“They bring the heat,” Stace Budzko, an instructor at Grub Street and at Emerson College, said of the young mothers in his classes. “When it comes to conflict, they’ve seen it all. Nothing scares them.” One mother in his class wrote a story about a young boy who built a bomb, and in the story the boy’s mother was pleased, despite herself, at her son’s inventiveness. The portrait rang true, said Budzko, and a non-mother might have painted it quite differently.
When I read these lines in a recent Boston Globe article, I started fuming. Again. This post explains why.
You’ve probably heard this maxim: “Write what you know.” Beginning fiction writers hear it, too. It’s a tricky concept. For too many people, “knowing” is synonymous with —and limited to—personal experience. When they turn to their sources of “knowledge,” they reflect back not necessarily to what they might “know,” but rather to what they have lived. That’s fine—for them.
What’s not fine is condemning other fiction writers to this same circumscribed material, and reflexively discrediting another’s work depending on what they “know” (or think they know) about an author’s own life.
Or, as Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy have noted in Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion:
When carried to its extreme, “write what you know” means that the writer who does not have divorced parents cannot write about a divorce, and the writer from a broken home cannot describe a happy family. “Write what you know” might discourage you from following the natural leaps of your imagination to new but fertile places; worse still, it might discourage you from developing empathetic bonds with individuals and emotions that have been previously foreign, an acquired skill that has value far beyond the pursuit of creative writing.
The narrow vision of “writing what you know” has long seemed restrictive and unproductive to me. And one area where it has caused particular tension concerns writing fiction that focuses on motherhood and/or mother characters.
People challenge fiction writers’ credibility in other ways. Can a man write convincingly from a woman’s perspective? Can a person of one race or religion write from another? Can a young person write from the perspective of someone older? I don’t see the point to these questions. Skilled fiction writers have the right and the freedom to take on any material they choose. That’s part of the beauty of the job.
As a (reasonably young) Jewish woman, I’ve published fiction featuring protagonists who are male, female, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or of no clear religion. They’ve ranged in age from their twenties to their eighties. Some of the stories and novel excerpts take place in times that precede my memory. Many initially made their way through writing workshops where others offered their comments, responses, and suggestions for improvement.
My workshop classmates (and here I’m speaking mostly of my MFA workshops) often knew some basics about my life outside the workshop—that I was a (reasonably young) Jewish woman writer, and that I was not a mother. And while they rarely questioned the authenticity of my fictional Catholics, Protestants, men, older people (or, for that matter, pediatricians, psychiatrists, liquor store owners, or people living through events I’m too young to have possibly have lived through myself) it was amazing how intensely my parent characters and themes—particularly of the maternal variety—came under the critical microscope.
Apparently this topic I couldn’t possibly grasp. Not like certain of my “mama writer” classmates. They knew everything. The protagonist of my historical novel (never mind everything else I’d already established about her) wouldn’t behave as I’d shown her six weeks after having a baby! Why? “Your hormones are just going crazy!” they informed me. (Really? Thanks for letting me know that, since neither the multiple instances of postpartum depression in both my mother’s and my father’s family trees—nor the sheer “knowledge” I’d accumulated in more than 30 years living on this planet—had yet clued me in to that possibility.)
And by the way, one classmate remarked, your stomach isn’t “flat” so soon after delivery. What my expert editor didn’t realize was that I’d chosen the adjective not out of the ignorance of the childless scribe, but rather based on photographs and observations of some of the mothers I am closest to: my own mother (who, at five feet four inches tall weighed barely 98 pounds when she left the hospital with newborn me in her arms), my younger cousin, and my college roommate, all of whom were wearing their “old” clothes within days of delivery.
Here’s what those workshop classmates failed to grasp: Motherhood is something that has surrounded me since—well, the day I was born. Maybe since I was conceived. Maybe even before that: If History—if the experiences of persecution in Europe of those who came before me left traces in the person I became, as it’s clear that they have—perhaps the more private history of mother-child relationships in the preceding generations may have transmitted something, too.
It’s not merely a matter of my status as my mother’s daughter, a child named for her own mother’s mother. Motherhood has permeated my life in other ways. I have learned about pregnancies of close friends and family members almost as soon as the pregnancies were confirmed. I’ve (tried to) console mothers who have lost children to miscarriage or premature birth. I’ve celebrated adoptions. I’ve worried over infants’ health problems. I met my own niece when she was a few minutes old, because I’d spent the hours preceding her birth waiting at the hospital. I even helped name her. (“You two just decide,” said my brother-in-law, as my sister and I continued to mull over the matter, a topic we’d discussed for months, an hour after the birth.)
I’ve also watched mothers prepare to leave their children after fighting illness for years. And I’m watching the grandchildren named for them grow up.
In other words, my fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience. In their belief in the all-deciding power of lived motherhood—and their championing of a somewhat remarkable uniformity of that experience—they failed to appreciate that it is something I, too, “know.”
For an essay workshop, this might make sense. As a reader, I, for one, certainly expect that essays and memoirs depict actual lived experience. According to my own code of writerly ethics, it would be fraudulent to write an essay or memoiristic piece that in which I am giving birth or raising a child of my own without having gone through such an experience.
But for fiction? For poetry? Is it not enough to have grown up on family stories of mothers separated from their children all too soon, through death or disease, to write about attachment? Must my name appear on a child’s birth certificate to address the questions a four-year-old asks as we stroll down the sidewalk, or to marvel over a toddler’s bright blue eyes?
So here’s my plea to all those “mama writers” (and for that matter, to all the “mama-centric” publications) out there. You know who you are.
Please give those of us who have not birthed and/or are not raising children a little credit. Please allow for the possibility that we, too, may have human qualities and capacities for empathy, imagination, and observation that, when all is said and done, matter much more to the practice of writing than does one’s reproductive history.
Thanks ever so much.