Dispatches | November 17, 2009

For the past several weeks, I have felt particularly thankful not to be a parent.
Here’s why: This semester I have been teaching creative nonfiction at a small college in Columbia. For their second essay, the students are asked to write about a memorable person.

As model essays I use several examples from TMR’s archives. Both “Ingo Prefers Not To” and “Renee” are written by mothers who find their daughters’ choices inexplicable. One daughter becomes a heroin addict while the other simply prefers not to finish high school. Tracey Crow’s “The Facelift” tells of her husband’s nip and tuck and his resulting popularity. “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” by Catherine Rankovic is a lesson in how to describe the nearly impossible—Elvis’ phrasing and singing voice.

I also teach John LeCarre’s terrific portrait his five-star conman father “In Ronnie’s Court” published in The New Yorker and Annie Dillard’s memorable, much anthologized piece “The Stunt Pilot.”

The point is that these essays illustrate a range of subject choices and approaches to the assignment. So what did my students do? They either wrote about their mother or their father. For weeks we’ve been reading about parents who by their children’s accounts have committed grave sins; everything from abuse, drugs, alcohol and neglect to dirty houses and bad cooking.

One student’s essay was a cut above the rest. Rather than enumerating her father’s failings; she tried to understand her “absent daddy.” To get closer to him, she tagged along on his hunting and fishing trips, even though they weren’t past-times she enjoyed. She learned that he never had the opportunity to go to college. At nineteen he went to work for the railroad, an industry that she depicts as exploitive. To advance, he made himself indispensible, which kept him away from home for long stretches. She recognized that he worked hard to give her a life better than his own and thus far had succeeded.

After the eighth essay in this series, we joked that we should put together an anthology. I asked them what they wanted to call it.

“How about ‘Fined: Violations in Parenting’,” one student suggested. Her mother had spent three years in prison for dealing drugs.

A few students nodded. All right, but not great.

“What about something like ‘Broken Ashtrays and Double-wides: Pieces on Terrible Parenting.”

The students agreed that we were getting closer. The title we eventually decided on was ‘Hello, Child Services? Tales of Terrible Parents,’”

When I asked them what we could learn from the essays we’d spent more than a month work shopping, they had many answers. No one’s childhood is perfect. Parents don’t know crap. And the phenomenon of super parenting is more media hype than reality.
Children and parents have always struggled to get along. I recently re-watched the film adaptation of Tobias Wolfe’s memoir This Boy’s Life. Wolfe’s stepfather reminded me so much of my own that I could barely watch it. But more surprising was that I’ve never much considered writing about my parents. And now it seems to me that I’m too old to carry on about their failings.