What I Think of the Fact That You Keep Asking Me What My Family Thinks of My Writing
When men create characters based on themselves, they are innovative; when women do it, they’re shaming their families.
There’s the famous quote about how when a writer is born into the family, the family is finished. As a writer in my family, I’m tired of being asked what my family thinks of my writing. Every time I hear the words “personal essay” and “family” together, I die a little.
Has anyone gotten mad at you over what you’ve written about them?
But I wondered if you worried about how they would feel about being written about? Did you check with folks, or change names?
When you’re writing about a subject that is going to make someone else worried or upset do you reach out to them first? Do you just let the essay fly and wait for the fallout?
When you’re writing about masturbating, having an orgy, trying heroin, or pretending the guy you’re having sex with is James Frey, how do you get to that place of complete honesty? Were you worried about what your family would think?
Do you regret anything you’ve written?
“Your book is sooooooo tame this time,” my mom said to me over the summer. We were walking aimlessly around the West Village. She sounded disappointed.
“Or maybe I’m just used to it now,” she followed with a shrug.
My relationship to writing and to my mom was not always this rosy. At twenty-three, I moved to Seattle, jobless and with six hundred dollars to my name. My resource there was my aunt, my mom’s youngest sister. I found a room in a house on Craigslist for three hundred dollars and babysat for my aunt’s kids until I found temporary night shipment shift at Old Navy. On my nights off I wrote and read in a bedroom I was subletting that belonged to some musician I found on Craigslist, deciding that I was going to be a writer. I remember a phone conversation with my mom followed. She was worried. What was I going to do for money? She and my dad didn’t have any money to give me. She tried to encourage me to climb the ladder at Old Navy, become a merchandising merchanter. I cried.
It is not that my mom didn’t have faith in me. She was going off the facts: I barely graduated high school, skipped college, had zero connections or training in writing. I did not have money to spend time writing. She wanted security for me. She was trying to protect me from what my life did eventually become: stressed, broke, anxious. Understandably. We repeated this argument over the next few years until I began to find footing as a writer and make a living teaching writing.
Now she is one of my biggest supporters. When the first review of my new book came out, I barely looked at it before emailing it to my mom with subject line, “Scared to read this.”
She responded: “Maybe you weren’t emotionally ready for your new book to come out, but it is! You worked hard! Celebrate it!”
On NPR, Sarah Silverman tells Terry Gross her recently deceased mother was the person in her life who “was really into this stuff,” meaning comedy, her career.
After one tearful lunch with my mother years ago, I whined to my dad about it (a fun thing children of divorce get to do). “Mom doesn’t want me to be a writer,”I probably said, and he countered with, “But she raised you to be a writer.”
I’m not a parent, but have many writer friends who are—a whole other dynamic to navigate.
In one of my nonfiction classes a student told me she read TheChronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch recently and loved it. She followed with: “But I can’t believe she published that! And she has a son? Like, her kid is going to read that?”
My student doesn’t know I babysat said kid a few years ago. He ate pizza and played video games with his friends. He politely asked me for a glass of milk. His mother’s book was not of his concern. The kid came out of hismother’s vagina, so she is the kid’s norm, because his mother, as a writer, is all he’s ever known. And if he ever cracks the book, sure, he’ll get a thrill reading her words, but I doubt he will be too surprised. We’re forgetting that most nonfiction writers are freakish and since they look at themselves in an unflattering light on paper, the way they process life with their parents or children is often quite open.
The poet and memoirist Kim Addonizio who writes about her daughter Aya Cash in her most recent memoir, Bukowski in a Sundress. There’s a scene where Kim and Aya discuss old sex tapes of Kim and her boyfriend. Aya Cash grew up with her mother as a struggling writer who exposed herself in her work, and is now an actress on You’re the Worst and Joe Swanberg’s new Netflix series, Easy.
The narrative around the parents of writers and the children of writers must evolve. Maybe you are not harming your child if you’re a writer. Maybe you will encourage them to tap into their creative inclinations, which—let’s face it—is healthy. Creativity breeds creativity.
Then there is Anne Lamott, who wrote the classic essay collection Operating Instructions about her son, Sam. And when he was grown, collaborated on a book together. In an interview with The New York Times, when asked, “Does Sam read all of your writings?”Lamott responds, “He mostly reads the stuff where he knows I mention him. That’s my boy!”
Jodi Picoult and her daughter Samantha Van Leer co-wrote a young adult novel together.
I’m focusing on the success stories. You know how we need five positives for every negative comment? It’s the same with this subject matter.
One of my best friends is a writer who has been working on a memoir for a few years along with a short story collection. She texted me at sunrise one morning, said she was in the living room reading and her eight-year-old kid walks in and says, “I think I’ll do some writing.”
Emma Cline told Tin House: “I believe that partly we ask women these questions because we see women in relation to those around them, as daughters or partners or mothers, and not as autonomous artists.” What she is saying is that asking me what my family thinks is a way of reminding me of my duties as a woman.
Has anyone ever given a shit if someone in David Sedaris or Jack Kerouac or Steve Almond or Bukowski’s life got mad at them?
Continually asking me about the people in my life—though I understand people are genuinely curious—gives the sense of a subtext telling me I’ve been a bad girl, like Fiona Apple.
Could you ask me what I think about beginnings and endings? About word choices? About how I approach teaching nonfiction? About voice? How I used heroin and acne as literary devices to explore how they relate? How I feel about dialogue and scene? How I approach structure?
I looked up interviews with male writers who are notorious for writing about their lives and mishaps. Mishka Shublay is told his work is “muscular,” it is full of “debauchery,” and it will probably “help people.” He is asked if there is any way he can “explain his success.” Poe Ballantine is asked how stimulants and drugs affect his creative process. In a conversation with Jonathan Ames in Interview, an interviewer refers to “the character Jonathan Ames” from Bored to Death. When men create characters based on themselves, they are innovative; when women do it, they’re lying or shaming their families.
I sat aside an uncle at a wedding a few years ago, who said, I heard you wrote a nymphomaniac memoir.
At a reading in Montreal two years ago, my cousin told me my ninety-five-year-old grandmother did not care for my novella, Women, right before I went onstage to read from it.
I got a heart-wrenching email recently from one of my aunts about how she loved my new book, in which she also said, You could have died.
On the way to family gatherings there is a low-key worry in the back of my mind.
Yes, I have anxiety about my family reading my personal work. But if I had stayed at Old Navy, I’d probably have anxiety and embarrassment and shame about that too. Everything is embarrassing if you think about it long enough. Or nothing is.
In his essay “Haunting,” Chuck Palahniuk writes: “Shame on me for wanting to do something so worthless. Shame on me for not accepting the life my family lived. Shame on me for shaming them. My shame is everyone’s shame.”
I remember sitting in the car with my mom in the Staples parking lot a few years ago. I’d just printed out the manuscript for my novella. I was anxious. My mom thought it was because of the content of my book, which has a queer, bisexual narrator. “Are you nervous because people don’t know that side of you?”
“No!” I laughed.
I was worried about the woman I based it on. We talked more about writing about people and at one point she said, “It’s not like you’re killing people.”
And that’s the thing to remember: There are trillions of more ways to be fundamentally harmful to other people’s lives. Treating them like shit is one. Abuse is another. I don’t think that family members and friends sometimes bleeding into your creative nonfiction work is a type of abuse, if it’s done with love and compassion and creativity. It is if you’re attacking people. That’s not writing, though.
Sometimes it seems like people who ask about the reactions my writing have received want me to tell them how my writing ruined my family, how terrible I feel, how fucked my life is, so they canthink, I knew it! This is why I can’t write my book. This is why I can’t finish that essay. Writing is bad, wrong, embarrassing.
I also get that people want a good story, juicy anecdotes. But my answer is disappointing. My parents can’t be too surprised or upset that I am a writer. They’re the ones who made me this way, gave me books and journals and pens constantly. It was their bookshelves where I found Natalie Goldberg and Annie Dillard books on writing when I was a kid. And I refuse to be ashamed for doing something that has given my life meaning and purpose, structure, and love.
Recently I came across a floral journal my aunt gifted me for my fourteenth birthday. I opened it and found the inscription:
I hope you keep writing your hopes, dreams, and fears. Maybe you’ll even write a book one day!
Chloe Caldwell will be teaching a generative, prompt-based online nonfiction class designed to help writers overcome creative blocks. Apply now.
Chloe Caldwell is the author of The Red Zone: A Love Story, the critically acclaimed novella WOMEN and essay collections I'll Tell You in Person and Legs Get Led Astray. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, The Cut, Longreads, Nylon, Buzzfeed, and more. She lives in Hudson, NY.