Writing About Motherhood: A Childless Scribe Speaks Out

“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.

30 thoughts on “Writing About Motherhood: A Childless Scribe Speaks Out

  1. Deb says:

    You’re exactly right. Motherhood isn’t something magical. It doesn’t confer sainthood. It’s more like a profession.

    You wouldn’t write about any particular profession without first learning about it, otherwise you’d be completely unconvincing.

    In this profession, motherhood, the key is to know what children are all about. They’re different from adults, of course. They reason differently. They have different motivations. I imagined what it would be like, before I had kids, from my experiences with them.

    In order to write about parenthood, you need to have experienced, as an adult, what it means to be around children, and you need to have thought about how and why adults respond to children — emotionally, and practically — in certain ways.

    You clearly know about children. You clearly have bonds with certain children. You’re a thinking person. You can project what it would mean to be their parent, just as you could project what it would mean to be a police officer, or a pharmacist behind the counter, or a farmer.

    And, for what it’s worth, Erika, it seems to me (admittedly from afar) that you’d be a really good parent.

  2. Meg says:

    As another non-mama who has also written from the POV of a mama, I really appreciated this post and will definitely be sharing it with some of my other writer friends.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Not childless, childfree.

  4. Erika D. says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments.

  5. Aimee says:

    The issue of “write what you know” is a great topic to focus on. It hangs up a lot of writers who heard the saying in their 5th grade composition classes, as well as writers encountering a form of censorship by other people telling them their writing isn’t “valid” because they are writing outside their experience. But doesn’t good writing tap into the abstract truth of what you know — emotionally, intellectually, and so on — while jumping into someone else’s skin through imagination? The bookshelves would be a wasteland if writers literally stuck to the only lives they know.

  6. heather says:

    Thank you so much for this post. There seems to be a “mom’s club” out there (and I’ve actually heard moms use that term out loud) that tends to alienate non-mothers. Writing just seems to be another area that has crept into that space. I have not felt this tension from moms as a writer, but have certainly felt alienated in so many other areas. I’m currently carrying our first child, and am reminded to steer clear of this exclusive “club” – for certainly I can be a mom and not alienate other women who have experienced motherhood in all the aspects you describe, which are certainly as valid as the birth mother herself. Didn’t H. Clinton say something about it taking a village?

    Write on, sister.

  7. Erika D. says:

    Thanks so much for the additional comments. And Heather, congratulations!

  8. Maggie May says:

    absolutely; if a person is a great writer, the extent of his or her experience is typically not hindering… john irving writes passionately about this also.

    i just wrote an entire blog about motherhood and writers! have you been following or noticing the Alice/Rebecca Walker conflict?

    good to find your page!

  9. Erika D. says:

    Hi, Maggie May. Welcome to the blog! Yes, there sure is a lot of discussion about the Alice and Rebecca Walker right now, especially on one listserv I subscribe to (it’s WOMPO–you might want to check it out. Archives are publicly available.)

  10. anniegirl1138 says:

    I wrote my first “mama” pov story as a 19 year old undergrad and my prof wrote a little note telling me she thought I was a wonderful mom to care so much about my little girl.

    Of course, I didn’t have a child at the time. I wouldn’t have a child for another almost twenty years, but the thing is if you are a good writer – you can make people believe you know things even if you haven’t any firsthand knowledge.

    I don’t believe in “write what you know” or even that you have to “show more than you tell”. Writing rules are guidelines and nothing more.

    Excellent topic.

  11. Erika D. says:

    Thanks so much for chiming in, Anniegirl. I had a similar experience to the one you describe with your professor: While rejecting one of my stories, one editor suggested that I submit it to Literary Mama. Trouble was, LM normally excludes fiction written by those who are not “self-identified mothers,” so that wasn’t possible. The story ended up published here (see Issue Three, August 2007, p. 33, if you’re interested). Thanks again for your comment.

  12. Allena says:

    So, do you “know” it, or do you not know it? You’re saying that you do, meaning “write what you know” is fine. You’ve disproven your starting theory.

    Yay that your cousins’ mothers’ childrens’ friends were taut-stomached and hormone free after their births— but who are you writing for? The way the mamas reacted in your classes is probably how your audience would react, too, which is to say near disbelief. Your story would be set aside, with no concern for your fruitless loins (lol) but simply due to the fact that it didn’t ring true.

  13. Erika D. says:

    Allena, I don’t see much humor in your comment, and the fact that you needed to add an “LOL” suggests that you may doubt how apparent it may be yourself. What I do see, unfortunately, is a fairly careless (not to mention seemingly rude–if that was your intent, “yay” for you) and selective (mis)reading of my post. I hope you find the rest of the blog useful.

  14. Anonymous says:

    This is an interesting topic. I had a fiction workshop leader (she has 3 little kids) tell me (childfree) that my story didn’t ring true to her because the main character abandoned her child to an aunt without enough explanation and well, the workshop leader–as a mother–could never imagine DOING that. I felt like she was saying there was something emotionally missing from ME, that I could even write such a thing. I do realize she wanted me to get more into the character’s motivation. However, in real life, women abandon their children all the time. I know this first hand–I am an adoptee and my welfare birthmother popped out seven kids and gave six of them away within days of giving birth. From all accounts, this wasn’t a difficult decision. So, I guess I made the mistake of writing “what I know” as opposed to what midlist readers–who I doubt are rarely welfare mothers–will believe!

  15. Erika D. says:

    Thanks for your comment, anonymous.

  16. Anne says:

    Brava, Erika. Brava!

  17. Erika D. says:

    Thank you, Anne!

  18. kate hopper says:

    I just found your blog, Erika, and I plan on adding it to my blogroll. This is such an important discussion. Thank you!

  19. Erika D. says:

    Kate, welcome, and thank you!

  20. Aine Greaney says:

    Erika, I just had to comment, as I feel exactly the same. I have always felt that the “write what you know” is limiting at best, and at worst, makes for downright flat writing. I’ve written from the male point of view, the mother’s point of view, the old woman’s point of view, the young hip-hop teen’s point of view, etc. etc. And .. generally … in all of these, I feel the writing is stronger when I step out of my own gender, social class or national identity. So do my readers.

    Also, let me say that the writers’ version of non-Mommies-don’t-get-it creed is a spillover from real-life–at least in my experience. I, too, am not a parent. Grant it, this means I can’t comment on certain life issues or maternal details. But what angers me is when the “Mommy knows best” adage is used as a catchall for all my supposed knowledge deficits or used as an alibi for downright bad manners, e.g., when it’s assumed that it’s o.k. to exclude me from a long parent chat at a party.

    The thing is, I’m not sure that these real-life and the writing issues are entirely divorced. There’s a kind of clubby self-congratulation about young parents nowadays that our mothers and fathers never had. It’s admirable, I’m sure –except when it translates into the kind of limiting and divisive statements that you reference in your post or that I hear in my own life.

    A long comment–I know. But really enjoyed reading this well-stated piece.

  21. Erika, I am totally with you.
    Taken to the extreme, it means the thriller author must bave killed in order to write about it! When you apply this Only-write-what-you-know stance to other professions (and I heard it a lot as a psychologist) a shrink can only treat the divorced when she has experienced it herself. Hoever, noone demands in order to successfully treat a patient with a heart attack the doctor must have had one herself!!!
    We are humans endowed with empathy. According to research reading novels instills and deepens empathy in the reader. Why? Because the writer is gifted with an enormous depth of it. How else would she be able to create a fictional world with fictional characters????

    To me, the rule: Write What You Know is a naked, helpless phrase.
    Write about a human conflict you know and the rest will fall into place. Write about obsession, jealousy, rivalry, existential loneliness and then give your characters the freedom to become who they need to be. The rest is empathy and research.
    Thanks for a great thought provoking post.

  22. Erika Dreifus says:

    Aine & Christiane: Thank you so much for your comments. I’m glad that the post makes sense/resonates. Aine, I agree–the problem extends beyond the writing world, too.

  23. Robin Wolaner says:

    I actually have empirical proof that you are correct: non-parents can understand the lives of parents just as well, if not better. I am the founder of Parenting Magazine, and was convinced I needed a parent to be the founding editor, as I didn’t have children then. When the first editor I hired proved to have the wrong instincts for what a new mother would want to read, I didn’t trust my gut immediately — waited for the data from our readers to support my decision to make a change. But my vision of what new mothers wanted proved to be correct, and if I hadn’t been mau-maued by the fact of my childlessness, we would have saved several million dollars in launch costs.

    1. Aine Greaney says:

      I enjoyed your response, and must now confess: In my freelancing days, I had a fairly regular gig with “Parents & Kids,” a then-print publication here in Mass. Did the editor ever find out I didn’t have kids? Hmmm … I don’t know. It never really came up. But I enjoyed the work, the research, and my pieces were popular.

      In my fiction writing, I’m in the beginning chapters of a mother-daughter kind of novel now. Erika’s post, her cited article and the comments here have made me thinking about it all on a much deeper level. This is good. Thanks again, Erika et al.

  24. Jenna Blum says:

    Erika, bravo. If we all wrote only what we have lived, we would all write only memoir and there would be no fiction.

  25. Erika Dreifus says:

    Robin & Jenna: Thank you both for adding your valuable voices to this conversation!

  26. Great piece, and you’re completely right in the argument you make. However, in addressing your plea to ‘all those “mama writers” out there’, aren’t you slightly guilty of the same prejudice you’re attacking, except in reverse? Some writers-who-are-mothers do not make the assumption that non-mothers can’t write as well/convincingly about motherhood as they would be able to if they had children. So surely, in order not to be guilty of the very prejudice you’re criticising (i.e. that of making assumptions about an entire group) , you ought to address your plea to ‘all those “mama writers” who assume non-mothers can’t write equally well about motherhood’? At the moment, it sounds as if you’re suggesting that all “mama-writers” (which sounds like a derogatory term) are guilty of this same lack of insight in relation to non-mother writers. Which is certainly not the case. I know this because I have 2 children, and the best novel I’ve ever read about motherhood is We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver – a childless woman.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks for your comments, Sophie. I see how the piece could be read that way. Obviously, as many of the comments here indicate, not all writers who are mothers indulge in the “mama-centric” behavior I’m alluding to (and I’m extremely grateful to those who don’t). But those who stress the imperative of being a “mama writer” in order to write about motherhood do seem guilty of it. I appreciate that you–and many of the commenters here–aren’t among them.

  27. Lorelei King says:

    Although my mother is hale and hearty and very much alive, this line made me burst into tears: “I’ve also watched mothers prepare to leave their children after fighting illness for years.”

    Thanks for a great post.


    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Lorelei, thank you.

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