Wednesday, September 23, 2015

we're not all Jenny Zhang's parents, but

"[My father] sure as hell was not jumping with joy and support when I said I wanted to be a writer. My mother cried for weeks and threatened to tell Stanford I was a convicted criminal so they would revoke my admission if I didn’t promise that I would not try to be a writer. I didn’t promise and my mother never made good on hers. They were scared for me. . ."

~~from "They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don't Exist" by Jenny Zhang

A less discussed aspect of Jenny Zhang's buzzfeed essay, I think, is as a parent, would any of us react much in the way her parents did when she told them she planned to become a writer? Zhang's father is possibly somewhere on the spectrum of "failed writer"--a spectrum that includes Melville, Nietzsche, Kafka, and some of the other most successful writers of all--although the graduate program he left was in linguistics, not fiction, and he sounds like a very accomplished person. At the very least, he helped raise a daughter who could gain admittance to Stanford and the Iowa Writers Workshop. But both parents sound absolutely terrified that she is insistent on such a dubious career path.

It reminded me of what my parents would say to me, how my father would often try to move me toward a more practical major, in a reasonable way with only a hint of panic in his voice, when I was an undergrad, and how even on his death bed, that last summer, ten years after I finished college, somehow we got to talking about writing, and he was telling me that people like Paul Auster are "special," one of a kind. Neither of us even knew, at the time, how well connected Auster was or how he'd be able to write and publish 10 to 20 more books--watered-down versions of the same book?--for another fourteen years. My mother once described fiction writing as "avocational" not "vocational"; she never spoke against the liberal arts though.

Now when my 7-year-old says she wants to be an "artist" I enjoy it; it makes me happy that she likes to draw and paint and make a mess, and to read and write and be read to, but if she told us she wanted to go to NYU or Bennington or something like that for creative writing after 12th grade? I don't know. In a way, even beyond the terrifying idea of NYU total costs in 2025, I hope she doesn't become someone who wants to go to NYU or Bennington. Stanford, to study anything she wants, would be okay with me if it's not too difficult for parents classified as teachers or writers or earning less than six figures to get security clearance to enter Palo Alto. For writing in general, I'm uncertain, and for now, we're working on the second month of second grade.

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