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

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.


Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post and tagged .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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39 Comments on "What Does Your Mother Think of Your Writing? Does It Matter?"

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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. 😉

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.


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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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.”

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… Read more »
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…

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.

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… Read more »
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… Read more »
Dee DeTarsio

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

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. 🙂

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… Read more »

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.


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… Read more »
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.)

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.

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… Read more »
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… Read more »
Becky Doughty


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.

Wendy Russ

Becky, love that quote. 🙂

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…

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… Read more »

[…] book A Year of Writing Dangerously and a quote from Ann Lamott to answer the questions, What Does Your Mother Think of Your Writing? Does It Matter? The point of both pieces is to live “dangerously” and not worry needlessly about […]

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.

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.


[…] fade into white, what will your mother say? Well, it might depend on what you said about her. Jane Friedman quotes Anne Lamott and Barbara Abercrombie quotes Carol Shields on what to do about the people who […]

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… Read more »

Wow. Thanks for sharing this.

Wendy Russ

This is a wonderful comment.


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


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.

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… Read more »