Why I Write: Karen Uhlmann

One of my earliest memories is of sitting with my father while he read. He was reading, and I was pretending – until I realized I wasn’t. The words came together on the page. They made sense. My father told me I’d crossed over into a new world. I danced around the room. 

Books became my best friends, my escape, my protection. I was frequently confounded by my own world, but never by the fictional one. After a grade school move that left me friendless, I read my way alphabetically through the school library. My nerdiness probably contributed to my being regularly beaten up on the walk home from the new school. My mother, of course, tried to intervene, but also gave me E.E. Cummings and Langston Hughes to read. Their words of love, humor and struggle were comfort and kinship. 

I eventually went to a school where there were teachers and students who loved literature as much as I did. I was introduced to Lawrence Durrell, Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence. I learned to write about them. I found a voice. 

College was partially in Massachusetts, partially in Paris. I read the French classics, the surrealists and Roland Barthes in French. Another world opened. My last year was spent interviewing men and women between forty and fifty, all divorced, about their concept of love and how it had shifted over the years. Most asked why I was doing this. I was twenty-one. Love was clearly a puzzle. I loved hearing their stories and thought that maybe, hopefully, it would help me know more about what lay ahead. Transcribing all those notes, I eventually realized this was impossible. 

As graduation neared, I came to terms with my small skill set and applied to one journalism master’s program. It actually accepted me. My father’s only comment: I was the only person he’d heard of being accepted by a competitive journalism program who had never read a newspaper. This was true. I had never even written for a college publication. It was terrifying, but I made it through. 

Reporting was never the right fit. Still, it taught me the art of distillation, and for that I am grateful. The years that followed my brief stint as a reporter were filled with children, magazine writing and a detour into professional cooking. It was not until I was pregnant with my third child that I was brave enough to try and write fiction. After his birth, when time was scarce, I gave up freelancing and the right to say I wrote professionally. The moments I had between naps and mothering I pieced together stories. There were no more generous checks from magazines, no more seeing my name in print, but I felt I finally had something that was mine.

As my kids got older, writing became even harder. Life was chaotic. It was hard to think. There were crises, and I wrote my way through them. Writing brought surprise. It brought clarity. And eventually it brought publications, workshops and an MFA. Within the past few years I’ve been able to call myself a fiction writer although I often feel like a fraud. I’m small potatoes. Some people like my writing. Some don’t. The rejections pile up. The acceptances are few and far between. Reading keeps me afloat. The pile of books on my nightstand. The new stories of my friends and contemporaries. The classics.

Two of my children are musicians. One is in film. I like to think that the beauty and music I find in words helped form them as artists. I write because I read. I write to understand the world around me. I write to leave some words behind.

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Karen Uhlmann

About Karen Uhlmann

Karen Uhlmann lives in Chicago and graduated with an MFA from Bennington in 2010. Currently she has a story online in Story and another in Noö Journal. Her fiction has been published in Southern Indiana Review, Fiction Southeast and Specter, as well as other literary magazines. Her books reviews have appeared in The Common. In 2012, she won the Northern Colorado Writers contest, which was judged by Antonya Nelson, and had two stories in its anthology, Pooled Ink. She was a finalist for the Tobias Woolf award, The Florida Review Editor's Award and the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Contest among others..