The Activity That Dare Not Speak Its Name: My Mother’s Secret Literary Life

April 10, 2012 | 14 8 min read

1. My mom: secret novelist
Last fall, when I was home visiting my parents in Marin County, California, I ducked downstairs to check my email on my mother’s computer. When I typed the address of my email server into her browser, the history bar popped up with a list of oddly familiar websites: is one I remember; is another. I can recall my mother writing a few short stories when I was a kid back in the 1970s, and once more recently she’d mentioned to me that, “just for fun,” she was writing a series of fictional journal entries in the voice of 17th century American poet Anne Bradstreet, whom she was studying for a master’s degree she was pursuing late in life. But Tin House? Glimmer Train? What kind of secret life was my 72-year-old mother leading?

The mystery was resolved a few weeks ago when Mom revealed, with a touch of sheepish pride, that she had published her first short story, “Drawing Lily,” in the Nebraska-based online literary quarterly, Forge. The story, which went live earlier this month, turns out to be the tip of a submerged iceberg of a mostly secret, but also quietly serious and ambitious, literary life my mother has been leading since she retired as a partner in a San Francisco law firm in the early 2000s.

My mother has not only written an entire novel about Bradstreet, called The Poet and the Outcast, but worked on it with a writing teacher, and sent it out to agents and publishing houses. She has also built up a fair-sized stack of short stories, has been taking writing courses for years, and has applied to several writing conferences this summer. But aside from my father and a tiny handful of her closest friends, no one knows about any of this. “The minute you tell somebody you’re a writer,” she explained to me, “they immediately ask ‘Where have you published?’” Thus, until she had a story of hers published, she resolved to keep her literary ambitions a secret from the world.

2. Those scribblin’ Bournes
My mother, Nancy Bourne, is a kind of one-woman Women’s Movement. Born in 1939 in the blue-collar Southern cotton mill town of Danville, Virginia, she learned in Sunday School that girls could grow up to do one of two things: be a wife and mother, or become a Christian missionary. Thus began my mother’s short-lived dream to become a Christian missionary. Things didn’t work out that way, and after college, she taught high school English while my father finished medical school. Once I was born, she quit teaching to raise me and my brother Randy and sister Molly. In the early 1970s, when we were old enough to go to school, she took up ceramics and founded a pottery studio and school in our garage that continues to this day. A few years later, while still running the pottery studio, she began to cast about for a more fulfilling second career that might carry her through the years after the three of us kids left home. She taught school again for a year, which didn’t go well, and took a fiction-writing class in the U.C. Berkeley Extension program, nursing a closely held ambition to become a writer.

The literary landscape looked much different in the late 1970s than it does today. For one thing, there wasn’t an MFA program at virtually every university in the country. For another, the personal computer was still a hobbyist’s plaything, and you typed out your stories on typewriters and mailed them in big brown envelopes to literary magazines – there weren’t nearly as many of them then, either – one at a time. My mother estimates she spent three years laboriously sending out stories, getting rejection slips, slipping the copy of the story in another envelope, and sending it on to the next editor, before she quit writing to go to law school. “At the time I thought if I could get just one story published, I wouldn’t go to law school,” she told me, adding with a laugh: “Thank God I didn’t get anything published!”

She’s not kidding. She passed the bar the same year I finished high school, and her law career not only paid for the college educations of her three children, but also made it possible for all three of us to finish graduate school without going into debt. The law also offered her a high-powered career that ended with her dream job as a partner in a law firm, now known as Dannis Wolliver Kelly, that represents school boards across California. But as she entered her sixties, she cut back her hours at the law firm and decided to pursue a master’s degree in literature at San Francisco State University, which, in its roundabout way, led back to where she had begun with her secret life as an aspiring author.

cover This is less strange than it might at first appear. We Bournes are a writerly bunch. There’s me, of course, who has been writing seriously and steadily, albeit with only the most modest worldly success, since I learned to touch-type at age thirteen. My father, too, in the four years since his retirement as a molecular biologist at U.C. San Francisco, has written not one, but two books: the first a self-published memoir of his career in science called Ambition and Delight, the second an institutional history of UCSF called Paths to Innovation, published by the University of California Medical Humanities Consortium. My sister, Molly, a doctor, has written at least one collection of stories and a novel that I know of – never published, never seen by me, and never once so much as mentioned by her in my presence. (My brother Randy, also a physician and the family’s only non-writer, said to me when I told him Mom had published a story in a literary magazine: “Man, I better get cracking.”)

3. Anne Bradstreet, the gateway drug
My mother’s wayward path back to fiction began with her master’s thesis project on Anne Bradstreet, one of the original Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and New England’s first published poet. As she researched Bradstreet’s life and career, my mother learned that while Bradstreet, whose husband and father both served as governors of the new colony, lived a life beyond reproach, her sister, Sarah Keanye, was excommunicated by the church for, among other things, “gross immorality.” Partly as a way to further her research and partly as a writing exercise, Mom began writing journal entries in the voice of her research subject. “I was imagining what it would have been like to have been a woman in the 17th century with eight children, and writing poetry,” she told me. “It was just a fun thing to do.”

But as the project grew, my mother added a competing fictional journal written by Bradstreet’s disgraced sister explaining her behavior, and even fictional letters between the two sisters. Before she knew it, she had a book, an epistolary novel of sorts, with the sisters’ dueling memoirs, along with letters and snatches of invented letters between the two, creating a portrait of life in 17th century Puritan New England. Mom gave the manuscript to Bay Area writer and teacher, Tom Parker, who found the book “profound and powerful and interesting” and gave my mother the name of a literary agent he thought might help her get it published. That didn’t pan out, but Parker remains high on both the book and my mother’s talent as a writer. “A lot of good, smart people come through these portals, and your mother is in the top ten percent of the people I work with,” he told me.

4. The activity that dare not speak its name
Looking back on it, I think what most surprised me when I saw those familiar literary magazine titles on my mother’s browser wasn’t that my mother was writing short stories, but that I didn’t know. After all, I talk about my own writing all the time. I’ve been writing fiction since I could type sentences, and in the decades since I left home, a fair portion of my biweekly phone call with the folks has been taken up with descriptions of my latest writing project and blow-by-blow accounts of my interactions with agents and editors. Sitting there looking at those web addresses on my mother’s desktop, I realized that at least for the last few years my mother had been sailing the same perilous waters as me, and not saying a word.

Part of the explanation for this lies in the dynamics of our family. As anyone who has ever sat at our dinner table can attest, we Bournes are anything but shy and retiring, but we don’t discuss money and we don’t brag, not openly. Nothing is tackier, or more hilarious, in our household than a Christmas card that trumpets the accomplishments of one’s self or one’s children. Growing up, I learned that the key in life wasn’t to be successful – that, it seemed, was all but a given – but to make it look easy. Effortless. “Just for fun.” My father worked his ass off for almost forty years at the cutting edge of the DNA revolution at one of the top medical research institutions in this country, and I had to read his books to figure out what the hell he’d done all day all those years.

But just because we don’t talk about our accomplishments doesn’t mean they don’t matter. They’re everything. But in the family narrative, success is supposed to appear out of nowhere as a fait accompli, a nifty little treasure found by happenstance by the roadside, preferably brought to the family’s attention by others. All of which encourages a certain amount of privacy about things that don’t turn out so well, and even about things that haven’t turned out well yet. For her thirteenth birthday my sister asked for a filing cabinet, with a key. God only knows what was in that locked filing cabinet, but I am going to guess that its present contents include at least a story collection and a novel.

Still, I don’t think my family is really such an outlier. Anyone who has read the slush pile at a literary magazine or small publishing house knows there are thousands of people out there writing books and stories, most of them moms and lawyers and teachers and cubicle wretches writing at night and on weekends without telling anyone but their spouses. Some of these writers, no doubt, are hobbyists for whom writing stories is what bird-watching or fantasy football is to other folks. But many more, I suspect, are quite serious, enrolling in university extension classes, attending writing retreats and conferences, sending out story after story despite the steady drumbeat of failure.

It’s this last point that I think helps explain the secrecy of writing. Most people can’t carry a tune, and fewer still could paint a passable portrait in oil, but just about anybody can write a sentence and tell a story. It seems so easy. And yet as my mother, or I, or any practicing writer can tell you it’s devilishly hard. The problem isn’t merely that a magazine like Tin House receives thousands of stories a year and publishes perhaps twenty. The problem is that even among those twenty, half are crap. Half the stories I read in The New Yorker, the top forum for contemporary fiction in the country, bore me to tears. This isn’t because the editors of these magazines have no taste, or because something is horribly awry in our literary culture, but because it is unspeakably hard to write a piece of fiction that someone who isn’t related to you by blood or marriage will actually want to read.

cover cover And yet, here we all are, my mother, me, and probably you, too, writing on the subway, in stolen minutes at work, on sunny Saturday afternoons when anybody with any sense is watching a ballgame or going to the beach. My mother and I aren’t likely to create lasting literature. One of you might, but frankly, the odds are against you. But that’s not the point. The point is sitting down and doing it, taking it seriously, caring about excellence, being willing to risk constant failure and rejection. The cost of caring about something you know you will most likely fail at is that you will look a little ridiculous in the eyes of the people you love. So you dissemble. You tell people at a dinner party that you’re a teacher, a lawyer, a mom – anything but a writer. You hide the copies of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and the latest Writer’s Market. You tell yourself you’re doing it “just for fun.” But you do it. And that’s what counts.

If you have read this far you will not be surprised to hear that my mother resisted having attention called to her first publication. In her reply to my emails suggesting an interview, she said I’d “outed” her and wanted to talk to me about my “angle” on the piece. After we finished, she confessed that her biggest fear was that this essay would make her sound like a loser for having taken this long to get a story published. (I should have told her, but didn’t, that most people never get anything published.) She did talk to me, though. But as we were finishing up, she returned to the business of me seeing those literary magazine web pages on her browser, and I spent the last two minutes of our conversation walking her through the steps of how to erase the browsing history from her desktop.

That won’t happen again.

Photo courtesy the author

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. Looking forward to reading your mom’s story, Michael. I have a lot of students in my classes who are “secretly” writers, now just ready to come out to the world…or at least to a group of fellow writers. Such secrecy fascinates me–but maybe that’s because I come from a family of (non-writing) showboats! All anyone does at our dinner tables is brag! :)

    Thanks for a sweet read.

  2. What a fabulous essay and a perfect explanation of how all of us “secret” writers operate. I’m thirty years old – I hope I am living as full and vibrant a life as your mother when I am in my 70s.

  3. What a great story! Very similar to my own family, except we really do love those braggy Christmas letters.

  4. How lucky you are to have had such an amazing mother! In an era when it was difficult to imagine a life outside of diapers and dusting, she was able to follow her dreams as well as become such an inspiring mom.

  5. “… it is unspeakably hard to write a piece of fiction that someone who isn’t related to you by blood or marriage will actually want to read.”

    Or non-fiction, for that matter. After all, how many of your father’s technical papers, which he’d have in abundance as a professor at a major university on the cutting edge of a new field, have you read? No one in my family has made it past the abstract on any of my papers.

  6. Really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing. Your mother sounds like an awesome lady.

    I’m also, like Edan, fascinated by the secret writer, because I started telling people “I wanna be a writer when I grow up” when I was about six, and have been open about it since then. I definitely don’t like bragging, and people can ask really awkward questions, but if someone inquires, I tell them. It never occurred to me to hide it, even while complaining about people asking those awkward questions. Maybe I should have once in a while haha.

  7. I enjoyed this, and I really hope your mom’s book gets picked up by somebody because it sounds like something I would LOVE to read.

  8. “And yet, here we all are, my mother, me, and probably you, too, writing … … on sunny Saturday afternoons when anybody with any sense is watching a ballgame or going to the beach.”

    What’s a beach?

  9. Congratulations to your mom on her recent publication. The only bad thing about being a secret writer is that you miss out meeting (knowing) other secret writers. I met your mom over Easter weekend in Kentucky this year, she is a lovely woman, and had I known this, we could have quietly shared our mutual secret writing endeavors (I guess mine are semi-secret now that I am posting this).
    Please give her my best. I wish her continued success!

  10. This is a wonderful tribute to your mother! My grandmother finished law school just as my mother finished high school. My mother stopped writing short stories, opting to travel the world as a diplomat. They leave me with both an inspiration and a challenge. And then this post! Thinking of grad school in my 50s doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. Thank you for that, and for your mother’s story of quiet perseverance.

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