AWP 2014: Writing About Your Kids

March 7, 2014 § 1 Comment


aaad (1)A guest blog from Janet Buttenwieser:

When I entered the Seattle Sheraton’s Redwood Room, the panelists — Zoe Zolbrod, Jillian Lauren, Ben Tanzer, Claire Dederer, and Kerry Cohen — were rearranging the furniture, turning the long tables so they formed the 2 sloping sides of an equilateral triangle.

“That’s better,” one said to the other. “More intimate.” This set the stage for an engaging panel where the authors, some of whom had never met before, spoke as old friends.

When Zoe Zolbrod, author of the novel CURRENCY and a memoir-in-progress, convened the panel, “The Author’s Children: The Intersection of Art, Advocacy and Ethics in Writing About Your Kids,” she chose authors she admires, who she has turned to while writing about childhood sexual assault, adult sexuality, and parenting.

I thought this panel would offer advice for writing about our kids, and stop there. But it went well beyond that, offering advice for all memoirists. Some told anecdotes about their kids. Others read short excerpts of their work. All of them shared advice in a presentation that was both revelatory and intimate. Some details from the discussion:

  •  As parents, Zolbrod said, we are privy to intimate details about our children. But kids don’t consent to share those details the way that adults do. We have a generational responsibility to our kids; as their advocates and protectors, we want to speak up for them.
  • The origins of Jillian Lauren’s memoir-in-progress, EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED, came from a desire to connect with others during the isolating experiences of waiting to adopt and having a child with special needs. Some of us may question our right to write about our children, but Lauren says she feels called to do so. Motherhood is the most transformative experience she’s ever had. “Of course I’m going to write about it.”
  • Ben Tanzer, author of the essay collection LOST IN SPACE: A FATHER’S JOURNEY THERE AND BACK AGAIN, has a set of rules for himself when writing about his kids, including “which of my kids’ secrets would they not want revealed?” He considers some topics, such as mental health issues, off-limits for him to write about, leaving them as stories for his sons to tell or not, as they choose.
  • When she finished the manuscript of POSER: MY LIFE IN 23 YOGA POSES, Claire Dederer gave it to her then 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter to read. They had a privilege no one else featured in the story had: carte blanche to make changes to the parts of the book where they appeared. Dederer feels that the act of making art through writing is good for her kids to see, and this fact guides her more than worrying about what others will think of what she writes about.
  • Kerry Cohen feels drawn to write about experiences that she felt her way through, wishing she’d known more about from the beginning. In her memoir SEEING EZRA: A MOTHER’S STORY OF AUTISM, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND THE MEANING OF NORMAL, she blurred details about other people’s children to protect their privacy.

Those of us worried about sharing details about our kids and the less sunny side of the parenting experience can look to all of these authors for inspiration. I left the panel with 5 new authors whose work I want to read, and feeling energized to return to my writing desk.

Janet Buttenwieser’s nonfiction work has appeared several places, including Potomac Review and Bellevue Literary Review, and won honorable mention in The Atlantic 2010 Student Writing contest. She has an MFA from the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Visit her at janetbuttenwieser.com

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