Description: Whose story is this anyway? Women writing about their daughters and women writing about their mothers—and a mother and daughter pair of nonfiction writers who frequently write about each other and thus offer an unusual lens on the question of “story ownership” and point of view—come together across the genres to talk about the challenges, joys, pressures, and consequences of exploring these relationships in both poetry and prose with real-life examples of writing and publishing experiences.
Panelists: Michelle Herman, Kathryn Rhett, Cade Lebron, Meghan Daum, and Maggie Smith
There is perhaps no human bond more fraught with expectations, disappointments, and all consuming love than that between mother and daughter. As writers, our relationships with our mothers and, if we have them, daughters, may provide a lifetime of material from which to draw. Yet because these relationships are so highly charged, writing about them can present difficult terrain. This panel presented various perspectives of both mothers and daughters.
Kathryn Rhett and Cade Lebron, a mother and daughter, both writers, started the discussion. Rhett described writing a memoir about her daughter’s difficult birth. It felt “natural and necessary” to write about her infant daughter, said Rhett, noting that mothers have a sense of “creating the narrative of their children’s lives.” “Mothers carry the family story,” she noted. But by writing about her daughter, she also was writing her own story of becoming a mother.
As her daughter grew older Rhett felt more responsible for guarding her daughter’s privacy, and turned to fiction writing. Rhett asked, “Whose story is it? Is it mine to tell, or hers?”
Lebron, Rhett’s 20-something daughter, noted that traditionally the role of daughters as writers has been to expose the family’s dirty laundry: often trauma caused by the parents. But, with few family secrets, Lebron turned to her own traumatic experiences, including having been raped at 18. She expressed gratitude that her parents haven’t tried to censor her writing, even though her material often is difficult for them.
The mother-daughter-writer relationship has resulted in occasional competitiveness when both have written on the same subject. Lebron wondered whether women who don’t have children can ever fully understand their mothers.
Meghan Daum read from her essay, “Matricide,” calling the content “unspeakable.” Daum confessed that when we think we’ve written something good, “our creative vanity usually wins out over our personal vanity.” Although Daum does not have children, she described both her own and her mother’s experiences as daughters. A telling moment in the essay is when Daum observes her mother’s hands curling into tight fists in her mother’s presence and recognizes that she (Daum) makes the same fists when she hears her mother’s voice on her answering machine.
As a poet and mother of two young daughters, Maggie Smith described taking inspiration from things her daughters have said, easy to understand when you have a child who comes out with gems such as: “There were lights in the lemon trees so you could see the lemons and a whistle so you could call your friends.” Similar to Rhett, she spoke about the changing ethics and sensitivity considerations as her children grow older.
Michelle Herman described a more indirect route to writing about both her mother and her daughter. It took an outside eye to help her see who she was really writing about in some of her earlier work. She hit a hard truth when she said, “it’s not possible to have a child and not be sure that you’re going to do a better job than your own parents did,” describing this conviction as a “losing proposition.”
The Q & A led to several key points. With regard to the question of who owns the story, Lebron pointed to the sage advice of Annie Dillard: if you’re writing about someone with whom you want to maintain a loving relationship, you would do well to show them the (finished) work, before publishing it. Several panelists noted that often a family member objects to something minor that is not central to the story and can easily be revised or removed. Daum distinguished between writing about her relationship with her mother and writing about the person.
With regard to the writer’s responsibility to present a “balanced” view of the person, there were diverse opinions. However, it seemed clear that the writers on this panel felt more obligated to protect their daughters than their mothers. Protection is, after all, a key role of motherhood. But mothers be warned: if your daughters grow up to be writers, that “protection” may not flow both ways.
Enid Kassner is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University writing program. Her work has appeared in Inscape, Switchgrass Review, Watershed Review, and other publications. She was awarded first place in creative nonfiction by the Coastal Bend Wellness Foundation. Enid writes and teaches yoga in Arlington, Virginia.