19 May 2013

Thoughts on Parenting a Writer

(From a talk I gave to parents of young writers at the Illinois Young Authors' Conference this weekend.)

Good morning. I am honored to be here with you, and thrilled to be a part of this wonderful celebration of your children.

I’ve been asked to speak to you today about how to be a parent to a writer. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job. The only parenting I do is for my dog, a retired racing greyhound, and though she’s been talking about writing her memoir for years, she’s pretty lazy, and spends most of her time sleeping. So far, there’s no evidence to suggest she’s written a single word. On the other hand, she is still alive after four years with me, so I guess I have that going for me in the parenting category.

I am a writer though, so while I’m not sure I can dole out too much parenting advice with any real authority, what I can do is share a little about what it means to be a writer, and give you some insight into the writer’s mind, and what the journey and process of writing often looks like, and offer some suggestions on ways you can support the writer in your house.

I’ve also been teaching writing for about fifteen years, and in that time, I’ve worked with a lot of writers, at all stages of their journeys – from elementary and middle school students first discovering the fun of inventing stories, to high school students attempting first novels, to adult writers with manuscripts under contract to be published.

I’ve also met a lot of parents of writers, and unfortunately, not all of them would have come today. So let’s begin with that: you’re here. You’re already doing a great job. Trust me, even if your kid was rolling her eyes at you on the way here this morning, the fact that you showed up counts for a lot, and she won’t forget it.

Now, before we get into what it means to be a writer and what you can do to support the budding writer that lives in your house, let me get something out of the way right off the bat: it is possible to make money as a writer. Not a lot of money, maybe, but at least half of my friends are writers, and none of us is homeless. Most of us even have health insurance.

I mention this because it’s often the first thing I hear from parents – including, at times, my own. As an adult, I understand that it comes a place of love, and maybe a little bit of fear, too. Of course you want what’s best for your children, and part of that includes security, comfort, a roof over their heads, food on the table, adequate health care… and, you know, it would be great if they’re not still living in your basement twenty years from now.

But when I was growing up, the question of writing and money caused me a great deal of anxiety. Claiming the word “writer” for myself took an enormous amount of courage. I spent my teen years scribbling in notebooks, composing stories and poems and essays, capturing the details of my daily life. Writing. I wrote constantly. I never went anywhere without my notebook and a pen. And yet, I never wanted to call myself a writer – that word seemed too big, too real, too distant. I imagined a day in the future, long after college, maybe, when I’d live in a big city and sit in a cafĂ© and write… have my own apartment with a little desk and a lot of books… work as a waitress or a barista or some other romantically artistic job… and then – then! – maybe I could call myself a writer. I had this vague, romantic idea about what it might mean to be a writer. I didn’t know much else, but at the time, that vague idea was scary enough. Did I really have what it might take to be a writer? Could I really grow up to live the writer’s life? No matter that I was already doing it: I was writing all the time.

I was already a writer.

It took me years to figure that out, though, because there was so much mystery and romance bound up in my idea of being a writer. It was mostly Hemingway and Fitzgerald, sitting at cafes in Paris, with a little bit of Kerouac road tripping and maybe a dash of Mary Oliver out looking at the birds. I don’t know, and I didn’t really know then. All I knew was that I wanted it. I wanted to be a writer. 

But every time I shared this dream with an adult, they would inevitably say something like, “Good luck making money!” or “What’s your day job going to be?”

Look, I get it. We Midwesterners are a pragmatic lot. We come from generations of laborers and factory workers and farmers. We know that life can be tough, and we know that it requires hard work. But when the little fledglings of dreams smash into those hard walls of pragmatism, it can be hard to recover their wings. Sometimes, you just want to stay on the ground.  

After I graduated from college with my degrees in English literature and education, I moved to New Mexico, and for the first time in my life, when I told people that I wanted to be a writer, they didn’t ask about a day job. In New Mexico, if you say, “I want to be a writer,” the person you’re talking to will likely answer with, “Cool! I want to open a charter school for transcendental leadership,” or “Cool! I’m building a house on the mesa using recycled beer cans and old tires.” It’s a weird place. But in that permissiveness, I found the freedom and safety to finally, finally claim the word writer for myself. In New Mexico, I lived in a little house in the mountains and wrote the first draft of the book that grew up to become The Princesses of Iowa, my debut young adult novel.

The flip side of all that permissiveness is that no one ever gets anything done. So after four years there, I found myself longing for the Midwestern protestant work ethic and ambition, and moved to Chicago…. where people started asking me about my day job again.   

The problem with the day job question, though, is that – in addition to reinforcing this idea that that you can’t make money as a writer – it equates success with making money. It seems to suggest that you’ll only be a real writer if you make money from writing, and since you probably won’t make money writing, you’ll never be a real writer. It makes the idea of being a writer feel even more impossible and out of reach.

It also seems to draw a very narrow definition of what being a writer means, and what making money as a writer means. Because yes, it is true that it is difficult to make money writing poetry, or even writing novels. That probably won’t change in the future. But some people do make money writing poetry or novels, and lots of other people make money writing TV shows or movies or magazine articles, and many, many more people make quite a bit of money writing copy for corporate websites and blog entries for businesses and running social media campaigns. One of my friends is even a freelance dictionary editor. There are, in fact, tons of ways to make money as a writer. And some of us are teachers, and librarians, and editors, and booksellers. Some of us have totally unrelated day jobs and use those jobs to feed our work, like John Grisham writing about lawyers, or William Carlos Williams writing poems on his prescription pad.  

One of our primary tasks as adults is to seek, constantly, a healthy balance between that which brings us joy and that which keeps us safe, alive, productive members of society, etc. If we’re lucky, we find meaningful work that brings us joy and also pays enough to keep us and our kids clothed and fed. But we all strike our own bargains with life. Some of us work jobs we don’t care for, but which allow us to spend our free time doing what we really love. Some of us choose to live with less in order to spend more time focusing on what really matters to us. We all struggle with this, not just writers.

At the writing school where I teach, we offer some classes and camps for teens, but most of our creative writing classes are for adults. Surprisingly, one of our biggest years was 2009, right after the market crashed. Our classrooms were flooded with newly unemployed people from the financial industry, many former English majors who had decided to take high-paying jobs in “sensible” industries like banking. Soooo when that didn’t work, they came to take writing classes, to become freelance writers, to finally begin their novels, to do what they really loved.

How many jobs can we list as “sensible” or “secure” in the modern economy anyway? The job security that our parents and grandparents had, where you could spend your entire adult life working for a company and they would give you a gold watch when you retired, where loyalty to a company mattered and was rewarded, where you were guaranteed security and a pension – if those jobs exist now, they’re hard to find, and I suspect they’ll be even harder to find in the future. Your children will face a job market that’s ever-changing, constantly evolving, with organizations that have little reason to reward loyalty or offer security. Perhaps the great jobs of the future don’t even exist yet; fifteen years ago, no one could have predicted that “professional blogger” would be a job.

I’m sure that when you think about your creative, interesting, strange, hilarious child, you would rather see her grow up to live her life in a creative, interesting, strange, and hilarious way, and not allow all that amazing creativity go to waste in some high-paying but unfulfilling job. Or, if she must work a high-paying but unfulfilling job, we hope that it’s only part time so she can spend the rest of her energy on her one-woman traveling puppet-show soap opera. As long as she’s happy.

And anyway, your job as a parent isn’t to be the bringer of harsh reality – your kid will get that enough from the rest of the world. Everyone else in the world will happily line up to tell your kid that she’s not good enough, not talented enough, that she’ll never make money, that the economy is terrible and no one’s hiring and she’ll never get her dream job and she’ll have to work at Wal-Mart for the rest of her life and die alone, surrounded by cats. I promise you, there’s no way your kid is going to grow up not realizing that our society requires you to find some way of earning money, no matter how oblivious to this truth she may seem now. She’ll figure it out.

Your job is to be the cheerleader, the encourager, the unflagging belief in her strength and talent and intelligence. When she tells you she wants to be a writer – or a pilot, or a marine biologist, or the person who dresses up like Goofy at Disney World – your job is to say, “Cool! I wonder what steps you might take to get closer to that dream?”

The thing about writing is that – to writers –  it feels just as necessary as those other life essentials. Just like exercise or eating well – when I’m not writing, I feel sluggish and unhappy, and I’m really impossible to be around. Many days I don’t want to write at all, but I force myself to, because I know that I’ll feel better afterward. This, I’m told, is how many people feel about going to the gym. Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.” I would add that writing is the only thing that makes a day feel like it didn’t go to waste. I could have the most productive day in the world – I ran all my errands, paid all my bills, attacked some household project, called my grandmother, washed the dog – but if I didn’t write, it feels like I somehow let the day slip away. On the other hand, if I get up in the morning and get even a good half hour of work done, I can spend the rest of the day eating ice cream in my pajamas and feel like a success.

Which is why the binary of “be a writer OR make money” doesn’t really make sense, anyway. If someone tells us that they’re training for a marathon, we don’t automatically ask, “What’s your day job?” or “Does that come with dental?” Of course we don’t. We understand that people train for marathons for all kinds of reasons: to get healthier, to prove something to themselves, to get the endorphin high, to push their own limits. And honestly, there are probably lots of people that do it just because it seems like a good idea, or because it makes sense to them, or because a day when they got outside and ran five miles feels better than a day when they didn’t.

Writing is the same. For most of us, writing doesn’t feel like a choice, exactly. It’s something we’re compelled to do, something we do because we know that certain stories will haunt us until we put them on the page, something we do because the best days are the ones that involve at least some time at the laptop or notebook, fiddling with the work in progress or polishing up a draft.

What matters, then, is the process of writing. The product – the story, the novel, the poem, the essay – that’s secondary. Whether or not a draft is “good” or working is almost beside the point. One of the annoying truths of writing is that your first draft is almost certainly going to suck, and you just have to learn to live with that, and trust that it will get better in revision. There’s always, always room for revision.

Writers often get asked for advice on this process, for advice on how to become a better writer, and they always answer the same way: you have to write a lot, and you have to read a lot. There is no shortcut. There is no quick solution. You must write a lot and read a lot and then write more. If you don’t enjoy this process – if you don’t come to understand that indeed, the process is all that matters – then all this writing is going to be miserable for you. In order to be a writer, you have to write. In order to be a better writer, you have to keep writing, and push yourself, and trust in the process of shaky first draft and revision and revision and revision.

So, if your writer shares her work with you, be supportive of her hard work and the journey she’s on. Celebrate the act of writing, acknowledge all the effort that has gone into a story or poem – the effort of putting the words on the paper, and also the work of imagining the story in the first place, and of being bold enough to attempt to translate that story from imagination to page, even while understanding that it will always, always lose something in the translation.  

Ask her questions about her craft and her process. Ask what inspired her, what kinds of questions she was exploring as she thought about writing this.  Ask her what was hardest about this piece and what she’s most proud of. Don’t mention publication unless she mentions it first.
Remember that writing itself is the reward.

And let her go without writing if she wants to. Never nag her about writing, even if she’s cheerful when writing and completely unbearable when she’s not. It’s okay if she starts a hundred stories and doesn’t finish a single one. It’s okay if she wants to quit writing for a while. We all need fallow periods, time to refill our imaginations. And if your writer decides to stop writing and focus on her new dream of becoming a professional tuba player, that’s okay too.

Writing is hard, and writing is scary. We spend our lives developing strategies to deal with our most powerful emotions, our most primal urges. We build walls to contain our own demons, and we establish boundaries for ourselves to protect us from our own deepest longings and fears. We find ways of not getting swept away by our own anger and grief. We learn to bite our tongues, we learn that if we don’t have something nice to say, we probably shouldn’t say anything at all. We learn to be polite. We learn to look on the bright side of things, to put on a brave face, to smile in the face of adversity, to keep a stiff upper lip. We learn that some things aren’t discussed in polite company, that every family has its skeletons in the closet and they’re best left alone in the darkness. We learn to equate silence with safety, for ourselves and for those we love. We learn not to ask questions. We learn restraint.

Part of what makes writing so scary is it asks us to let the demons out of their cages for a few hours, and we fear we may never get them back in. Writing asks us to go into the darkest, scariest parts of our own emotional selves and come back with a few paragraphs of unvarnished truth. Writing demands that we stop biting our tongues, that we look straight into all of life’s ugliness and sorrow and horror and report back on what we see there, in honest and unflinching detail, without sugar coating or silver lining. Writing makes us ask the questions we’ve been trained never to ask, and to share the answers when we find them. Writing wants us to spill the secrets we carry, our own and those we’ve kept for others. Writing pushes us to stand in the ocean of our own grief and anger and fear and despair and insignificance and powerlessness and love and regret, and makes no promises that we won’t get swept away in the process.

As a parent, of course, you want to protect your child from everything in the world that’s scary, or dark, or hard, or sad. I understand. But the power of writing is that it gives children the agency to investigate life’s scariness and darkness from a safe distance, to let their own monsters out of the closet for a few hours and explore the power they have. So let your writer experiment. Let her have secrets. Let her have her own folder on the family computer. Avoid the temptation to read through her notebooks. Writing should be her safe haven, her place to experiment, her place to work through her confusion and feelings and thoughts.

Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write bad fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans. You have no idea where her stories come from. Her dead mother story might come not from a place of wishing you were dead, but rather from a place of loving and needing you so much that she can’t imagine living without you. Perhaps she’s afraid to lose you, perhaps she’s struggling with the idea of growing up and leaving home and living on her own. Fiction can offer a place to work through these kinds of questions and fears. Don’t take it personally; her stories are not about you.  

Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. Let her find her own truth, even if she has to spin outrageous lies in search of it. Remember that her truth isn’t the same as anyone else’s truth, and that even if you were there with her when it happened, your memories of a moment will likely be vastly different from hers. Let her tell her own truth, even if you’d rather not hear it. Let her write thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as fiction. It’s okay if she massages past events to make a better story, or leaves entire years of her life on the cutting room floor. It’s okay if she writes about characters who have nothing to do with her life, her experience, or her world. That’s what fiction is.

Writing can also be lonely. Creativity often comes from a place of longing, of quiet, of boredom. Our culture has gotten bad at being bored. We’ve forgotten how to be quiet. We’ve forgotten how to be alone. I actually worry about this quite a bit in regards to myself, and my own writing.

Ten years ago — even five years ago — if I was meeting a friend for coffee and she was late, I would sip my latte, look around the cafe, idly listen to other people’s conversations, pull out my journal and write for a few minutes. Today? Left alone for more than 15 seconds, I pull out my phone, text people, check my email, update Twitter: “Meeting @bestfriend at @coffeehouse!”

Often, I don’t even have my journal with me, a fact that would have made my 21-year-old self shudder in horror. She carried her journal everywhere, and wrote in it at every opportunity: on the bus, in the cafe, on a bench after class, alone in a diner. She used her journal as a way to connect with her own thoughts, to check in with herself, to mull over stories she was working on and jot down images, questions, fragments of sentences and verse that came to her in moments of quiet.

Ten years ago, I used to walk between 2.5 and 5 miles a day, every day, without an ipod or cell phone. I paid attention to the streets and the houses and the way the light on the trees changed from day to day, season to season. I wrote poetry in my head, untangled scenes, relived conversations. Wondered. Noticed.

Now, the idea of taking an hour to do nothing but walk makes me jittery. “What a waste of time,” I think, even though I honestly believe otherwise. Well, the artist in me believes an hour-long walk isn’t a waste of time; my internet-addled self spends the ten-minute walk home from work mentally tweeting every. single. thought. Truly, it’s exhausting.

Writing is hard. Being alone with one’s own thoughts is hard. Being quiet is hard. The internet is easy, and validating, and distracting. It doesn’t ask you to confront your deepest fears and most painful memories. It doesn’t force you to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t ask anything of you, really. It’s the all singing, all dancing, constantly updated, constantly moving show of lights and colors and witticisms in 140 characters.

I believe that our subconscious minds are much smarter than our conscious minds. After all, our subconscious minds build our dreams for us, build them by pulling together disparate images and people and moments, by creating a language of strange imagery and metaphor in order to help us gain greater understanding of the things we think about, our concerns and fears and wishes. Isn’t this our job as writers, as well? I believe the best writing comes from our subconscious — it percolates there, beneath the surface, and emerges as inspiration. The trick is that we must step out of our own way in order to access it — must not let the conscious mind interrupt with its nervous chatter — and the only way to do so is to be quiet. To focus. To be alone with our own thoughts.

So let your writer be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her internet-playing time and take away her cell phone. Give her a whole summer of lazy mornings and dreamy afternoons. Make sure she has a library card and a comfy corner where she can curl up with a book. Give her a notebook and five bucks so she can pick out a great pen. Insist she spend time with the family. It’s even better if this time is spent in another state, a cabin in the woods, a cottage on the lake, far from her friends and people her own age. Give her some tedious chores to do. Make her mow the lawn, do the dishes by hand, paint the garage. Make her go on long walks with you and tell her you just want to listen to the sounds of the neighborhood.

Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her. Give her the freedom to fall in love with the wrong person, to lose her heart, to have it smashed and abused and broken. Occasionally be too busy to listen, be distracted by other things, have your nose in a great book, be gone with your own friends. Let her be lonely. It’s okay. Great creativity and innovation comes from loneliness.

Let her make mistakes.

Let her write poetry on her jeans and her shoes and her backpack, even if you just bought them brand new.

Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.

Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.

Above all else, love and support her. Love her and believe in her. Love her, and let her go. In the end, your love is all that matters, and it will be enough. The rest will come from her.


Andrea said...

This is fantastic. I love it. I'm currently raising two writers--myself and my twelve-year-old son. I especially love this: "If someone tells us that they’re training for a marathon, we don’t automatically ask, “What’s your day job?” or “Does that come with dental?”" When I take my son to guitar lessons, I see all kinds of adults come and go with instruments, adults with day jobs who are just now finally learning to play the guitar or are polishing up their singing skills, or whatever, for no other reason than it brings them joy, and I wonder why there isn't an amateur corollary for writing ? If someone says they like to play the guitar, people say, "cool!" not, "do you have an album out?" But if you say you a write, automatically it's "Where are you published?"

Anonymous said...

Wow, Ms. Backes. This is like your famous "How to Be a Writer" post, only bigger and better.

I stumbled across the original post sometime last October. As a high school student who'd always enjoyed writing but never made nearly enough time to do it, your post was a bit of a kick in the pants. A kick in the pants that launched me straight over to NaNoWriMo... and the rest, as they say, is history. I'm now plotting out novel number two and writing darn close to daily, a nice feeling if ever there was one. So thank you.

I understand that you probably don't go fishing around in the comments for inspiration on future blog posts, but I've been curious about online writing support groups and I'd love to hear what you think. It'd be great to have a community with which to share my stuff anonymously, but every time I visit a site like Fictionpress or Figment I get an icky feeling in the pit of my stomach. (Exaggeration? Well, maybe a little, but I certainly feel uneasy.)

In any case, thank you very much! One needn't be a parent to gain a lot from your advice.

Anonymous said...

As a parent and the former (Midwest-raised) kid you are talking about, I think you are spot-on. This advice would benefit the parent of any kind of artist.

LindaSTaylor said...

Stumbled on this while making another Google search. I'm retired now, finally writing my novels, but I was that 'other kind of writer' you speak of here. It didn't happen easily; I volunteered to write in every job I held, right from the beginning. I eventually became known as the resident writer, and requested for projects. The young need to know this is still possible. But mostly I enjoyed reminiscing back to my college days, sitting in the park writing poetry. I never forgot the need to be alone, a little lonely, and very inquisitive. And the reading! Never stop. Glad the young have such mentors with their heads on straight! We are the rebels who change the world.