Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's an essayist to do when a family member puts her foot down?

My 7-year-old and I were heading out to meet the school bus this morning when a question floated out in her sweet, musical, little-girl voice. So innocuous was its tone that not until I was sitting alone at my desk later in the day did its import begin to seep through to me.

“Mommy, you know that Christmas card you send people every year? With the picture of us on it?’

“Yes!” I said, hoping she might have a clever idea for how we should arrange our family photo this year.

“Well, you know the thing you write that goes with it? The poem?”

Again I said yes. It’s a tradition I began the year Rick and I got married, writing a multi-stanza poem in rhyming iambic pentameter to sum up the year’s events, with a heavy dosage of satire poured over the corny word plays. Although the holiday newsletters that triumph every family accomplishment seem like they’ve been mocked enough over the past ten years to be relegated to anachronism, we actually still receive plenty: two-page, single-spaced accounts of what every family member has won awards for, who is solving world hunger and who is saving the whales. (The habit I find most irksome, and I know of at least two holiday newsletter writers who commit this affront yearly, is to include a child’s boyfriend or girlfriend in the account of Who Has Done Which Great Things. Spouses, okay; but college girlfriends? Gosh, doesn’t she have her own mom to write about her accomplishments?)

So I parody our lives and I do it in rhyme. It means I still get to update everyone on our list about what’s new without making it seem like I take any of this too seriously.

Holly went on. “Yes, the poem. Could you not write about me playing, this year?”

Holly’s universe of imaginary friends has figured into the holiday poem for the last two years. In 2007, Holly had a pretend husband and children; in 2008 she’d ditched the family but ran a pretend school. Other 7-year-olds go to dance class or soccer practice after school; Holly hurries upstairs to teach her imaginary class.

I thought for a moment and then answered carefully. “I won’t write about that if you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t,” she confirmed.

“I can write about other things you do instead, like how you learned to swim and ride a bike this year,” I said quickly, hoping to assure her that her accomplishments mattered to me just as much as the entertainment factor of her fantasy life.

“No, don’t write about that either.”

“How about if I check with you when I’m actually working on the card?” I asked her. She seemed to think that would be okay, and then her bus arrived, ending the conversation.

But I was left with the ominous feeling that what people have long warned me about was finally happening: I, an essayist and chronicler of family life, finally had a family member who was going to put her foot down.

And there was something particularly poignant about the timing of Holly’s question. It’s mid-November; we haven’t engaged in any holiday preparations yet, nor have we discussed a Christmas card for this year. For her to bring it up, it had to be something that was on her mind irrespective of external clues. So I know she was serious about it.

People ask me all the time how my children feel about appearing in my essays, and until now, neither child has ever expressed any concern, but this was a moment that nearly every essayist must face at some point. If anything, I was often surprised that I’d gotten a free ride as long as I had – not so much from Holly but from my 11-year-old son Tim. True, the essay about toilet-training and the one about his love of his stuffed frog were published when he was too young to read, but he was in fourth grade by the time I wrote about his fascination with his new protective athletic cup and his refusal to consider wearing anything but a red t-shirt emblazoned with an image of a ketchup bottle. He always seemed to just take it for granted that he would feature prominently in my essays about family life. And I’m lucky he was so accepting of the situation, since in time I would go on to write a full-length memoir about a year in his life, as he and I took on the challenge of a daily run together.

No doubt innumerable essayists, especially those who are mothers, have contemplated the subject of their family members’ reactions to being represented in print. I know of one nationally syndicated columnist who struck a deal with her teenagers that they had power of veto over anything she wanted to write about them. Another essayist whose work I followed for years wrote frequently about one of her two adult daughters and almost never about the other. Though some readers might have inferred favoritism, I suspected that one daughter had issued an edict against depicting her in print. And another writer I know once told me, though this is strictly hearsay, that when author Joyce Maynard was writing her “Domestic Affairs” column, her husband insisted he not be included. That precaution not withstanding, they’re no longer married.

I have no illusions that Holly will change her mind. This may be the beginning for her of a lifetime of not wanting me to turn her into fodder for my writing, and if so, I’ll do all I can to respect that. But I’m hoping she changes her mind for the Christmas card. Because although she didn’t save any whales or feed any hungry this year, I’d love to brag about how she learned to ride a bike.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy, this is a poignant moment for a parent and a writer. Of course you want to respect your daughter's wishes, especially given that it seems like she's given it some thought. On the other hand, you don't want to give up some of your best material!

    I've read many of your essays and you truly have a gift for writing about family life. It would be a shame to have to edit yourself, although who wants to breach the relationship with a precious child?

    Maybe you can get to the bottom of her concern and find a way to modify your writing instead of completely truncating it. I hope so -- for all of our sakes.