AWP 2014: The Intersection of Art, Advocacy, and Ethics in Writing About Your Kids
March 9, 2014 § 2 Comments
Zoe Zolbrod introduced the panel that included herself and four other memoirists (Jillian Lauren, Ben Tanzer, Claire Dederer, Kerry Cohen) who have written about their children. Zolbrod spoke of balancing the writer’s necessity of following a story no matter where it may lead, with responsibilities to our children. She suggested several tactics: setting up rules, taking personal responsibility for what we write, and understanding that there will be consequences for people in (and outside of) our lives.
The usefulness of self-defined boundaries was summed up by Claire Dederer, who said that grappling with undefined parameters will slow you down; creating rules that reflect your values and comfort level will give you “the freedom to write.” And then – write. “There’s always revision.”
Ben Tanzer stated that writing about his family is a selfish act. He’s had to consider, “What does it mean to be the most selfish person in the house?” One way he addresses this is to be intentional about why he’s telling a story – is he sharing the shit just to share the shit? “You have to ask, ‘What’s the point?’” Answering his own question, Tanzer said, “I want to write a love letter.”
Early in the session, Tanzer demonstrated this when he talked about how his first son, at 23 days old, began crying for 15-20 hours a day. This went on for nine weeks. He described in blunt terms the nightmarish situation he and his wife were in: sleep-deprived, terrified that one of their apartment building neighbors would call the police, and at each other’s throats. His thoughts were violent and despairing. And then their shut-in neighbor left a bag at their door. The bag contained a teddy bear, a container of soup, and a note addressed to their infant son that read, “I’ve heard you’re having a hard time, but it will get better.”
Telling the story in this way makes both parts of it meaningful. It’s not just a guy talking about how much he hated his family for a few months; and it’s not just a sympathetic neighbor. It’s the agony of parenting – and then the solace.
Many of the panelists said though people focus on their children, these stories are chronicles of their parenting experience. Kerry Cohen said of her memoir on raising her autistic son, “The book isn’t really about Ezra; it was really about me.”
Jillian Lauren commented that people who say things like, “Children should have no digital presence!” probably don’t feel called to write about their children; but some writers do feel called to write about their children. As advocates, or to connect and learn with other parents, or even – as Dederer emphasized midway through the session – to create an incredible work of art. (Dederer noted that women are often expected to put aside their works of creation out of concern for others’ feelings.)
Questions from the audience centered on what will the PTA moms, neighbors, or grandparents think, and will the children suffer? Kerry Cohen quoted Joan Didion: “I’m not afraid to be hated. I’m not afraid to be loved.” Cohen also said she didn’t have rules about what she will or won’t write in a memoir. “I write about the things I wished I’d had to read [when I was going through these things].”
Jillian Lauren said it’s a gift to have ones dirty laundry aired … “My parents’ generation lived with secrets, secrets, secrets – and I don’t think it served them.”
The panel agreed that despite all the judgments from strangers, and anxiety about what everyone will think, it’s probably going to be all right. You can never tell what someone’s response will be to your work, and you probably can’t help but write it anyway.
Dederer said there are two ways to offset the selfishness of a memoir, “The first is to make it really, really good; and the second is to be really honest.”
Hafidha Acuay is a Seattle-based poet and non-fiction writer.