The Help Desk: My son is a bad writer, and it's ruining his marriage

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My son wants to be a writer. He's not very good. And, he's old enough that maybe his efforts towards it are starting to look foolish. By which I mean that he is fifty and he's been trying to write since his twenties. He's dedicated most of his life to this goal, and although he does write and attempt to publish, his writing doesn't seem to improve.

I've paid for retreats, critique sessions, helped him find writing groups, and even introduced him to professional writer friends, but apparently he is very bullheaded and assured his way is the right way, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I'd probably continue to ignore it, but I think it's costing him his marriage, and losing my daughter-in-law is just an insult too far for my tastes. Do you have any ideas of how to talk sense into a person who is belligerent and refuses to listen to even the most measured, well-offered, highly needed advice?

With thanks, Bummer Daddy in Madison Valley

Dear Bummer Daddy,

My grandmother used to tell strangers I was born with a cleft palate so severe that my mother was forced to soak a rag in milk and squeeze it into my mangled mouth in lieu of nursing. She told this story with pride, as an example of a mother’s abiding love and determination to keep a deformed freak of nature alive when most decent folks privately agreed I should’ve been dumped off somewhere with sweeping views, like a mountainside or broom closet.

None of it was true. There was no cleft palate, no rag. In reality, I was just another homely kid with buck teeth who needed braces. But even though it horrified my mother with each retelling, my grandmother was batshit and sentimental, and she liked what the story illustrated about parenthood: “Good” parents will go to silly lengths to nourish the freaks they spawn.

What I’m saying is, it’s sweet of you to support your son’s dreams but at a certain point, you have to put that baby in a closet and shut the door. It is not your job to help a 50-year-old man become a successful writer. It is not your job to buy him classes or network for him. It is not your job to talk sense into him or save his marriage. At most, your job is to listen when complains that no one “gets” his writing, gently direct him to the Seattle Public Library’s self-publishing website, and otherwise make cooing sounds similar to the ones I make when eating a burrito.

If you’re worried about your daughter-in-law – and it sounds like you should be, poor woman – pay attention to your daughter-in-law. Invite her to dinner, buy her many gallons of wine, and ask if she’s read any good books lately, aside from your son’s. Give yourselves both the freedom to share a laugh at his expense. It sounds like you’ve earned it.