Congratulations to Susan Swiderski, winner of a copy of The Princesses of Iowa!
In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d repost this essay I wrote last summer after a student’s mother asked me what she should be doing to help her child become a writer.
(Spoiler alert: Basically I wrote down all the things my mom did for me. And after last weekend? When my mom helped to organize my hometown launch party and invited everyone in the entire county, and personally hand sold like 100 copies of my book to the residents of southern Wisconsin? I’ll add: “Even if she acts embarrassed and calls you ‘the Dina Lohan of Dane County’ on Facebook, know that she’s secretly convinced she couldn’t do it without you.”)
Happy Mother’s Day, MamaBackes!
How to Raise a Writer
A few weeks ago, a woman asked me for advice about her teenage daughter. “She wants to be a writer,” the mother said. “What should we be doing?”
To be honest, I was kind of stumped. (In part, I think it was the way she asked it – “What should WE be doing?” I didn’t really know what to do with that “we.”) (Also, it was quite early in the day, and I hadn’t yet had sufficient coffee to be giving anyone advice.) I suggested a few upcoming creative writing classes, but the mother wasn’t satisfied. There must be more – what else could they do?
“Well,” I said, “you know. Writers read a lot… and write a lot.”
She looked at me blankly.
“You really do have to write a lot,” I said. “I mean, that’s mostly it. You write a lot.”
The mother shook her head. “What else? Are there books she can read? Events she can attend? Writing camps?”
“Um,” I said. “Sometimes writers have writing buddies… they meet at coffee houses and write together?”
The mother liked this suggestion. “You could do that!” she told her daughter. The girl blushed.
I offered some titles of books to read. Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Bird by Bird. If You Want to Be a Writer. Letters to a Young Poet. The Metamorphoses. (I know Ovid doesn’t have a lot of advice for writers; I just like to push the Metamorphoses on people. It’s a soap opera in verse!)
The mother scribbled them down. I had a feeling she’d buy them all for her daughter, perhaps before the day was over, but she still seemed to be waiting for something. I felt like I wasn’t giving her what she wanted, and though she was being really polite about it, I actually felt bad that I couldn’t come up with an answer that would satisfy her.
The feeling stuck with me all day – I chewed over her question and wondered if there was something I’d forgotten, some crucial piece of advice I could have given to placate her. But the more I thought about it, the more confused I became about why my initial answer wasn’t enough. Fact: writers write. Fact: In order to be a writer you have to write a lot. A LOT. Fact: there’s no shortcut.
(I do want to say that I think it’s really great that this mother — or any mother — is looking for ways to actively support her kid’s writing. I also imagine it might be challenging to have a kid who wants to be a writer — it’s not like you can just go out and join the Band Boosters and support your child’s passion by raising money to buy new trumpets or whatever. There’s no ‘Poet Boosters’ for parents.)
So now it’s a few weeks later and I’m still thinking about it, and I’m still a little perplexed by the question. But I’ve had some coffee, and I’m ready to take another crack at it.
What should you do to help your child pursue her dreams of becoming a writer?
First of all, let her be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her internet-playing time and take away her cell phone. Give her a whole summer of lazy mornings and dreamy afternoons. Make sure she has a library card and a comfy corner where she can curl up with a book. Give her a notebook and five bucks so she can pick out a great pen. Insist she spend time with the family. It’s even better if this time is spent in another state, a cabin in the woods, a cottage on the lake, far from her friends and people her own age. Give her some tedious chores to do. Make her mow the lawn, do the dishes by hand, paint the garage. Make her go on long walks with you and tell her you just want to listen to the sounds of the neighborhood.
Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her. Give her the freedom to fall in love with the wrong person, to lose her heart, to have it smashed and abused and broken. Occasionally be too busy to listen, be distracted by other things, have your nose in a great book, be gone with your own friends.
Let her have secrets. Let her have her own folder on the family computer. Avoid the temptation to read through her notebooks. Writing should be her safe haven, her place to experiment, her place to work through her confusion and feelings and thoughts. If she does share her writing with you, be supportive of her hard work and the journey she’s on. Ask her questions about her craft and her process. Ask her what was hardest about this piece and what she’s most proud of. Don’t mention publication unless she mentions it first. Remember that writing itself is the reward.
Let her get a job. Let her work long hours for crappy pay with a mean employer and rude customers. If she wants to be a writer, she’ll have to be comfortable with hard work and low pay. Let her spend her own money on books and lattes – they’ll be even sweeter when she’s worked hard for them.
Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write crushingly bad fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans.
Let her go without writing if she wants to. Never nag her about writing, even if she’s cheerful when writing and completely unbearable when she’s not. Let her quit writing altogether if she wants to.
Let her make mistakes.
Let her stay after school to work on the newspaper, but only if she wants to. Let her publish embarrassingly personal stories in the school literary magazine. Let her spill the family’s secrets. Let her tell the truth, even if you’d rather not hear it.
Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.
Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. Let her find her own truth, even if she has to spin outrageous lies in search of it. Remember that her truth isn’t the same as anyone else’s truth, and that even if you were there with her when it happened, your memories of a moment will likely be vastly different from hers. Let her write thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as fiction. It’s okay if she massages past events to make a better story, or leaves entire years of her life on the cutting room floor. It’s okay if she writes about characters who have nothing to do with her life, her experience, or her world. That’s what fiction is.
Let her write poetry on her jeans and her shoes and her backpack, even if you just bought them brand new.
Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.
Above all else, love and support her. Love her and believe in her. Love her, and let her go. In the end, your love is all that matters, and it will be enough. The rest will come from her.
21 Replies to “How to Raise a Writer, by Deb Molly”
Perfect. I love the “limit TV and internet”. It works wonders. Congrats again on your book and you are lucky to have such a supporting mom!
Love it. I just kept reading and saying “yes, yes, yes.”
Thanks, Kerry Ann!
Love and support, in all its forms. That’s it right there.
Yes, it’s pretty simple when you boil it down, isn’t it? 🙂
W O W. Truly a great great post today! Sounds like the best advice to parents is to just “let it happen”. Nowadays we seem compelled to “program” our kids into success. Writing is art. You don’t muscle your way through it with trainers. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my 11 year old daughter curled up with a book but I don’t think I really “got it”…until reading this post. She typically has 3-4 books on the go at one time and frequently rereads her favourites and I think to myself “why?” that’s so “unorderly”. And I suppose I should also stop complaining about the reams (and reams and reams) of paper that I find ALL over the house with half written stories (and drawings). Creativity can be messy! (Thank you for one more reason not to give in to the cell phone begging…I shall brace myself for the dead mother and orphan story. LOL)
Yes, that’s it exactly, Tammy! I do worry about my students who are so overly programmed — most kids are naturally creative and naturally averse to boredom, so they’ll invent ways to occupy their time on their own, by writing books, putting on plays, making puppets, acting out scenes, etc etc. They don’t need to be told how to play!
I LOVE this. Great, great advice and such wonderful words.
You said it, Molly. That kind of support (well, all kinds, really) is so important to budding writers. Heck, I don’t think writers ever really outgrow the need for it.
Judging by how many times I’ve read one nice email in the last week, we don’t ever outgrow it. 🙂
Well, I’m glad I’m coming in on the end here, because I’m of the belief that TV is a HUGE component of my love of stories! I have admitted many times on this blog how much TV I watched as a kid (and keep in mind, this was the 70s, early 80s so when I say A LOT, I really mean one or two shows a week night and a whole morning of Saturday cartoons!)
Nowadays, though? Oy. We don’t have a TV in our house which makes me a hypocrite? Nah. 😉 The truth is I think some TV is fine–but man, I think the pickins are slim now. Thank Goodness for Netflix so I can educate my dear little ones on the finer days of network TV (I’m looking at you Wonder Woman, Fantasy Island, CHiPs, Charlie’s Angels, Love Boat–and the list goes on!!)
Aren’t those all Aaron Spelling shows? Man, I adored The Love Boat- maybe one of the reasons I cruise so much today!
Yes! (The man was a TV genius!) And Love Boat is why I have always WANTED to take a cruise, Joanne–so of course! Remember how the ladies loved Doc? Don’t know if that would fly today–me, I always thought Gopher was a cutie.
I thought Doc was kind of creepy and really not that attractive, but YES GOPHER! I always had a crush on him, too.
Then in college I had a modmate who loved Captain Stubing, so there was LOTS of crushing going on 😉
Interesting — I only learned how to watch TV from an analytical/story place in my late 20s, but I had a writing partner years ago who swore he’d learned how to plot by watching TV. I think the difference is in how you approach it — for me, TV is almost always brain candy, so it doesn’t really help my fiction brain.
Sounds like a Deb Dish, Erika — should writers watch TV?
Loved it when you posted it originally, love it now. Yay Molly!
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