The Parent Trap & Other Potential Pitfalls of Writing What You Know

Robin Black

Feb 20, 2015

There isn’t much about parenting that I don’t know. Mothering, specifically. A caveat though: I mean, mothering with a good dose of privilege, including financial security. But within that fortunate realm, I have been at this mothering thing more than half my life. I have been a happily married mom, an unhappily married mom, a single mom, a blended family mom, a stay-at-home mom, a working mom. I have a child with special needs. I have had a stillborn child. I have children who are academic superstars. Children who have been through depressions. Children who have had periods of being angry at me. I have straight children. I have a gay child. I had a married child – and now I have a divorcing one.

Write what you know, they say. Mothering is what I know. Or anyway, it’s where the bulk of my experience lies. And I have loved being a mother. I do love being a mother. I’m one of those mothers who touches base with her grown kids nearly every day, who counts them among her closest friends. I send them treacle-sweet texts with hearts and such. I end each phone call with a giant “MWAH!” – and so do they. It’s all a little revoltingly cute. . .And yet. . .

When my story collection came out, a collection very much about relationships between parents and children, I was often asked – in carefully worded terms – why  a notable number of the mothers in the book were so. . . whatever the opposite of warm and fuzzy is. So severe. So unsentimental about their children. Where was the gushing? The snuggling? Where the adoration? The idealization?

It was a funny question, but a fair one. Funny, because the kind of mother missing from the bulk of my stories is in many ways the kind I have been, the kind I am. And my own mother is a big ol’ softy. So whence these rather severe women I had created, all viewing their offspring with a decidedly jaundiced eye?

I wasn’t really sure.


After the stories came out, I started to try (and try, and try) to write a novel, and all my forays were again heavy on parent/child themes. That wasn’t a conscious decision, just an unexamined continuation of the assumption that I should write what I know. And I was aware, as I began failed attempt after failed attempt, that the mothers in these pieces were again unsentimental to the point of being acerbic. Their relationships with their children were uniformly cool, bordering on frosty. They saw flaws far more easily than they perceived any characteristics you might term loveable. And I saw that these forays were only that: Forays. None made it past fifty pages, though quite a few did make it that far. But then I grew bored, and the projects died, one by one, one and all.

Many elements went into my sudden undying attachment to the novel I ended up writing, but a still vivid turning point was the decision to make my central couple childless. Not only that, I made my narrator, a woman, motherless as well. I took the subject of maternity out of the center of the work; and it was off to the races. I never looked back.

A confession: I love being a parent but I do not find the subject of parenting particularly interesting in the abstract. I have learned this about myself by reading my own work – and by producing it. In spite of having written so much about mothering, I’m not especially keen on the subject of parent/child relationships in fiction. Especially when it comes to young children. Friendship has led me to read some stellar novels primarily about that, but going by jacket copy alone, I would be unlikely to pick one up.

I’m tempted here to offer explanations for my preferences, but doing so would imply that this particular preference requires a defense beyond just the fact that some of us are interested in one thing, others of us in other things. And it should not, and so I won’t.

I didn’t know that motherhood wasn’t particularly my thing, fictionally speaking, during the eight years when I wrote my story collection. Maybe, with my children still so young, my footing in the writing world unsteady at best, I couldn’t let myself know it. The subject seemed to belong to me, and I had a lot of reasons not to perceive any limits to that. But my evolving theory is that these cold mothers of mine were a kind of grudging unconscious compromise between the reality of motherhood being my primary area of expertise for all my adult years, and my own intellectual neutrality on the subject. It seems possible, even likely, that those women are the embodiments of my ambivalence not about mothering but about my assumption that I had been elected by fate to write about it – a lot. I imagine them now, these severe moms, as stand-ins for my saying outright, “I may have been a stay-at-home mother for all my adult life, but please do not assume that means I’m some kind of baby-crazy, sentimental nurture machine, endlessly fascinated by the subject of the mother-child bond. Because I’m not.”

But that’s just me. Well, it’s me and the many  (many!) aspiring writers I know, most if not all women, who have said to me some some version of: “I know I’m supposed to write what I know, but I’ve been a housewife for twenty years. And no one wants to hear about that. I don’t even want to hear about that. . .”

Or actually this isn’t even about just me and them. Full-time stay-at-home parents can’t be the only people who find a disconnect between the life they have led, through choice or fear or who–knows-what, and their creative, intellectual concerns. (Nor do all stay-at-home parents find the subject distant from their creative selves, as I do. Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea: I am NOT saying that mothering is inherently uninteresting or an unintellectual pursuit. Just that it, as a subject, isn’t what most interests me – in spite of how I have lived my life.)

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the particular nature of my expertise, that of a stay-at-home mother, led to a timidity of imagination in me, one against which I still fight. We stay-at-home mothers are not culturally encouraged to be bold or adventurous, even in matters intellectual. I have only to conjure the looks of indulgent condescension I received  - from outside my family - when I first admitted to “wanting to write” to remember just how discouraged I was to do so, much less to write about anything presuming to be distinct from my role as a woman primarily occupied in child-rearing. (I cannot tell you how many people assumed I meant children’s books. . .) Some of that has changed, I think, I hope, with the internet, with greater communication from home to home, but twenty years ago, when I was in the thick of it, a shocking number of antiquated messages about what it meant about one’s intellectual capacities to be at home with the kids still came through loud and clear.

I am hardly the first person to suggest that the phrase “write what you know” is a problematic one. To the extent that the advice honors a writer’s history, however different from what is traditionally thought of as “literary,” it is doubtless an encouraging, affirming thing to say. But it is also an inherently limiting mandate that assumes that you are artistically shackled to your life as lived. And I’ll just say it: I think that’s bad. For many reasons, including that authenticity of experience is by no means the only kind of authenticity that produces the best work. Authenticity of interest, the author’s own interest, is at least as mighty an engine, I would think.

When I was writing my novel, on the inevitable low days, when I had lost the thread – not of the plot, but of the project - I often fell back on the old advice, “Write the book that is missing from your shelf, the one you wish that you could read. . .”  And  that gave me the inspiration I needed. Not because it reminded me of what I know, but because it reminded me of why I write, why I care about this process at all, why it is important to me, how it saved my life when I was an unhappy child, how liberating story-telling can be particularly from the facts of one’s own existence, how mysterious, how beautiful, how incomprehensible that power, how impossible to understand. How very important a role is played in any act of imagination by what is not already known.

The book I most wanted to read was a book that could teach me more than I could teach it.

Does this mean that the next novel I write will be about people who have absolutely nothing in common with me? Will it require decades of research? Flights of fancy the likes of which I’ve never taken in the past?

I have no idea. And that’s the point. But from now on, when I write a mother who is a little severe on the subject of her children, a little tough on them, you can bet that I’ll be doing it on purpose and not unknowingly voicing a complaint about my misunderstanding of what art I am allowed to make.