The Story Teller and Family LifeThomas Beller
I saw a girl walking quickly after a boy on the sidelines of a high school football game, recently. Neither were running, exactly, but something was going on. He was wearing a white hat.
The girl passed my Evangeline, who came up to her waist, more or less, and tapped her on the chest. An odd gesture. I wasn’t sure if it meant, “Excuse me,” or, “One day you will be doing this, too.”
What she was doing was chasing down her hat. When she caught up to the boy she snatched the hat off his head. Then she reversed course, an abrupt about face, and returned to her group of friends wearing her hat.
A little while later I saw the same boy walking at the same brisk pace, but with a different hat, followed by a different girl. The scenario ended as it had before, with a brusquely reposessed hat, the girl marching away. The boy’s express, after the chace was over, was cool, deadpan. A serial offender. A dance everyone likes to dance, but you can’t really let on to enjoying it.
Once or a twice or month there is a brief outburst of self-examination, anxiety, and anger, among people who write about their children, or who write about the experience of having children, which is similar but not quite the same. A provocation like “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn,” or “We post nothing about our daughter online,” comes along. It’s like the collective identity of the Mommy Bloggers – a group which encompasses the Daddy Bloggers, somehow – has had its hat snatched.
The piece about keeping pictures of your child off the Internet seems, at first, to be about the ethics of respecting a child’s privacy and preserving their anonymity, but turns out to be about maximizing your kid’s brand potential. In fairness, it promotes letting the child make decisions about how they are presented to the world when they are old enough to do so. The article was about photographs, but its central issue is about who controls the narrative. Is it fair to use children as accessories?
Its subtext, the bait on the hook, is: “You are doing something wrong.”
One of the paradoxes of being parent today, I feel, is a desire to be advised on how to do any number of very important things, which co-exists with a heightened sensitivity to any criticism about how one is going about the mysterious task of raising children. Part of thus dynamic is how important we have made ourselves in this narrative.
“Parent” used as a noun. Now it’s also a verb.
“Mommy blogging,” by extension, is a newish phrase. But it’s not a new thing.
The internet is new. Writing for it has a slightly different dynamic than writing for print publication. But Mommy Blogging is mostly autobiographical writing and as old as the hills. There is a word for a person who writes things: “Writer.”
I am not against the phrase “Mommy blogging” or the impulse behind it. As Lauren Apfel puts it, “Becoming a mother is, without question, the most fascinating thing that has happened to me. The topics are endless. The emotion is high. The self-understanding it inspires is legendary. It’s the perfect storm for me, really.”
Ditto for being a father.
But Apfel’s words, positive though they are, were quoted in a Daily Beast piece that takes umbrage that a woman with her credentials would be a Mommy Blogger. Would they feel the same way if she were simply a writer?
Writing — fiction and nonfiction alike — has often involved a preoccupation with family dynamics, but “Mommy Blogging” as a genre is often discussed as if it were different thing altogether.
Why is this?
Perhaps the answer can be found in a quip by the poet and Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
Milosz came to read at my college way back when. Such was my state of mind, at the time, that the one thing I recall about his visit was that he wore a 900-year-old gold ring that had descended to him through his aristocratic Polish ancestors. He is known for his poetry and memoir, but his book that I most enjoy is his first, Native Realm, about the mindset of living in Stalinist Poland, where your secrets were never safe.
Perhaps this informed his feelings about writing and the family — a family is vulnerable to the intrusions of state or corporate surveillance into its private affairs. A family is also vulnerable if there is a spy in their midst.
The basic truth of Milosz’s quote does not mean that all writing stems from malevolence. But as Tolstoy noted, what makes for harmonious family life is not the same as what makes for interesting writing. The two priorities are bound to conflict. In all likelihood both sides will suffer some losses. But also some gains. Perhaps the frisson around “Mommy-bloggers” has to do with an observation of the esteemed short story writer William Trevor, who once remarked, “The writer and the person are two very separate entities.” He was talking about fiction. But even in non-fiction the writer and the character are separate entities, or need to be seen that way by the author (A dynamic explored in To Show and To Tell: The craft of literary Nonfiction, by wonderfully modest Phillip Lopate.)
It’s possible that it is the sheer cognitive dissonance of this fact – the secret self of the writer that exists apart from the actual person in the room – that makes for the blind spot in otherwise intelligent discussions of Mommy-blogging , such as this one. Why would Lauren Apfel. That she now writes about family life is presented with certain amazement.
Why do mothers write? “Fame, Money, and the Love Of Women,” is Freud’s famous explanation. But he was talking about men. For parent bloggers this would have to be modified, though by how much? A woman writing about being a parent may not be too different from a woman putting on make-up, a gesture that only men think is done for their benefit.
One perspective on why the Mommy Bloggers might be perfectly happy to steer clear of more conventional literary self-definition (“I’m not ruining my family, I’m just cracking jokes while sharing some personal experiences and some recipes!”) can be found in a fascinating essay by James Wood in the New Yorker, titled, “Sins of the Father.”
The premise of the essay was a review of “Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir,” written by Bellow’s oldest son Greg. The piece was, in part, a fairly straightforward assessment of a confessional book by the son of a great man. Wood takes a very dim view of this book — less tactfully, he rips it to shreds. But his piece was bifurcated into two parts, and it is only in the second part that he examines Greg Bellow’s book about his father.
What I found fascinating about this essay was the long preface that preceded the conventional book review. A kind of mini-essay in its own right, Wood begins by discussing the work of three daughters of famous writers, all of whom became writers themselves and went on to write memoirs about their fathers. The three-father/daughter writing duets are: John Cheever and Susan Cheever, author of Home Before Dark. Bernard Malamud and Janna Malamud Smith, author of My Father is a Book. And William Styron and his daughter Alexandra Styron author of Reading My Father.
Wood begins with a quote from the Philosopher George Steiner, who once said, “doing philosophy was incompatible with domestic life.” And he then moves on to Tolstoy’s diary entry from 1863: “Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.”
“Perhaps,” writes Wood, rather provocatively, since he is married to the esteemed novelist Clair Messud, with whom he has children, “the story teller is especially ill suited for happy family life.”
“John Cheever belonged to a generation of (mostly male) American writers who held a romantic idea of what it meant ‘to be a writer.'” One could, perhaps, substitute, ‘self-servingly bombastic’ for ‘romantic, ” or simply read DFW’s famous “Literary Phalocrat” essay, directed not at these specific writers but certainly at their generation.
I have not read these three daughter memoirs in their entirety — though I have read parts of them. A book I have read closely, and which looms over Wood’s commentary on the trio cited here, is Margaret Salinger’s “Dream Catcher.”
This is the big daddy of literary father-daughter memoirs, if only because Salinger, along with Nabokov, is probably the most famous writer in our culture. Also because of how the subject of revenge is explicit in the very act of its writing, given the role of privacy in Salinger’s life and work. That Wood chose to skip a discussion of this memoir I attribute to the sheer knotty weirdness of both Salingers — father and daughter. Still, reading Margaret Salinger’s book is chilling in the way it alternates between reproach, even rage, and love. That every syllable that cast light on J.D. Salinger’s private life was an explicit act of hostility to her subject provides an added tension.
Attention, and who gets it, is the heart of the book. In Margaret’s case, she battles the feeling that her father is happier spending time with his other family, figuratively but in a way literally, the one he summoned out of his own imagination and kept in writing hut out back, thirty yards away from the house, where he would disappear for days at a time. Unacknowledged, but also powerfully felt, is an anger about inheritance. In some ways it’s the oldest story — who gets the family jewels? But this one is complicated by the fact that the wealth in question here is an ineffable talent for humor, concision, dialog, which unlike a jewel, a house, or a title, is not transferable by any conscious act of will — in all senses of that word.
“You’re cursed with a readable face,” Salinger once said to his daughter, when she was upset about an injustice taking place during her high school years. The corollary is not that Salinger is blessed with a poker face that you cannot read, or that he wishes his daughter had this quality. The implication, which we infer partly from the book we are reading, is that his daughter is not blessed with the ability to read a face, or to write one either. (“She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped absolutely nothing,” being one famous example of Salinger’s ability to sum up a person quickly.
If I am going to chastise Wood for leaving his own concerns and projections out of his piece then I have to include the concerns that fuel my writing of this one: Will my children be mad at me at some later date for having written about them as little kids?
Wait, stop right there — yes they will, of course they will, all kids get mad at their parents more or less for existing, but for how long? Will they be mad at me for having written fictional stories that, autobiographical or not, are utterly embarrassing to myself and therefore to them? Or will they simply avoid the stuff I write for as long as possible, as the children of many writers do. I don’t think James Salter’s grown up son has ever read a word his father has written. And if this is what happens with my kids, will I be relieved, or will I begrudge them this avoidance of all my work?
It’s true that the current crop of toddlers will be breaking new ground as they grow up surrounded by endless documentation of years they would otherwise forget. Their parents are likewise on the cutting edge of opportunities to share, and over share. The concern has been voiced that this sharing could be damaging to the children, who might feel like an accessory. I have had some concerns about this, too. But I think one can turn to Milosz for solace, as well. His vision of a writer is a person whose “childhood does not end and who preserves in himself something of the child throughout life.”
I don’t take this as a mandate to be immature, but rather to be speculative, whimsical, to forget the forest for love of a single tree. This is a frame of mind not great for making a living but very conducive to writing.
“Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?” asks George Steiner, in the lead of Wood’s essay. It gives me a glimmer of another way of looking at this conundrum, one to which I owe some of the wisdom of the Mommy Bloggers, not to mention my own mother: you want to be a model for your children. And one important aspect of this is to be committed to work that you think is valuable. Whether it generates any monetary value is another, separate matter. “It had taken my father twenty five years to publish a novel and two collections of stories,” writes Susan Cheever, who probably had to endure a more difficult posthumous relationship with the work of her father than most, when his diaries came to light. What I hear within that phrase about her father’s work is a challenge — to recognize what was lost in having a father committed to literary vocation, and what was gained.