How to Help Friends and Family Understand Your Writing

Picture of Mary Biddinger Author: Mary Biddinger

So many writers communicate an anxiety over their family’s response to their writing. Why do you think this is so important for writers?

I think that the anxiety over family response is especially profound for poets. If my son were to publish a detective novel, for example, nobody would presume that the protagonist is the author himself, and ask me how Raymond learned to scale flying buttresses in pouring rain, or to track criminals in the woods like a half-wolf. However, if Raymond were to publish a volume of poetry about a man who develops a paralyzing fear of insects in his childhood, our friends and family might wonder how he managed to keep his terror at bay when catching lightning bugs, or walking through the butterfly atrium at the zoo. For some reason we presume poetry is autobiographical, and let fiction slide.

I blame some of this anxiety on the well-spread notion that we can only write exactly what we know. As a professor, I urge students to consider writing work that is emotionally autobiographical, but to feel free to release or re-envision some of the circumstances. I share how this strategy has given me an extra measure of privacy in my work. At readings people ask Is your persona, Saint Monica, a version of you? She is, absolutely. But I do not have her powers, and in my life I made different choices. Saint Monica is an alter ego, but also a representation of a self I never let develop. Existing in a world that very much resembles the one I inhabited as a young girl in Chicago, you could see how a family member might mistake the book for pure autobiography. That means I have done my job well.

How did your parents first experience your writing? Do you feel there was an a moment that really changed their perspective on what you were doing?

I was fortunate to grow up in a family where art was valued more than gold. As a child and adolescent I had the privilege of going to museums across the country, and abroad. When some families packed up the station wagon for Disneyworld, mine traveled to symphony concerts, art films, and places of historical significance. We relocated frequently, and some of the schools I attended had excellent art and writing programs, particularly the Midland, Michigan public school system, which I credit for much of my interest in creative writing. I started reading age-inappropriate literature, such as novels by John Irving and poetry by Anne Sexton. But my primary love was visual art, so when I ended up becoming a poet, that was a bit of a surprise.

Because we were always around art and literature, my production of art and literature wasn’t any sort of phenomenon for my parents. I imagine some folks say, Wow! My daughter published one of her poems in a magazine! In my case, writing and publishing had no novelty effect. It was simply what one did when writing. I purchased my first Writers Market book in 1988. When I was a child I submitted my depressing short fiction to children’s magazines, and received pleasant rejections. It was all part of the duty of being an artist and not wanting to be one alone.

However, a moment that changed things was when I landed a tenure-track job teaching literature and poetry writing. My parents had applauded me when my poems were picked up by magazines in college, but this was another thing altogether. I had managed to turn art into a career, and later into a house, and a life where I could do what I do best.

What sort of struggles have you watched other writers go through in sensitizing their family and friends to their writing?

I think the largest hurdle is writing about family drama, and sexuality, especially if they end up somehow in the same poem. I have seen friends write autobiographical poems and hide them from their parents, or feel as if they need to keep publications a secret due to possible family scrutiny. This has never been an issue for me, between my rearrangement of details and my family’s basic understanding that I am a storyteller (for example, as a young child I told people that I worked full time as a firefighter). But I would encourage writers facing this dilemma to have a conversation with family members about the nature of art, and how poetry often seeks to speak the unspeakable. The truth comes in many shapes. A family trip to a gallery, complete with a discussion of how art represents the world in various ways, might be a place to begin with writers who feel exposed by sharing their work.

Do you feel like the cultural perceptions of writers have been a burden or a boon in helping your family understand your work?

My family’s understanding of the cultural perceptions of writers has been a huge help. We laugh at the notion that I should be a bastion of sorrow just because I am a poet. I am a happy person who does not wallow in whisky and irresponsibility. I have been lucky enough to be able to make a living out of something that is often dismissed as a hobby. My partner is also a poet and teacher, and our two-poet household makes us unusual, but awesome.

I have found that it helps develop credibility when poetry results in what my university terms “deliverables.” Books, journal publications, readings, and grants. Regardless of the content inside, my grandparents are incredibly proud when I have a new book come out. In a way, it may be easier if folks claim to not understand poetry, because there’s a tendency to take a step back from it, rather than immediately reacting.

How have you dealt with moments when you felt people you were close with did not understand your work?

My parents are not guilty of this, but other family and friends often ask if I write poems for children, since I am a mother of two. I am also asked why I do not write poems about my children, especially since many mom-poets write in this realm. I imagine that I will eventually get there, but not now. I feel as if my subject matter for poems finds me, not vice versa. I doubt I will ever be a writer of children’s poetry, though I do enjoy teaching poetry to children. When I teach poetry to children I use works by Lorca, or O’Hara, or Bishop, not “children’s poetry,” however.

Tell us a little about your collaboration with your daughter. What have you been working on together?

My daughter Gabi, who is now ten, first became involved with my work when she modeled for the cover of Saint Monica. Black Lawrence Press is putting out a teaching guide for the book, and its cover will feature an outtake from that shoot. Now Gabi is working with me to make a book trailer for O Holy Insurgency, my latest collection, which is due out in October. The first obstacle in this was that I had to choose a wholly non-objectionable poem to record for the trailer, something that Gabi wouldn’t get in trouble for showing to her friends. Then I had to explain to her that we wanted to film images that evoke the feelings of the poems, but that do not necessarily follow them in a literal trajectory.

Gabi has attended some of my poetry readings, and she even read a Mark Strand poem at a community open mic. She likes it when we come to her school and teach poetry or book arts, even if it means that everyone considers us That Poetry Family after that. I’m not sure if my children will grow up to be writers, but if they do, we promise to be as open minded as we can be.

Mary Biddinger is the author of the poetry collections Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007), Saint Monica (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), and A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). She is also co-editor of The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (U Akron Press, 2011). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Bat City Review, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Crab Orchard Review, Forklift, Ohio, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Redivider, and Quarterly West, among others. She teaches literature and poetry writing at The University of Akron, where she edits Barn Owl Review, the Akron Series in Poetry, and the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics.