I live in the suburbs, but we are within spitting distance of the city proper. Thanks to an intersection of nearby highways, most of the streets in our neighborhood don’t go through, so it’s nice and quiet, but also close to busier areas. Now, my kids range from early grade school to middle school, and this summer they’ve been eager to go out and play with their friends around the neighborhood. They want to go places and do things unsupervised.
The impression I get about children growing up in the 70s and earlier is that parenting mostly consisted of making sure that your children had a reasonable number of meals per day and did chores to build character. Other than that, children just went where they pleased. However, today’s parents have been drowned in stories of kidnappers, serial murderers and razor blades in Halloween candy all of their lives. “Helicopter parenting” is a phrase spoken with derision, and yet there is an awful lot of media focused on all of the terrible things that can happen to a child, if only you take your eyes off them for a moment.
My children want to run around the neighborhood with various other children. They are not particularly good at telling me where they’re going or keeping track of time. But I’ve forced myself to give them a little more space than I’m comfortable with. This is one of the things that I’ve had to come to grips with as a parent. Parenting is a compromise: the kids probably get less freedom than they want, and I get less control and less reassurance. As the kids get older (and they keep on getting older!) the boundaries will keep shifting.
Comfort is Stagnation
My own complete comfort as a parent is not necessarily what is best for my kids to grow and become self-sufficient and responsible. And my own comfort as a writer is not necessarily what is best for my stories to grow and improve. That’s right, you just walked into a metaphor!
Discomfort is the natural human reaction to shifting boundaries and new ideas. To challenge your limitations and grow, you have to work on something you’re not entirely sure you can do. Sometimes these experiments lead to success, and sometimes they fail. But whenever I try some new and difficult writing project, I end up taking away valuable new ideas, experience and skills.
Being a good parent also requires admitting that you don’t always know what you’re doing, and you don’t know how exactly you’ll end up affecting your children. After all, the world is full of well-meaning parents whose parenting styles have contributed to their children’s hang-up and neuroses. We are all, to some extent, the products of our upbringing.
Stories, like children, are a product of their parents. My thoughts, my dreams, my ideas all come out in my writing, either directly or in subtext. My unspoken assumptions may be on the page even when I don’t realize it. However, it’s easy to self-censor.
We all have secrets and darker thoughts. Things we’re not proud of. Shame or embarrassment, enviousness, and worry. We don’t talk about these things with our co-workers. We don’t bring them up at parties. We may not even dare whisper them to our husbands and wives, our trusted relatives or closest friends.
Letting those things creep into our writing is hard. It’s like opening up your soul and letting strangers look inside. We fear being judged. Now, perhaps more than ever before, judging strangers is a popular pastime. But this kind of vulnerability is powerful.
Mike Birbiglia has a show called The New One, about becoming a father, and the changes that it wrought on his life. It’s comedy, but it has serious elements too. In one of the darkest parts, he admits that he “understood why some dads leave.” He didn’t leave, but he understands it. That’s vulnerability. It’s the sort of statement that could ruin relationships. But it’s honest, and it’s one of the most powerful parts of the show.
Mike has stated that many people judge him for those statements. He gets messages about it on social media. But he also gets messages from people who connected with it, and his process of working through and accepting parenthood made them feel understood and helped them work through similar feelings.
That kind of brutal honesty, that acceptance of the truth of the situation, no matter how uncomfortable or upsetting, is a hallmark of good writing. Those are the things that audiences connect to, because your secret shame or fear or sadness or loathing feels like less of a burden when you discover that you’re not alone.
Plumb the Depths
Achieving this kind of honesty is difficult. The first hurdle is being honest with yourself. People don’t typically like to evaluate themselves with complete honesty. Luckily, we’re all complex individuals, and we don’t have to dig up all the skeletons at once.
One of the easiest ways to get started is to simply think about negative emotions. What are your fears? Are you jealous of others? What feelings do you have that you wouldn’t want to tell to others? You don’t have to write a biography of all of your problems, but sometimes, thinking through these darker aspects of the self will shed light on a topic that could be a powerful inclusion in a story.
Sometimes, taking an honest look at the unpleasant parts of ourselves can be cathartic. It’s a common-enough trope that the writer who writes about their deepest issues can use fiction as a mode of healing. Hiding from problems rarely helps fix them.
On the other hand, I’m definitely not a mental health professional. If going down these roads makes things worse, it’s possible that you need more than fiction to get to a better place. Don’t embrace the old “romantic” notions of writers who actively hurt their health for their work.
It’s also worth noting that some of the difficult truths in our lives may involve relationships with friends or family. If you’re going to put your loved ones into your fiction in a way where they will recognize themselves (or others will recognize them), talk to those people first. Don’t destroy relationships for a story.
Writer, Know Thyself
It’s difficult to infuse a story with the hard truths from our own lives, but this uncomfortable honesty can take fiction to new levels and really help us connect with readers. If your stories never make you feel exposed, consider whether you’re skirting around these areas of discomfort. It may sometimes be painful, but it’s one of the most effective ways to grow as a writer.