On the eve of a homecoming reading for my first book of poems, I empathized with Chava from Fiddler on the Roof in the moments before her father disowned her. I imagined my mother at the helm of her suburban stationery business, pontificating on calligraphy. Then I thought about how frequently the word fingerbang appears in my book. Combing the pages for family-friendly poems, I found four.
Maybe I'm chicken. Nowadays, memoirs of the social and psychological underbelly are commonplace. Sometimes it seems like every sex worker inevitably becomes a memoirist. Considering the abundance of these texts, I'm surprised more has not been written about navigating the parent-child relationship as a writer. Have we reached a consensus that putting an ISBN on one's life story is to be expected?
"I always, perhaps perversely, told my parents all sorts of things they probably didn't want to know about me for years," says Rachel Shukert, author of the memoir Everything Is Going To Be Great.
"So when my first book came out, what they imagined was much worse than anything I had written and they were oddly relieved. Also, writing eradicated a weird compulsion to confess things to them. I mean, now I had a much larger audience."
"My parents are bizarrely supportive. They'll read everything I write... But sometimes they'll just read something and tell me how proud they are of me and not say a word about what I wrote. That's when I know they hate it," says Matthue Roth, author of both a memoir and young adult novels.
"Honestly, I think they're cool with the sketchy stuff -- despite being conservative people who wear collared shirts on weekends and think that Celine Dion is edgy -- as long as it's not actually true. I started telling people that my memoir was 'mostly lies.'"
In some ways, the negotiation of filial identity seems easier as a poet than as a memoir writer. As a poet I naturally transform any intimate details into otherness through character, metaphor and parataxis. If a poem too closely resembles my own life, I can couch it in a second or third-person voice. I think a lot of us want to shield our parents from seeing us as adults; what's more, we don't want them to know we've suffered.
Jason Schneiderman, author of the poetry collection Striking Surface, says:
"My first big publication was in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, and it's about being tested for an STD. I felt that I should really tell my parents, so I called my mom and read it to her on the phone. Before I read it, I warned her that it was pretty racy. After I read it, she said, 'Oh, sweetie, that's not racy, it's sad.' Then I found myself trying to find poems that she would find racy, but I couldn't."
Like Jason, I too warned my parents that there were "racy" poems in my book. It was easier for me to say: "Be prepared, there are some smutty ones" rather than "I am afraid you will read this book and know me, and the recesses of my mind, too intimately. I am afraid you will think I'm a freak. Or worse, I'm afraid you will know I'm human."
Ultimately I experienced more filial shame around poems born out of my bizarre imagination than those describing situations I'd actually experienced. Prior to publication, certain poems -- which bore no connection to my waking life -- felt creatively imperative. I believe that one of the reasons I write is to reframe my inherent weirdness as a gift, rather than an error. Yet once these poems were released into the world, I imagined my mother saying: Is this really necessary? And I felt guilty. Amy King, author of the poetry collection Slaves to Do These Things says:
"My parents don't read my work, and I'm not sure they see me as fully human. To my father, I am the idea of a daughter, someone he declares himself to be proud of -- but, when we finally do speak every few months by phone, he doesn't ask me much... I think he's afraid to fill out the bones of a 'daughter' with the flesh and hairs and blemishes and all that animates... So I become an ear in that moment, which is also why (I suspect) I work out so much of the unplanned and unusual in my writing... Perhaps I write to confirm, in some misguided way and should he ever dare to look full-on, that I am beyond 'daughter' or any other role I should have slid into by now -- 'wife,' 'mother,' 'vixen.' I am the strange woman neither he nor I have truly conceptualized."
On the surface, my parents are seemingly two very unstrange people. Perhaps they're genuinely unstrange down to their thoughts, and my twisted imagination comes from outer space. If we weren't related, they might not want anything to do with me. On the other hand, what if my strangeness comes from something inside them? I doubt that they, now in their 60s, want to look that deeply. Who knows what lurks inside our shared DNA?