Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Memoirist Monica Wesolowska on Writing About and As a Parent

Thank you to Monica Wesolowska, author of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, for today's interview with an author about writing as a parent. I particularly appreciate her discussion of finding time to write and how she dealt with telling a personal, and also family's, story. Her memoir explores motherhood, medicine, and the ethics of forgoing medical intervention for a newborn son.

In the opening of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, Monica Wesolowska gives birth to her first child, a healthy-seeming boy who is taken from her arms for "observation" when he won’t stop crying. Within days, Monica and her husband have been given the grimmest of prognoses for Silvan, and they must make a choice about his life. The story that follows is not a story of typical maternal heroism. There is no medical miracle here. Instead, we find the strangest of hopes. Certain of her choice, Monica must still ask herself at every step if she is loving Silvan as well as a mother can.

What kinds of choices did you make writing about your child and including other family members in your memoir?

At first, I didn’t choose. I simply wrote. I had to write. I was telling the story of my first son, Silvan. Ten years ago, Silvan was brain-damaged during birth. He was so brain-damaged that he could survive only on life support, and my husband and I fought for the right to let him die. Silvan lived for thirty-eight days, most of which we spent holding him. 

For years, I didn’t know how to tell that story publicly. Even after I had two more boys, Silvan’s story seemed too sad for others to bear. But with time, my feelings about the story shifted. I could see the heroism in it, and the universality—in the age of modern medicine all of us will have to make complicated choices about death—and I saw the joy and love shining through the grief. 

I wrote mostly about Silvan at first, but as his story took on flesh as a memoir, I saw that to write about myself, my family, and my subsequent children was actually part of Silvan’s story. Though he only lived a brief time himself, he fit into the larger story of all our lives. I just kept writing, hoping that those I wrote about would see it that way, too. 

Did you show family members the manuscript before publishing it and/or ask them for permission?

I waited until the book actually sold to a publisher before I showed it to family. I’m not talking about my husband, of course, who read every single draft. But I waited to show my mother, my in-laws, and my close friends. I waited until it sold and then I immediately sent it to everyone I could think of who might be personally affected by its publication.

I was open to their criticism. I planned on changing things if anyone felt really uncomfortable with something I wrote. I was also prepared to change names and that kind of thing, but I had wanted to sell the book before opening myself up to family criticism. 

As it turned out, everyone was super enthusiastic. Even people I’d criticized seemed fine with it maybe because I hadn’t spared myself in the portrait. I’d tried to be as honest as I could.

More importantly, they said they were glad to have the chance to relive the story. My sister-in-law in particular said she was really relieved to find the same joy in my story that she herself had felt while Silvan was alive. She’d been afraid she was the only one who had found such joy even in the grief of holding Silvan.   

How did/do you balance your roles as a woman, mother and writer? 

I’d spent years before having children writing and trying to publish a book of fiction. I was afraid that if I didn’t publish first, children might become a barrier to writing. I saw Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen as models in their childlessness, forgetting that Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, and so many other writers do both. 

In the end, I couldn’t wait for publication. Silvan’s death did stop my writing for a while, but once Miles and Ivan were born, I found myself writing while they nursed, and on the floor of the locker room at the gym when I was supposed to be exercising. I learned to dip right into my writing during nap time and pluck myself back out at the first sound of a child crying. Motherhood really made me ask myself what I needed to get done in life besides mothering.

Realizing I couldn’t give writing up, I had to figure out how to do both. In addition to my personal drive, I’ve been very, very lucky. My husband has been the major breadwinner. He’s carried so much of this family on his back. I’d actually promised him that if, by the time both kids were school-age, I hadn’t published a book, I’d seriously reconsider the amount of time I spent writing. And then, half-way through Ivan’s kindergarten year, I sold Holding Silvan.

What approaches would you recommend to other parent writers? 

Parenting is all about multi-tasking. There’s nothing more gratifying than feeling like you can do it all: snuggle with one kid while reading to another, cook dinner while helping with homework.  However, writing is the opposite. Writing is serious single-tasking, going deeper and deeper, just to get to that still place where, from the infinity of your imagination, you can find something whole.

For me, my biggest battle as a writer is quieting the mind that, in the panic of not being able to get a sentence right, suddenly thinks that my time would be better spent researching summer camps or buying the kids new socks or just going upstairs to snuggle.  All writers have to quiet the busy mind, but when kids compete for your attention, the distraction goes to a whole new level. Because, of course, what’s more important than writing? Your kids are.

What I have to tell myself is that no parent is perfect. No writer is perfect either. I’m just trying to keep the balance right. I tell stories because I have to, but I also believe the world is a better place because of stories. I want my children to grow up in a world where writers and their books exist. There is nothing as blissful as watching my own children curl up to read. I hope I’m doing a good job as a mother, but I also hope I’m giving them a permanent love of books. I think their lives will be better for it. 

Monica Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. With an introduction by Erica Jong, Holding Silvan explores motherhood, medicine, and the ethics of forgoing medical intervention for a newborn son.  A skilled public speaker, she’s been a guest speaker at hospitals, book clubs, and other venues discussing pregnancy, medicine, and grief. She’s published fiction in many literary journals and anthologies including Best New American Voices and teaches both memoir and fiction writing at UC Berkeley Extension. Read more at

1 comment:

  1. This personal experience is so important to share. Thanks for the insight into how this memoir came about.