Dare you write about your family?


Vision 8


Dare you write about your family?


Robert A. Sloan

Copyright © 2002, Robert A. Sloan, All Rights Reserved

Every writer comes from a different family situation -- including those they love and fear to offend, family members who send them screaming in terror, or relatives about whom they feel embarrassed. It's a tough juggling act. Writing in depth about life demands looking at the people you know best, but writing about them realistically may cause domestic problems. Nobody's perfect. The people you love most are flawed and their flaws may be what make them interesting to write about. The people you can't stand may have unexpected virtues. Sometimes it can be hard to look at them honestly in their context, recognizing their good points, when old pains or unresolved conflicts get in the way. No one said it's easy to be a writer!

I'm going to show how I handle this situation with a personal example of a loved family member who's dead. Her feelings won't be hurt by this article, which has to come a lot closer to life than the characters I've drawn from living family members. Because I chose someone I loved very much, the portrait's more sympathetic than if I drew from a dead family member that I'm still angry at. Family conflicts can drag on for years, even a lifetime, because even if they're irreconcilable, family is still family. You can choose your friends, but not your family.

I've based many characters in novels on my grandmother. She was an incredible woman: smart, dynamic, sweet, wise, skilled, and one of the most subtle women I've known in my life. During the Depression, while my grandfather was unemployed, she started working at a beauty shop and wound up owning four of them. She sold her businesses as soon as he got work and retired to become a housewife. She made "housewife" a profession she loved. At times she bordered on Mary Poppins with the way she made life fun for my sister and me.

She also discouraged my writing. The spoonful of honey she put on her disapproval made it so much harder just to tell what was going on than in fights with family members who openly tried to stop me from writing. I did not know why every few months I'd fall into pits of suicidal despair and feel as if my life was a worthless, empty fraud. I let myself get distracted by everything else that a high school kid ever wanted, when deep down I was betraying myself by not writing and giving it my best. I felt as strongly about my writing then as I do now. It is central to my self-image and my life. She honestly disapproved. Conflict -- that was a core irreconcilable conflict.

She's long dead. It took me years after her death to figure out that her distractions always coincided with my attempts to get writing done or buy writing supplies. I had good teachers in high school. I had Mr. Mazurek cheering me on, convinced I was the next great dark poet of my times and fully expecting me to sell novels too. I had thought no one appreciated my writing, but this high school teacher did.

The problem was that one of my nearest and dearest family members, someone I trusted, didn't approve of anyone wasting time reading or writing. She was happier with the idea of my going out and partying, being social and dressing well. She said things that suggested this was her general attitude.

"Don't you get bored just sitting there for hours trying to write? Let's go out and do something."

She was always on the go. She couldn't imagine someone might be happier staying home than going out. Going out was its own reward to her. She wasn't doing it as something to make me do what she wanted. She just projected her own feelings onto everyone around her, as many people do. From her point of view, she was trying to cheer me up. It must have been frustrating to her all the times I got upset over not being able to write. As a writer, I am now able to see it from her side of things too.

If she were alive, tackling this issue might really hurt her feelings. She was the woman who held my head every time I vomited as a little kid. She was also the woman who sent me Care Packages in college, and used to spend hundreds of dollars on crafts tools I made my living with when I wound up poor. She liked doing crafts, so she didn't think they were a waste of time like reading. She was the one who got me to a doctor for a Gym Slip, and ended the nightmare of required athletics I wasn't physically capable of doing. She was just a Mary Poppins with a slant; she didn't like the idea of my turning into a pale indoor scholarly writer who never went out.

She also played mind games. She was Machiavellian enough that she would've survived a Florentine Ducal Court. She ruled everything and everyone around her. It's entirely possible under it all that she just decided it was better to be loved than to be feared. No matter what it was, she did what she wanted and she got what she wanted. The only thing that dared stand against her was Death; when Grandpa was gone, that almost killed her. Almost. She grieved for one terrible year, and then she picked herself up, went into beauty work again and lived another decade.

I loved her. I still do love her. It's a hard question what to write and what not to write.

I know that I answer that in fiction by jumbling the truth with fiction.

I'll take some particular element of my grandmother as a person, say the way she was so ladylike and so strong, and then add bits from other people in similar situations. I even use abstract ideas that fit the character and make the story work. The character of Mrs. Arcadia Evans in Raven Dance is based in part on my grandmother's good side, like the rose garden. My real grandmother loved to garden, and she grew wonderful roses. It was always eerily perfect.

She always grew bumper crops of great tomatoes and used them in her cooking. They may turn up as background for another character who likes to cook. I could use the memories of her tomatoes and her pasta sauce for a male Italian cook who likes to garden, and it would still ring true.

She once showed me a faded old photo from when she was a fashion-to-the-minute party girl flapper with short, perfectly fingerwaved black hair. She joked that she looked like a gangster's moll. She was gorgeous. She told wonderful stories about her youth. Some of those will come back in other fiction. She startled me at one point when she pointed out one of those photos where she'd posed with half a dozen equally gorgeous, fashionable young men and cheerfully told me almost all her male friends were gay. My grandmother was like the gal in Cabaret -- not exactly a normative Grandmother!

In order to write anything at all about her, I have to break up the facets of her life. I have to focus topically, whether I'm drawing on her mind games and Machiavellian intrigues, how a wise woman can comfort a sick child, or how a wild young woman can maintain her virginity and fidelity to her equally faithful husband despite ethnic differences and family infighting. Looking at her that way, I'm stunned again. There's a Romance Heroine lurking in that flapper girl photo from my memory. She looks wild, drinks a littlebut she's good; in all those old fashioned ways she's. In the end, the aristocratic Italian girl who fled Italy gets together with the poor German boy who works hard, and they're so much in love that 47 years later it's still fiery.

That's a book that if she were alive, she might approve of -- or she might not. I never could second-guess her when she was alive. Trying to do it now is pointless at best. I'd have to assume something, and I might be a bit better off guessing positive than negative. It won't hurt her, and it will keep the best in her alive. Most of her anecdotes were good ones. There's a wealth of material in just this one family member's stories, but when I do fiction, I still mix it up with other sources.

Dare I not write about my family? Anyone seen that close up will have flaws. That's what makes fiction interesting. Characters can't be flawless, but people outside the family will usually keep their embarrassments to themselves. I can't write characters just from the social distance of acquaintances and coworkers who put their best foot forward most of the time. If I don't write from my experiences of my family, if I try to whitewash them, I'm left with characters who bore my readers.

One hard solution is to just grit my teeth, be honest, be self-honest, and do it. When I was a portrait artist down in New Orleans, I used to work on those drawings detail by detail. I put in wrinkles and moles. I put in crooked teeth and lumpish noses, double chins and funny eye shapes. I didn't expect to sell a dang one of them because of that realism. Inevitably though, an old woman would look at hers and exclaim, "You flattered me! Look at this, honey, he made me look so young! I look so good!"

All I'd done was to show her smile lines, pose her with the sun on her face in a way that brought out the highlights on her hair and then draw realistically. Perhaps that's my best answer to "Do I dare write about my family?"

I haven't lied about my family in my fiction. They, and anyone else I've drawn inspiration from, may recognize a detail or an anecdote. But when it's too close to home, I give them good lighting.