[TIPS OF THE TRADE] My Mother, the Writer

I grew up with a writing mother, Sylvia Cassedy, whose fiction and poetry for children garnered critical acclaim and loyal readers.  Having a literary model right in the house was a great gift, which it set me on my own path toward writing in several key ways:  

Learning to observe.   Having a writing mother meant being around a keen observer.  “Writing begins with taking notice,” my mother believed.  She modeled the art of paying close attention – to human behavior, to how things looked and sounded and smelled, to one’s own thoughts and feelings.  

Loving language.  My mother adored words.   A shelf of dictionaries occupied pride of place in our dining room, and we rarely made it through a meal without consulting at least one of them.  After I moved away from home, the letters I received from her were small literary gems.  Today, whenever I’m plagued with insomnia, I reach into the store of the elaborate word games she invented; they always do the trick.

Setting high standards.   My mother was an exacting editor.   At times, her critical eye on my written work could be intimidating, even stifling.  Other times, she pushed exactly the right button when she aksed, “What do you mean here?” – followed by, “Well, write that down.”   

My mother died young, in mid-life and mid-career.  I felt her death as a great loss, as did her readers.  Soon after she died, however, I noticed that my own writing life had begun to change.  I found myself plumbing deeper places in my writing, spreading my literary wings.  I sensed new opportunities and felt a new obligation – to take up the torch, to be the writer she could no longer be.

Today, in my head, she’s one of my treasured readers.   I write for her. And, I, too, have become a writing mother, passing on the literary legacy in ways of my own.    

Reading is important to my kids.  Even when they were little, when they skinned a knee, instead of a kiss they’d ask for a book. Snuggling on the couch with a story was the very best consolation.    

Playing with writing has been a beloved family pastime.  Every so often we’d “publish” a couple-page newspaper full of the latest household happenings.  At the kitchen table, we’ven been known to collaborate in writing and illustrating a little book from time to time.  (One that I’ve saved, called “Mr. Telephone,” we gleefully presented to my workaholic husband.) 

Reviewing homework, I've tried to remember to ask the kids what they like best about what they’ve written, rather than wading right in with my own praise or red pencil. (If you ask them, they’ll probably say I've failed utterly at this worthy goal.) Rather than judge, I've tried to notice how they've developed as writers.  My son, for example, has always been able to capture on paper the exact way he talks, while my daughter has always preferred a more formal literary style.  

Having a writing mother, being a writing mother – for me, each has been a precious privilege.  Join the conversation – share what it’s like for you.

* * *

Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), for which she has just won the 2013 Grub Street National Book Prize for non-fiction. Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

 

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Comment by Amyah L on February 27, 2013 at 12:06pm

How lucky you were!

My family, both on my dad's and mom's side, were and are artists, renown actors, well know writers and script-writers, painters... BUT... my mom refused me to be an artist. She always fought with me, destroyed my writings and sketches, forbid me to write. It was hell! And I have the feeling I lost a big part of my life when living with her. Now, I am writing, of course, but still have problems to... I don't know ... maybe, inside of me, the little child is feeling that I am cheating and still do forbidden things... Geeee... Have to work on that point.. have to put this on paper... in my memoirs :)

I published 2 books in French -- 1 children and 1 MG -- they are now translated in English as well as few more and ready to be published.

Thank you for this article, it helped to remind me that part of my childhood I -- unconciously -- wanted to forget about but that is still there. Have a wonerful day!

Comment by Ellen Cassedy on February 23, 2013 at 12:25am

"Alas, my daughter is now a professional writer," says Marcia!  There are worse fates, I'm sure.

Comment by Marcia Fine on February 22, 2013 at 1:41pm

Ellen, I loved this! My parents were great readers, not writers, but they instilled love of the written word. I not only bought more books than toys for my kids (Benjamin and Tulip has been shared with the next generation) but we spent a lot of time going to "look and see." Alas, my daughter is a professional writer!

Comment by Ellen Cassedy on February 22, 2013 at 12:03pm

Wonderful comments, everyone!  I'm writing from Vilnius, Lithuania, where I'm on a book tour!  My book, "We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust," began when my mother died.  When she was alive, I could count on her to keep track of my Lithuanian Jewish forebears.  But after she died, I had to keep track of them myself.  I was drawn to Lithuania to breathe the air they had breathed and imagine myself back into their lives.  But a personal journey soon expanded into an exploration of how a post-Holocaust country is encountering the Jewish past.  My mother's spirit hovers over the narrative, and I often imagine her with the book in her hand.

Comment by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on February 22, 2013 at 8:56am

Very inspiring, Ellen. Brought back memories of my own mother who wanted to be a writer, but growing up in India at the time that she did, she never did manage to become one. Late in life, she wrote down her memories in beautiful, moving essays. Like your mother, she was tough on my writing--it hurt at the time, but later I can see how it pushed me to do better.

Comment by Lynn Henriksen on February 21, 2013 at 8:42pm

Delightfully inspiring post, Ellen.  You are a lucky woman to have had that mother of yours!  My mother wasn’t a writer, but, as it turned out, she was my muse.  Mom had Alzheimer’s disease. After I witnessed, with great sorrow, her memory loss to the degree she no longer knew me, I began what I can only call a spiritual journey into teaching daughters and sons to write short m....  I ask people to answer this question, “It you could only tell just one small story that would capture character and keep her spirit alive into the future, what would it be?”  Over a decade later, in 2012, I published “Writing the Mother Memoir: How to…” guidebook, which includes 40 stories written by daughters and sons I call TellTale Souls.  I loved your thought, “Today, in my head, she’s one of my treasured readers.   I write for her.”  My mother will also always be one of my treasured readers, and I’m sure she’s pleased that because of her, hundreds of writers and would-be writers have written bio-vignettes to honor the relationship they had/have with their mothers.

Comment by Daphne Q on February 21, 2013 at 8:00pm

Love this! Loved that your mother was a writer and that you learned so much from her!

Comment by Rosanne Dingli on February 21, 2013 at 6:43pm

Brilliance!!

Comment by Kathryn Meyer Griffith on February 21, 2013 at 4:57pm

Ellen,

my mother wasn't a writer, she had seven children to raise, but she had the soul of one; the love of books and words. She encouraged me from a young age. She's been gone now for five years and I miss her so. She was my greatest fan and my confidant.  We are our mother's daughters, aren't we? Kathryn Meyer Griffith

Comment by Laura Davis on February 21, 2013 at 2:26pm
I love this post. My mother wasn't much of a writer, but for many years I wrote a parenting column about my two youngest children, "Becoming the parent I want to be" in my local Santa Cruise parenting newspaper. When they were little, they had nothing to do with it. But as they got older, they helped me edit each column. They'd say, "But it didn't really happen that way, mom!" I used it as an opportunity to teach them about literary license and the arc of the story, and keeping things under 1000 words. Eventually I had to give up the column, because they were getting too old, and their lives needed to be private. I couldn't write about my son struggles in puberty for the first time I smelled my daughters underarm odor. So with great sadness, I retired from the column. But they learned a tremendous amount about writing and storytelling, and now they are both grateful there is a written record of their childhoods. If it weren't for the column, I never would've remembered all those incidents that we all read together now. Just recently, my 19-year-old son set me a text message asking if I still had the old columns. He wanted to share them with his girlfriend!

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