Welcome special guest, Libby Malin to Mama Writers! Today Libby has taken a different approach, she’s going to be talking about mothering a writer (and I have to say one day I hope to be the mother of a writer myself!). Enjoy the post! Her advice is phenomenal!
Take it away Libby!
Like all mothers, I’m immensely proud of my children. Each of them has individual personalities and terrific senses of humor. My middle child is a good raconteur, but flying airplanes is his passion. He’s in training to be an Air Force pilot.
The other two are writers. My oldest, Joseph, is now a writer for the Wall Street Journal. And my daughter, Hannah Sternberg (remember that name!), has a young adult novel coming out in the fall, published by the small press that first published me. Can you tell I’m beaming?
Because she, too, writes fiction, I’ll spend some time singing her praises and talking about what it’s like to raise another fiction writer, offering some advice to mothers who might recognize this talent in their own children.
Like many young girls, Hannah loved to write and filled pages of notebooks with her writing. For several years, she became an avid writer and reader of fan fiction—stories based on characters created by other writers. Fan fiction writing allowed her to be creative while at the same time it imposed a certain amount of discipline on her. She learned to let her imagination soar while adhering to certain parameters—some of them self-imposed—dictated by already-defined characters.
As her mother, I was impressed with her writing—her sophisticated use of language, her story construction, her imagery. But hey—I was her mom. I knew my judgment was biased no matter how hard I tried to be objective.
So I encouraged her to submit her writing to publications that used young people’s material. I encouraged her to join or start a literary club at her school. She did both. She sent several stories off to children’s publications I helped her identify using a reference book, and I consoled her when she received rejections—encouraging ones!—or simply no answers at all. I knew that road well and could assure her it was nothing personal. Eventually, she had several pieces picked up for publication, and she received honorable mention in a national playwriting contest, the prize for which included a trip to Washington, DC.
She also became an editor of her middle school’s literary journal. This experience probably helped her as much if not more than writing her own material. She got to see her peers’ writing and analyze for herself why something worked or why it didn’t. She learned what most critique partners quickly absorb—that sometimes helping another writer with her manuscript can teach you more about writing than having someone help you with yours.
When she went off to college, she majored in Film Studies but minored in Writing Seminars. She continued to write stories and occasionally had articles published in the student newspaper. One summer, she interned with a national political magazine, writing a story on education for the publication’s website.
During this time, she started thinking of writing a novel. One of her all-time favorite books is E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. She decided to take that story and put her own spin on it, using Barcelona, Spain as the setting—she’d visited Barcelona during a year of study in London. I was very flattered when she let me read it—and even offer editing suggestions. She rewrote and revised and the result is a beautiful young adult novel about a journey toward love and self-acceptance. Called The Queens of All the Earth (from an e e cummings poem), it will be released by Bancroft Press this fall or winter.
She is the writer I will probably never be—to me, her writing is “transcendent,” writing that transports and uplifts the reader. Even at a young age, she’s developed a keen sense of observation (a writer’s handiest tool) that allows her to describe scenes and emotions that readers will nod their heads to, thinking, “yes, I know exactly what she means.”
During her writer’s journey, I’ve tried to provide both writing and publishing business advice. I’ve pointed her to websites with agent and publisher information. I helped her devise appropriate queries. I told her what to look for in an agent contract if one is offered, what questions to ask an agent, how to research who’s representing what and who’s publishing what. As to the writing itself, I suggested being careful to write openings that snag an agent or editor’s attention before sliding into the graceful voyage her stories take readers on.
All of these topics were missing from her undergraduate writing seminars classes, which focused instead on literary fiction alone.
If you are a writer and have a budding writer in your family, my suggestions are below. Note that when I use the word “encourage” I mean to suggest, to help, to provide assistance, not to “push.” Take your cues from your child’s level of interest.
- Discuss books and writing with your child. Help your child develop an analytical mind when it comes to reading.
- Become your child’s wrting mentor. Be constructive with criticism and fulsome but not embarrassing with praise (a kid knows when you’ve got your Proud Mom hat on, and, to them, it might look more like Obnoxious Mom!).
- Encourage your child to become involved in writing activities at school—literary clubs in particular.
- Encourage your child to share his or her writing through school publications, contests and even publications for children’s writing. This is to help your child learn if writing is for her. If you have a serious writer on your hands, he or she will learn persistence from sharing writing with objective audiences who might not always share mom’s opinion of the work.
- Even if your child becomes a writing major in college, continue to share information on the publishing industry. Many college writing programs focus primarily on literary fiction, ignoring even “upmarket” commercial fiction. Not many colleges provide budding writers with information on how to submit manuscripts to agents and publishers.
As I was writing this blog post, I emailed my daughter to ask her what she found helpful about my mentoring of her as a writer. Her response moved me, and I hope you don’t mind if I share it almost in its entirety:
“The things that you taught me I didn’t get anywhere else: discipline, which tends not to be taught in creative writing programs, because all the emphasis is on expression, but not on actually getting anything done; resilience, the ability to stand behind my own writing and separate out useful criticism from stupid criticism, and to do the same with my own self-critiques, so I’m never counter-productively self-critical or cocky and over-confident; and standards – you always provided the most honest and incisive critiques of my work, even despite being my mom – you didn’t just lather on the praise, even though you praised me where I deserved it, but you weren’t a stage mom either, relentlessly pushing me toward something that you wanted more than me. I think that’s the most valuable thing you gave me: an opinion I can respect. That made your encouragement more encouraging, and made it possible for me to take your suggestions even though they came from my mother, which is particularly painful sometimes ”
I hope these tips help other mothers of burgeoning writers. For a look at my daughter’s creative world, you can visit her blog – www.hannahsternberg.blogspot.com
Oh, and as for me, I have a book out this month! Called My Own Personal Soap Opera, it tells the tale of a soap opera head writer who has to deal with one crisis after another—failing ratings, a leading man with a broken leg, staff members who all want to be doing something else, a jewel thief imitating a real thief on the show, and two men after her own heart. Booklist has called it “a world of wit and chaos . . . smart and insightfully written.” You can learn more about me and my books at www.LibbysBooks.com