AWP Recap: Writing About Your Kids
Didn’t make it to the AWP Conference (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) in early March?
Here’s a recap of the Saturday afternoon panel discussion that featured Hope Edelman, LM contributor Marybeth Holleman, LM Literary Reflections Editor Kate Hopper, and our Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant.
This is a relatively long post but we hope you’ll take time to savor the thoughts each has shared. Each presenter builds on the previous speaker’s comments for a message you’ll want to keep for future reference.
My Son Is Perfect:
Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids
As more mothers find time and courage to write about motherhood, we face unique challenges, especially with nonfiction. One that looms large is how to write honestly about our own children, for whom we have unconditional love and no small amount of adoration. How do we find the distance to write more than the idealized version, to portray our children as the complex characters they are? How do we walk the fine line between telling stories honestly and protecting our own very real children?
Beyond bravery, I’ve found that writing honestly and well about my kid is a matter, mostly, of space: a combination of closeness and distance.
Closeness is important because it’s essential to write it down as it happens. This holds true for any writer of any subject, but parents in particular seem to believe they will remember the way their toddler says “helicopter” for the first time, or the way their teenager looks when she first falls in love, but you just may not. You need to record the immediacy of the moment. As well, as Patricia Hampl so beautifully wrote in “Memory and Imagination,” (essay from her book, I Could Tell You Stories) memory is not terribly honest, and less so as time goes by.
Distance is equally vital. For their sake, and for your ability to see the forest rather than the trees, it’s best to let some time go by before writing about a certain period in your child’s life. With time, it’s less likely that you’ll embarrass or otherwise harm your child. They’ll read about something they did five years earlier, and shrug it off with, “I’m not that person anymore.” Time moves differently for kids than for us parents. Time moves more quickly away from who they no longer are.
That said, it’s important to let your unconditional love guide you and talk to them (if they’re older) about what you’re up to, and be willing to let go of writing about some event or age if they are uncomfortable with it. Still, I think time is your best friend. If they say “no,” ask them again in a few years.
With time, you can see more clearly yourself, can put the event in context of what else was happening in your life, the bigger picture. This makes you more honest.
But when writing about your kids, you’re really writing about your relationship to them, that is, your mothering. So besides overcoming those fears and letting closeness and distance do their magic, another important thing is to write honestly about yourself as a mother.
Writing about our children can be complicated. One the one hand, we need to respect and protect our children. On the other hand—we’re writers, and we own the truth of our experiences — in life, as parents. We have a right to get these experiences down on paper, to dig deep, to make sense of it all, to tell some story that reaches beyond our own lives. But how can we do both of these things at the same time?
I think it helps to make a very clear distinction, in our minds, between writing and publishing.
In the early phases of writing, it’s crucial to make ourselves believe that no one will ever see what we’re putting down on paper. If you’re worried about the ethics of publishing your piece or worried about what the people you are writing about will say or how they’ll feel, you’ll censor yourself, and won’t be able to write to the heart of your experience.
So often, we must write and write and revise and write some more before we understand what the real story of our writing is. What is that thing that we have come to say? Understanding what that story is allows us to cut, reframe, edit, view the material through a new lens. Some of the stuff that you might be worried about putting out in the world might not even be necessary in the end. But if you tiptoe around the truth in those early drafts, you are boxing yourself in, and you might not ever find your way to the true story you need to tell.
The time to stop and decide whether you can send a piece of writing out into the world in its current form is when you’re ready to publish. That’s when you have to look at your writing and see if you have to cut in order to protect your children. Can you make cuts without compromising the truth of your experience? Perhaps the way your story changed in the writing process or the way your frame shifted has deflated what at one point seemed unsayable. So send it out into the world.
Caroline M. Grant
If, once you’ve taken the time to craft your piece and you’ve really examined the motives behind your writing, you still worry about the exposure you’re creating, you might want to consider using a pseudonym. There are a number of different options for you here:
- Choose a pseudonym for yourself
- Use your own name, but give pseudonyms to your family members
- Depending on the piece of writing and its venue, the pseudonyms can be straight (Jack for John, Sarah for Sally) or silly (Mickey Mouse, Wile E. Coyote)
- Use some non-naming identifier; this might not feel like much protection to you, but not being named can make all the difference to a child
- Refer to your children by their relationship to you or by their ages (“My older son,” “My five year-old”, “my baby”, “my daughter”)
If your child is old enough and interested, get his or her input on the pseudonym you use.
The pseudonym is not a blanket new identity; you can use it for one category of your writing and not the rest.
The pseudonym allows you to:
- protect your privacy
- protect your family’s privacy
- more easily control the public’s access to you
But it can lead to its own set of complications:
- You have two (or more) identities to juggle
- Every pseudonym requires its own email address, website, etc. Consider both the logistical and financial implications of this.
- Readers might have a hard time finding you
- It might affect your availability for personal appearances (readings, TV/radio interviews, etc.)
Know your child. If he or she is old enough, talk to them about your project, and then write with freedom – but edit with care. And then know the outlet — a lot depends on when and where your children see your writing, and who else they know who might read the piece. It’s more often neighbors and other family members who get litigious–and we’ve certainly had our share of Literary Mama contributors dealing with that–but while a 12-year-old is unlikely to bring a lawsuit, they can find their own unique ways of punishing us.
Writing honestly about your kids means, in a just and equitable world, that you should be prepared for them to one day write honestly about you. It is a frightening truth about parenthood that even when we try not to raise children in our own images, even when our deepest hope is to raise them to be different and better offshoots of ourselves, those best-laid plans can nonetheless go awry. Some of them will grow up to be writers. And when they choose to write nonfiction, all bets are off.
It’s important to remember: there are no hard and fast rules for this. There is only what your own family agrees to, and what each mother-child relationship can bear. I find it to be a constant negotiation process, which changes as children get older and enter new stages of cognitive and emotional development. What they understand about memoir and exposure at nine is often very different from what they’ll agree to at 13.
Here’s a quick look at each of the presenters.
Visit their individual websites to read about their many many projects and accolades:
Hope Edelman: Author of five nonfiction books including Motherless Daughters, Letters from Motherless Daughters, Mother of My Mother, Motherless Mothers, and The Possibility of Everything. Visit her website here.
Caroline M. Grant: Editor-in-Chief of Literary Mama, Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, co-editor of the anthology Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life and of the anthology The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Stories of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat. Visit her website here.
Marybeth Holleman: Author of The Heart of the Sound and dozens of essays, poems, and articles. Co-editor of Crosscurrents North. Off the Map. Visit her website here.
Kate Hopper: Literary Reflections Editor for Literary Mama, creative writing instructor, and author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and the soon-to-be-released Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. Visit her website here.
About the Association of Writers & Writing Programs
AWP provides support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 500 college and university creative writing programs, and 125 writers’ conferences and centers. Their mission is to foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.
Each year, AWP holds its Annual Conference & Bookfair in a different city to celebrate the authors, teachers, writing programs, literary centers, and independent publishers of that region. The conference typically features hundreds of readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings. More than 11,000 writers and readers attended the 2013 conference, and over 700 exhibitors were represented at the bookfair. AWP’s is now the largest literary conference in North America.