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Saturday, February 7, 2009

gearing up

AWP is only five days away, and I’ve been thinking of little else. It’s not just the writing conference that’s on my mind, of course. I’ve been thinking about getting on a plane alone, without anyone I need to hold or rock or calm. I’ve been thinking about sleeping through the night and having three glasses of wine if I feel like it. And of course I’ve also been worrying about leaving my girls for three nights. Stella will be fine—I’ve been away from her for that long before—but I haven’t been away from Zoë for more than a few hours at once since she was born. I realize it’s time—she is eleven months old after all. But she still breastfeeds and still wakes up several times a night to nurse, and that’s the part that makes me nervous. Ideally, when I return, she will be weaned from night feedings and be sleeping through the night. (Is that too much to hope for?) But I’m worried that in the process, she will feel abandoned, and when I return, she’ll give me the baby cold shoulder. I can see her doing that.

I am excited for the actual conference and for our panel, “Parents as Writers: Our Children as Subjects,” which will be moderated by Jill Christman, whom I adore. (I’ve posted about her essay “The Allergy Diaries” here.) The panel is studded with mama writer stars: Shari MacDonald Strong, editor of The Maternal is Political and frequent columnist for Literary Mama and mamazine; Sonya Huber, author of Opa Nobody and frequent contributor to Literary Mama; and Jennifer Niesslein, co-founder of Brain, Child and author of the memoir Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help and Back. I'll be sitting next to those ladies. How exciting is that? And we’ll be discussing what happens when we turn our writer’s gaze on our children: How does the writing change when we are responsible for more than our art? When parents write about children, how are the ethical considerations different than when it’s the other way around? When do our children’s stories become theirs to tell, not ours?

I’ve been preparing and thinking about this for a few weeks now, and I’ve come across some interesting articles that deal with the topic. I especially like Emily Bazelon’s article “Is This Tantrum on the Record?” which was published in Slate last June. Bazelon challenges writers (and particularly bloggers) to consider whether there are (or should be) ground rules when you write about your children. She says, “When I write about my kids, I’m not only thinking as their mothers. I’m also thinking as a professional writer. Those two identities don’t always align—they just don’t. I like to think that when there’s tension, I err on the side of protecting my kids’ interests, steering clear of any material that’s too embarrassing or private.” But Bazelon admits that she doesn’t trust herself to always do this, so her husband vets all of her writing about their kids.

I’m careful when I write about my kids, especially when I write about them on this blog. I do it infrequently. Partly, this is because the blog isn’t really about my kids; it’s about motherhood and reading and writing and teaching. It’s about how and where these things intersect, how they work together and sometimes against each other. And partly it is because in the face of the confessional, tell-all nature of blogging, I want to be especially careful. I post the occasional anecdote about Stella, list something funny or adorable that she said. But in the back of my mind, there is always a flashing red light reminding me of the potential Googling power of a gaggle of 12-year-olds. At some point, she may want to read what I write about her, and I don’t want her to feel exposed or betrayed when she does.

I feel a little freer when I’m writing for a print publication, when I’m working on an essay or my memoir. It’s true that pieces of this writing could end up online and easily accessed, as well, but still, it feels different, safer. But maybe I’m just fooling myself.

I’d be very interested to hear about your ground rules…are there things you will or will not write about your children? Is there an age at which you think you will (or should) stop writing about them, at least online? How do we balance our need to express ourselves through writing with our children’s right to privacy?

Anyone out there going to AWP? I’d love to meet some of my virtual friends in person! And if you are there, please join our discussion on Thursday morning!


Elizabeth said...

I think there are common and basic boundaries where writing and our children are concerned. But I think that's true if we're writing about ourselves, as well. There's a difference between a tell-all confessional that is narcissistic and un-self-aware, and a revealing honest portrayal of oneself. I think if you're a good reader, you know the difference. As far as "betraying" one's children or writing something that might be embarrassing to them one day -- well, beyond the obvious, I think it's subjective. If my mother or father were a writer, I would love to read, now, what they might have written about me as a child. Who was I? What was I like? Etc. Again, it's subjective. A good writer, aware of the power, will hopefully not write to exploit his/her children. I guess that there's a danger to all "nonfiction" writing, whether it's journalism, memoir or blogging. I personally dislike blatant revelations and am a bit prudish as well. But I will also laugh with everyone if something posted is really, really profane and funny, even when risks exploiting a child's privacy. It's an interesting question to debate. I'm interested to hear about your experience at the conference.

ann marie said...

I never intended to write about my kids at all. When I started my blog it was just a record of funny memories from my past. Eventually the kids crept in. I usually say very little about my ten and twelve year old, but my eight and two year old seem to make in quite a bit. Some things I feel bad about, like when I was extremely frustrated at my 2 year old's tantrums and wrote about it. But it was a moment in a day and it was said and now, only two months after I wrote it, it seems like she was never going through that phase. My son is too funny to not include, but I suspect I will feel differently in a few years. For whatever reason, the tween and teen years do not lend themselves to being so free with your kids. I try to keep it funny and not embarrassing. I also only include things if I think that in any way, another parent's fears, anxiety, concern, would be helped a little by knowing someone else is going through the same thing. I have shown my 12 year old daughter things I have written about her and she always smiles. I try not to write too much about them though. It can get dicey. But in the end, 99 percent of the people who read my blog are friends who end up hearing everything I write about anyway. Good questions that you raise.

Anonymous said...

have a wonderful time at AWP!! how exciting!

thank you for all those links. this topic is especially pertinent right now as i'm writing a memoir of raising my son. so, it is about him. but it's really about me. about my own thoughts feeling struggles joys worries shortcomings. and it's about him. but it's really about aspergers and the way we all respond to differences, how much room there is to embrace a struggle in all its wonderful complications.

Anonymous said...

Not only is my blog partially centered around my second child's medical issues but I have just signed with a literary agent to try to publish a memoir that I wrote about being his mother when he was a sick little baby. I have turned issues of privacy over in my mind many times. I think that if you are telling for a PURPOSE i.e. to help others understand that they are not alone in their feelings about parenting - then it is a worthy telling. And if and when I get the publishing deal I plan to write him a letter that he can open later life, explaining why I did it.

Leightongirl said...

I was so happy to see your name on that panel, and can't think of anyone better to address these topics. Have a great trip, and enjoy being away. You've earned it!

kate hopper said...

Thanks so much for weighing in on this topic. I really appreciate your thoughtful responses. I do think it's totally subjective. I may be comfortable writing about something with which the next person is not comfortable.

I think you're right, Elizabeth, about needing to decide what our boundaries are even when we are writing about ourselves. And a very interesting point about the purpose of your writing, Susan. I totally agree.

Anonymous said...

Growing up, we didn't have a video camera. We did have a regular camera, which came out for birthdays, trips and other special occasions. Whenever we got a roll of film developed, the photos were culled and the "good" ones put into an album. It's fun to look at them, but I really have no idea what daily life was like, especially when I was as young as my daughter is now. By contrast, in my house today if the 1-year-old does something funny, the 4-year-old will grab my cell phone and take a picture. For better or worse, everything gets documented today in a way that wasn't even possible thirty years ago. I think our kids will define privacy differently as a result. (Look at highschoolers on facebook.) When I blog, I am interested in exploring the "real" experience of being a parent, not the scrapbooked version -- I tell stories that might be embarrassing to my kids but mostly mock my own ineptitude. I have some boundaries with what I discuss, but it is important to me to be honest, too. And while I fully expect my teenage kids to be humiliated by everything I do, online and off, I also hope that one day they will appreciate this window into what they were like as young children, what I thought about as their mother, and what our life was like.