My Character’s Mother is Not My Mother

Posted on 22 October 2010

When I was about 15 years old, I wrote a short story that described the protagonist’s mother as having a “red, smiling face” or something to that effect. (Hey. I was 15, okay?) I gave the story to my mother to read, as I usually did with my fiction, and then I retreated to my bedroom. A few minutes later, she rushed to the bottom of the stairs and called up to me. She sounded positively frantic — not angry or upset, just frazzled.

“Is this me?” she kept asking. “Is the mother in this story me?”

Something about the description of the character’s face or expression had struck a chord, and my mother was convinced I’d used her as the basis for this character. Of course, I denied it up and down until she was satisfied and we could laugh it off. But I wasn’t entirely sure her suspicions were unfounded. Wouldn’t it make sense for me to base a mother character, at least in some small way, off my own mother? Even if the woman in the story was a completely different kind of person, how could I avoid slipping in something — a mannerism, an expression, a gesture — reminiscent of my mom?

My mother, an aspiring writer herself, was always my biggest supporter. She believed in my writing, and if she ever again became distraught over possibly finding herself in my stories, she didn’t let on.

I was 20 years old when my mother died. She had cancer, but my brothers and I only had about 36 hours of notice that she was going to die. She and I had been very close, so I don’t think I need to explain that her death was hugely traumatic for me.

For a long time after her passing, I wrote about death and grief and sick mothers and motherless daughters. As the years passed, I was able to move away from those themes, even if they did continue to crop up now and again. Lately, however, I’ve noticed another theme in some of my stories and my novel, Opal: I’m writing about difficult or even toxic mother-daughter relationships.

While we had our arguments like anyone else, my mother and I had a great relationship overall. Even during my tumultuous teenage years, we spent a lot of time together, shared common interests, and confided in one another. I have no doubt that had she lived, our friendship and our relationship would have only deepened as I entered adulthood.

So why am I writing about difficult or neglectful mothers?

I think it’s my way of continuing to address the impact of losing a mother. While losing your loving mom to cancer early in life is quite different from growing up with a dysfunctional or neglectful mother, they are both losses. They both prompt feelings of longing and anger and regret. They both, in a sense, leave a daughter without a mother.

When I look at my current novel in progress, Opal, and at the choices Colette (Opal’s mom) makes, I can’t help but think of my own mother. If she could be here to read this manuscript, what in the world would she think? Would she worry that anyone who reads the book will automatically assume she is Colette? Or, worse, would she think that the way I wrote Colette is how I really think of her?

Opal is written in first person. If I’m ever lucky enough to find a home for this novel, maybe some readers will assume I’m actually writing about myself (never mind that the plot would  be impossible in my own life). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m writing a book about a mother who can be selfish, neglectful, and self-absorbed to the point of damaging her relationship with her daughter, while my own mother — who wasn’t any of these things — isn’t even here to defend herself.

And it’s not just the novel, either. In my short story “The Clarinet,” which will be published in Living Arrangements, the protagonist’s mother is a former concert clarinetist who now teaches her daughter on her own professional-grade Buffet Crampon clarinet. My mother was a former music teacher, band director, and clarinetist who gave me lessons on her old wooden Buffet Crampon clarinet. While I can’t deny that details like these came from real life, the story itself is pure fiction. I definitely wasn’t a musical prodigy, and my mother wasn’t as driven and competitive and single-minded and harsh as the mother in the story. Still, at first glance, it would be easy for someone who knew I once played the clarinet, and that my mother taught me, to assume that the larger emotional themes (and characterization of the mother) in the story are true.

Maybe these are silly things to worry about. If my mother could be here today, I think she’d just be proud of me for writing this novel and this story collection. And I think she would understand that the mothers in my stories aren’t meant to be her. If anything, the flaws in my fictional mothers are in direct contrast to everything my own mother did right.

4 responses to My Character’s Mother is Not My Mother

  • Averil Dean says:

    What a powerful post, Laura.

    I have a complex relationship with my mother, who is uncomfortably close to me in every way. She sees me. She knows all my secrets from the time I was sent home from school with wet underwear to the day I dropped the f-bomb in front of her and my children at the same time. I have few secrets from her. In fact, I’m probably kidding myself to think I have any at all.

    I’ve never written parental figures before my current work in progress. Not because it would reveal too much about them, but because in doing so I’ll be laid bare myself.

    It’s a rite of passage, I suppose, to explore these relationships. You do it beautifully.

  • Margosita says:

    I struggle with this as well. There are some details and circumstances in my fiction that I steal from outright, that’d be clear to anyone who knows me. But when those true things get mixed into so much else that isn’t true to my life, it becomes confusing. Even for me, sometimes. I’ll think, in particularly addled moments, well if this is true, who is to say that this other thing isn’t secretly true as well?

  • Daniel says:

    I think a lot of us incorporate elements of our real life in our whatever it is that we’re writing. Most of what I put down on paper tends to be non-fiction, and it scares me to think what sort of reaction my dad would have should he ever stumble across some of it… although, were I to write fiction, I’m sure my relationship with my father would influence some of the characters in some way…

  • I followed the link here from your post that began with the Dorothy Parker telegram. This is such an interesting topic. I’ve pretty much decided not to write about mothers and daughters until my own is gone. That seems so harsh, but she is so painfully aware and afraid of how she is viewed, it’s simply not worth it to me.

    Now, if the story is about mothers and daughters and it’s clear that any autobiographical pieces come from me, the mother not me, the daughter, that’s wide open.

    Just don’t tell my kids.

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