If you are a writer and a parent who has ever used a charming – or not so charming – anecdote about your children to start a story, you’ll want to read Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s article “The Ethical Implications of Parents Writing About Their Kids.”
And get ready to kiss a lot of free, funny, homegrown material goodbye.
Confession: I have often used my children in my work. One of the most recent examples being the story of one of my boys feeding his homework to our dog so that he could tell his teacher the dog ate his homework. This was my lead for a story about how to help your child with their homework. It was too perfect, too funny, too endearing and homework villian master-mindey not to use.
However, even as I wrote it, I realized that somewhere deep inside I was hoping he wouldn’t see this story in print. That should have been my warning signal to come to a complete stop, or at least proceed with caution.
I threw caution to the wind, but did I throw my son under the bus? I’m honestly not sure. Here is how Bovy ends her article: “Where, then, should a parent-writer draw the line? The simplest way is to ask if a given anecdote would be appropriate if its subject were not your child. Would you publish that essay about your colleague or sibling? About a friend’s kid? If you consider the power dynamics between parent and child; the childhood secrets only a parent can know; and the trust children have in their parents, you see why parental overshare, however well-intentioned, is unethical.”
I am still on a thinking curve on this issue. But this is what I have concluded:
1. At 17, 14 and 12 my children deserve to be asked if I can use their stories in my stories, the same way I would ask my husband or anyone else.
2. As tempting as it is for writers to view everything as free, rich material, other people’s lives are not our free fodder. I’m still working out what that means in terms of writing about my past and the people who populate it. These are good, hard questions for writers to ask of themselves and their work. There aren’t easy answers.
3. If my gut is sending out warning signals, I will try to listen more. I could have asked my son about the homework story, but the truth is I was afraid he would say no.