Our Children, Our Books Part II

Our Mother’s Day Special Continues…
See Thursday’s Part I for an explanation of how this roundrobin conversation started, and complete bios for Eowyn Ivey, Marybeth Holleman, Cinthia Ritchie, Deb Vanasse, and Andromeda Romano-Lax.

I’m afraid I’ll censor myself… I imagined my own son googling me — oh dear Lord! I thought that was a little strange. Who really wants to know the inner secrets and inner longings of their mothers? When it gets to publishing stage, THEN you can worry!

Eowyn: Do you all share most of your writing with your children? What have been their responses to it? Have you ever decided to not let your child read something you were working on?

Cinthia: Well, my son is at that age when everything I do is an embarrassment so no, I don’t share my writing with him though I do keep him updated. He knows about my novel, knows some of the characters, and as I drive him to school in the morning I’ll often talk about the conflicts and problems I’m having with this character or that. How much he hears, how much he retains–well, that’s hard to say.

I also keep him updated on some of my work stories: “Human remains were found down by the coal facility,” I’ll say, and then I’ll ponder of what this means, who it might have been, how they might have died. But really, how much he hears in the swirling wave of his own hormonal self-importance, I don’t know.

When he was younger, in elementary and middle school, I wrote erotica. I was in a relationship with a man I loved dearly, and I was caught in that swim of sensuality that comes when you connect with someone soul-to-soul. I was awash in it, actually, and the erotica was the inevitable outcome. I published poems and stories, some internationally but most in English, nothing pornographic, all decent literary erotica in decent publications. But still!

For over a year whenever I googled myself one particular story came up, along with the first few lines, and oh-dear-lord, the “c” word was included in that opening. I imagined his teachers or parents of his friends googling me to see if I was the kind of parent they wanted their children around. I imagined people reading my newspaper stories googling me to find out who I was, if I had written anything else. I imagined my own son googling me–oh dear lord! It was quite agonizing. Finally,though, I won an award and kept publishing other stories plus news stories and they eventually squashed that “c” story to second and then third and fourth page status. I found I actually missed seeing it there before my name. It was like a sore tooth, that sweet pain, that almost agonizing jolt of recognition. These are the things I hide from my son as a writer.

Andromeda: Cinthia, has your son ever actually asked you about the erotica? I’m guessing not, but I wanted to double-check. I find that my children (ages 11 and 14) take a sort of disinterested stance regarding my published writing. They support my lifestyle, will let me yak about current projects (and are more than happy to accompany me on long-distance research trips to sunny places!) but about the finished project, they don’t inquire. I think that’s probably psychologically normal, maybe healthy. I probably encourage the mild disinterest by saying things like, “Oh, there’s no rush. You can read my books years from now, if you ever want to” — this comes in response not to their own requests or questions but other adults asking them, in front of me, when they are going to read my books.

But I do wonder what it would be like to have a child or teenager actually ask to read something that might not be easy to digest. It would be easy to say no to a very young child, but I wouldn’t be comfortable censoring something for an older child — because I don’t censor anything in our house! I will add that I found out that my son’s friend (also 14?) read my entire novel, which had some mildly rated-R scenes and concepts — I thought that was a little strange. I expect that he is a budding writer and wanted to read an adult novel by someone he knows personally.

Cinthia: Well, my son hasn’t asked to read anything I’ve written for a long time. It’s his age, plus I think it’s normal: Who really wants to know the inner secrets and longings of their mothers? Even fiction is really about us. I read an article a few years ago where they interviewed writers and none of their children, even their adult children, had read their work. I can understand that. We need to fit our parents and especially our mothers into a very small box: This is who she is, this is why she is. It’s for our own safety, I think, part of the way we learn to make sense of the world from a very young age. If my son did read something of mine that was R rated or above, I don’t know if he would talk with me about it, not at his age. When he was younger he probably would have, and I hope I would have had the courage to answer honestly.

But writing is so private, it’s kind of like sex, and the act is really sort of masturbatory:a person all alone and playing with her thoughts and demons and desires and needs. I can see where reading one’s mother’s work would be regarded as uncomfortable or even taboo. If my mother had written a book, would I want to read it? Would I be afraid to read it? Would I want to know who she really is since it would forever dissolve what I think she is or need her to be? I really don’t know.

Eowyn: One reason I asked the question is because my 10-year-old daughter was a very active part of my writing process during The Snow Child. It’s a novel based on a fairy tale and set in 1920s Alaska, and while it is written for adults it is probably PG-13 at most and my daughter was really drawn to the subject. She loves to write, and I talked often with both my daughter and my husband about possible plot lines and character development. The truth is, she gave me some terrific ideas that I used throughout the book, and when I shared a new chapter with her and she responded with excitement, it was worth everything to me.

I’m now starting my next novel, though, and it is really different. It is modern and deals with alcoholism, the struggle with faith, and some other difficult issues. I know my daughter will want to read it, and has already asked to see the first chapter, and I’m torn about what to do. On one hand, I’ve come to really treasure this time we spend together talking about writing, and I don’t want to shut her out, or shut down her enthusiasm for writing. At the same time, I think some of the material will be inappropriate for her age and I’m afraid I’ll censor myself if I know she will eventually read it. It’s become a really interesting struggle for me.

Marybeth: Cinthia, how interesting… I’ve never tried to publish any erotica, but as a mother of an almost 18-year-old who googles everything under the sun and then some, I can just imagine…
As a nonfiction writer, I’ve written many things where my son is a main character. And I’ve often worried about what he would think of what I write. But I try to follow the adage that I always told my students: don’t worry about it, just write what you think needs saying the best you can, and if/when it gets to publishing stage, THEN you can worry! Really, so many things get edited out before a piece ever hits the printed page, that most of my worrying has been needless.

That said – I’ve never kept anything I’ve written and sent out to be published from my son. The caveat there: sent out to be published. I figure that if I’m going to let a bunch of strangers read it, I should let him see it too. But I don’t set it in front of him. (Well, OK, sometimes I’ve read him a poem or two…) Mostly I just talk with him about what I’m working on.

When he was younger, he was more interested. He’d come to the readings and book signings, and I loved seeing his pride in his Mom shine through. (My guidebook to Prince William Sound has a picture with him in it. He used to “sign” by his picture!) Now, however, he’s not much interested in coming to readings, and while I think he likes knowing what I’ve got coming out, he doesn’t usually bother reading it. He’s got enough reading to do, courtesy of his teachers, thankyouverymuch.

In Heart of the Sound, he plays a prominent role. But he was much younger then, and I don’t think it bothers him at all that I’ve written about his three-year-old self. He ain’t that kid anymore. Lately I’ve been working on something that includes him as a teen – and it occurs to me I might be dragging my feet, waiting for there to be some more time between who he was then and who he is now. There are times it’s made me wish I was a fiction writer.

Deb: I agree, Marybeth, that there’s a distinction between what we’re working on and what we published. I’ve written a fair amount – and I suspect this is true for most writers – that is not really meant for anyone to see, not in its present state. Once in a while my kids have asked to read what I’m working on, when they know it’s something I’m almost ready to send out, but mostly they read it – if at all – after it’s come out. Since many of my books are written for children, I haven’t had that added worry that I might be revealing too much or that it might be inappropriate for them.

I don’t want to see her get hurt. But I also don’t want to take the wind out of her sails. Why would he choose the roller-coaster life of the struggling writer? My best advice to them: ‘Choose your spouses carefully.’ I always tell him, “I know you don’t want to hear this but you are a writer.”

Deb: Do your children like to write? How has their writing affected you?

Eowyn: First I want to say that I’m really not one of those high pressure parents, and I don’t generally go around bragging about my children, but my 10-year-old loves to write and I think she’s pretty amazing. The other night she was in bed, where she usually reads for a while before going to sleep, and I asked her what she was reading. “Oh, I’m writing some haiku,” she said, and she was. She writes novella-length short stories for fun, not for a school assignment or at my urging, and she has a terrific vocabulary and understanding of fiction structure and character development. And like I mentioned before, she had a true influence on my novel The Snow Child. She provided many plot ideas and overall enthusiasm that kept me going when I lagged some.

I have to say, she is leaps and bounds above where I was at her age. On one hand, it thrills me. On the other, I find myself cautioning her like my own mother did me — follow your passion, BUT make sure you can earn a living. Writing is not an easy, lucrative career for the vast majority of us, and I don’t want to see her get hurt. But I also don’t want to take the wind out of her sails. In her bio for a writing conference story she recently wrote, she said when she grows up she wants to be a writer and work at a bookstore. And of course, my 2-year-old is so far only interested in drawing mice on any piece of paper or book she can get her hands on.

Cinthia: My son is a wonderful writer and has the most refreshing, honest voice. Some of his essays for his college applications caused me to weep, they were so pure and lyrical and not at all the typical college essay fodder. So he has that writerly sense of trusting his voice and the courage to let his voice shine. I always tell him, “I know you don’t want to hear this but you are a writer.” I think he sees my writing as a partial failure on my part. When he finally decided on a college last week, choosing an expensive, private school that offered him a big scholarship but not big enough, I warned him about having to take out loans. He shook his head somewhat disgustedly and said, “Mom, I’m not going to be a writer, I’m going to have a math or computer career.”

Marybeth: When my son was very young, he did lots of drawings/writings/songs. The “Sock Factory” song for when we sat on the bed and matched up our socks from the laundry. The “Mutated Fishies” poem from one of our snorkeling adventures. I can’t deny that a part of me wanted him to be a writer, too. But somewhere around the time when he needed to produce papers or journals for school, around the time standardized testing became an annual event at school, he stopped liking to write.

At first I thought it had to do with handwriting. (He should be a doctor, his handwriting is so bad.) But as he moved up in grades and teachers started letting them do all the writing on the computer, he still disliked writing. During his ninth grade year, when I homeschooled him, I focused him on creative writing, trying to break away from the five-paragraph standard. And he did write a couple of great short stories and poems. But he still doesn’t like to write. He’ll do anything but. I see a link with the school system, but I’m also not surprised, given how he’s watched me agonize over my writing. Why would he choose the roller-coaster life of the struggling writer? But surprise of suprises, during that ninth grade year, he developed an interest in photography that has turned into a passion, one he appears to be pursuing. Sometimes I worry about it: he’s choosing a field that’s even more difficult to make a living in than writing. (I mean, think of the gear expense alone!) But mostly I’m delighted, and not just that some of my creative life has rubbed off on him. I’m delighted that he has found something that he loves to do, and is fearlessly, joyfully, doing it.

Andromeda: Well, these parallels are funny. Like several of you, I share both the brags (hey, we’re mothers!) and the worries (ironic, because I resented anyone worrying about my career choice over the years). Like Eowyn, I also have a daughter (now 11) who is a self-motivated writer. Last year, she took part in NaNoWriMo (the novel-writing challenge) and made her goal of writing 13,000 words in a month. What amazed me was not just the daily discipline but the structure, pov, and other craft issues she demonstrated. How did she so naturally understand these things I’ve struggled to teach myself as an adult? (‘Lots of reading’ may be the answer, because both my children read more than I did.) My son reads even more than my daughter — he is currently covering the Greek classics, most of them unfamiliar to me, and he shares lots of good tips about dramatic structure! — but he usually doesn’t write except when assigned. When he does write, he also has natural abilities that surprise me.

Note that while we homeschool them, they both strongly resist “age-appropriate writing lessons.” When they were very little, I thought we’d have great fun with kid-style writing, including lots of creative prompts — but they would have none of it, especially when it comes to fiction. In our family, one seems to dabble with fiction independently, privately, soberly.

So far, my daughter talks more about being a farmer than a writer. My son talks about being a visual artist. Talk about trying to find even less profitable careers. (Which is why I chuckled reading about Marybeth’s son’s photography.) Of couse, I want them to follow their dreams, but boy, I can’t help but imagine the perils ahead. My best advice to them (which I haven’t yet shared with them but will someday) would be ‘choose your future spouses carefully’ — not because a spouse will support you financially, but only because the proper partner (or friends, or social network) will help you weather the storms and create a rich life that doesn’t require financial security or stability.

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