On Memoir: When Angst Is A Prompt
May 2, 2016 § 31 Comments
By Laura Vrcek
I recently read an essay by Tom Spanbauer titled “Dangerous Writing” in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers. In it, he mentions that occasionally a beginning writer will submit a horror story or screenplay in his Dangerous Writing Workshop. The misunderstanding is honest at best but what Spanbauer wants is considerably scarier. He writes, “To write dangerous is to go to parts of ourselves that we know exist but try to ignore…” The kind of writing that challenges the personas we publish on social media and defend when they’re wrong.
It was timely when I read it, just after AWP’s 2016 conference in Los Angeles. My goal this go around was to find enough panels to attend so that I could sponge and then justify writing about my mother’s bipolar disorder despite the fact that it makes her unhappy. On a panel called “The Ethics of the Artist: Writing About Family in Essay and Memoir,” four female memoirists (Honor Moore, Alice Eve Cohen, Julie Metz, Aspen Matis) discussed the ethics of writing about loved ones, how to navigate those relationships after publishing, and whether or not you really need permission at all.
I’ve asked a lot of friends about this too, some writers, some not. They suggest that I share my stories not out of angst or in an effort to hurt my mother’s feelings but because her (and my) stories can help others.
I so want to believe them. I want to believe I wrote about the time my mother told me I was ungrateful after I flew to Dallas to help her recover from surgery so that other children of parents with mental illnesses feel less alone. I want to believe that there’s a noble reason behind sharing that my mother once told me if I were to get a tattoo of a seahorse, people would think I’m a whore because “seahorse” sounds like “whore.” But it’s just not true. Loud, for the world to know: I’m still angry. And when I write about what it’s like to have what feels like a broken mother, part of me leaks steam.
When I come into contact with confident, women writers in their 50s or 60s, I tend to baby-bird them. I see in them the strong-female figure I wish I’d had growing up. The idolization is accompanied by incessant guilt. Guilt for not wanting to fly to see my mother more. Guilt over what she’d do if she found out I felt this way.
Spanbauer is right. When you write, you have the constant option to be dangerous. When you and your pen walk right up to the edge of a cliff and glare over, you always risk an inevitable drop.
Laura Vrcek‘s poetry and nonfiction work have appeared in The Red Clay Review, Apple Valley Review, The Orange Dot, and on KQED’s storytelling segment, Perspectives. She lives in Oakland, California and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University.