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When 'What You Know' Says, "No!"
It's the advice that I heard from the very first meeting of my "Creative Writing 101" class back in college, the advice that was repeated to me as I began my writing career, the advice so elementary it really doesn't need to be said--but is, an often.
"Write what you know," they told me. "Write what you know."
And for a while, this worked pretty well for me. After all, 'what I know' is quite similar to the things most people know--house and home fries, kids and Kool Aid, jobs and junk drawers. People could easily relate to my essays, which were filled with the hectic household that results when you take a working mom with ambition, big dreams and a whopper migraine and throw four very individual children into the mix.
"What would you write about if you didn't have four kids?" friends have asked after reading my weekly column, which would detail Max's all-night adventures (that child just didn't sleep!) the latest in laundry room escapades or Sean's little league tryout.
"I would write what I know," I answer, figuring that if I didn't have four children, I would have time to know other things (are there other things?).
Then something unexpected happened. 'What I know' said, "No!"
I guess I should have seen it coming. When I was first published, my children clamored to see their names in print. If one of them did something particularly clever or cute, he would make sure I took note. "Isn't this a great tree house?" Steven would ask, his jeans torn and in his hands, the remains of his father's toolbox. "Maybe you should write about it."
After a while, of course, the thrill faded. The kids didn't even read my column, busy doing the things that kids do (and that writing mothers write about). If I pointed out a piece of my writing to them, they would roll their eyes and act extremely bored. "Look, see that cover line? I wrote that story," I pointed out to one when my interview with an attachment parenting expert was mentioned on the cover of a regional parenting guide.
My child looked to the heavens, exasperated. "Oh, God, don't tell me it's about us!"
And as they grew older, they grew tired of having their every move documented (and, okay, giggled at) by that traitor they knew as Mom.
It wasn't long before I had a mutiny on my hands.
"It's not fair! The whole world doesn't have to know about my reading problems," moaned one when I wrote a story about special education. (I tried to argue that 'the whole world' doesn't read our local paper, but he wasn't buying--his 'whole world', which included his family, his neighbors and the kids in the school yard, seemed to have caught that week's column.)
Then it became worse. "Don't look at me!" my child squealed, as I watched him spread peanut butter on a cold pizza crust one morning.
"You don't see me, you just see column fodder!" (Should I admit to thinking of writing an essay about the amazing eating habits of the North American preteen as he went into this tirade?)
"Do you really want to spend time with me, or do you just have writer's block?" asked another son when I suggested a trip to the bowling alley. (Okay, so I confess to having thought up some clever quips centering around the words 'gutter ball'.)
And finally came the boycott. "What are you doing this weekend? Anything planned?" I inquired one Friday. (Honestly, I was being motherly--and not looking for storylines--well, not this time, anyway.)
"Nothing, okay? Just nothing!" my son declared. "So I guess there will be empty space in The Times on Sunday, right?"
'Write what you know' they told me. The advice had served me well. But I was faced with a new dilemma. What happens when 'what I know' decides they don't want to know me any more?
Obviously we needed a compromise. I couldn't stop writing about my children--after all, their lives and mine were entangled. I mean, let's face it, I used to know best-sellers and national politics; now I'm an expert on Barney and Hooked on Phonics. I couldn't even fake being up on what's hip and fashionable (c'mon, my last haircut was in the late '80's, right after the birth of...oh, wait, I'm not supposed to talk about her!)
But just as much as I needed to be able to write about what happens to me, my kids needed the privacy to grow without being teased about having a crush on the Spice Girls or hearing the girls at the next lunch table discussing his footie pajamas. (Note: all of this is fictional, of course, and used only as an example...well, maybe one of my boys did sorta kinda like Posh Spice, but only until Brittany Spears put out her latest single.)
So we came up with an agreement (actually, I think they came up with a plan and I was forced to agree under threat of having a Fluffernutter sandwich thrust into my floppy drive.) They'll live their lives, I'll live mine--and if there is a point of intersection, I can write about it. (So an essay on how one of my brood believes that McFlurries is a food group is out of bounds, but the manners displayed at our dinner table is fair fame.)
Of course, as the parent, I do get the ultimate exception to the rule. After all, what good is having a weekly column if you can't use it to keep your offspring in line? "Remember, curfew is at nine," I yelled over my shoulder to one of my children earlier this week.
"And if you come in a minute later, the whole world will read about it on Sunday."
Mary Dixon Weidler is a freelance writer, newspaper columnist and employment counselor. She lives in West Deptford, NJ, with her four children who on occasion begrudgingly say "Yes". Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.