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:

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