Saturday, August 6, 2016

Momlike Writing

I said something in an earlier blog post that I’d like to explore, about “contaminating [a book] with mom-ishness” which may have lit up my readers’ Freudian circuits.

I’m going to use “momlike” instead because it’s easier to spell, and note that it can frequently be excellent. Harry Potter has lots of it, with his deceased mom’s love being powerful enough to turn the largest plot point in the series. And yet the fact that she is dead frees Harry’s story from being momlike at all. Nobody ever tells Harry to eat his vegetables, or worries about whether he’s got his raincoat, or gets upset because he was too busy  sneaking around fighting the forces of evil to call. 

Typically in adventure stories the parents are dead, or completely out of the picture. I’ve read a lot of comments by parents who are bothered by this so I try to keep my parent characters alive but far out of the way. That way the heroes can have microadventures as they navigate doing adult things for the first time. Taking someone to a restaurant! Paying rent! Going to a job interview! First kiss! All those situations that require individuation and courage, rather than having a mom-ish helicopter hanging over your shoulder.

Sometimes authors do helicopter in and start hovering over their characters, and this is the  concept I was objecting to.

            Examples of Momlike Writing

Jenny looked back and forth from the three old ladies with their glittering talisman and the safety of her front porch. “Timmy, we shouldn’t talk to these strangers, we should do our homework instead,” she said to her brother.

“Hey kid, wanna be an actor?” whispered the fox as Pinocchio was clip-clopping down the sidewalk. Pinocchio’s eyes grew wide. “Gosh no, I need to finish my chores!”

Bartlett and Devon could have been listening to the same boring dreadful music their peers liked, but they preferred the musical stylings of their mother’s favorite artist, even though she died long before they were born.

Momlike writing is based on a fantasy that kids will internalize all the values taught to them without falling prey to their own curiosity or other base impulses, even under duress. Adventure is about a hero struggling with their values in order to survive. Momlike concepts have to do with safe nurturing, and adventure is about traveling through hazards. Momlike characters swoop in and protect young protagonists, leaving characters like Huckleberry Finn feeling smothered and overly sivilized. Momlike readers want to avoid being stressed and triggered; adventurous readers want to be on the edge of their seats, nibbling away at their fingernails.

I don’t really have any complaints with motherhood or nurturing or anything like that; it’s just that it’s outside my genre. If I pause while encouraging my characters to sneak quietly past the sleeping crocodiles to have them put on windbreakers and floss their teeth, I fail at the spinning of lively yarns. 

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