Mothers Who Write: Martha Tod Dudman

by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.

Photo of Martha Tod Dudman
Author Martha Tod Dudman
"Oh, I suppose I was in some ways a terrible mother. I yelled. I got impatient. I got mad. I worried over stupid things. I scolded over things that didn't matter. But when I think over the whole long lumpy quilt of my life, the part that makes the most sense, the part that feels the most real and most dear, is the part where I was cooking in the kitchen and Augusta was coloring at the table and Jack was working on his building. When the house was full of cinnamon and life."
--From Augusta, Gone by Martha Tod Dudman

One of Northeast Bay, Maine's 600 residents, author Martha Tod Dudman, has two children: "Augusta," aged 18, and "Jack," age 17 (pseudonyms). A graduate of Antioch College in Ohio, she majored in Literature and cherished the dream of being a writer since childhood. (She has all the journals she kept since age 7.)

During her college years, Martha worked as a teacher of English in Brazil and Portugal. After graduation, she stayed in Yellow Springs, Ohio and spent a year as a waitress, but then in 1975 moved to a tiny island in Maine where she had vacationed as a child.

Cover of Augusta, Gone by Martha Tod Dudman
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In the three years that followed, she attempted to establish herself as a writer, supporting herself with a variety of odd jobs, including cleaning houses. Despite her inability to get the two books she wrote during that time published, she persevered with her writing by setting a goal of producing so many pages per day, then editing and rewriting on her own. After three and a half years, she had one publishing credit: an essay in the New York Times.

Feeling she was at a dead end with her writing, she moved to mainland of Maine -- where she lives now -- and started thinking of what else she might do. For the next few years, she worked in the school system, first as a substitute, then as a teacher in the Special Education Department. Although she continued writing, it was more for herself than with a goal of publishing.

After marrying and having children, she decided she wanted to pursue her writing again, so she called the University of Maine and found a professor, Constance Hunting, who ran a small press called The Puckerbrush Press ("puckerbrush" is vernacular for "the hinterlands"). Ms. Hunting took Martha on as an individual student, and met with her weekly to provide feedback and encouragement. That was the impetus that spurred Ms. Dudman's writing: soon, she had several pieces of short fiction published in Ms. Hunting's journal, The Puckerbrush Review.

Although she had switched from teaching to tutoring when her children were born, divorce forced Martha back into a better paying work situation. She accepted a part-time position in one of her mother's radio stations, and was able to continue her classes with Constance Hunting and raise her kids, which was ideal. Then her own mom decided to step down from the radio business, and asked Martha to take over.

"It was a tough decision," Dudman recalls. Her first book, Dawn (Puckerbrush Press, 1989), a novella and short stories, was about to be published by Constance Hunting, but her children were still young. Deciding she needed to support her kids, Martha quit classes and went to work in the radio business full time. Although she wrote another book of fiction, during the next decade, which involved juggling her business and mothering careers, there was a hole in her life.

She describes it this way: "I felt like I didn't have any room in my head, just to wander around and think about writing. I learned how to run a business, and enjoyed it, but there was still something missing."

Her book, Augusta, Gone (Simon and Schuster, 2001) describes the chaos that happened next. Augusta, her daughter, entered a challenging adolescence, precipitating a crisis that affected the entire household. For the years that followed, it was difficult for Martha to keep up with supporting her daughter and son, along with running the business.

Janet Maslin of the New York Times, describes the book as "...a wrenching mother's-eye view of the kind of family crisis countless households where teenagers find chemical means of amplifying the rebelliousness they already feel." Library Journal calls Dudman, "an exceptionally skilled writer," and says that "Dudman's [story] is unforgettable." Publisher's Weekly calls Augusta, Gone "poetic, [and] painfully frank." A reader wrote that Augusta, Gone " so painful to read that at times I felt like a voyeur peeking in their bedroom window, but that's what makes it good."

What inspired you to write?

"Don't dream of publishing, dream of writing. Find 'space' to write -- sometimes that's as literal as a room in your house. Everyone has something that prevents them from writing, but you should write every day. Put aside all the nagging voices that tell you it's a waste of time, or that writing is selfish or silly. Don't think about those things, write because you need to write."
In 1998, my daughter was in treatment away from home, my son had settled down, I sold the radio station business, and all of a sudden the house was quiet and I didn't have to go to work. It was winter, and I had some time to myself. For so many years, I had been saying I wanted to write, but hadn't been doing it. So writing was sort of like that old boyfriend you always think about and wonder whether things could still work out.

I sat down and started writing a novel about a woman in her mid-forties living in Maine. It was fun, but I noticed something about the main character related to her kids. As a reader, you wouldn't know what was going on, but it was clear something was happening because after 40-50 pages the kids were taking over and the boyfriend was out. I ended up telling the story of what had actually happened with my daughter, writing the first draft in eight weeks. I sent the manuscript off to Constance, who encouraged me to find an agent. A friend from New York City gave me a name, and I sent the book off.

Then my daughter ran away from the treatment program where she was for the second time and ended up coming back home to Maine. Things were different, though: she had made enough progress to go back to our community school, so I took a job as a fundraiser, which was an ideal part-time job where I get intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to write.

Meanwhile, my book was with the agent when my 30th high school reunion rolled around. A woman who had been my best friend, writer Susan Taylor Cheehawk, was going to be the speaker and I wanted to see her since we hadn't connected in all the time since high school. So I went down and saw Susan, who has written several books, and it was great. I didn't tell her about my book until the last day of the reunion when we were sitting together, waiting for my taxi. As I climbed in to go to the airport, I turned around and said, "Susan, I wrote a book." Instantly, she told me she wanted to read it.

As soon as I got home I discovered the first agent didn't want my book, so I sent it to Susan, who thought it was amazing, and forwarded it to Betsy Learner, the woman who became my agent. Betsey didn't take me on immediately, though: she sent a two page letter detailing how the book needed to be revised and reworked, so I spent three months doing just that. It was hard work, but worth it. I sent her the final version which went to auction and was purchased by Simon and Schuster.

How old were your children when you started to write?

I've always written, before and since I had children, just at different intensities during different times.

From a practical standpoint, how has being a mother affected your writing?

"... if you start worrying about what people are going to think of you how can you get a word on paper? Whether you write fiction and change it around or make it true, you're going to write about people you know and experience. If you dodge things you don't have much of a story. "
I think being a parent is the most essential thing I am. Even in the novel I wrote, the parents took over.

However, as a mother, I was sensitive to how my children might feel about the book, and didn't tell anyone I was working on it for a long time. Then, when I'd done the editing, I sat down with my daughter and went over it with her. Betsy had it, but I wouldn't have published it if my daughter didn't want me to.

I gave advance reader copies to my family, ex-husband, boyfriend, and daughter. She was living in San Diego at the time, so I called and warned her that it might be tough to read, but that everything turned out okay. She must have sat down and read right through it, because she called back a few hours later and said she kept waiting to read that I didn't love her, and when that didn't happen, she realized how much I do love her.

Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother who is a writer?

My daughter, who is not a shy person, likes having a mother who's a writer. My son is proud, but more quiet, not out there as much. Sometimes he comments when people talk about the book, which has made quite a stir in our little hometown. Some people are unhappy about the way characters were portrayed.

But if you start worrying about what people are going to think of you how can you get a word on paper? Whether you write fiction and change it around or make it true, you're going to write about people you know and experience. If you dodge things you don't have much of a story.

My daughter has gotten some criticism about how could you do this to your mom, but she just shrugs and says I'm not like that now.

Has there ever been something from your child's life you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?

Writing Augusta, Gone was painful. There were some things I left out that were just too painful, too much invasion. Good writing is like photography, you choose the angle you take the picture from. You decide what will be on the table.

The things that would make my son really uncomfortable I've left out of the book, too.

Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced you as a writer?

The best part of the book is that it's been good for my kid. She sees herself as a kind of heroine, and is proud of it, which is better than a great review in the New York Times. That's what's most important to me.

How did your own mother influence you as a writer -- if at all?

My mother encouraged me. She liked the fact that I wrote, although not always what I wrote. Both of my parents believed in me as a writer and loved the book. My father is a journalist who has written two books, one political, and another about being a prisoner in Cambodia. At 83, he is still writing!

Both of my children are fabulous writers, but they don't do it a lot. My daughter is more interested in visual arts.

What are you working on now?

Without being specific, I will say I plan to continue with both writing and my part-time job.

I do have two pieces slated for publication: one in The Puckerbrush Review and another in Susan Taylor Cheehawk's e-zine Zincville. These two stories are very little about moms, more about women.

Do you write every day? How long and where?

When my kids were younger I got up at 4:30 A.M. and wrote; I still find my mind is sharpest in the early morning. I try to write everyday and still consult with Constance Hunting, but not on a regular basis. There is a writers group of 10-15 women that I've been part of for the last few years. We do writing exercises and then share, which is alternately energizing and cozy. Sometimes it opens things up in you.

I try not to know too much about the literary world -- it's too easy to get jealous when you compare yourself with others.

Any advice for beginning writers/mothers?

Don't dream of publishing, dream of writing. Find "space" to write -- sometimes that's as literal as a room in your house. Everyone has something that prevents them from writing, but you should write every day. Put aside all the nagging voices that tell you it's a waste of time, or that writing is selfish or silly. Don't think about those things, write because you need to write.

Writing needs to feel like a treat, not drudgery. If you work too much and try and write, you get too tired to write. It would have been impossible for me to write the book without some absolute time off. At the same time, some work is good for me because it provides a way of seeing people and being around people.

**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is a mother, wife, writer, and Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State University in Hershey, PA. Her book, Surviving Ophelia, will be published in Fall 2001 by Perseus Publishing.

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