Tag Archives: writers

A writer’s responsibility

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, once said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Quoting a Nobel laureate makes me sound terribly erudite, doesn’t it? The truth is, I’d never heard of Czeslaw Milosz until I read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. Shteyngart used that quote in his book and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since.

It’s certainly true that we writers often use our families for material, if only because we draw on our experiences, many of which, particularly from our formative years, are inextricably entwined with theirs. If we borrow physical aspects or behavioral characteristics from a family member, the average reader will never know, but the borrow-ee will. Nervous family members may even find resemblances where none were intended.

In my blog, I often write explicitly about my family, making no attempt to hide a subject’s identity. I try not to “out” anyone’s secrets, or get too close to a subject that I think will upset someone, although it happened once. I wrote a post that hurt someone’s feelings and I was chastened, even though it wasn’t intentional and certainly not done with malice. I think if you’re going to claim as Milosz did, that the family is finished, the writer’s intent should be considered before guilt is assessed.

As a writer, I am intrigued by the feeling of power the quote gives me. As a reader, it is the phrase, the family is finished, that tugs at my heart. It sparked this thought: When a family member leaves, the family as you know it is finished. Since my first blog post in January, 2010, I’ve been remarkably restrained when it comes to writing about my estranged sister. A search of my posts confirms that not only have I never mentioned her by name, but this is the first time I’ve used the word estranged. When I read Milosz’ quote, the writer in me got tangled up with the child in me. I always thought that if I wrote about my absent sister I would be blamed for upsetting the family. And the fear of that has always been stronger than my urge to use her as material. But I’m over that.

In the earlier years, my sister was estranged from everyone in the family—except me. In deference to my other sister’s feelings, the absent sister was not spoken of at family gatherings; she was effectively “disappeared.” I was desperately unhappy with that decision, but no one seemed to care. That period was very painful for me, even when I, too, eventually became persona non grata.

My sister’s withdrawal from the family changed all of us. Her absence even had an impact on those who had not yet been born when she left. In her absence, the family reinvented itself. We are smaller, but no longer diminished. It’s been almost eighteen years since I last spoke to her, and I no longer want to. My heart was broken, but it has healed. I’m not interested in a rapprochement.

As a writer, I’m grateful for the material she left me with. Perhaps it’s true that, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” but my original family, the family I knew as a child, was not finished off by this writer.

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Why do writers spend money?

It’s expensive to be a struggling writer; there are organizations to join, dues to be paid, subscriptions to maintain and conferences to attend. And the earlier you are in your journey to the holy grail of publication the more you tend to spend. In the beginning, I spent money to learn the craft, with classes online and at local writing enclaves like Grub Street. Then I started to attend conferences sponsored by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) so I could learn more about the business of publishing and broaden my network. After several years of that, I am reasonably confident that my work is solid and that I understand how the publishing game is played. You would think that would mean that I could save my money and stay home, but you’d be wrong. Writing is a lonely job, and the best way to combat that is to get out and mingle with other writers.

Last week, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a small conference in Rhode Island called Whispering Pines. The conference is sixteen or seventeen years old and is run under the auspices of the SCBWI and managed, in recent years, as a labor of love by an author named Lynda Mullaly Hunt. One of the many things she does to make the retreat a success is entice industry folks, agents, editors, authors and illustrators, to attend as mentors. Each attendee submits pages ahead of time that are then shared with one of the mentors who arrive at Whispering Pines ready to provide a critique. Every newbie hopes that they will have been assigned to an agent or editor who will love their work so much that they will sign them on the spot—until we discover that the best critiques come from the authors.

Agents and editors read hundreds, thousands, of query letters, first pages and partial manuscripts every year. The chances are that even if they started their careers as warm, nurturing, idealists, they’ve been worn down by the sheer volume of material they are bombarded with daily. As one editor explained, she can tell immediately if she’s interested in a submission—immediately. She scans the first paragraph and, most times, hits the delete key. Now, that doesn’t mean that she can’t give an excellent critique, but explaining why a non-agented submission isn’t good enough is not typically part of her job.

Authors tend to have a more empathetic approach. I assume that’s because they remember being on the receiving end of rejection. And that was certainly my experience at Whispering Pines when I had the opportunity to spend half an hour with Leslie Connor, the author of the picture book Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel (illustrated by the incomparable Vermont artist Mary Azarian), and middle grade novels including Waiting for Normal and Crunch. Her demeanor was warm and friendly, and her critique was thoughtful and thorough. I clearly still have work to do, but I left our meeting armed with all kinds of good ideas, encouraged and eager to get back to work.

And that is why writers continue to spend money on conferences; to remind ourselves that we’re not alone; to commune with people who understand what we’re going through; and to build up our creative reserves until the next time we can all come together. I consider it money well spent.