AWP 2014: The Intersection of Art, Advocacy, and Ethics in Writing About Your Kids

March 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

awp manAn AWP panel report from Hafidha Acuay:

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.

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

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