Poetry News

"I blame some of this anxiety on the well-spread notion that we can only write exactly what we know.": Mary Biddinger On Writing and Family Response

By Harriet Staff

Check out this LitBridge interview with Mary Biddinger about, among other things, how to deal with family reaction to one's writing.

Here's the opening. Make the jump to read the rest:

So many writers communicate an anxiety over their family’s response to their writing. Why do you think this is so important for writers?

I think that the anxiety over family response is especially profound for poets. If my son were to publish a detective novel, for example, nobody would presume that the protagonist is the author himself, and ask me how Raymond learned to scale flying buttresses in pouring rain, or to track criminals in the woods like a half-wolf. However, if Raymond were to publish a volume of poetry about a man who develops a paralyzing fear of insects in his childhood, our friends and family might wonder how he managed to keep his terror at bay when catching lightning bugs, or walking through the butterfly atrium at the zoo. For some reason we presume poetry is autobiographical, and let fiction slide.

I blame some of this anxiety on the well-spread notion that we can only write exactly what we know. As a professor, I urge students to consider writing work that is emotionally autobiographical, but to feel free to release or re-envision some of the circumstances. I share how this strategy has given me an extra measure of privacy in my work. At readings people ask Is your persona, Saint Monica, a version of you? She is, absolutely. But I do not have her powers, and in my life I made different choices. Saint Monica is an alter ego, but also a representation of a self I never let develop. Existing in a world that very much resembles the one I inhabited as a young girl in Chicago, you could see how a family member might mistake the book for pure autobiography. That means I have done my job well.

How did your parents first experience your writing? Do you feel there was an a moment that really changed their perspective on what you were doing?

I was fortunate to grow up in a family where art was valued more than gold. As a child and adolescent I had the privilege of going to museums across the country, and abroad. When some families packed up the station wagon for Disneyworld, mine traveled to symphony concerts, art films, and places of historical significance. We relocated frequently, and some of the schools I attended had excellent art and writing programs, particularly the Midland, Michigan public school system, which I credit for much of my interest in creative writing. I started reading age-inappropriate literature, such as novels by John Irving and poetry by Anne Sexton. But my primary love was visual art, so when I ended up becoming a poet, that was a bit of a surprise.

Because we were always around art and literature, my production of art and literature wasn’t any sort of phenomenon for my parents. I imagine some folks say, Wow! My daughter published one of her poems in a magazine! In my case, writing and publishing had no novelty effect. It was simply what one did when writing. I purchased my first Writers Market book in 1988. When I was a child I submitted my depressing short fiction to children’s magazines, and received pleasant rejections. It was all part of the duty of being an artist and not wanting to be one alone.

However, a moment that changed things was when I landed a tenure-track job teaching literature and poetry writing. My parents had applauded me when my poems were picked up by magazines in college, but this was another thing altogether. I had managed to turn art into a career, and later into a house, and a life where I could do what I do best.

Originally Published: October 4th, 2012