Monday, December 22, 2008

Parents and Children

BoysMom poses an interesting question:
Do I have to wait until my parents can't read anymore to try to get published using stuff like that, or is it okay to not tell them I got something published? It seems kind of dishonest, but if they ever recognized anything as being related to them it'll make all the previous fights look like nothing, and if they know it exists they'll search it out.

How do people handle that? I can so see it getting me disowned, which would really break the boys' hearts.
You've asked one of those great questions for which there is no easy and obvious answer. Your parents love you; they want to be proud of your writing. (Although that bit about their disowning you and cutting off contact with their grandsons is a little creepy. Do they threaten this sort of thing often, or is this merely a rhetorical flourish on your part?)

There is a belief commonly held by writers with few friends and pathological family relations that they answer to some higher calling and have an absolute commitment to write naught but The Truth, however they happen to be perceiving it today and no matter whose toes get stomped on in the process. I'm generally of the opinion that any writer who sticks to this ideal with absolutely no regard for the feelings of his or her family members and friends is suffering from a surfeit of hubris, at least. It really isn't that hard to disguise the source of your ideas and dialog, and in fact, sometimes it's kind of fun, to write someone you know into a story and yet so disguise them that they never recognize themselves. Better yet, as a writer, using someone you know as a template for a character can force you to stretch, to try to develop some sympathy for or at least some understanding of a person who could hold such a contrary opinion that you're eager to use your writing to shoot it full of holes.

Still, there is some kind of threshold of adulthood implicit in this question. It's sort of like the first time you tell a dirty joke in a parent's presence. Eventually you're going to have to work up the nerve to say something your mother might find offensive, or else resign yourself to always having that tiny image of your mother perched on your shoulder, second-guessing and criticizing every word you write.

The good news is, in purely practical terms, your parents will be terribly proud of the first thing you publish, and buy six copies to show all their friends. Same with the second thing. Somewhere between the third and sixth thing you publish, though, they'll start to get a little jaded, and they'll buy a copy, but they won't read it. And then, if you keep at it, somewhere along about the sixth to twelfth thing you publish...

The bad news is, sooner or later, your children will express a desire to read something you've written, and then you're really in trouble. For my money the embarrassment of having a parent read a questionable story is nowhere near as terrifying and writer's block-inducing as having one of your children read one of those old stories that you wrote back when you were young and full of yourself — say, one of those near-porn pieces you had published in Easyriders back in the 1980s.

I deal with this one every day. One of my daughters subscribes to this blog; another reads it on a fairly regular basis. Because I know that they do this, there are topics I will never broach here and stories I will never tell, no matter how germane. And rather than explain further, I will take this opportunity to redirect your attention to this post from last summer, which discusses the pathological relationship between mother and daughter writers Alice and Rebecca Walker.

That's the worst part of having a heedless devotion to The Painful Truth. Someday, one of your children might feel it's only fair to write The Painful Truth about you.