College of LAS « Illinois

Relating to those not related

Alumna and author Paula Carter writes about being a so-called almost mother

Paula Carter‘s writing career has roots in Daily Illini column-writing and class discussions in the English Building. (Image courtesy of Paula Carter.)
Paula Carter‘s writing career has roots in Daily Illini column-writing and class discussions in the English Building. (Image courtesy of Paula Carter.)
In fairy tales, step-mothers are often painted as wicked and mean—but for Paula Carter (BA, ’01,  English and rhetoric), both the joys and sorrows of being an “almost mother” were the inspiration for her new book, “No Relation.”

The book, an essay collection published in November by Black Lawrence Press, focuses on themes surrounding motherhood, accuracies of memories, separation, and grief of the unexpected. Since the book is a memoir, Carter was able to use the book as an opportunity to be vulnerable for readers.

In one of the essays, “Other People’s Kids,” Carter describes the various anxieties of caring for children she isn’t related to. Carter’s draws from her own experience with a former partner and his children to delve deeper into what she describes as a relatively overlooked topic.

“Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was because I felt there was a narrative that wasn’t being addressed with emotional honesty in very many places – the narrative of the step-parent, or even more so the almost-parent, someone who is connected to children in a meaningful way who are not their own. We don’t even have a word for what that role is and yet it is increasingly common,” Carter said.

The book has been well received, including by peers in the literary community such as Scott Russell Sanders, author of “Dancing in Dreamtime,” who wrote that Carter’s book “carries the burden of memory in elegant and seemingly effortless prose.”

Said Carter: “The most gratifying responses have been from people who have also had those experiences and feel that the book says something important about it – that was what I hoped it would do.”  

“No Relation” is the latest step in Carter’s career as a writer that has roots at Illinois. While studying at the University of Illinois, Carter served as columnist for the Daily Illini and recalls the time being a stepping stone moment for her interests in different styles of writing.

“My mom still has all my columns saved in a binder,” Carter said. She later earned a master’s degree in fiction from Indiana University, and her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Salon, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She’s also contributed to publications such as Writer’s Digest, Creative Nonfiction, Chicago Magazine, and Harvard Gazette.

Carter currently works for the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago, and manages their online magazine INTER, which focuses on diverse faith and worldviews. She also is involved in live nonfiction storytelling and has performed with The Moth, This Much is True, and 2nd Story, a Chicago storytelling organization where she is a company member.

“No Relation” by Paula Carter. (Image courtesy of Carter and Black Lawrence Press.)
“No Relation” by Paula Carter. (Image courtesy of Carter and Black Lawrence Press.)
In an interview with the Kenyon Review published in 2017, she described what was behind her use of both scientific and religious imagery in her essay City Swarm, about a swarm of bees she witnessed in her yard.

“I grew up in a home that was filled with both science and religion: my father a chemist, my mother a devout Christian,” Carter said. “Therefore, I tend not to see the two as necessarily separate.”

Speaking with the College of LAS, Carter said she loved the workshops in the creative writing classes she enrolled in at Illinois, when students and professors read each other’s work and provide feedback and constructive criticism.

“The English Building was one of my favorite spots on campus and I spent a lot of time there. Two of my creative writing teachers were mentors, Jean Thompson and Paul Friedman. Paul taught the first creative writing class I ever took – it was a fiction workshop my second semester on campus.  Having a teacher and classmates read something I had written and then discuss it seriously was amazing. It made my writing feel more real. Jean Thompson I had for several classes. I admired her and she made me feel like being a writer was possible,” Carter said.

“College was a time of discovery for me,” Carter added. “U of I was where I had sushi for the first time as well as encountered gender studies for the first time – both things I’m still passionate about.  It was where I found people who wanted to think as deeply as I did about (Fyodor) Dostoyevsky and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.”

Carter will be reading from “No Relation” at the Illini Union Bookstore at 5:30 p.m. March 29.

Taylor Hoffman

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