, frightening responsibility with huge consequences, and yet a lot of it comes down to monotonous repetition—comes down to poo and tummy aches.
You don’t hold much back here. From your family’s quirks to your experience of labor to your fears about parenthood, you give the reader a lot of yourself, often uninhibited. Did you find it cathartic to write this?
Writing has always been cathartic and necessary for me. It’s how I process difficult emotions, maybe because as a child and young adult I was extremely shy, and writing was the only means by which I could express myself clearly. Teachers wouldn’t notice me until they read something I had written, then suddenly I’d become alive and known to them, and they would try to nurture my talent and encourage me to speak up. I think those early experiences made me realize there is a lot of power in writing. If a week passes and I haven’t written down what I’ve felt and experienced, I feel like I’m losing a sense of who I am. Working on this essay was cathartic because as a working mother, there are many times when I’m so busy I feel like I’m losing a sense of who I am. Writing helps me slow down, savor, make sense of my experiences.
How have your views about parenting changed since writing this?
My view of parenting hasn’t really changed because I wrote this, but rather this essay reflects my changed view of parenting. Before I had a child I was more quick to judge other parents and had this conception of an Ideal Parent that quickly fell to the wayside once I became a mother. I’m more forgiving of other parents now, especially my own. I had a difficult childhood, but now I sense they were doing the best they could with five kids, both working full-time jobs, and dealing with a new culture and language all at once.
I recently heard an interview the comedian Louie C.K. He said that he didn’t really become an artist until he became a parent. How has becoming a parent affected your writing?
As a parent, I’m more focused and give myself fewer excuses. I can’t sit around waiting for the muse to show up when I have only 15 minutes a day to write. Parenting has made me a lot more consistent. It has also given me another dimension of experience and wisdom. I get to see the world through my son’s eyes as well as my own. I get to know what it’s like to completely sacrifice for another person.
You graduated from Arizona State University with an MFA degree. What did you take from the program?
Looking back on my years at ASU getting my MFA, I realize that was the retirement of my youth. I was young; I had just married the love of my life; I had tons of friends who were writers; I had tons of time. I just remember watching so many films, reading so many books, traveling, writing. It was wonderful. It maybe wasn’t the most practical decision in terms of making a lot of money in the future, but it was valuable because those three years were some of the happiest I’ve ever experienced. The most important thing I got out of my MFA work was confidence, a sense of my voice as a writer, and the feeling that I wasn’t such a freak, because I was surrounded by writers who were as sensitive, observant, introverted and awkward as I was.
Most of the work you’ve published is fiction. What do you take from writing fiction as opposed to writing nonfiction?
I think writing fiction makes me a good scene writer. I know how to look at an experience and give it some sort of narrative structure. And since I’m new at nonfiction and haven’t extensively studied it, I’m not paralyzed by what has already been done and what has already been said, the trends, and criticism. All of that can cripple a writer.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I have a novel that has just waited for me to finish it for ages. But right now I find all of my writing energy is going into essays. I’ve had some life experiences in the last five years that have completely thrown me for a loop, and I’m trying to make sense of them, trying to find some forgiveness and grace by writing about them.
As Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, I have to ask: what is your worst workshop or editing experience? What did you take from it?
I can’t think of a workshop experience that was significantly terrible, but I think the worst ones are when I’m being criticized by someone who isn’t the right reader, and therefore he/she doesn’t understand what I wrote and why I’m writing it, or they’re just not good close readers. If I can’t trust their comments, it’s not valuable criticism for me.