Sarah R. Callender


In Parenting, Writing on June 13, 2011 at 6:50 am

There are many similarities between being a mother and being a fiction writer. Both jobs have salaries that range from pitiful to non-existent, with no real opportunity for promotion. Both are pretty decent conversation-stoppers at cocktail parties (which is unfortunate because I go to a LOT of cocktail parties). Both Mothering and Writing are also misunderstood professions: mothering, as a job, seems fairly vague and fluffy and flexible; writing, as a job, seems fairy glamorous and mysterious. Neither assumption is true. And, both Mother and Writer must accept that she will receive unkind, unsolicited advice from know-it-alls.

Like know-it-alls who berate a new mom (while she is climbing the concrete steps at the Mariners game, her son tucked in the Baby Bjorn) for allowing her not-crying son to go WITHOUT SOCKS. In July.

These days, of course, after eight hard years at Momcatraz, Alcatraz’s sister-prison, I’d have a comeback at the ready, should some stranger give me unsolicited advice about my child’s footwear. But as a new mom, I just continued trudging up Safeco Field’s stadium steps, my hands wrapped around Buddy’s feet, trying not to cry. Because there’s no crying in baseball.

Similarly, check out this snippet from a know-it-all who wrote an Amazon review for Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. One of my all-time favorite books.

Following from Mitchell’s appalling and overrated piece of tripe, “Cloud Atlas”, Mitchell does a Holden Caulfield, writing in the “voice” of an angst-ridden adolescent. Except that, unlike JD Salinger, who was a great writer, Mitchell has no talent, and so this book reads as if written by an adult pretending – unsuccessfully – to think and speak in the way he thinks 13 year olds speak. The result is twee, unconvincing and tedious.

Jiminy crickets!

Fine if this fellow didn’t like the book. Fine if this fellow felt the need to tell others that he didn’t like the book. But is it necessary to be such an insensitive know-it-all? Play nice, people. Play nice and BE nice. (By the way, “twee” means “affectedly dainty or quaint.” I had to look it up.)

What is most interesting to me, however, is that while many parents-to-be read books like Taking Charge of Your Fertility and aspiring novelists read books like Writing the Breakout Novel, (both fabulous books by the way) we parents and writers really have very little choice in selecting the kid we get OR the book we write.

We parents get the kid we get. And then we must raise that kid.

We authors get the story we get. And then we must write that story.

Sometimes we get “difficult” kids. Sometimes our kids are born with learning disabilities or tragic health issues. God bless parents in that boat.  Musicians sometimes get kids who are tone-deaf. Writers and English teachers get kids like Buddy who (as Buddy’s teachers have ALL told me) “need to work on writing more than one sentence when the assignment is to write a full-page story.” My dear dad got two daughters who have never shown much interest in banking or investing or economics. And, my dear friend, Schmidtie, has a son who at age three, would hop out of the bath, shove his bare bottom in the face of their dog, and yell, “LICK me!”

Yep. Those are the kids we get. And then we must raise them until death do us part.

Writing stories is the same. As far as I know, writers don’t “create” the characters in their stories. Maybe more experienced writers, writers who have earned Pulitzers and Man Bookers or writers with last names like Grisham and Rowling and King and Shakespeare have earned the right to create their characters, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty certain that characters come and find the writer.

It’s like that stray cat who comes mewing at the glass sliding doors every day, many times a day. For some reason, out of all the other homes on the block, it has chosen yours. As if it’s somehow insisting that, unbeknownst to you, you are its owner.

Well. After days of mewing, just at the point before you go crazy, you pour that damn cat a saucer of milk. With the hope that a little milk will be enough to send him on his merry way.

Fast forward six weeks, and you’re taking your new cat, Betty (It’s a Girl!), to the vet, just to make sure she’s had all of her necessary shots. On the way home, you stop at Petapoluza to buy Betty a cute purple collar. It’s clear to you that purple is Betty’s favorite color.

Same goes for the mewing of characters. Writers may have some concept of what they want to write, a story seed, a basic idea that seems to be totally in their control. Maybe the writer also has a vague sense of one or two of the characters. BUT then the writer starts writing, and other characters, uninvited ones, start showing up, their mewing incessant and insistent.

It’s like when your parents go out of town, and the plan is to have maybe just one or two of your best friends over and you’ll pop at Tombstone pizza in the oven and crack open a few of your dad’s Heineken. But then THIS happens:

And suddenly, you’ve got all sorts of strangers in your house, people you’ve never seen before, and they’re making out on your little brother’s bunk bed, drinking your dad’s beer, and searching your mom’s underwear drawer for the cigarettes you never even knew your mother smoked.

It (the story) has taken on its own life and the hostess-writer, best graciously invite these strangers into the party-story. If she doesn’t, they’ll keep mewing and mewing and mewing because characters are just like real people; they really just want someone who will listen.

Writers know this, of course. That once a character comes mewing, it’s best to pour him a saucer of milk and get to know him a little, figure out ways to live together peacefully, maybe discuss who gets which side of the bed, how he takes his coffee, does he like to read or watch TV before bed . . . just generally get to know the guy because fiction characters aren’t people who leave unless THEY feel like leaving.

Parenting’s really no different. Some days our children seem so unfamiliar, so completely unlike us, that we wonder how they ended up in our Christmas card. At our breakfast table. All buckled into their booster seats, tossing Goldfish Cracker confetti all over the minivan.

It is scary when we realize that our kid, OUR KID, seems like he may have come from another family, another century, another planet. And yet, we’re supposed to keep giving him saucers of milk? Clothes? A strong set of values, violin lessons, money for Driver’s Ed, and a college education?

But that’s why being a parent is good and healthy. And sometimes, people, something that is good and healthy for us (getting a mammogram comes to mind) is a little uncomfy.

Being forced to raise a child or write a story about someone who is a little different is scary and exhilarating. Much like traveling to Cairo or Kigali or, I don’t know, Little Rock, when you’ve got no luggage or one of those handy electricity converters or any purse-size cellophaned Kleenex packs for what-have-you. Here, in these foreign lands, the locals probably stare at you, the water likely makes you sick, and you can’t really understand what people are saying because here, natives speak at an alarmingly slow speed. As would be the case in Little Rock. People in Cairo and Kigali, as far as I know, speak at a fairly rapid clip.

No matter! We best put on a happy face and start learning the language, the customs, at least basic etiquette so we can get the most out of the experience, be it parenting or writing.

In my case, as I start this second novel, I find myself trying to serve milk to four mewing main characters: two men and two boys. Frankly it makes me angry that four males (ages 11, 16, 40 and 65) have come knocking on my brain-door instead of going to my fab writer-friend, Sean’s brain-door, because Sean IS a fortyish-year-old man. (Though he looks not a day over 26.) That would have been much easier on me, because believe me, Sean is at least infinity times more manly than I, he was once a boy, plus, Sean’s almost always willing to take in a stray animal, friend, character, without more than one or two qualms.

Yessir. My story would be much better off living in Sean’s head. For so many reasons.

Oh, I know it should excite me that my next novel is chock-full of male, first person narrators who happen to be obsessed with realms of science and have medical degrees I can’t even spell. And on good days it does excite me.

On bad days it makes me feel like the time I was hijacked by a tummy bug in Mexico. Which is a whole other kind of excitement.

On badder days, I want to bend and force my characters to be more like me. Much like I try to get slow-poke Sweetie to speed up, to match my pace. Much like I try to get Buddy to not move all the time. Seriously, that kid never stops moving. Can’t he just sit still for one minute? No. He really can’t.

But. They are the way they are, kids and characters. At some point, we parents and we writers have to open the door to the mewing creatures and pour another saucer of milk.

Then we must buckle up, put on our sunscreen and maybe bring an umbrella. Purell’s probably not a bad ideal either. And then, get ready to experience the adventures that come with such a lovely, terrifying, life-changing invitation.

  1. Wow. I love this post. It is funny, encouraging and TRUE! My characters do exactly that – arrive in my head all put together and I have to try to get to know them. And for me, a lot of them are male. And I am not! I always wonder what that says about my psyche???
    Thanks Sarah, you have made a great start to my day!

    • Oh, good. so glad you feel the same, Jodi. I am well aware that “hearing the mewing of characters” sounds a lot like “mental illness.” Thanks for being equally nutters . . . and for braving the male POV. 🙂

  2. Yes, the mother/writer combo is quite a doozie! Both elicit the question: What did you do all day? That question can be answered in a myriad of ways – and hand gestures.

    • Ha! Love it. Thanks for the 7:00 a.m. laugh (and empathy). I have perfected many a hand gesture . . . most will be unusable once my kids are a bit older. Thanks so much for reading!

  3. But imagine the alternative. Imagine that ‘stray cat’ doesn’t want to stop at your house. That he takes one peek into your home and decides it’s safer to get milk next door. What an awesome nuisance it is when cats show up, beg for milk and never leave. I’m thrilled to have an old, demanding, hilarious cat in my story who dispenses wise truisms to my sometimes-so-vanilla main character cat. And my vanilla cat’s stink-bomb of a tom-cat (with whom she unwisely birthed two kittens) makes me so angry I can’t help writing ongoing dialog between the two of them to show how much stronger she gets as the story goes on.

    Enough, I guess. I need to go feed the cats. Their incessant mewing is beginning to wear on my nerves again.

    (Love this post!)

  4. Well said Sarah. When my most recent “stray cat” came begging for milk a while back, I welcomed her heartily. She brought her friends and I figured, what the heck. More the merrier. When I completed a first draft of my novel, I set is aside while I revised my memoir and readied it for publication. Now I’m back with the stray cats, trying to find appropriate furnishings for them to scratch, worrying over all the hair on the cushions. But then I have a day like yesterday, when the words come quickly and fall like coins in a jukebox, just clicking into place and starting music. I love moments like that as a writer.

  5. Always, always, always love your writing! Love your voice!

  6. Your post makes it abundantly clear that I’m a dog person… But damn if those dogs aren’t irritating in their own wet-nose-in-your-crotch kind of way.

  7. … and don’t you just love it when Kitty arrives to take a nap on your front porch? Kitty gets comfortable on the chair positioned just where the sun has perfectly warmed the seat cushion. Then just as kitty kneads the pillow one last time, tucks his face into his paw, the children raucously explode onto the porch and shriek, “A kitty!?” Kitty awakes with a start, sees those pesky children and goes darting off to hide under the neighbor’s porch. You stand there. Empty. Depleted of all thought. Kitty has abandoned you and in a panic you wonder if and when you should hurl yourself over the fence to nab Kitty, remove the collar and rename it; as if a new name would make kidnapping someone else’s cat okay. Instead, you consider one of two options: fluff the seat cushion and patiently wait for Kitty to return, or you secretly wish for your children to mature overnight because, once matured, they’ll likely know better than to scare away Mama’s mews.

  8. You nailed it. Nuff said.

  9. And then there’s the pitiful memoir writer with only her own pitiful voice in her head, wishing the cats would come mewling. p.s. good thing I don’t keep my cigarettes in my underwear drawer.
    Great blog post as usual!

  10. As I am greeting the strange characters of my own second novel — and chasing my own two wild and strange children — this post fits my life perfectly! Thank you!

    • Fabulous, Lisa. Thanks so much for reading. Now, put on those running shoes and go get those characters . . . and the kids too, I guess. If you feel like it. Huge congrats on the accomplishment of working on a second novel (that, of course, means there was a first)! Whoo hoo!

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