When my son plays by himself, I shamelessly eavesdrop on the running commentary. It’s often funny and charming, and it gives me a window into what the quirky little guy is thinking or feeling that day. Once, with his little plastic animals, I overheard one animal tell another this:
“Now you have to go home and see what your parents think of your bad choices.”
This was said with more than a hint of satisfaction. Naughty Critter was definitely in for it, and Sensible Critter was enjoying it.
No matter how old we get, that still resonates. If you have (or had) any kind of relationship with your parents, you care what they think about your choices. You want them to be proud of the work that you’re doing. You want to take your mom to the Oscars and watch her enjoy How You Turned Out. It’s normal and loving to want your parents marveling at your good choices. (For ease, I’m going to shorten “parents” to “mom” here, but it could be either or both.)
But…. what if your art pulls you in a direction that you think your mom isn’t going to like? Writing books for children is in this way an easier choice—nothing controversial, few opportunities to use f#%*, nothing to ruin Thanksgiving.1 I have several books for children in the works, and it’s nice to know that my mom will be able to read these without feeling like she needs to have a “talk” with me. Writing for adults, about adults, gets a lot trickier.
When I’m not writing for children, I’m writing psychological horror stories. If I’m being honest, they are better work. The dark humor and complexity of these stories is something I’ve worked hard at, and it shows off the best of what I can presently do as a writer. And…that’s the problem. Aside from issues of readership, where people have trouble separating different types of work, how do I tell my mom I’m going to publish a story collection called “Bitches and Dead People”?2 Will she get the vapors or will it be Tuesday? It’s probably somewhere in the middle, but here’s some things to think about.
Your mom is not actually a satellite of you. We spend our whole lives thinking of our mothers in terms of how they relate to us. The child’s narcissism in relation to his parents never really goes away. Because of that, we forget that our moms had (and still have) lives that do not revolve around us. She was probably reading The Clan of the Cave Bear series and enjoying those sexy, sexy Ayla/Jondalar scenes while you were at elementary school. She might have even snuck a peek into that “50 Shades” book. She probably enjoys other things we are completely unaware of, like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Let your mom be a fully formed, three-dimensional person in your mind for a few minutes and see that you don’t necessarily know much about her. There are big chunks that aren’t filled in. Don’t presume that there aren’t.
Moms have a past and they have made their own bad choices that they don’t share with us. Let’s be really clear, we do not want them to share this unless it is an extremely important teachable moment. That is all I’m going to say about that. Just no.
You can’t parent your characters into behaving as your parents would expect them to. My mom has opined that curse words are the refuge of the lazy. When I am writing humor, or an opinion piece like this, I think that’s probably mostly correct. If I work a little harder, I can come up with something just as funny or precise or better. When I’m writing fictional dialogue or inner monologue, though…well. My characters did not have the benefit of this wisdom. They are Flawed, and it shows. If I sat with my Flawed people and fretted, “Oh, my, what will people think of the naughty language, oh dear,” my Flawed people would also be Unbelievable. I can’t parent my characters and chronicle their true selves at the same time. They are gloriously broken and that’s what makes them interesting.
Censoring yourself because of what you think someone might think is proactively timid. I don’t know what my mom and dad are going to say to me when and if they read my work for adults. They don’t have to read it—my mom doesn’t like horror stories anyway, so maybe she won’t read any of it, or I’ll just print out the ones that aren’t especially scary for her. That’s her choice, though. Maybe she’ll tell me that she thinks they’re terrible and belong in the trash can. That wouldn’t be nice, but it would also be disrespectful for me to presume that I know what’s good for her. This is where we have to be adults, two of them, and say, “You might not like this, but I hope you can appreciate it.”
As a last thought, I called this little thing “Shaming Our Mothers” for a reason. Most of us would rather not, and we spend energy trying not to be an embarrassment to the people who love us. Maybe, though, we don’t know what that means in the one place where it’s meaningful. Let your mom be a real person for a minute, and then give her the chance to decide whether she’s shocked and disappointed in your bad choices for herself. It might be surprising for you both.
1 Hey, I’m not saying it’s impossible. Maybe your character has three heads and Aunt Linda is part of that “One Head” movement, and she decides to create a fuss over the turkey and the stabbings commence. It’s just a lot less likely.
2 Hi, Mom! Guess what?