Just as investors are implored to invest in what they know, so are writers told to write about what they know. Yet, it is far easier to invest in something you don’t know anything about than it is to write about something you know nothing about.
In the first case, only you, your financial advisor and perhaps your family know that you don’t know. In the second case the whole world—that is, your readers—knows.
If you are a mother, the chances are that you know your children better than anyone else. If you are a mother and a writer, like Elizabeth Bastos, you have probably succumbed to the temptation to write about your children, perhaps even ab ovo.
Why did Bastos do it? Simple, there is a market for stories about childrearing. It isn’t exactly universal, but great authors, from Charles Dickens to Henry James have written great works about children. One might say that they did not write about their own children—James was childless—but childrearing is certainly an apt topic for writers.
Of course, these writers tended to observe certain cultural norms, the ones that dictate discretion.
Nowadays, these norms no longer seem to apply. As Bastos points out, we live in a culture of oversharing, a culture of shamelessness. This does not merely mean that the norms have broken down, but that people are encouraged to expose their most intimate secrets to the public eye. They are told that it is good for them and good for the culture. They are told that shame is bad and that it represses your sexual impulses. Thus, exposing yourself by letting it all hang out is good, Hiding our private parts is bad.
I mention this just in case you wanted to know why so many teenagers are engaged in the appalling practice of sexting.
Culture warriors think that they are the vanguard leading to the revolution. They are, in fact, promoting decadence, leading to what Camille Paglia called cultural collapse.
For her part, Bastos had blogged extensively about her children. People loved reading about them. But then, one day, without thinking, she posted some remarks on the advent of her son’s puberty.
She describes her work:
There is a hunger in our culture for true stories from the parenting trenches where life is lived mud-flecked and raw. I’ve written extensively, intimately, damningly, about my children for seven years without once thinking about it from the point of view of their feelings and their privacy. A few months ago I stopped.
What was it that brought her to her senses? She tells it all:
I wish I could say that I deeply reflected on the ethics of writing about my children and heroically pivoted myself out of a concern for my character, but here’s what really happened: My father called.
He called me after reading a blog post I had written about my son’s first signs of puberty. It seems an obvious line-crossing that I wrote about such an intimate detail, but I did. At the time I didn’t pause for a split second; I was more than willing to go there. I had been writing and reading extensively about parenting tweens. I knew people might be mildly shocked, but mostly interested.
Of course, people are interested:
We live in a break-the-internet arms race of oversharing. And adolescent sexuality is an emergent, fascinating topic, especially for parents who are figuring out how to address difficult questions with their children.
But, in this case, her father knew best. And he tried, delicately, to bring her to her senses, to allow her to reflect on what she was doing, to recover her sense of shame.
The father’s rhetoric, I suggest, is worth a few moments of thought. It is not accusatory. It does not tell her what to do or what not to do. It suggests that she give more thought to what she is doing. He is addressing an adult:
But when my dad said, “Elizabeth, are you pausing to deeply consider what you’re writing about?” I wanted to get defensive. I said, “Uh. I kinda perceive myself as a confessional poet, Dad,” I said, “Heir to Plath, Sexton and Sharon Olds. And the photographer Sally Mann, if I’m honest, Dad.”
But he said, “I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about my grandson.”
And that is how a younger person, caught up in the thrill of writing, rediscovered her responsibility as a parent, and, as quaint as it must seem, her sense of shame.
She discovered that, Nora Ephron notwithstanding, not everything is copy:
So began my wrestling with my relationship with the Nora Ephron line, “Everything is copy.” Until now it has been my battle cry and artistic excuse for printing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with very blinkered vision. Maybe, in fact, not everything is copy. Maybe it’s people’s lives, and we should be considerate and loving and respectful of their privacy. It’s a new point of view for me in our clickbait culture of confessionalism and parading nakedness.
My children didn’t give me their permission to tell their stories, or strike poses in a waterfall, naked, gorgeous as all get out, and human, with lives ahead of them, as Sally Mann posed hers. And now that I see that, I don’t want to mar my children’s glory and subvert their beginnings for my so-called art.
Where should Bastos have drawn the line? At sex, of course. Since shame is a universal sanction for exposing one’s private parts in public, it ought also to apply to writing about a child’s sexuality.
Recovering her sense of shame left Bastos wanting a subject. She could have continued writing certain things about her children. After all, her father did not object to anything but the reference to puberty.
And yet, she extrapolated his remark and chose to give her children back their complete privacy. Teenager are notoriously sensitive. If you do not know for sure what will and will not embarrass them, it is best to avoid the topic altogether. Now, after facing the choice of writing about what is inside herself or what is outside herself, she has chosen to write about things outside of herself. It beats looking inside herself.
In the old days, and perhaps even today, artists learn to draw by drawing models, not by searching their souls or the depths of their being.
Obviously, the world is full of places, people and things to write about. You readers might be fascinated by your children’s sexuality and by your children. True enough, not everything you write about your children crosses the line that Bastos had crossed. But, why take the risk when you can write about nature and the environment.
If I’m going to continue writing, I realize I need to find some new material, and for that I’m going to have to look more deeply within myself or entirely outside. For inspiration I have turned to writing about nature. The environment. The sea. Things that are bigger than me. I’ve been reading John Muir. I’ve been reading “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Nature is for all to see. Nurture is between me and my kids, off the record.