The Curse of The Good Jewish Daughter or Why I Wish I Knew How to Write Fiction
June 1, 2018 § 38 Comments
by Jennifer Lang
Last December, during my most recent visit home, I sat behind the wheel of my mother’s Prius, buckled my seat-belt, and helped buckle hers. The morning air was crisp, cool breezes swirled in the San Francisco fog.
“I have something to say to you,” my soon-80-year-old mother said. “And you’re not going to like it.” I recognized her tone: tough, tough love.
I remained quiet, concentrating on the road. Ever since she suffered epileptic-like seizures following surgery to repair a brain leak last August, she’s lost tremendous independence: unable to drive or take a trip or live wholly on her own terms.
“I know you wrote something about your father and me. Because it’s on Facebook, or it’s somewhere where everyone can read it. Why would you do that?”
I played dumb, passed the blame, telling her the editor at the publication publicized it, even though I was the one who posted it proudly.
“I will remind you your brother’s not speaking to you because of something you once wrote.” She wagged her pointer finger at me. “And I’m only going to say this once, so listen: you may not tell our story. It’s your father’s and mine—not yours—and it’s private.”
Her definition of private cracks me up. She broadcasts as soon as anyone asks why she and my father, still married, no longer live together.
“Uh hmmm,” I said, now decisively bound and gagged.
At that moment, in her car, I, a middle-aged woman with three almost-grown kids, felt fifteen again. Reprimanded. Called out. Put in my place. And guilty as charged.
Four months have passed. I’m 7,500 miles from my mother, but I can’t shake her words or unsee her wagging finger. I’m plagued by the role I’ve played all my life: Good Jewish Daughter. Good Jewish Daughter does what her mother/father says. Good Jewish Daughter does not cross familial boundaries. Good Jewish Daughter does not expose her parents’ messy marriage.
Last fall, I finished my memoir manuscript of a marriage—mine. But in order to put my relationship under the microscope, I examined my parents’ marriage too. Sixty-seven thousand words down on the page. Draft number two. Done.
I know what needs to happen. I understand the long road ahead. Yet, day after day, I sit at my desk unable to take the next step: query agents, research publishers, or create a complicated Excel spreadsheet.
I am also paralyzed by something else. Something new and foreign and so unlike me.
When people ask how my book is going, I change the subject. When people ask what I write about, I am vague. If they persist, I say creative nonfiction, memoir, essay. If they want to know the subject and I say husband, kids, parents, marriage, aging, home, I’m often asked how my family feels about my writing. At that point in the conversation, I lift my glass of cabernet sauvignon and sip slowly.
Before entering memoir territory, I wrote with abandon and submitted without second guessing myself. Now, I understand what Mary Karr and Dani Shapiro and Kathryn Harrison and so many other memoirists have stood on stages and spoken about and reiterated on panels. Now, I get the dilemma.
Lately, I’ve been fantasizing about writing fiction. About writing a novel. About making it up: characters’ names and physical features and habits and quirks. At the end of an online writing class, another student said my story would be a wonderful novel: There’s coming of age…love, history, politics… the human impact of the forces at work in the Middle East. When I responded that I yearn to write the un-truth, the teacher wrote: Fiction is truth on the deeper level. You can change the names, the setting and circumstance and still remain loyal to “the truth.” Tennessee Williams always said that his plays were “emotionally autobiographical.” I think that you can fictionalize your life AND write your emotional truth.
For now, I write the whole truth because it’s where my storytelling know-how started. Because I don’t know if I’m ready to cross over into fiction yet. Maybe I’m just nervous to change genres because writing my emotional truth allows me to shout out to the world: I’m here, I’m human, I’m flawed. And so is everyone else in the story. And that feels real, regardless of what anyone else thinks, including my family.
Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, The Tishman Review, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. She lives in Raanana, Israel, where she teaches writing and yoga, but her heart and soul reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, home. Find her writing at http://israelwritersalon.com/ and follow her @JenLangWrites [as she writes her first memoir].
“For now, I write the whole truth because it’s where my storytelling know-how started.”
💥 Jennifer, love this backstory.
Thanks, Rachel, for reading.
This is lovely, Jennifer. I’m so honored to have worked with you. Here’s to wherever your storytelling takes you. I’ll be first in line to read your memoir.
Deep appreciation, Kathy, on all accounts.
How much easier would it be if our own truths weren’t so endlessly tangled with other poeple’s truths? Writing memoir is brave in itself, Jennifer, and I don’t envy the decisions you’ll have to make along the way. I DO know that I’ll read it once you put it in the world. Thanks for sharing this!
Tangled + truths = memoir. Thank you, Brandy.
I have read nonfiction and fictionalized versions of the same life story, and I have been surprised at how fiction can get at Truth in ways that memoir sometimes, for some people, cannot.
This fascinates me. Thank you for sharing, Jan.
I love this story. Thanks
Very interesting. I face the opposite but mirror problem. I have written a novel that places autobiographical events in a fictional framework, invents characters to carry it and now I am covering some of the same ground in a memoir which I find infinitely more difficult to write. Not for the reasons you identify (confidentiality) because all my associates are dead but because of the single viewpoint. I question it continually and suspect that were others alive to impose their own alternatives, it would be ‘truer’.
I am too familiar with the material to find it fresh.
Good luck to you. I hope you find your way through the mud and come out on the other end finished and proud.
Wow! Thanks for posting this. I still believe that the truth shall set us free, but some of the obstacles to telling it are breathtakingly tough to overcome. I admire your determination to keep writing your story. It is clear to me that you simply must.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your words mean a lot.
Well said. I was a Good Catholic Daughter and I’m learning to write fiction. Patricia Hampl said she’s lost a lot of people through writing. I have lost a couple too. But what else can we do? Our stories include others, our relationships are our lives. Glad you’re going to keep on with your work.
Thank you so much, Linda, for sharing your predicament too.
I was in your position several years ago. I dealt with it by writing a memoir in alternating chapters of first and third person voice, and ‘playing’ with the gap between the two. It didn’t change the fact that in telling my story I also told my mother’s story, not of a broken marriage but of her ongoing poor mental health and the verbal and emotional abuse she inflicted on her family. Did I feel guilty? Yes. Did I think I was a bad daughter? Yes. But as I as I wrote I found a way to understand, to feel compassion and to forgive. It was a difficult time because my mother passed away before I finished my memoir and also because she had dementia and had no idea what I was doing. I would have liked to try and explain what I was doing , not to get her permission but because I felt it was my duty to be honest with her. I needed a lot of support throughout the process but I learned to love a mother who was not perfect but who made me the woman, and writer, I am. Good luck with your memoir, Jennifer.
Absolutely fascinating, Janet, the way you approached your memoir and how it changed your view of your mother. Thank you for that.
I agree with your mother. It is her story not yours.
I understand this. If we are not in the story, and thus have no personal perspective to share . . . this complicates things. I will be thinking about your comment.
But… but… it IS your story, too!
Perhaps we speak at cross purposes.
I do not mean to pass judgement on anyone else. We each must think through these decisions carefully. I do not feel there is a simple yes/no answer for everyone and every situation, or that I am entitled to stories simply because I know them. That is my choice to respect the wishes of loved ones.
I hear you. Thanks.
Funny, because when I read your post and of your desire to write fiction I thought, fiction is sprinkled with truths. Now as for memoir, your mother’s story is your story. And your story is your children’s story. You understand where this is going. Memoir is not about hurting people. Be clear about your intentions & keep writing!
Yes, yes, and yes, understood, agreed, yes. Thank you.
I love this post! The struggle of writing your own story–which means inevitably writing about others’ lives–everything you say hits the mark. I believe you have every single right to write it. Anytime someone tries to shut us up about a subject–that means that’s the subject we ought to write about. What are they so afraid of? Oh how the world–and our own loved ones–can trap us in silence.
Thanks, Marcos. I do feel like I have the right, but feel equally trapped.
Now that a day’s passed since I wrote you, yes, the trapped feeling comes upon me, regarding the people in my own life…one moment I feel liberated, the next, not at all…
My 87-year-old mother is currently furious with me because I posted about her on Facebook. Many elements of your post resonate with me deeply – the anger and the shame, both! Sigh. “But Mom – writing is what I DO. How else am I supposed to figure out what I think of things if I can’t write about it… publicly??” (No, I didn’t say it. Wish I had, though!)
Yes, bulls eye, my sentiment exactly. Thank you!
I have written some memoirs and posted in Face Book. One of such was making fun of me. I don’t think I can post anything which offend others. I don’t have guts!!
Thanks for reading.
I enjoyed reading this. I can empathise in several levels. Particularly about being made feel 15 again. Thank you.
A nice reminder that we’re all in this together. Thanks, Pete.
I want to write about my family because I have to figure it out. Are our relationships bad because I’m awful? Because I won’t put up with crap? Both? I guess the question is will my exploration be of any interest/use to anyone else.
If your exploration is well written, engaging, then I think yes. If you write it in a way that your personal story touches on a universal theme, then I think yes. Write.
I wrote about this, too, but from an Asian American perspective. But my mom won’t ever read my writing because she’s not that good at English, but my brother can and he doesn’t hold back.
So I understand.
At this point though, I think I’ll always regret not putting myself out there. I’ve already written a lot, revealed a lot, and held back a lot in order to not shame the people involve.
But we’ll see. I’m editing again and coming down the home stretch. Will we be brave enough to publish? Or is brave the wrong word?
I love knowing the Good Jewish Daughter phenomenon is like the [Good] Asian American [Daughter] phenomenon. The perspective, the guilt, and yes, the guts it takes to take this path. Good luck!