Monday, September 28, 2009

Uh-Oh, Mom's a Writer: The Ethics of Memoirs About Kids

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

It's so tempting: One minute my seven-year-old son is a goofball, the next he's a sage. The anecdotes overflow my journal, the Post-it notes on my desk. Before long, he's my lead.

I'm not the first parent-writer to realize I've stumbled on to the greatest subject of my life. Writing about myself in relationship with a constantly evolving, inscrutable other person takes me beyond narcissism, I hope.

But do parents have a right to tell a child's story, even anecdotally? And what justifies the telling? These questions have begun weighing on me, as I write more frankly in print about my experiences as an adoptive parent. I've also started several blogs—and there's my biggest problem. With the touch of a few keys, my son is exposed and parsed in a new viral medium.

Blogging revels in the personal and in many ways demands it, as do memoirs, from the literary to tacky tell-alls. At least one recent book has sparked new concerns about a perennial dilemma for writers: the ethics of family memoirs. But I have a feeling those outraged by Julie Myerson's The Lost Child haven't yet cruised through

Myerson, a literary writer, has been exoriated in the British press for "incontinent exhibitionism" in detailing her son's addiction to skunk—a high-powered form of marijuana. An excellent piece by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times discusses The Lost Child blow-up and the ethical ambiguities it poses.

The few excerpts I've read of The Lost Child are moving as well as cringe-inducing. I suspect this is the reason it's set off such howls among other writers. I cringe in part from my own recognition of ethical lines I might have crossed.

In the coda to her book, Myerson describes her son's response to reading the manuscript: "You and your short, snappy little sentences, he says. I know what you're doing, you know."

Even the most honest memoir writer turns herself and family members into characters. Professional writers know how to make their constructions appear more "real" than reality itself. Those who are skilled like Myerson are experts at creating emotional impact.

“You have to write the book you have to write," she says in the Times Online. "I write with a piece of my heart that I don't really have full control over."

But confusing the "uncontrolled" writing process with the published product is disingenuous. The more such writing moves readers, the more it seems true. And riveting stories often fool us into thinking that one author's take on the world translates into everybody else's.

This is the most treacherous ground for writers. The hyper-reality of good memoir and feature writing can expand our understanding of the truth. But depending on blind spots, it can easily become self-congratulatory. That goes for all those cute stories about toddlers that populate slick magazines and parenting blogs, too. I like to think I know what the ethical boundaries are when writing about my son. But I'd be lying if I said he'll thank me as an adult for the articles I'm writing now. I simply don't know how he'll feel.

Adoption memoirs provide a good case study of the ethical dilemma for parent-writers. Who's verison of an adoption is true—the adoptive parent's? the adoptee's? the social worker's? the birth parent's?

In the past decade, a growing crowd of white adoptive parents have written memoirs about adopting internationally, including investigative reporter Jeff Gammage's China Ghosts—the "No. 1 adoption book on Amazon." A smaller number of memoirs by adult Asian adoptees (Jane Jeong Trenka's The Language of Blood, Katy Robinson's A Single Square Picture, Mei-Ling Hopgood's Lucky Girl) counter such parental visions with more complicated identity struggles. As for birth parents, their side of the story is rarely heard.

While the debate about who gets to tell an adoptee's story is healthy, the fuss over Myerson has reduced the dilemma to a clash between those who think she's a bad mom and those who call her brave for speaking out.

But there's another slippery slope for writers as well: not saying enough about difficult topics, especially in the short format of a blog. Anita Tedaldi's controversial New York Times post on a terminated adoption, "My Adopted Son," is disturbing not because it's so heart-breaking (it is) or because she reveals too much (she doesn't). I applaud Tedaldi's honesty—as many have—but I'm troubled by all that is not explained.

Tedaldi, the mother of five biological daughters, describes her failure to bond with a baby boy she adopted from South America:

"[W]hile it was easy, and reassuring, to talk to all these experts about D.’s issues, it was terrifying to look at my own. I had never once considered the possibility that I’d view an adopted child differently than my biological children. The realization that I didn’t feel for D. the same way I felt for my own flesh and blood shook the foundations of who I thought I was."

In many ways, this is an amazing admission, and she's right that this child has likely gone to a better home. Tedaldi does her best to keep his identity anonymous. Yet does she really believe it's easier for a mother to attach to a biological child? Or is it just her? She skirts a hard answer, which leaves this zinger in readers' minds, reinforcing all sorts of stereotypes about adoption.

If she had answered this question, she probably would have received even more criticism, especially from other adoptive parents like me. But at least there would have been a real debate about the elephant in the room.

Tedaldi's post appeared in Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog, and Belkin defends her in a later post, detailing the extremes some commenters went to in unearthing the son's real name in Tedaldi's past work. In "Protecting Your Child's Privacy," Belkin presents this all as a cautionary tale about the ethics of parental memoirs. Yet her discussion has far less bite than an e-mail comment she included from one reader:

"In light of the post by Anita Tedaldi I have a suggestion for a future topic: parental blogging and how it might affect the kids. What’s going to happen in 5 or 10 years (depending on the age of the kids) when they learn how to use Google and find what their parents have been posting about them for the entire world to read?"

Belkin says her basic rule is "no column is worth a relationship”; she clears all references to friends and family with them before publishing anything. Fair enough, but sometimes getting the truth out really does matter. In the bad old days, adoption, for example, was considered a dirty secret that couldn't be discussed.

My rule is to make myself more vulnerable in print than my son, to out my own weaknesses, to call myself to task. So here I sit, typing out my worries, ready to send another post into the blogosphere. I think of my sweet child, sitting beside me and typing his own story on a laptop.

In a recent feature in Brain, Child magazine ("What's My Heritage?"), I consider the aftermath of a difficult family trip we took to Vietnam, his birth country. I close the piece with this anecdote: "He's my son, on his very own planet of one. Last week, he talked about hexagons, all the geometric shapes he's learning about in school. "I wish I could make my own shape.' He smiled to himself. 'I'd make a Saigon.'"

He was delighted to see his name in this article. But to rely on his happy desire "to be famous" now is to fool myself. If I'm not cutting close to the emotional bone, I'm not doing my job as a writer. If I don't feel some guilt—and shut my mouth when appropriate—I'm not doing my job as a parent.

This post originally appeared as an Editor's Pick on Open Salon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Editors and the Best Issue of The New Yorker Ever

By David Biddle for Talking Writing

The December 24, 2007 New Yorker is the best “writer’s edition” of that magazine I’ve ever received in the mail. It offered up the following: fiction by Junot Diaz, Lore Segal, Anne Enright, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Raymond Carver; an essay called “The Science of Reading and its Decline;” a weird little SketchBook by Edward Sorel called “Five Writer’s In Search of Utopia;” a superb and lengthy John Lahr profile of Harold Pinter; a book review by James Woods of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year; a photo book review by the one-and-only Sir John Updike; and two poems by Grace Paley of all people.

Yes, I know – OMG! I was so impressed I bought a copy at Borders and gave it to my good friend Paula as a birthday present.

The most amazing offering in that magazine, though, is the absolutely stunning (to me anyway) bombshell The New Yorker drops on us in “Life and Letters” revealing that editor Gordon Lish is largely responsible for editing Carver’s fiction into the minimalist Kmart realism that has shaped much of America’s fiction for the past 30 years or so. Lish chopped, cut, and even rewrote with abandon, winnowing many of Carver’s most beloved stories down to the skeletons that made him so famous.

After unveiling the true nature of this relationship, letters from Carver to Lish are printed. Spanning from 1969 to 1983, this correspondence is frighteningly honest and heartbreaking. Carver struggled as much with the editing of his work as he did with booze, cigarettes and depression.

Next, the magazine provides us with a full-page photo of Lish’s edit of the last page of B.” Lish has cut 22 of 26 lines and added five of his own.

The magazine goes one better than this. Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, gave permission to The New Yorker to publish the original version of Carver’s final draft of the story “Beginners.” Reading Carver's original and then reading what it became, “What Wee Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is a freaky experience, but also worthy of any writer’s time. Lish cut the story by 40-percent.

I recommend reading the two manuscripts side-by-side and physically marking up Carver’s original based on what Lish did to it. You get a visceral sense of both points of view – the writer’s and the editor’s – all in one. If you’re like me, you will never forget this experience.

All of which, of course, brings up the power of good editors -- and the blessing they are to writers everywhere. It also brings up the question of how much credit a writer should take when his or her editor essentially turns work into something profoundly better than what the writer came up with. Or maybe a better way to look at this is that we need to appreciate the humility good editors possess.

Lish and Carver may provide an extreme (and kind of eerie) example, but I’ve found that many of my projects come out so much better once they’ve been treated by a good editor. I trust them implicitly and explicitly. In fact, while some people look forward to the day they sign their first six-figure advance, I look forward to the day I have an editor so good they earn a six-figure salary.

Needless to say, I look forward to my Tuesday mail every week in hopes that The New Yorker will try to duplicate that December 2007 edition. So far they haven't...

Go here and then to the bottom of the page to see the cover of December 24, 2007 New Yorker; if you're a subscriber, they'll let you have access to the whole edition

For the very latest on the Carver-Lish situation check out the blog entry by Jeff Simon of The Buffalo News here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

WOMEN = BOOKS: A New Blog About Women's Books, Politics, and Life

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

I'm happy to announce that WOMEN = BOOKS, the new blog for the Women's Review of Books, is up and running. Check out the first contributor's post by Frances Kissling, "Blogging for Bottle Caps." Frances is a terrific writer and commentator at Salon and RH Reality Check, among other venues, and her piece about the value of blogging for professional writers should strike a chord with many of us toiling in the online world for little pay.

"Use it," she says, "it" being this new dynamic medium for columnists and other writers. Frances argues that blogs provide much more space to discuss ideas than the New York Times. You can publish whenever you want—no more biting your fingernails waiting for an editor to say yea or nay—and perhaps, most important, blogging allows writers to work out their ideas before diving into more complicated print features and opinion pieces.

The blurb for WOMEN = BOOKS follows. Help spread the word by sharing the link, joining the Facebook Group for the Women's Review of Books, and commenting on the blog.

WOMEN = BOOKS: The Women's Review of Books Blog

If ever there were a time for women to connect, it’s now. WOMEN = BOOKS will create an online community that can jump national and cultural boundaries. Women’s Review of Books has always been about jumping barriers: between feminist academics and political organizers, theory and practice. Now WOMEN = BOOKS will extend the print edition’s range, expanding its audience and the conversation about women’s books, politics, and life. The blog will include posts from selected reviewers and authors from each issue. Readers can comment, building a network for intelligent debate about everything from women in the military to abortion rights to childcare to sex trafficking. Blog comments will be moderated, making it a safe place for discussion of controversial topics. WOMEN = BOOKS will be the new go-to link for women’s studies and feminist organizing, using the power of social networking to help keep the women’s movement alive.

Join the conversation at WOMEN = BOOKS. We publish posts by contributing writers, with a new post every week. The blog is edited by Martha Nichols, a long-time contributing editor at WRB. If you would like to write for the blog, please contact Martha.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An awfully big adventure?

By Elizabeth Langosy for Talking Writing

9/9/09 seems like an auspicious day to start blogging. No one has succeeded in convincing me (despite more attempts than I care to recall) that dates and times that align do not have mystical significance. When I glance at the clock and it reads 11:11, all is right with the world.

My entrance into the blogosphere is made possible by my decision, six months ago, to accept an early retirement offer from Harvard University so that I could focus on writing short stories. At that moment, I was 58, exactly half a century older than I was when I discovered that books did not magically appear in shops and libraries but were created by people who wrote down stories they made up. What a fantastic concept! I immediately knew that I wanted to be a fiction writer when I grew up. Not only did I love to read, but I was constantly inventing stories in my head. I never gave up on that dream—it just took me a very long time to get here.

In the past five decades, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to put words together to convey everything from the benefits of a home database to the emptiness of a shattered friendship. I married an artist, raised two daughters, and worked full-time at a freewheeling assemblage of mostly creative jobs that included stints as a computer game designer, video scriptwriter, and communications manager. I wrote fiction in spurts of varying intensity, in inverse proportion to the intensity of whatever job I happened to have at the time and the amount of guilt I felt in squirreling myself away from my family on fleeting weekends at home.

Then, with seven years to go before my expected retirement date and the freedom to finally focus on my own writing, I suddenly found myself with the chance to do it NOW. And exactly where am I now? Well, let’s see…I’m a Harvard retiree (as of one week ago) living in a happy, somewhat chaotic two-family house with my artist husband, oldest daughter, son-in-law, and two irresistible grandchildren, ages three and five. My younger daughter, who recently moved back to Boston from Los Angeles to be closer to all of us, lives around the corner. I have a room of my own—the former pantry of the 1890 Victorian that was converted into the two-family—that contains the essentials for fiction-writing and has great views of my daylily garden and the sunset.

I’ve spent the past week clearing my writing desk of accumulated junk mail, Spongebob Squarepants tattoos, old business cards, outdated Whole Foods coupon books, stray buttons and coins, and other detritus of a too-busy life. The opportunity I’ve been waiting for is at hand. I have three stories drafted and honed over the past decade and new (perhaps better) ideas on the back burner. The Writer’s Market lists both literary agents and magazine editors. Poets & Writers warns of approaching contest deadlines. My loyal writers group waits for my manuscripts, red pens poised.

Now where do I begin?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Antonia Vs. Harry Potter: Crunching the Great Books

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

"Reading by the Numbers" is an excellent but disturbing New York Times essay by novelist Susan Straight that's worth getting up in arms about. In it, Straight reflects on the rise of Accelerated Reader, a "reading management" software system produced by Renaissance Learning. Accelerated Reader is used by upwards of 75,000 schools around the country, writes Straight. Participating students get points for reading books, with a goal of 50 points for outside reading in a given class.

The problem? How books are rated. Straight notes that she delved into the mathematics of the ratings system, which likely has something to do with page length, average sentence difficulty, and percentage of tough vocabulary words. But in this scheme, Straight says that Willa Cather's My Antonia gets 14 points, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix get 44.

I like the Harry Potter books just fine, but comparing one to My Antonia is not only apples and oranges; it's simply the wrong message about what makes a great book great.

Renaissance Learning's web site carries the tagline: "Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools." (The link to Straight's essay was sent to me by writer Jeanne Schinto via Facebook.) But how do you measure character development and emotional catharsis?

I'm still searching for answers to those questions. I'd also like to know what other people think about sparking a love of reading in children: How do we do it? What matters most? I'd be especially interested in hearing from teachers.

The comments to Schinto's link to the essay on Facebook—which she titled "Outrageous"—evolved into a discussion of who liked or didn't like Harry Potter. I noted a similar back-and-forth on the Facebook comments about Karen Ohlson's "The Real Trouble with Twilight," which was first published on Talking Writing. Another long comment stream followed "I Won't Read Moby Dick and You Can't Make Me" on Open Salon, in which various participants debated whether children should be allowed to read whatever they want for credit in school or forced to read great books.

I think you do both. I believe teaching students to be critical thinkers about what they're reading, whether it's a Twilight book or Pride and Prejudice, is crucial. But giving kids points for reading books neither encourages analysis (although Renaissance Learning would claim its system of quizzes does just that) nor a love of reading.

Consider this excerpt from Straight's essay and all it says about how great novels expand our notion of the world in ways that can never be quantified:

One day last spring, after my eighth-grade daughter finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” (assigned reading for class), she sat on the couch, thoughtful and silent for a long time. Then she looked over at me and said: “I think that was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And not everybody could understand it. But I do. Especially Tom Robinson.”

Her father is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and black. We talked about how American society has historically projected racial fear onto innocent men, and about how Harper Lee portrayed the town of Maycomb so vividly that you could see the streets and porches...

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth 15 points.