Mothers Who Write: Cortney Davis
by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.
--From I Knew a Woman by Cortney Davis
A wife, poet, author, nurse practitioner, and mother, Connecticut resident Cortney Davis has two children who are now grown and parents themselves. Daughter Lisa, who is 36 and son Chris, age 34, have made Ms. Davis a grandmother three times over. Recently, her granddaughter told her, "Grandma, I know a writer!" When Ms. Davis asked who it might be, she was told, "You, silly!"
In 1990, Cortney's writing career was officially launched with an award from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts Grant for Poetry. It was then that she decided writing was going to be major part of her life. The award itself was $5000, but the recognition of her status as a poet that came with it was priceless.
In 1994, The Body Flute, her chapbook of poetry, was published by Adastra in Massachusetts. A year later, through a collaboration with nurse colleague Judy Schaefer, the University of Iowa Press released Between the Heartbeats, an anthology of poetry and prose from nurses across the country. It has remained on their bestseller list and is currently being translated into Japanese. A second anthology titled Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses, will be released in May 2003, also by the University of Iowa.
Ms. Davis has a book of poetry that's exclusively hers, titled Details of Flesh (Calyx, 1997). "I gathered together the best poems I had been publishing over the years, the ones that touched on relationships, and love, sex, and death, and entered every poetry contest I could. I got lots of finalist awards, but no publication." It took two years of this strategy before Calyx, a feminist press she describes as "fiercely supportive" selected it for publication.
Other awards she has received include a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a second Connecticut Commission on the Arts poetry grant, and a grant from the Money for Women / Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She was also given the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award in Poetry from the Judah Magnes Museum in California, and has had her poetry published in over thirty literary journals, including Crazyhorse, Hudson Review, Kalliope, Massachusetts Review, Ms., New York Times, Ontario Review, and Prairie Schooner. A number of anthologies, nursing and medical journals and texts have featured her work, and her chapter, "Nurses' Poetry: Expanding the Literature and Medicine Canon," appears in Teaching Literature and Medicine (Modern Language Association).
In 2001, Random House published her first book of literary nonfiction, titled I Knew a Woman: The Experience of the Female Body, a synthesis of overlapping stories, drawn from the real lives of many clients Ms. Davis came to know through her nursing practice. Publisher's Weekly says: "In this compelling look at how women's bodies influence, and sometimes dramatically alter, their lives, readers become intimately acquainted not only with women's body parts, but also with several specific women Lila, Eleanor, Joanna and Rene, composites of the many patients Davis has treated as a nurse practitioner in a women's health clinic in suburban Connecticut. But while the characters are fictionalized, the drama, pathos and heartache in these pages ring true."
Currently, Ms. Davis works as an OB/GYN nurse practitioner in a hospital clinic where she sees outpatients on a half time basis. Although she debates becoming a full time writer, part of her says if she didn't work she wouldn't be out in the world where she finds material to write about. Still, the essential question for her has become: "How do you balance, being a wife, mother, having a job that pays, writing, community service?"
What inspired you to write?
For a long time, being an author was the furthest thing from my mind. After high school, I went to college as an art major, but dropped out, got married, and had two children. I ended up as a single parent a few years later, struggling to survive. In an ideal world, I would have continued as an artist and writer, but instead, I ended up in working as a nurses' aide because I needed a job to support my kids.
When one of the doctors told me I would make a great nurse, I didn't even have enough money to go to school, but I did enroll in training as a surgical technician, which eventually enabled me to earn my associate degree in nursing at a community college bit by bit. I became a head nurse, then decided to continue on for a bachelor's degree in nursing. One of the first courses I took was a poetry course, and I was hooked.
Instead of working toward a degree in nursing, I switched to English, and eventually got both a BA and MA from Western Connecticut State University. During the same time, I took advantage of an offer from some physicians to pay for my education as a nurse practitioner. I kept zinging back and forth between nursing and English, but I wanted to keep learning and writing. I still think about getting an MFA, which might enable me to teach poetry, and I've taken courses at NYU with established poets. My mentor, Dick Allen, did two tutorials with me, and gave me an introduction into the poetry world, which was very helpful.
How Was Your First Book "Born?"
After I had published my book of poetry (Details of Flesh), I kept writing essays over the next couple of years, and had published some of them as short stories. After one piece was published in Witness, I got calls and letters from several literary agents asking if I had any more material like it. I really connected with Elise Cheyney, an agent from New York City, so I sent her the four hundred pages of mishmash stuff I thought I had been writing for my own pleasure. She encouraged me to pick out a couple of women, and narrow it down, which I did lackadaisically in my spare time. I didn't think anything would come of it.
One day, I suggested sending the manuscript to a woman's press, but Elise said let's see what will happen. She sent it out on Tuesday, and by Wednesday we had offers from six presses, including Random House, which seemed the most promising. Courtney Hodell, my editor, made me add a fourth character and put myself in the book.
The book came out and soared up the Amazon list. I was interviewed on NPR, and then September 11 happened. Instantly, everything got canceled: a review in the New York Times and Washington Post, book readings, and all that. In light of what happened, a book seemed so insignificant and unimportant, and my joy at being an author evaporated.
How old were you children when you started to write?
My children were probably 7 and 5 when I started to write. For a long time, I was in the closet with it, although the whole time they were growing up they saw me taking classes and being in a writing group. They have this dual vision of me as both a nurse and writer, but what they saw the most was my writing.
Now I can tell they're proud. They read my books, come to readings, and are so much a part of the fabric of my life.
From a practical standpoint, how has being a mother affected your writing?
Like many women who were writers and something else, I think about how I might have been a better mother if I wasn't a writer. It's tough, working fulltime and going to school at the same time. Looking back, I see myself as a very preoccupied mother. I was still trying to find my own way in life during a time when my kids were doing the same.
Would I have been a better mother if I hadn't felt this drive to be something else? I don't know that it was a choice. I don't think I could stop being a writer. I do it in spite of myself. If I wasn't a nurse, I would still be a writer, and if I wasn't a mother, I would still be a writer. Yet both those roles influenced my writing profoundly.
Being a poet helped. I wrote at night after they were in bed, and wrote on the run. I would carry a poem around and work on it when I could. My children were often in my poems, which focused on interactions between family and life.
It's funny: writing is considered a hobby for women, relegated to their spare time, whereas for men, it's a career. For me, writing is my avocation.
Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother who is a writer?
Not long ago, I made scrapbooks for each of them, and gave them all the poems I had written about them along with photographs. I even included ones that were more difficult to write. I remember one in particular about my son, and a situation where I watched a dynamic that was destructive to his spirit but stood by out of fear. I think it's important for them to look back and get another insight into what was happening in their young lives.
Has there ever been something from your child's life you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?
My work has always been more inclusive than exclusive. Once I did a poetry reading and someone from the audience raised her hand and asked if I knew how controversial my poetry was, but I hadn't realized it! I guess it probably is, because I started out in the early 70's when women poets were beginning to write about things no one had written about before.
I never published anything about my kids without their okay. If anyone was portrayed negatively in the poetry I wrote about them, it's me. I would never publish anything that would cast my children in a bad light.
There was the issue of privacy in my book, I Knew A Woman. I had to take bits of all different women to create the characters, because I can't ethically reveal a patient's story. For example, the story of Joanna's abuse was really a girlfriend's story, which touched on a lot of the emotions I've heard in many abused women's stories. My girlfriend talks and writes about her experience, so I asked if I could use her story out of Joanna's mouth and my girlfriend said yes.
How did your own mother influence you as a writer -- if at all?
She was a typical fifties mom, in the background until the seventies and eighties when she got very involved in doing things for the community. She was a wonderful seamstress and made opera costumes, so her creativity was in a hand craft kind of way, and she was quiet about it. I don't think I knew until after she died how very creative she was.
My mom never read my book as she had died by the time it was published. She was interested in my writing, but she wasn't the kind of person who would want to read any poems that went beyond the surface.
My dad liked my poetry but was uncomfortable with poems that had sexuality in them. In fact he once asked me if I was going to show Details of Flesh to some family friends, and I think he was relieved when I said no. He was braver creatively when I was growing up, but when he was older, he got taken aback by things I wrote.
Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced you as a writer?
I think when I started to write, the women I was with in my workshop, who were the women I grew up in poetry with, were all mothers and all had children. I saw in them this constant tug between going forward and being a creative person and in some ways taking a step away from a traditional lifestyle. When you think about it, lots of famous female writers didn't have kids.
Now writers can balance family and career. Being a woman who wrote in 70's, it was a risk that took you out of your family and made you a different person. On the other hand, being a mother/writer gave you the opportunity to look at the interaction between you and your children in a different way, a new set of lenses. There was always that question of how much you share. Can you really be a writer in a full sense of the word and be a wife and mother? Lots of us struggled with those questions in that era.
What are you working on now?
I've also been doing other things to keep writing. I have an article on fertility coming out in Self magazine in May, and had an article in Discover.
What are your writing habits?
I write two days a week. My poetry comes in great bursts of energy, but then I work on it again a few days later, and take it to my writing group. I'm much more methodical about prose. I have to sit at the computer for hours. It takes a long time to get into it, and lots of hours to do it. I have to get everything else done first, empty the dishwasher, clean up, etc.
I've been in a writing group since the 1980s, off and on, it's the same group of people I went to school with. It's really a well functioning writing group with poets and prose writers, a small group of five. Then I have a writing partner who is a friend that I meet with once a month to workshop my poems. Her name is Sondra Zeidenstein, she is 70 years old and the owner of Chicory Blue Press, which publishes the work of older women. Her website is www.chicorybluepress.com and is worth checking out. Sondra is incredible, my connection to open, honest feminist writing.
Do you have any advice for other mothers/writers?
The best advice is to do what your heart tells you need to do. If writing is a force to be reckoned with, you have to do it. It may mean getting cooperation from your partner if you have one, or you may need to get your children involved in your writing. Hang in there and be brave: if you're balancing being a mother, having a job, and writing, you just have to do it, and risk the consequences.
**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is a mother, wife, author, and Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State University in Hershey, PA. Her latest book is Surviving Ophelia (Perseus Publishing). Her website is located at cheryldellasega.com. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.