What Does Your Mother Think of Your Writing? Does It Matter?


By

A Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie

Today’s post features an item excerpted from A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement (New World Library, 2012) by Barbara Abercrombie. Barbara has published 14 books and numerous essays and articles, and has taught creative writing courses for almost three decades. She lives in Santa Monica, California. Find out more at her website.


When I have guest speakers in my class who have written memoirs, one of the first things my students ask is, “What did your mother say when she read it?”

But what about mothers writing about their children? My kids have some pretty amazing material, but that’s one privacy line I won’t cross in my writing. I’ll write about them—the funny stuff—but I won’t steal the heavy moments in their lives.

Though just recently, as I was discussing this with a daughter, she said in a dark tone, “Remember writing about the Snickers bars under Gillan’s bed?” I asked her what on earth she was talking about. “You wrote a poem about her messy bedroom,” she said, “and then read it to her class.”

The thing about being a writer is that you just learn to live with your guilt.

I never once encountered a student who didn’t worry, at some level, that a friend or family member was going to be violated, punished or crucified in a piece of writing. (Mothers take an exceptionally heavy rap with younger students.) … And it often afflicted young writers with classic writer’s block before they’d written so much as a single word.

—Carol Shields


From Jane: I’ll never forget the following Twitter status update from Anne Lamott:

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.

What do you think about this issue? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. And read more from A Year of Writing Dangerously over at Amazon.

 

  • WendyPaineMiller

    Can’t wait to get this book!
    In regards to this topic I believe this is reason #106 why I write fiction. Able to sneak in all kinds of goodies. ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/ficwriter Darrelyn Saloom

    In her youth, my mother was wild and straightforward and is one of my favorite subjects. She reads everything I write about her and has no problem with the truth as long as it comes from a place of love. And it does. She’s my best friend and toughest critic. Her feedback is valuable to me because she is an insatiable reader and has no problem telling me when I’ve veered off track.

  • Sam

    She reads most of the stuff I write, some of it she enjoys, some of it she says it’s “too dark” or depressing. She says dialogue is my forte, though.

  • Khara House

    My mother loved my writing, but she could always tell when I was “secretly” writing about her. Honestly, I usually either edited out “familiar moments” within my writing before showing it to family or just didn’t show it to my parents. I still create “clean versions” of my fiction to share with many people I know. I’ve always been encouraged, particularly by my parents, that writers have a responsibility to be honest in their work, even if it’s not clean or pretty … but I’ve also always known this to be a fractional truth, that there were and are some things my parents couldn’t, or wouldn’t want to, know, and I’ve worked hard (perhaps harder than I should) to keep it from them.

  • lmmckay

    My mother adored my novel. Five years after it came out she’s still trying to sell it to everyone she meets. My recently released memoir, Love At The Speed Of Email, she’s a bit more dubious about. Possibly because I poked fun at her throughout.

    Mum sighed over the long-distance line.

    “I knew you should have done organizational
    psychology,” she said.

    “Mum,”
    I said. “Organizational psychology is boring.”

    “It’s not
    boring,” she said in a familiar refrain. “It’s what I would have done if I’d
    studied psychology.”

    “And you would have been very good at it,” I
    said, “seeing as how you’re naturally equipped for the post of benevolent
    dictator of a small country. But I am not you, and I think it’s boring.”

    “You think everything not extreme, dark, or
    dangerous is boring,” my mother replied calmly. “I don’t understand where you got that from. Certainly not
    from your father or me.”

    “I could
    just get a job in Australia,” I
    said, playing my trump card. “Probably the only ones left in my field now are
    back in maximum security or in the sex offenders unit. Or maybe I can stay with
    the police.”

    All jokes aside – it does matter what my parents think. I let them see my memoir before it went to print and asked for their thoughts and concerns. I didn’t give them veto rights, but I didn’t want them to be surprised, either. I did the same thing with every other major character.

  • James Finn Garner

    My mother doesn’t really understand a thing I write, but she is incredibly proud of it. People often ask me where I got my sense of humor from, suspecting it’s the Irish side, but I have to say, “Definitely not my mother.”

  • http://twitter.com/ChilledScribble ChilledScribbler

    This is an area I’m thinking about a lot at the moment ~ I’m writing a fiction novel based on some facts from my life and I just know my mother will have an opinion on it which will be negative. It’s not my intention to distress or disturb her, far from it, but there’s no doubt an element in my story-telling which will affect her which, in turn, is starting to really affect the way I am telling the story: I can either write it the way it needs to be written for her, or for me ~ there’s no compromise between the two. This post, along with the quote above from Anne Lamott, has come at just the right time to help me tackle the hurdle this ‘mother-issue’ is creating for me. Thank you

  • MB Abroad

    My mom loves everything I write and is convinced that it is only a matter of time before I am a publishing sensation. Do writers on book tours have groupies? Because that will be happening…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.hamlett.7 Jim Hamlett

    Will the revelation of someone else’s secret (or fact known only to you and a few others) cause unnecessary harm? Each author has to answer that question when writing about others, and be willing to deal with the consequences. Truman Capote took a few liberties that cost him some friends.

  • http://twitter.com/AvaZavaleta Ava Zavaleta

    I constantly worry about this as well. I come from a big extended family that is pretty close-knit. Out of everyone in the family, I’m the only one with a passion for reading and writing. Everyone in my family knows I write but have never asked to read my work and I don’t think I’d share it with them even if they did. I’m definitely inspired by some of the crazy antics and drama my family creates but I always tend to distance my writing from those emotions and secrets. I did consider writing a fictional story based on my life, but was afraid it would garner too many hurt feelings.

  • http://twitter.com/dzmalone Dave Malone

    Sounds like a fabulous book!
    I love hearing about supportive mothers here. :) My mother, unfortunately, is not very–and my father even less so. When the local barber said in front of them, “Your son is a talented writer,” my father looked like he had indigestion.
    For my mother, it likely has less to do with any jabs at our family and more to do with the content that like @Sam’s is sometimes dark. Or is sacrilegious or sexual. I can’t recall who said it; Erica Jong, Margaret Atwood? but the sentiment was: When I wrote blatantly about friends and family and they knew it, their behavior improved. :) Part of my writing journey is to survive well the two hours when my folks attend one of my plays.

  • @leighgiza

    My mom is very supportive of my writing. I recently self-published a book of haiku/[photography and she speaks pridefully of it even though I know it’s not really her cup of tea. I have yet to show my dad the book. He just wouldn’t get it.

  • http://twitter.com/dzmalone Dave Malone

    Hi Ava,
    I think you really have to follow your instincts, which it sounds like you’re doing well. If your family has a genuine loving interest in your writing, then I’d be tempted to share. And of course, the less combative the material, the easier it will be to start doing that.
    For what it’s worth…I have a novel in the drawer (20 years now), which I’ve been reticent to complete because of the hurt it might cause my family. But. Like I said in my comment, I believe there comes a time when it can be okay to do that–and the persons mentioned can grow from it. I long took the advice of Jack Driscoll, a writer I met when I was in undergrad, who said he shared none of his writing with his parents. I remember being very shocked by this. Then, I understood and did the same for about 20 years. But ultimately, I love my parents dearly and want to share my writing with them, which I’ve been doing with my plays and some poetry–and if they can’t handle it, tough. (Which apparently is the case!). But I’m okay with that. Don’t know if that helps. :)

  • Melissa

    Im very fortunate to have a mother that not only enjoys my writing, but attends writer’s meetings with me, helps me with plots, reads and criticizes my writing etc. I will admit that I curb some of the more “graphically romantic” stuff because of her. My mantra is “If its too embarassing/dirty for mom to read it….than its not right for me”. Im 36 years old by the way lol

  • Rebecca Burke

    Abercrombie’s book is wonderful. I borrowed it from the library and intend to buy it as well. Intelligent, expansive, full of great stories and advice, and stands out from most books on writing, which can be pretty hoaky and same-y.

    IMHO, Lamott’s advice is glib and potentially harmful. It reminds me of the advice therapists gave to their patients in the 80s and 90s (maybe now as well–who knows), e.g., to “divorce” their problem parents. How many families were trashed when grown children enthusiastically seized this advice to take the easy route and just get a “divorce”? The one handing out the advice never had to deal with the consequences, that’s for sure.

    Lamott’s material is about 90% from her family, so of course she’s going to say this. And she’s got the writing chops to be funny and wise. Many writers do not.

    The smart thing to do is judge each situation in context and–since you’re dealing with LOVED ones–handle their feelings with care.

    But I’m Irish. Loyalty, betrayal…these are big themes with us, heh. I think we’re okay with family stories if you can play them for a laugh but not risk anything more important, like a loved one’s feelings or trust. I don’t trust writers who will divulge anything about their families if it means they get another five minutes’ attention.

  • http://twitter.com/DeeDeTarsio Dee DeTarsio

    My mom gushes, as mom’s should, then worries about the ‘language,’ as mom’s do . . . (On the flip side, I could probably include my own kids’ cell phone and SS numbers for all the notice they take of what I write.)

  • http://twitter.com/DeeDeTarsio Dee DeTarsio

    Hola, Dave! You need to dig that novel out! In my (totally unscientific) poll, 99% of readers do NOT recognize themselves!

  • http://www.facebook.com/meganefitzpatrick Megan Fitzpatrick

    I don’t write about emotionally fraught issues…or anything personal. So while my mother has no complaints on that front, she finds my work irreverent and lacking in gravitas. Success!

  • John Wiswell

    Haha, if I’d ever written about my siblings I certainly wouldn’t have let my mother know about it. I actually have very little writing relationship with her today, though. She’s incredibly supportive, the first to offer to pick me up from the train after a convention or send me a new printer cartridge. She has no interest in reading my Fantasy, though, or even my articles. She does get very excited whenever I sign a deal, though.

  • http://twitter.com/dzmalone Dave Malone

    Aloha, Dee. Hm. If I do some digging, I may have to change my protagonist’s name whose initials are NOT my own. :)

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    Agree with you 100% on Lamott’s advice.

  • Roberta C

    Neither my mother nor my family have any interest in my writing. My mother wishes I would grow up and get a real job. She never reads anything I write. However, my aunt was my biggest cheerleader and I miss her every day. She passed away a little over a year ago. Currenlty, I am working on a horror novel that is set in a fictious town modeled after the town where I grew up. I don’t have any fear of my family recognizing themselves in the book because I know they won’t read it. Certain plot elements are loosely based on real incidents that happened in my life. I am taking great delight at skewering my hometown

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.b.keck Lisa Burkholder Keck

    I know my mom was proud of my ability and the one publishing accomplishment I had before she passed away but I never knew what she thought of my memoir. She was totally blind so I had it transcribed into braille for her but we never talked about it. (This was a few years and edits before publication) I was surprised not to be able to find it in her home after she passed away in 2008, but she had a thing about not living in or talking about the past. It was self-published earlier this year and my first novel, loosely based on her life, is in the process of being published with Westbow now after winning a contest.

  • Becky Doughty

    Jane,

    Or there’s the line from Geoffrey Chaucer in the 2001 A Knight’s Tale: “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.”

    This is the beauty of writing fiction – Change a name and location and relation = evisceration. YES!

    NEVER in real life. I’m not that kind of girl. I actually have the shirt that says, “Be careful. I may put you in my book.”

    Fun post. Thank you both, Jane and Barbara.

  • http://twitter.com/cleverdarling Clever Darling

    My mom used to drop paperbacks in front of me, two at a time, and say, “Book reports.” Throughout two years of creative writing classes in HS, she never read a word. My first novel (in progress) is about two psychopaths…

  • http://twitter.com/Nadine_Feldman Nadine Feldman

    I’m very cautious about what I write about family members or friends. After all, there’s my perspective, their perspective, and the truth, which lies somewhere in between. I think that the people in my life have a right to privacy, as do I. In fiction, though, I am free to take whatever interests, annoys, or upsets me, and give it to a character. It’s fun to do that, and I think it challenges me more creatively.

  • Carole Avila

    I have 3 older sisters and
    two older brothers. If you ask each of us about our childhoods, it’s as if we
    grew up in different homes.

    The first thirteen years
    of my dysfunctional life I suffered through the worst kind of sexual abuse by
    an older brother, and my mother knew, but to acknowledge my abuse she would
    have to acknowledge hers. My mother won’t read what I’ve written, award winning
    memoirs and poetry, because it’s too painful for her to revisit, yet she has no
    idea how the past makes me feel.

    Like many abuse survivors,
    I’ve made lemonade from an immense orchard of lemon trees. I’ve served as a
    life coach for over 30 years to sexually abused people and I’m working with a
    publisher on my first non-fiction book, The
    Long Term Effects of Sexual Abuse.

    I have no problem sharing
    my past, naming names, even though several family members have asked me not to
    publish anything about the abuse. All 6 of us children were sexually abused,
    including both my parents. How else do we end the cycle? Speaking up lessens
    the power of the effects of abuse.

    I know that my children
    who are writers will post my mistakes and shortcomings out in the universe one
    day and that’s okay. I am willing to be accountable for my actions, for my mistakes
    as well as my triumphs. Perhaps someone will be able to learn from them.

    Today is my 54th
    birthday and I’m celebrating it by honoring my Self and that includes my
    integrity. God bless Anne Lamont who gave me permission to write “shitty first
    drafts” and to tell my truth, even if it doesn’t match the truth of other
    family members.

  • Pingback: Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 6, 2012 « cochisewriters

  • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

    My grandmother wants to read my novel once it gets published in the future. Not sure if I should discourage her or hope she’s okay with the end result.

  • http://twitter.com/LaraBrittWrites Lori Sailiata

    Precisely what I’ve been wrestling with this past month. I’m edging up to the edgier stuff. If you asked me to give a description of my childhood at thirteen different times in my life, the narrative would be different due to what in the past was relevant to my present. I strive to reach for a positive outcome and am quite dismayed when an old wound persistently resurfaces. This is especially true as my body ages and the physical pain of past trauma mocks the emotional work I thought was history.

  • Cherry Odelberg

    I am not alone! Now, what is to be done about it? One’s mother inevitably is a big part of memoir or autobiography.

  • Pingback: This Week’s Top Ten Poetic Picks | TweetSpeak Poetry

  • an old lady

    I wrote a book about my life, which was, after all, all about my mother; and lucky as I am, it was rejected by everyone.
    I cannot explain my gratitude for this kindness. I would have been mortified today if I had been published.
    I’m still glad I got it all out of my system.
    I used to like the quote from Anne Lamott, however, having lived this long, I do realise that everyone does the best they can with what they have at the time.
    Mommies certainly do, at least those I know. My poor old Mommy died of that awful thief of memories; to her dying moment she looked at me, every few minutes, as if I had just arrived, and said, “I love you. Thank you for coming.” She did the best she could with what she had. I didn’t.
    I wish now that I had been kinder, more caring, more there, more understanding, more forgiving, more loving. Instead I was an angry teenager and it lasted till I was a middle ager.
    Now I am an old ager and I see more clearly that I sacrificed the many opportunities I had to love my mother, in my youth, middle age and later, when I “woke up.” My mommy had gone into that other place that did not afford me the opportunity to beg her forgiveness.
    Perhaps this comment may be useful to someone young and angry with their mommy. As a mommy I can think of nothing more painful than being judged by one’s children.
    I intended to commit that sin, but I was incredibly lucky. Rejection can be a sweet gift.

  • EvelynKrieger

    Great topic. I just wrote a related blog post after my personal essay was published online. Love that Twitter status from Anne Lammot! ( She also said: “We write to expose the unexposed.” Here’s the link to my post: http://wp.me/p1g33i-4f

  • EvelynKrieger

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Christine

    Jane, I’m so happy to see Barbara Abercrombie’s book featured on your blog. I have followed her http://writingtime.typepad.com Write Your Story Into Life blog for many years and have found her a very giving writer with her feelings, time and opinions. I also love that you included the quote from Carol Shields. I”m partial to Canadian writers and she was brilliant. I loved everyone one of her books but I’ll never forget her book ‘Unless’ about her daughter.

  • http://twitter.com/wendybythesea Wendy Russ

    Is this ever a topic close to my heart. My book has just come out and my mother is, frankly, horrified by it. Not because it’s about HER, but it’s general language and content are far more liberal and “out there” than she is comfortable with. And, strangely, I’m getting more comments about that than I anticipated. Apparently without realizing I have cultivated a “good girl” persona and now that my book is out people are feeling shocked as if suddenly I’m not the person they thought I was.

    And the book isn’t that shocking! I just live in a very conservative community.

    So, my point is it’s not always about WHO you write about but what your characters do or how they speak. That can generate enough hubbub without getting anywhere near dancing around actually writing about your family.

  • http://twitter.com/wendybythesea Wendy Russ

    This is a wonderful comment.

  • http://twitter.com/wendybythesea Wendy Russ

    Becky, love that quote. :)