Monday, August 9, 2010

Writing Around the Dad-Filter

by Sophie


You all know the old writing advice, right - "Write as though your parents are dead"?

It's good advice. Parents are one of the strongest filters between what's cooking in our brain and what ends up on the page. And that's not always a bad thing, of course - parents are often our first teachers, our value-setters, our moral guides. I'm grateful to mine. But the day came when I had to stick my fingers in my ears and go "blah blah blah I don't hear you, Dad" - figuratively speaking, of course.

(Now I have to pause here and tell you that my dad reads this blog regularly. Hi, Dad! So even as I write about filters, I'm probably filtering. But in the last year Dad and I have had lots of great conversations about a variety of things and I don't think he'll mind me sharing.)

I've written for many, many years, and my dad's always read bits and pieces of what I was working on. My brother's always written too, and Dad read some of his work too. One day we were all talking about writing, and my dad said, "Just don't ever write anything gratuitously violent. There's no excuse for that."

(Pause, again. We have to wait a minute for my dad to say "I said that? I never said that! I don't remember saying that." I'm hoping Mike is reading this too so he can back me up.)

Here's the thing. I wrote lots of stuff for a long time with my dad's words in my mind. I tried to ignore them, but they were just too powerful. So while I wrote my women's fiction and literary fiction and so on, I veered away from violence. Which some of you, those of you who have read my stuff, may find curious. Because I would say that one of the themes uniting all of my recent work - whether it's mystery, young adult, or paranormal - is human violence and where it springs from and what it does to people and how it informs our emotional landscape and visa versa. I'm telling you, it's a *big* deal to me. It might not be going too far to say it's fundamental to my work as a whole.

Now I could wimp out here and go "yeah, but it's not ever gratuitous." The thing is- "gratuitous," I mean really, isn't that a cheat? Who gets to decide? Whether it's sex or violence or wordiness or grammatical liberty-taking, isn't your not-enough often my over-the-top? I reject the non-gratuitous defense.

I write violence. I have my reasons. for some people it's too much, for others too little, and I reserve the right to change course at any time.

I'm going to pause one more time for my dad to say "Dear, I would never dream of telling you what to write" and "You and your brother are my favorite authors." I like hearing that. :) Yeah, he's my dad and all, but I can't hear that enough. If the Nobel committee took notes from people's parents, I expect my dad would write one, and that's nice.

So you know I have my own little writers, right? I tell them all the time that they are brilliant writers, because to me, they are. They shine bright, bright, bright for me, and I know I can't be objective, and I don't care. I'm sure I'm saying other things to them that are messing with their heads, and that thirty years from now I'll hear about it and probably deny it. My niece and nephew are also budding writers. They're also brilliant.

Being the parent of a writer is probably a thankless task much of the time, so today I'd just like to say "Thanks, Dad."

Here's a sample of my nephew's recent work:


Rachael Herron said...

Awwww. Here's to Dad. (Now I have no idea what I'm going to write for tomorrow. I was hoping you would springboard me, Littlefield!)

Sophie Littlefield said...

rachael, i was feeling guilty because i did the i-got-here-first thing and took the easy one, the "write as though your parents are dead" thing.

But one thing I was thinking about writing about was parents in fiction, specifically moms in fiction. I'm fascinated by some books you've probably read - Juniper Tree Burning, White Oleander, Anywhere But Here - where the mom-author relationship is so stark and visceral and raw that it's experienced physically and emotionally by the reader as well as intellectually.

Julie said...

I caught myself filtering my current short through my mom in my head for overzealous use of cussing.

Then I realized these characters absolutely speak this way.

Then I apologized to my mom in my head and kept writing.

Thanks for this right now. I sort of needed the permission. :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Julie, I used to have a cussing filter. It sort of disintegrated. Let the characters have their say! :)

Susan M. Boyer said...

Oh, I am SO guilty of this. And my mom does it on purpose. "Whatever you do, promise me you won't ever..." (Fill in the blank) Use foul language--"It's really not necessary, is it?" Take the Lord's name in vain, have sex scenes with too many details--"It's best to just close the bedroom door, isn't it?"

I try, try, try to get her out of my head, because none of my characters are saints. A few have potty mouths, and several of the have sex, some with (gasp) people they're not married to.

I just can't ever let her read my work, that's all there is to it.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Susan, I hear you. You know what - it's perfectly ok for you to set boundaries with this stuff. I've told my dad there are certain of my short stories that he can't read. done and done. In fact the scene i just wrote - i'm having trouble coming up with *anyone* i'd be comfortable having read it. but sometimes you have to do that.

and remember, my agent and now several editors have told me it's ALWAYS better to go too far in the draft. Far, far easier to tone down than to boost it later. So go ahead, careen ahead

Unknown said...

I had never heard the "your parents are dead" rule. I let my mom read the book I'm doing revisions on now...for those who have read my work, it tends to be rather, She told my husband she just pretended it wasn't written by her daughter. See we found a way around it :)

Unknown said...

oops, for those who have NOT read my work.... and that typo pretty much sums up my words for the day (a mistake) :)

Adrienne Bell said...

Will you embroider that maxim on a pillow for me. I need to daily reminder of that.

Martha Flynn said...

So morbid! Can't we just write as though our parents are illiterate and incapable of mastering audiobook technology? :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

you never heard that, Lisa? Wow! It was one of the most liberating bits of advice I ever came across. Adrienne...oh, that's a needlepointer for sure. :) will put it on my long-term to-do crafty-pants list. And Martha....oh, Martha! you're so durn funny and probably exactly right. :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

In this one small case, Martha is not right. (That may be a first.) What if someone tells her illiterate Luddite parents about her book? It will happen. You know it will. And she will imagine it, and it will prey upon her mind. No. Better to imagine them dead.

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