By Allison Brennan
I’m a bit contemplative this week. My 19 year old daughter is in Scotland for a month. She’s at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival through a program for Theater or English majors to see a series of plays (I think 18 plays in 2 weeks!) and then she’ll be spending a week in London on her own. Sort of on her own—she’s visiting her best friend, who is studying abroad for a semester.
Kelly wanted to do this summer program to see if she, too, wanted to study abroad for an entire semester. But this is the first time she’s been so far away from home. Her college is only 5 hours away by car – easy enough to get to if she needs me. Now she’s halfway across the world. Twelve hours by plane – a full day counting drive and waiting time.
As a parent, you raise your kids the best you can and hope that they make smart decisions as well as grow and succeed on their own. You want them to be healthy, happy and have a hefty dose of common sense. But when they are 18, there’s this sense of panic, because now legally they are an adult and they can do whatever they want. You can only give them advice—outside of financial issues, you can’t really tell them no.
Though I didn’t see Kelly for 13 weeks between Spring Break and the end of her Spring Quarter at school, the next 4 weeks are going to be much harder.
As a mom, I’m scared and excited. I’ve helped her grow wings and now she’s using them without me hovering over her to make sure she flies right, without me tucking her into the nest every night. Sometimes, I want to put her on a path and not let her deviate. I want to guarantee that she is safe every night, that she takes the well-traveled road because it’s been done before and most likely safe with no major roadblocks or potholes, with lots of people and support to help her if she falters.
But Robert Frost understood that the well-traveled road—the safe, grassy, calm path—was a good path, but perhaps not the best path.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As a writer, I realize that, just like being a mom, I want my characters to do the same thing—to take the safe, protected road. I’ve grown to care about my characters. I want them to be happy, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And sometimes, in writing, I force them to make the safe choice.
But just like raising children, once they are grown and on their own we can’t always protect them. We recognize that they have to learn and grow and explore and make their own decisions. They want to see the world and meet people and explore what it means to be a human being, what it means to be an individual in the 21st Century.
My oldest daughter is taking fire science in the hopes of being a firefighter. She’s applied to the academy and has her EMT certificate and she will be the first to run into a burning building someday. And while I am concerned for her safety, I’m proud of her as well. So why is it that I’m more fearful of my second daughter who wants to travel the world?
I have to let them fly on their own. If I force them down one path—the safe path, the well-traveled path—they will resent it. I may be content for the short-term, but in the long-term I will have realized I’ve stifled them.
Too often I see authors stifling their characters. They don’t want to really put them to the test. They don’t want to really put them in danger. I write thrillers and de facto there is danger. My characters often face it head-on, but to really let them soar, I need to let them make their own decisions. I can’t always force them to make the “safest” decision.
Like my oldest Katie, some of my characters are in the public safety world and it’s their job to risk themselves to protect others.
Like Kelly, some of my characters are explorers and want to experience art and culture and people and see the world.
And I have to let them. As a mom, as an author.
It’s terrifying and exhilarating. I know by letting go my adult children may fail, but I raised them, and I raised them to succeed in whatever they set out to do. I have to give them the opportunity. And for my characters, I have to let them make their own choices. This is why I don’t plot—I don’t always know what my characters will do until they are faced with a tough decision. They need to do what they would do … not what I would do in their place.
I hope to see you at the Writerspace Chat tonight!
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