Here’s a conundrum. What does a writer do when a national magazine calls her up and offers her a significant amount of money per word to write a series of articles about something she knows very little about? The correct answer is she drops everything, does her research, becomes an expert, and starts writing. Right?
Right. Except that in my case the magazine in question is a parenting magazine. Meaning I’d be writing about—uhm—parenting. Yes, I have three children, but I am an infamously bad parent. I’m soft. I spoil. I “engage” when I should be authoritative. I treat my kids like best friends. I pout. I whine. I baby their quirks. I berate and insult. I nurture bad habits. I don’t discipline effectively. (John does the disciplining). I’m not organized. I’m lax about bedtime, and clothes with holes in them. I’m not familiar with parenting lingo. You should see me at parent-teacher conferences. I listen and nod. Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. I’ll do better. I promise he’ll come to school on time. Homework? Yes, I’ll supervise homework. Hat? Has he been wearing a hat in class? I don’t get even the basic do’s and don’t’s about parenting that every other parent seems to know instinctively. I literally wing motherhood from day to day, minute to minute (usually taking the opposite approach my mother took), and don’t always do so well. I ask you. What kind of magazine would want me to write articles on parenting? Only one kind. The kind that wants to break the rules.
The stories they want are about the “tween years”—the years from 9 to 12—which are the ages of my twin sons. “It’s a particular phase of life,” the editor said (I think of it more as a particular phase of death, but oh well), “that’s often overlooked by most parenting magazines.” (An aside: I wonder why it’s overlooked. Maybe because by the time parents have tweens they’ve grown so cynical they’ve given up reading parenting magazines and get their learning from a bottle of tequila?)
“Well, I certainly know a lot about tweens! Yes sirree! Pretty much everything there is to know!” I said, trying to stifle the bitter tone that usually comes through when I complain about my kids to friends.
The editor snail-mailed me some sample copies of the magazine to give me an idea of what they’ve done so far, and to spark any ideas I may have. I read them over, and I did get ideas. Lots of ideas. But. . .
“I’d love to write for you,” I told the editor on a follow-up call. “But I’ll have to get permission from my kids. And that might not be easy.”
This is a new phase—getting permission. I’ve written about my kids a lot, and even put them on the radio. But that was a few years ago. Back then they seemed to handle the exposure just fine. But lately they’ve been very prickly about being written about. They know their mom is a writer and they don’t want to be the subjects of her stories anymore. They want control. Moreover, they want payment. They aren’t going to “work” for nothing.
So I put it to them the other night, and the conversation went something like this:
“So. . . guys. What would you say if I told you I’d like to write about your lives for a parenting magazine?”
Daniel, 14: “No way. You are not allowed to write about me ever again. Period. End of conversation.”
Kyle, 11, reflected a little bit more. “You could write about me, but it would cost you money,” he said.
Me: “Oh? Like how much?”
“Like, a lot.”
“No, really. How much?”
“A thousand dollars an article.”
“That seems a bit steep, Kyle. I mean, come on. Cut me a break.”
Cameron, 11, (who tends to go way overboard with very little provocation): “A thousand dollars every time you say my name.”
Kyle: “And I get to tell you what to say. Word for word.”
Me: “Hang on. I’m the writer, not you. You can suggest content, but you can’t, like, freakin’ write the thing.”
Kyle: “Hey. I know more about my life than you do. . . I should be the one who decides what goes into the articles.”
Cameron: “Yeah! You pay me, and I’ll write. You don’t have to do anything. Just pay.”
Kyle: “Shut up, Cameron.”
Daniel: “Yeah. Shut up. You’re an idiot. Don’t you know you’re an idiot? Or are you brain dead, too? Idiot!”
Me: “All right, stop, everyone. Leave Cameron alone. Listen, Kyle. Maybe you do know more about your life than I do. Okay. . . I’ll admit. You DO. I’m not disputing that. But as the writer I should be the one who writes. Get it?”
Daniel: “Kyle, tell Mommy that the answer is still no. End of discussion. End of topic. No. And that’s final.”
Kyle: “Sorry, Mommy, but. . . No.”
So here’s my dilemma. Do I write about my kids whether they want me to or not? Do I write the truth, get it published, in print and online, and explain later? Or do I tell the magazine that I’m sorry, but I’m banned from writing about my kids, and they should find another writer who isn’t banned? What are the ethics on this?
A friend said this to me: “There are three words that come to mind. The first is 'fictionalize.' The second and third are, 'Back out'.”
I have a fourth. “Pseudonym.” What do you think?
Causes Veronica Chater Supports
Sierra Club; Public Library; Public Schools; Crowden Music Center; Women's Cancer Resource Center; Democratic Party