Monday, May 22, 2006

Mother and Child Reunion.

This is the longest gap in my blog updates since I started it. Oddly enough, it isn’t because I have nothing to say. I have heaps of things happening in my personal life.

I just can’t tell you about them.

Over the last few days, I have had all sorts of touching, maddening and generally emotional moments. If these moments involved strangers or box turtles, I would be happily churning about 1000 words out of each. But, they involved Daughter and, therefore, are off limits.

I contemplated writing a blog for about a year before I actually started this one in January of 2005.

[Recently, someone sent me a link to a blog which decried how “…Quinn Cummings was now writing a blog”. The tone of the entry was “My God, is just everyone jumping on the bandwagon along with us elder statesmen?”. For my edification, I checked when he started his blog; it was a month after I did. But I digress.]

What kept me from writing for the year before I actually put fingers to keyboard was the dilemma of how to write about my life as a mother without putting Daughter in the blog spotlight (in my case, the blog spotlight being slightly dimmer than the light which goes on when you open your glove compartment). Just because I wanted to write didn’t mean she wanted to get written about. When the impulse to write became overwhelming, I bit the bullet and created a blog -- but only on the self-imposed condition that Daughter be no more than recurring cameo in the “Quinn is a Huge Screw-Up Variety Hour”. For the most part, I believe I have succeeded at this.

Then I have four or five days in a row where Daughter and I go through all sorts of things that seem both personal and universal, not to mention being chock-full of neat dialogue and (in the case of one conversation) a built-in tag line, and the writer in me suddenly wants to renegotiate the original contract.

“C’mon, it’s too good not to write. How about this, we write it in the third person. Or, we say it all happened to a friend. Please God, let me do something with this material.”

(When I start referring to our conversations as material, it’s a hint I might be scraping the bottom of the jar of integrity.)

I was still trying to find a way to pimp my maternity when I read Anne Lamott’s newest essay in Salon Magazine last night. First, let me say I have read all of Ms. Lamott’s books, and I think she’s a fine, fine writer. She comes up with turns of phrase that make me put down the book and stare off into space for twenty seconds. “Bird by Bird” inspired me to consider writing again. Also, before I say anything against her, let me point something out: one of us had made serious money from writing; and one of us is me. In a nutshell, she’s cool, I drool.

Her Salon essay is, as most of them are, about being a woman, a mother and a Christian, and how each part of her life acts upon and against each other. She begins this essay saying, in effect, “I take no pride in the following incident, but I hope that writing about it will help some other parent”; then relates how she and her sixteen year-old son have been at each other’s throats in the way only a single mother and her adolescent son can be. She admits there are times she hates him. One particular power struggle referred to in the essay finds Ms. Lamott slapping her son for the first time in his life. The essay ends with the two of them sitting on the couch together, not quite recovered, but better than they once were.

For me, it wasn’t her strongest work, probably because the incident was still so raw. It didn’t have the “emotions recalled in repose” quality that I like in my first-person narratives. I once knew a drama teacher who said an actor appearing to fight tears was more affecting than an actor sobbing his guts out. “If you cry,” he would warn, “the audience doesn’t have to.” Ms. Lamott was crying all over the screen on this one. However, considering the degree of pain inflicted, it’s understandable. Then I started paging through the letters from readers, and was sickened by the degree of rage. They might not have been crying, but they were screaming…

“I grew up with a parent much like Ms. Lamott--even down to the literary occupation--and at age seventeen I could barely look at my father, let alone talk to him. At the very least, my father kept his anecdotes about my "difficult" age to his close coterie of smug, hypocritical,new age, middle-aged hippie writer friends and out of the national press.”

“What purpose is being served in telling the world you slapped him?”

“Anne Lamott--a writer whose candor I used to admire--has made a habit of cannibalizing her son's life for profit.”

"If I were Anne Lamott's sullen son Sam, I'd be a sullen Sam too."

She had the odd defender, but mostly it was thirty-three pages of people either excoriating her for slapping her son or bemoaning the exploitation of her relationship with her son. One letter linked to an interview with her. In this interview, she actually brought Sam in, so he could tell his side. He said that he’s always been sort of resigned to being grist for her mill, being as it’s gone on for so long. At the time, Ms. Lamott said she had kept the more private aspects of his life off-limits, and he had cleared anything she had written about him since he was ten years old.

I thought about this as I locked up the house for the night. I believe Ms. Lamott would sooner stick her hand in a blender rather than hurt her son. I think that most of the people who wrote vicious screeds to Ms. Lamott in Salon not only have no children, but live in their parents’ basements and dream of making sweet, sweet love to Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And while I have never slapped anyone in my life, I can see where, on the wrong day, your contentious nearly-grown child could make you very emotional, very tired, and capable of doing something you could never imagine yourself doing.

And yet.

Maybe being the focus of an essay (or twenty, not to mention two best-selling books) before puberty isn’t automatically harmful. But even under the best of circumstances adolescence is a minefield. It marinates a person in a near-paralyzing sense of self-consciousness and fosters the conviction that you are the only true freak on earth. Now imagine that your mom was not only taking notes of all of your behavior, but of how your behavior affected her, how her behavior affected you, and turned thousands of emotional bubbles into public material.

Apparently Ms. Lamott would clear these essays with him. But she’s his mom; not only does he love and trust his mother, he has to have some awareness that these confessions pay for their nice house in Marin. Maybe he does veto Essay Idea #1, and #2, and maybe even #3; but at some point, the mesh on the filter has to give. Eventually, he’s got to read a paragraph and think “well, at least this isn’t as bad as the other one”. I cannot imagine an adolescent boy getting excited about being the subject of any public narrative, unless the title is “Local Youth has Sex with Many Sports Illustrated Models”.

The two of them have made a Faustian bargain. They will live well, but only as long as she sells their inner lives to readers who will noisily berate her for doing so.

I would like Ms. Lamott’s talent. I would like Ms. Lamott’s critical acclaim. I would like Ms. Lamott’s money. I would not like thirty-three pages of people telling me that my artistic narcissism and short-sightedness has hurt my child. I would not like Daughter to come home from school one day rubbed emotionally raw because something sweet and vulnerable she said to me last year came roaring back to her at the lunch table. As she gets older, I might have to edit more stringently than I already do. Which means there might be more breaks in my writing – time where I simply lead my life, rather than writing about it.

So be it.

If anyone is going to be embarrassed by how they appear in this blog, it’s going to be me.


Blogger houseband00 said...

Hi Quinn,

When I decided to blog about my life as a single parent, I really thought hard and long about privacy issues and such. So I decided to keep it as anonymous and as generic as possible to protect the people who are closest to me.

Blog on, Quinn. Haven't you learned life really is full of embarassments.


1:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed your writing, and respect your decision regarding your daughter's privacy. Even as my favorite verbal stories make the rounds of my friends, I sometimes cringe at the thought of my sons being defined by me. Look what happened to Christopher Robin.


6:32 AM  
Blogger Vikki said...

I have only recently started blogging and my children are still very young, so, I haven't quite had to deal with this struggle. This certainly gives me much to think about.

One more thing...I too loved Bird by Bird and whenever I need a little inspiration, I go back to it.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Middle Girl said...

I too am new to blogging. I'm still finding the 'voice' and focus of my blog. I spent several hours over several months trying to figure out how to portray me without outing people in my life who might not want that kind of exposure. My children are 24 and 20 respectively and as they still live at home with me, are very much a part of my everyday experiences.

I find it oddly unsettling that this medium is pulling me so strongly as I have been until very recently an intensely private person. Even with the veils and filters it still feels like--being out there for the world to see.

I enjoy your writing and have enjoyed reading about your adventures. Thanks for continuing to inspire me to learn to do better.

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was given "Operating Instructions" when I was a brand new Mom. For me, reading it was like rubbernecking a terrible accident on the can't look away, but you know you have no business being there.

I think she says way too much, and puts her son in a spotlight he can by no means say he doesn't really want--as you said it is a Faustian deal.

So it is nice to see you have the same attitude.

Ever sat down with a Sally Mann book of photos of her kids and wondered the same things?

While your "moments" with Daughter might give me a chuckle or make me feel more connected, it is blindingly obvious that my experience is nothing compared to any negative she might incur. I delight in your decision to keep Daughter's private life private. And more, I respect you ever so much for it.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Joie de Vivre said...

Ok, understood and respected. This does not excuse you, however, from my expectation to turn to your blog twice a month for a good belly roll. I savor your blog like the illicit chocolate bar. After all, it's not about you. It's about ME and MY happiness, right? (People? What other people?)

Just know that as much as you need to write about it, some of us need to read about it and escape from our own realities or relish in the "it's not just me"-ness. Good luck.

7:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, this, of course, makes me think about how I constantly talk about my daughter and bandy her name and image all over the Internet. Oy. She doesn't read my blog but occasionally sees what I'm doing which inspired her to start her own blog to give her side of the story.

I do have an internal censor that helps me avoid writing about issues that I believe would cause her to cringe (I would never mention any of our conversations about the boys she has crushes on or other pre-adolescent minefields). And I never mention the name of her school or where we live (although I've given enough clues that a stalker worth his salt could probably figure it out).

Ah well, I'll see how that goes as time passes, but I do love the way you've been able to share your life while keeping your loved ones anonymous.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


As usual your comments are spot on. I loved what you said about this essay being a little too fresh yet. It's exactly how it read to me as well. I have only read two other Salon articles and they both had such vitriol written in response that I have vowed to never waste time looking at them again. I enjoy your viewpoint, so ably expressed in your blog, and admire the respect you show your family in your blogging.

7:44 AM  
Blogger red fish said...

The reason we have chosen to be anonymous on our blog is so our kid's classmates will not google their names in 10 years and make fun of their cute childhood stories. Our friends and family know of our blog. We are not hiding anything from those we normally would share stories and pictures with. Those who don't know us in real life get the same info whether or not we share our names.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...time where I simply lead my life, rather than writing about it..."

aha! The best excuse for not blogging I've heard. Somehow I've never thought of it in that light before now. Thanks for the 'dog-ate-it'-out of daily blogging :)

10:07 PM  

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