Are you from a writing family?

It being Father’s Day tomorrow, I thought I’d ask a family-related question. 

Someone posed this question on my screenwriter board:  Do you come from a writing family?

His hypothesis was that most writers actually don’t.   And the responses certainly bore him out – there was only one out of the dozens of screenwriters who answered him who had a writing pedigree.

I didn’t, either – my parents are scientists. They’re educated and literate but neither has much flair for writing, and even though my mother had us going to dance lessons and piano lessons and museums and galleries all the time, both of them – as most parents! – were dismayed when I went into theater after college, and are still a little stunned that I’ve made a living at writing all this time.

BUT – my parents also are huge readers. There were overflowing bookshelves in every room of the house when I was growing up. My father was a huge genre reader, specifically, and he had, randomly, collected just about every sci fi and horror classic out there.  So his reading taste had just about everything to do with my writing education.

And Mom did make me and my siblings write something every single day for a long time, even before kindergarten.   That enforced habit was a critical factor in my writing training.   And not just for me- my sister and brother also are great writers – my artist sister has a true genius for it, and my brother is a songwriter and very good with prose as well.

There were other things my parents did that prepared me for a writing career, but I think that the most important one was about gender.  They were both incredible role models for me as a woman.  My mother was fearless.    Definitely not the cookie-baking kind of mom.   Very early on I saw her going head to head with city councilmen and the mayor over community political issues and the message I got was very clear – women can do anything.

I got the same message from my father – he never made me think that I couldn’t do as well, as much, and more than any boy in any class.    He expected me to make a living with my brain – and I never had any doubt that I could.   Other girls my age were definitely NOT getting that message from their parents.

And maybe even more important than that – they both were passionate about their work.   It was very clear to me from their example that you’re supposed to do what you love for a living. And although they may sometimes have regretted sending that message – I think it was the greatest gift.

Because it’s not just writing training that makes you a writer, is it?

So how about you all?   What lessons did you get from your parents (whether intended or not!) that made you the writer – or other profession – that you are?   Let’s see what patterns might emerge.

And Happy Father’s Day to all our fathers!

15 thoughts on “Are you from a writing family?

  1. Louise Ure

    My parents were neither readers nor writers. But I did get my love of words from my crossword-solving father.

    My mother went to work to support her five children when she was widowed at the age of fifty. Her lesson to me was a broader one: If you are brave enough and strong enough, you can do anything you want to do in life. Or anything that you must.

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  2. pari

    One of my mom’s main characteristics/aspirations was to be “different,” “unique.” She had an ingrained fear of normality. I internalized her perspective early on.

    She also had an extraordinary appreciation of anything creative–and supported artists through her personal collection and with several galleries over the years. She went to the theater and other performances, read, knitted sweaters of her own design (same with needlepoint) and would have been far more creative herself if she hadn’t been a single and forced to support us for several years.

    Mother also supported and encouraged my writing from the moment I started . . .

    The biggest lesson my stepdad gave me was that I could do anything, anything at all, I put my mind to. He believed that with all of his heart and I could feel his faith in me right down to my toes.

    Enough for today . . .

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  3. Alex Sokoloff

    Louise: “Her lesson to me was a broader one: If you are brave enough and strong enough, you can do anything you want to do in life. Or anything that you must.”

    Pari: “The biggest lesson my stepdad gave me was that I could do anything, anything at all, I put my mind to. He believed that with all of his heart and I could feel his faith in me right down to my toes.”

    THIS is what I keep hearing over and over, from the screenwriters, too. It seems that an encompassing parental message that anything you want to do is possible is the common theme.

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  4. JT Ellison

    My parents were big readers, which certainly shaped my upbringing as a bookworm. And they’ve always, always, always beleived and supported me in whatever endeavor I tried. But it does my heart good to be out on the golf course with my Dad and have him introduce me as “My daughter, the author” and see the pride in his eyes. THAT’S worth more than any book sale.

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  5. billie

    Very interesting to read the comments. My parents were both avid readers as well, and like many of the parents mentioned, were adamant from as early as I remember that I could do anything I wanted to do.

    My mother especially went out of her way to be supportive even when some of my plans were a bit wild. (buying a one-way ticket to Paris b/c I didn’t think I’d want to come back, moving to CA on a whim to do an internship, quitting my first real job to move to Hollywood to write a screenplay, considering artificial insemination when I was 30-something and didn’t think I could find a suitable man to marry and have children with… I found him in the nick of time, but for a year, I was planning to do it on my own!)

    She was convinced Oprah would revive her book club when she read my novel. 🙂 I guess Cormac McCarthy’s book got to her first!

    What a great reminder the day before Father’s Day. Thanks, Alex.

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  6. Rae

    My family were big readers, so I learned to love books from them, and was allowed to read anything and everything, whether it was ‘age-appropriate’ or not.

    But more importantly, they taught me to love learning for its own sake. I was encouraged to learn anything, explore anything, without regard to whether it might be ‘useful’ later on in life. All of which probably had something to do with the fact that I’ve tried quite a few professions over the course of time, and enjoyed all of them.

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  7. simon

    my sister was a good writer and artist in school, but she was told to skip it as a career by her teachers. me, i was terrible in school at english and writing…

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  8. Lisa

    My parents were/are both writers — dad was a journalist and nature writer, mom began as a technical writer for a chemical company, ended up editor of a magazine and now owns a writing business. So naturally I spent the first 15 years of my professional life refusing to have anything to do with it [maybe this is why the children of writers rarely go into it — we know that breed of crazy much too well — my brother is a lawyer but has a manuscript under his bed], only to finally give in to nature. But they gave me a number of valuable lessons –that you can do what you love and make a living at it, that it’s not only acceptable but preferable to be “different,” and, like everyone else, that whatever I wanted to do — even when I was refusing to write — was just great with them. And they had me read things that were well above the level of child or young adult literature, so I was reading very good writing very early. I’m freelancing, working for my mother and finishing my first novel now — and those lessons are much more important than all the stuff they taught me about sentence rhythm and imagery.

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  9. Alex Sokoloff

    JT, so cool about your father… yes, that’s gold.

    Billie, yike – I wouldn’t have dared to tell my mother half the things you confided – but every time I did something wild like that I could have pointed out something exactly parallel that SHE did. 😉

    Rae, you just summarized for me the essence of a liberal education, long may it reign:

    “But more importantly, they taught me to love learning for its own sake. I was encouraged to learn anything, explore anything, without regard to whether it might be ‘useful’ later on in life.”

    Loving learning for its own sake I think guarantees a rich and happy life, no matter what you do for a living.

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  10. Alex Sokoloff

    Oh, well, Simon, what teachers do to encourage/discourage our aspirations is a whole other topic! There you get at least as many bad ones as good, in a potentially devastating way. (I remember with great pleasure the disdain my middle school gym teacher had for my miserable unsportworthiness – until I placed second in the district-wide physical fitness challenges. I hated SPORTS – that didn’t mean I didn’t know what to do with my body.)

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  11. Alex Sokoloff

    Lisa, it makes total sense to me that a child of a writing family would resist that path at first, even if it’s your true calling.

    But since everything we do is training for writing, I don’t think that rebellion puts you behind.

    It really is interesting how the underlying lessons are still the same:

    “But they gave me a number of valuable lessons –that you can do what you love and make a living at it, that it’s not only acceptable but preferable to be “different,” and, like everyone else, that whatever I wanted to do — even when I was refusing to write — was just great with them.”

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  12. billie

    Alex, we (my brothers and I) saved the really dicey stuff for when we were grown – I clearly remember a family dinner one night when we started telling some of our wildest adolescent adventures. My poor parents were mortified, but since we’d obviously lived through the wildness, it wasn’t too bad hearing it. 🙂

    My dad has more wild stories than my mom does. I suspect part of her support of me has to do with the things she regrets not doing herself.

    I wonder if the “you can do anything you set your mind to” idea also plays a big role with artists of other media – it seems maybe the parental “blessing” has the potential to outweigh all the negatives one encounters wrt creative arts and earning a living, etc.

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  13. Alex Sokoloff

    Billie, I have to say I’m a little shocked at how few people – make that NONE – here or on my screenwriting board – have said “I’m a writer because my parents said I COULDN’T do it.” I would have thought that rebelling against a negative imperative would produce a few writers out of sheer spite. But so far it seems the opposite is true – it’s parental faith and moral support that make a writing career possible.

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  14. Mike MacLean

    My dad should have been a writer. He loved to write, not only the mental exercise but also the physical act of taking ink to paper (something I sadly didn’t inherit). If the toilet was broken and the handle needed jiggling, Dad wouldn’t just scrawl out a note and tape it to the commode. He’d pen three paragraphs of high prose–step-by-step instructions full of dry humor. And I’m told his letters were like novellas.

    My dad’s death a few years back crystallized my resolve to pursue writing as a career. Dad should have been a writer but never became one. I often wonder if that bothered him.

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  15. Christa Miller

    I have to say I’m a little shocked at how few people – make that NONE – here or on my screenwriting board – have said “I’m a writer because my parents said I COULDN’T do it.”

    Let me be the first, then. 😉 My teachers, not my parents, encouraged me to be a writer. My parents said I would never make any money at it. Maybe by then they were used to me coming up with such professions: horse trainer, dolphin trainer. Or maybe they just didn’t think I’d be good enough at it to make money… my mother did tell my husband, quite recently, that she never thought my writing was any good.

    What I do have in common with others here is this: my parents were huge readers. My mother wrote a novel when I was little, though never succeeded in selling it (I think she has a horrid fear of rejection that permeates nearly every area in her life). My father loves words.

    They are also very nonconformist, to the extent that I never fit in with any “crowd” in school – so I tended to lose myself in books. And, my father never really fit in at work. He complained a lot about work, in fact. I wonder if he should have been self-employed? But anyway, when I found that I too didn’t fit in at work, I bit the bullet and decided to write for real. By then I’d been writing pretty steadily for about three years (after graduating from college).

    So it appears that I have a strange mix of both rebelling from and following my parents’ wishes.

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