What Obligations Do Writers Have to Their Parents?

writers and parents

There’s a very famous piece of advice from Anne Lamott that occasionally makes the rounds on social media. It’s from her well-known bestseller, Bird by Bird. She says: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

This advice, especially when shared out of context, makes me cringe. First, it doesn’t allow that one’s own perspective could be devastatingly wrong; in other people’s eyes, it may be that you didn’t behave well. (One of the first rules of personal writing: take some shots at yourself.) Nor is it likely to lead to greater compassion or understanding. But perhaps most important, it doesn’t address the consequences of what happens when you write without any regard to others in your life, whether you love and respect them or not.

In this month’s Glimmer Train bulletin, I greatly enjoyed Matthew Lansburgh’s essay, “Writing About Family: Advice, Second Thoughts, Xanax, and a Note to My Mom.” He’s a fiction writer who draws from his own life, and feels that acutely in his personal relationships. He wants to share his work with his mom, but hesitates:

Writers are often told to be true to themselves and to embrace their subject matter with honesty. We’re urged to shine a light on the darkest regions of our souls. Perhaps part of the reason I’ve always wanted to be a writer is that, growing up, my parents taught me to be honest and assert my individuality; they themselves always spoke their minds and never minced words. When I began writing this essay I hoped that thinking through these issues would help me arrive at a clearer answer of what my responsibility is to my mother now. Should I share my book with her? If she reads it and is upset, how should I respond? Should I defend myself or apologize? I realize, however, there are no simple answers to these questions.

Read the full essay.

Also this month from Glimmer Train:

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.

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 publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

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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K.N. Johnson

I appreciate that there are no simple answers to this question, but want to emphasize how different some of our childhoods may have been.

There are certain behaviors and actions that, regardless of the parents giving us life, are unacceptable and almost everyone in our culture would judge one’s parents accordingly.

I think your advice is good in either situation, though: look at one’s own self with a sober eye. Even if your parent’s actions could never be justified, it will gather readers into your corner even more tightly.

S Ostgard

The really big problem – besides destroying relationships – is that how we write about our parents or siblings or friends tends to focus on the extremes. On one hand, we have “Mommie Dearest” stories; on the other hand are the stories where people apparently are right up there with Mother Theresa. And let’s face it – how we view our relationships also depends on what stage of our lives we’re in. As we grow older, we experience more, and it opens up the door to understanding that maybe, just maybe, nobody was “wrong” – that it was all part… Read more »

DeBonis Karen

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jane, as well as Matthew Lansburgh’s essay. I’ve struggled with this question endlessly as I work on my memoir. I’m blessed that my parents were and are good people and good parents. But that makes it all the harder to show how their flaws influenced me and my shortcomings as a mother. I plan to show them snippets of “their” part in the story, and ask for their blessings. It’s possible that my story will not be public until after they’ve passed, and their blessing will be my protection against the possible ire of… Read more »

Barbara A Stark-Nemon

Thanks so much for this important post, and the link to Matthew Lansburgh’s essay. Both my historical novel, Even in Darkness, and my upcoming contemporary novel, Hard Cider, feature characters and events based in my own family experience. I’ve struggled in both books with how to honor the privacy and legacy of family members while staying true to the themes and story arcs that compel me as a writer. Geoff Dyer at The Guardian did a great piece on ‘Based on a true story’: the fine line between fact and fiction, and my own post on the family issue When… Read more »

Amy S.

Anne Lamott also says, “Write as though your parents are dead.” Easier said than done. I published an essay last year about how my brother, sister and I were raised with labels: the cold one, the sensitive one, etc. My family didn’t like it all that much. I’m thinking about writing under a pen name when I write about my family of origin stuff. And I have A LOT of material to mine…