Tales That Echo Through My Bloodline: Telling Family Stories

November 7, 2018 § 19 Comments

MTHshot_400x400DENIMby Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega

In sixth grade, I wrote stories on wide-ruled notebook paper and read excerpts to my friend Coral on our morning walks to my bus stop. Back then, gaps in my memory were filled with settings I conjured up by opening the Thomas Guide, picking a city, and making up events that would take place there. These stories bore no resemblance to what I knew and lived. True stories—treasure troves already imbued to me by blood—didn’t seem appropriate material for anything I’d write. Writing, I thought, would set free my imaginations.

Years later though, on a trip to Mexico when I was 20-years-old, I was offered stories by my aunties and cousins, family memories they entrusted only to me. I knew that I needed to handle them like papel picado, perforated paper cut into beautiful and elaborate designs. My memories now contained the songs of my aunties, the aromas of grease in the air of their Guadalajara kitchens, the tiled floors of places that welcomed me. The impulse to write became electrifying. Their words were prescribed to me like a medicine—an antidote to the tyranny of displacement.

I learned how to tell stories from the ladies in my family—their histories all dotted on a line like birds on a wire, infinitely poised to take flight and ascend over the rooftops of time, and then glide, descending onto my sensibilities. I internalized their memories, their markers of memory, and emboldened them onto the grid of my own story, my space. I didn’t quite know how to shape their memories into the written form, but I knew that I needed to try.

Their stories share a common rhythm, a rich optic for the uncanny which bellows out of the holes of traumas like poverty, neglect, rejection, abuse, prostitution, addiction. These ladies are a relentless force of matriarchs, where men occupy the shadows.

Sensitive to the world that was opening before me, I knew I had to do something with all I was offered. What good was it to be called to write and not write anything about the lives of those that impacted my soul the most? It was too unnerving and utterly selfish to keep the stories buried in the ground. I would need to dive into the great blue sea and search for the diamonds that slipped out of my hands. Too much was at stake.

If you only knew all the things I know, all the stories people I know have shared with me, my aunties would say, you would have a saga no one would ever forget. As I hear this, my heart races faster. I need my equipment. I need my gear. I need to listen deeply to save these diamonds in the sea from oblivion.

I remember a sense of dread—not about the content of the stories—but about my inability to remember them, to record them accurately. I fretted about misplacing my notebooks, my sensibility, my empathy. I would lose sleep and feel the urgent tug of responsibility burden my shoulders. I had the relentlessness of a journalist, but the isolation of a creative writer.

I’m certain now that the tales that echo through my bloodline are stories that were meant for me to hear. Otherwise, why would my aunties ever unearth a past so traumatic that time would be the salve to keep it from resurfacing? I learned not to fear their pasts, as dreadful as those pasts may have seemed, because I realized that their legacies were not exclusive to our family.

Many others of their generation tell their own stories, and they are just as haunting as ours. There are stories trapped in the confines of family secrecy, or shame, that I wrestle with and don’t need to tell, despite my disbelief in coincidences, in chance, in mistakes. I’ve recorded stories told to me by aunties and my mother; I don’t have the appropriate rhythm or recall that these storytellers do, but what I do have are vignettes—snapshots captured by the speed of a camera’s shutter. I can place them, then, into stories of my imagination where my pen meets the paper. I complete them with my own stroke of color to make something new.

“She took a small step over the curlicues and geometric patterns of the olive and blue encaustic tiles that have seen years of foot traffic, rain, and sun. I’m sure they had once been lovely under all those layers of dirt,” I write. These curiosities color the descriptions in my short stories, fictional tales that complete the picture of recorded lists, places, recipes, and names.

Now, my manuscripts will be comprised of these vignettes, some shaped out of the gems bestowed to me orally, reinvented through memory. I continue to hold safe these stories that haven’t been imparted to the world yet, these fragments of perforated paper so delicate in their beauty, colorful tissues of paper that wrap like bunting to declare celebration.

Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Millions, Fathom Magazine, Image Journal, and elsewhere. She writes fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews. She is an alumna of the Mills College MFA program. She hosts the Afictionada podcast and is co-founder of Burning Bush Press. She is writing a novel. Find her here.

Resurrecting Ghosts in Memoir

October 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

Cat photo for wvwBy Cat Pleska

The time had finally arrived: my first book launch. I’d worked on my memoir for fifteen years before a university press published it. I justified the long time it took to finish by saying sometimes you have to live a little longer and grow to understand what your life story is and what it means.

A few months in advance of my book’s release, I’d scheduled its launch at an independent bookstore nearby. Then a month before, I had a dream. In the dream I walked into the bookstore’s reading space. The reading table for authors was at the back of the room and there to one side of it stood my parents and my dad’s parents, shoulder to shoulder. Beaming smiles. I felt their approval for the book, their pride in me. I woke, haunted by the fact that these four people, who appeared prominently in my memoir, were all gone. They would never see me in this life-affirming moment.

The image stayed with me and an idea began to form in the back of my mind. Because I had previously portrayed historical characters, one for my state’s humanity council’s History Alive! program and another for the national Mother’s Day Foundation, I was accustomed to costumes and performances to become someone else. Two weeks before the launch, I hatched a plan.

In my local Goodwill, I found an old work shirt and in Cabela’s an orange hunting hat. From Ebay, I ordered a cigarette rolling machine identical to the one my grandfather allowed me to roll his cigarettes for him when I was a child. I borrowed my husband’s steel toe work boots. I found my old reading glasses that looked like the ones my grandmother wore and dug out one of her ashtrays. For my mother, I could find no costume items, so I decided to express her with stance and attitude.

The day came and I rounded the door to the reading space, half expecting my family to be standing as I saw them in my dream. Approaching the table, I sat a chair on either side then placed my props. It was show time!

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The Author, Dressed as Her Father

I drew in a shaky breath and prepared to let the audience know I had not come alone. In front of them, I donned the tan work shirt over my clothes and pulled on the boots. I rolled a cigarette in the rolling machine with tobacco torn from a borrowed cigarette (since I don’t smoke) and launched into a story my grandfather always told, copying his vernacular and physical stance. I drew laughs when I changed in front of them and switched chairs to portray my grandmother tapping her “ashes” into her hand— she usually ignored her ashtrays—as she told a story about me when I was a baby. Then I switched to a flannel shirt and hunting hat, cigarette dangling from my lip as Dad told his famous “Night on Cheat Mountain” wild tale. Again I switched chairs and took off any props to sit proper, legs crossed, and told a rollicking tale of my mother’s, her cigarette flashing in the air as she gestured.

Finally, it was just me, in front of friends and strangers reading from my memoir. Stories about growing up with these giants, these people who were wonderful and wonderfully flawed, who loved me, despite my own flaws. I remembered their stories and my own like the lines of a play.

In my imagination, with each reading, they would fill the back row of the audience. Over time, I imagined them less. Then they were gone. I became the lone character.

To my utter shock, I plunged into mourning their deaths again. No one had told me this might happen when you recreate and write about long-gone loved ones.

For the next few months, as I exulted in my first published book, I also felt the heavy burden of grief. This time, all four of them at once. The truth is that to write memoir, we must visit the good, the bad, the past, the present, and resurrect ghosts to convey to our readers the lived life.

In my memoir, I wrote their story, as they had asked me to over the years, and I boldly added my own. They showed up to let me know they were proud of me and to take a final bow.

Cat Pleska is the author of Riding on Comets: a Memoir, (West Virginia University Press, 2015). Even though she lives in and writes from the heart of Appalachia, she is currently working on a collection of travel/personal essays titled The I’s Have It: Traveling in Ireland and Iceland. She teaches full time in the online Master of Liberal Studies Program, for Arizona State University.

The Difference Between Possessing and Publishing a Story

June 20, 2018 § 26 Comments

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Author (as child) on her grandfather’s beach

by Jan Priddy

I was afraid of my grandfather when I was little. He had suffered a series of debilitating strokes beginning the year I was born. By the time I knew him one hand was held up and curled inward and his speech was unclear.

My mother hated her father, so it was easy to believe the bad things she said about him when I was a child.

My grandmother was one reason I was supposed to distrust my grandfather. She had an abortion because they had agreed not to have children when they married. The second time she became pregnant, she ignored her promise and kept the baby. She kept the next pregnancy too. That was my mother. My mother told me this, but she would not have liked me telling the world.

Do I have a right to tell this story? Is it mine to tell? Just because I am a writer? Because I am family? I was once told about the affair of a friend’s husband. I repeated that story. It was true, after all, but it got back to the wife and was embarrassing and painful for everyone. These are not my stories. They happened long ago to other people, to people I love.

My mother is dead, my aunt, and my grandparents. All of the generations before and contemporary to them are now gone. No cousins are alive. I tell that story about my grandmother’s abortion now, but I never told it while my mother was alive. My mother never told me until her own mother was gone.


Mostly she kept silent, but there were snippets of memory my mother would tell over and over. My grandfather had an affair, she said, maybe with the piano teacher. He bored his daughters by insisting they listen to him sing opera. He made them visit his home during holidays after their parents divorced. He was selfish and mean.

Eventually, I knit together stories she told with new information and what I could find in history. Yes, my grandmother threw out her husband, likely for infidelity. He agreed to her terms for their divorce (she got the paid-for house and everything in it but refused alimony). Did he pay child support or was my grandmother able to support herself, her two children, and a large house with her office job? In the Great Depression? There is no one who can tell me.

What I do know is that my grandfather repeatedly attempted to reconcile with his former wife. He saw his daughters frequently and tried to interest them in his own enthusiasms, including opera. He lived alone for many years and never in his life said a word against my grandmother. He attended his daughters’ weddings hundreds of miles away. He made an effort to keep in touch. Eventually, my grandmother remarried—to a man who insisted she marry him or he would not see her anymore. It was only after that, my grandfather remarried another strong-willed and intelligent woman. He never knew of his younger daughter’s animus.

My mother’s stories made my grandfather a villain. Her stories were true to her. She never lied. Her stories were factual.

Were they accurate? Were they fair?


I have always respected Mary Karr for giving her first memoir to family members to read before it was published. Since hers is the story of a traumatic childhood, her sister and mother have prominent roles. She acknowledges in the first pages of Liars’ Club that their versions of events are different from hers. Mary McCarthy also acknowledged, in her memoir, that she might have things wrong.

Telling the story of another person opens doors to distortion. When we have only second-hand information, it is more challenging still. We speculate about motivation while missing key elements that bent behavior in what otherwise appears irrational or unkind or a little too good to be true. We miss small acts of kindness altogether. Small acts of cruelty.

We create of our experiences a story we understand, one that feels like truth to us, and one we are willing to hear. A story that justifies our resentment and anger or our love and remorse. We want to be the hero of our own tale. Thus we tilt our view of events and reveal just what places our version in its best light. We are not always aware of our errors. Even so, a reader may find more truth than was intended.

This is inevitable, and while a memoir must feel authoritative, I do not trust authors who seem too certain, too eager to blame. I have argued continuously with some memoirs, identifying what might be self-serving bias in the telling.

The stories we tell have enormous power to teach others about our mistakes and our manner of clawing our way back to life. It would be hubris to assume that we may easily tell stories about other, especially second-hand stories, accurately and fairly, just because we can.

Am I allowed to tell everything I know, merely because I want to? I inspect my motivations, the impact of my story on others, the potential for good or harm. Whom do I serve by telling, other than myself?


Two poets I know will read but never publish particular poems out of respect for the feelings of family members who would be hurt by their words. There are stories about loved ones I choose not share. Some stories are wounding, and too many of us already bleed.

When I kissed my grandfather’s cheek, I remember his white whiskers were scratchy on my face.

My grandfather did not harm me when I was a little girl. I am sorry I never lingered near his chair and rarely had patience as he struggled to get words out clearly. I was his only granddaughter and know enough of his story to understand he was not a monster, but a complicated and difficult man.

My mother could never forgive her father, but I can forgive them both.

Jan Priddy’s work is forthcoming in Brevity magazine and Liminal Stories. She has BFAs in studio arts, and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives in her grandfather’s house and walks the beach each day. 

Why My Memoir Hit a Wall

February 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

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Jennifer Lang

By Jennifer Lang

From January through July, my fingers flew. Word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter. Thanks to my final MFA mentor at graduate school, I saw the road clear ahead of me and raced. Pumped and proud and a new graduate, I hired an editor to take my first draft and fine tune it. Tell me what worked and what didn’t. What was over- and underwritten. Where I needed more or less scene, or not at all. Mostly, I hired a complete stranger unfamiliar with the content—Israel and Judaism—to tell me if the story of my marriage to my French husband Philippe held her interest.

Six weeks later, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she responded with nine pages of evaluation and my manuscript all marked up in brilliant red. She answered my questions and then some, telling me I had succeeded in creating a narrator who is utterly human and flawed (as all believable narrators should be, her words) and that the conflict is clear, perhaps too clear, on almost every page, in the reader’s face. I read, nodding my head even though she couldn’t see me. I sighed every so often because she was spot on.

Then, everything changed on page six. Under the headline “Related: develop Philippe’s character more,” she wrote: You’ll need to find other ways to make his feelings, thoughts, and unspoken wishes known more; sometimes through physical gestures and facial expressions, actions, etc. Bring Philippe alive more on the page in other ways too. Make him a full person. I gulped. I continued reading. Next heading: “Other Characters.” She wrote: Let the children develop into characters as well, not just names on the pages with attached ages and order of birth.

By then I was holding my breath. My shoulders clenched. A visceral reaction to her words on my page.

After I reached the end of the evaluation, I heeded her advice: read the comments several times over the next few days, let them sink in, sleep, read them again, refrain from opening the document and diving in head first.

I agreed with everything she suggested: consider changing the structure, show other aspects of our life and not just the core issue of religious diversity and place, and add backstory and more scenes. But I tripped over the same few lines on page six every time I read them. Sure, I’m writing a memoir about my complicated marriage, but what more can I reveal about my husband? Super sure, my kids figure into the story because they’re ours, a result of our union, but how much do I have to reveal about them?

I have been writing about Philippe for years. Further, I’ve been writing about my children since they were born. I have used their names without second guessing myself. I have written and published stories about my youngest daughter’s hording tendencies during her elementary school years, about my oldest son’s reaction to visiting an elderly, homebound woman in middle school, and about all of their negative reactions to relocating to Israel for a semi-sabbatical year ten years ago.

Aside from using their names, I’ve recreated dialogue and described their appearances. I’ve brought their characters to life in 500-, 1000-, 2000-, even 3000-word essays.

But now, in a book, what I call my book, I’m being asked to make them come alive, to let the reader hear and see and understand and align or disagree with them—my husband of twenty-six years; my children who are now twenty-three, soon twenty, and almost eighteen.

How can I write about my husband as a full-fledged character, sharing his strengths and exposing his weaknesses while I bare my soul about our marriage, questioning in the memoir if I will even stay, in Israel, the land he’ll likely never leave? How can I write about my kids as full-fledged characters, sharing their strengths and exposing their weaknesses just as they leave home to carve out separate identities as adults in the world without mortifying them? Without them pointing an accusatory finger at me? Without them asking what have I done? What kind of permission do I have to ask of them, and of myself, if any?

And so, while I grapple with the core issue of memoir—writing about my life and my family—I keep the hardcopy of my marked-up manuscript, to my left, on my desk, as a quiet reminder of what I have accomplished so far.

And, a believer in signs, I wait to see if any of my applications to writing residencies with the stated goal of finishing this book are accepted. If yes, then I’ll go, manuscript in hand, questions to ask, computer in bag, and I’ll proceed and propel myself forward. Because, as my mother said repeatedly throughout my childhood when reaching difficult crossroads, perhaps taking finals, trying out for cheerleading, or applying to college, if it is meant to be, it is meant to be.

Jennifer Lang‘s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Currently, she serve as Editorial Fellow for Proximity magazine and occasionally contributes to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat column. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been working on her first memoir. She resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com

Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?

January 5, 2016 § 83 Comments

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Laurie Hertzel

By Laurie Hertzel

Like any good student, I sat in the front row, took diligent notes, and believed, for a while, everything my teachers said. As a young newspaper reporter, I had ambitions beyond daily journalism, so for years I attended as many workshops and seminars as possible, studying narrative writing, fiction, and, eventually, memoir.

“I own my story,” I obediently jotted during a memoir lecture—or words to that effect. “No one has the right to tell me what I can or can’t write.”

But when I began working on my first memoir, I realized that it’s not that simple. Yes, I own my story—that is, I have the right to tell the stories of my life.  But I don’t live in a vacuum, and in order to tell my stories I cannot help but tell the stories of others. Do I have that right? Do I have the right to recall things that other people did, write them down, attach their names to them, and publish them in a book? Do I have to ask permission? What if they say no?

(“I own my story.” Like that’s going to persuade them.)

I kept going to workshops and seminars. I asked this question. I got a lot of different answers. Some recommended that I change names. Some recommended that I change names and identifying characteristics.  Some recommended folding several minor characters into one composite.

I began to wonder where nonfiction ended and fiction began. Is there no way to tell a story honestly and fully without fictionalizing—or without alienating people?

In my memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, I took the easy way out. When I wrote about the city editor who trapped me under a desk, and the university professor who sneered at my career, I didn’t use their names.

Clearly, this will not always work. This is not the answer for characters who appear in more than one brief scene, and it’s not the answer for writing about siblings, or parents. (How do you change the name “Mother”?)

I thought about this a lot, for years. I went to grad school, and as I worked on my MFA, I chose this topic to explore in my craft paper: How do established memoirists handle writing about people who might not want to be written about? How do they handle telling stories that might not be entirely theirs? The answer that I found, of course, was the frustrating one that there is no one answer. There are a lot of ways to handle this. While I longed for clear guidance (remember, I was a good student), I did find it comforting to realize that most writers have given this serious consideration.

  1. Just go for it. “You own everything that happened to you,” Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I like this answer because it’s flippant and freeing, but at the same time I know that the city editor and that English department chairman, had I named them, would almost certainly disagree.
  2. Don’t go for it. “If you have reason to believe you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can say anything you want to,” said Calvin Trillin in Family Man. “The readers of the future deserve that. If you don’t have reason to believe you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can’t.” Also flippant. But not freeing; constraining. Who among us thinks they’re another Dostoyevsky? (In my experience, it’s generally people who definitely are not.)
  3. Change names, change relationships, obfuscate. Phillip Lopate’s mother “forbade me ever to write about her again. I refused,” he writes in To Show and to Tell. “She said she would still come to my book party but would tell everyone I was her nephew, not her son.” Lopate did change the names of his siblings in some of his essays, but it didn’t help; one sibling remained furious twenty years on.
  4. Avoid naming anybody. In his memoir, Pull Me Up, New York Times reporter Dan Barry barely mentions his siblings. They didn’t want to be in his book, he told me, and so he didn’t include them.
  5. Be bold, but accept that there will be fallout. “I’ve lost quite a few people along the way,” Patricia Hampl writes in I Could Tell You Stories. “And not to death. I lose them to writing. The one who accused me of appropriating her life, the one who said he was appalled, the poet miffed by my description of his shoes, the dear elderly priest who said he thought I understood the meaning of a private conversation, this one, that one. Gone. Gone. Their fading faces haven’t faded at all, just receded, turned abruptly away from me, as is their right.”

It is Hampl’s fate I worry about. I don’t want to lose friends or family members. So I continue to attend workshops and seminars, continue to search for a magic one-size-fits-all answer. At AWP in April, I attended a panel led by memoirist Debra Monroe. I sat as close to the front as I could get, and I wrote down a lot of familiar advice:  Change the names. Change identifying characteristics.

But I also heard this, from writer Emily Fox Gordon: “Beware the small, gratuitous hurt.”

And I think that is the best advice of all. It’s not magic, and it’s not going to solve the problem. But it does allow me to write with as clear a conscience as possible: I will tell the truth, be bold, and whenever possible, be kind.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as North Dakota Quarterly and South Carolina Review and one of her stories won the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. She is the co-author of They Took My Father: Finnish-Americans in Stalin’s Russia, published in 2004 by the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, (U of Minn. Press, 2010) was the winner of a Minnesota Book Award. She will earn her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., in January 2016.

AWP 2014: The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

March 13, 2014 § 2 Comments


Linda Joy Myers  on the AWP 14 panel “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family”:

I’m a family therapist and a memoirist, so I was looking forward to hearing writers talk about the intersection of family and memoir in the workshop “Family Trouble” moderated by Joy Castro. She is the editor of Family Trouble—The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. The panelists included Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, and Stephanie Griest. The crowd filled the room and spilled out the doorway.

Joy Castro, author of the memoir The Truth Book, introduced a topic fraught with “trouble” for memoirists. “We are on a voyage of discovery to personal truth and family as we write memoir, and may be dealing with ‘self-erasure’ due to trauma.” Memoirists struggle with what to write and whether they should give themselves permission. We break the “family rules” when we write memoir—”don’t you dare tell anyone about THAT.” We have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out to serve the story.

Ralph Savarese continued the theme about choice as he discussed how he negotiated with his autistic son what details to include and the important threads in their memoir Reasonable People.  Writing a memoir means we have to ask ourselves what right we have to material that includes intimate details in other people’s lives. How much do we weigh their privacy with our need to express ourselves? He shared his writing process with his son, whose voice became more prominent over the course of writing the book. Together, they crafted a story that belonged to both of them.

Sue William Silverman writes to understand herself, and is unwilling to hold back her hard-won truths. In her book Love Sick, she revealed details that upset her ex-husband. “I wrote the story the way she needed to.  My honesty is more important to me than my ex-husband’s anger. We write to no longer hide behind our secrets.” The issue of silence looms large in the narratives of people who are abused and traumatized. An abused child lives in a world of silence, as adults do too, until they are able to break out and speak the truth. This can become our life’s work. “Writing my life gives me power.” Her advice? No matter what family thinks or wants, “break through your barriers and write anyway.” Figure out how to handle your family later.

Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith, has a Nordic-American mother and a Nigerian father. She’s spent her life learning about her global family, and exploring identity and belonging. She says one of the goals of writing memoir is to “free the family of shame.” She discussed the topics of betrayal, loyalty and silence in the work of Patricia Hampl and the poetry of Sharon Olds. “Writing family members on the page requires great compassion. Each memoirist’s voice is part of a larger song and we each have to decide where our songs begin, over and over again.”

Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes to discover the bonds of family in Mexican Enough—My Life Between the Borderlines she explores belonging, identity, and how we call ourselves family. She visited Mexico to try to find her roots, and saw how quickly we disappear—“the etchings on the grave stones were worn smooth by the rain.” She spoke with passion how we must explore the questions that drive us, and write our discoveries so we articulate the voices of our ancestors and leave a legacy. “Memoir is the best way I know of perpetuating us.”

The feeling in the room was one of hunger—to understand the “rules” of memoir, and to find answers about the conflicts that haunt memoir writers about family, truth, and finding voice. The panelists fed that hunger by speaking about their struggles, demonstrating that you can write a book about family and live to tell about it.

Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, joins speakers for monthly teleseminars at www.namw.org to discuss tools, topics, and questions that drive memoirists crazy. She is the author of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, The Power of Memoir, and the Journey of Memoir. She co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months.

Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again

April 10, 2012 § 9 Comments

By Tarn Wilson

I have a friend, a single man in his late forties, who still broods over the love he didn’t get—still doesn’t get—from his emotionally inaccessible parents. They are the cause of all his suffering, he believes, the cause of his failed relationships. Even as I nod compassionately over our herbal tea, I want to shake him and scream, “They’ll never change! Don’t waste any more of your life! Get a new story!”

But if I’m honest, I know that—after years of writing about my own family—I’d really be screaming at myself.

I recently finished writing an essay in which my parents made only the faintest outline of an appearance. I was ecstatic, sure I was entering a new, more adult stage in my development. I would become one of those charming old people who tell the stories of their childhood—traumatic or idyllic—with the cadence and emotional distance of a fairytale. My parents would shrink to reasonable proportion in my history; they are, after all, just two ordinary people in a human family of billions. Now I could begin my real work: Waiting for National Geographic to ask me to write about arctic foxes or oil spills or peculiar algae or disappearing indigenous languages. Activism! Environmentalism! Anything more meaningful than my own small life.

Then, in my newest piece of writing, my mother returned like a zombie, dominating in all her horror and glory. She was stubborn and unyielding and I had no powers against her. After I’d wallowed around in the shame of my retrogression, I decided to re-examine my assumptions.

I began with my teaching. I teach creative nonfiction to high-school students, and in their writing, as in their lives, they generally try to avoid their parents. They write about breakups, bullies and ballgames, about the traumas of middle-school friendships, about the kindergarten teacher who terrorized them. Their parents hover, phantom-like, at the edges. But those edges are often where the real stories hide. When I conference with my students, I, who have been attempting to ignore my family, want to know about theirs. “Tell me about your parents,” I say. And they do. The affair. The stepparent. The young, single mother. The brave immigration from China or Russia. The long shadow of grandparents lost in the Holocaust. Boom. There it is.  Suddenly, their story has a center, dimension, depth.

Then I looked at my reading: I haven’t yet tired of family-centered memoirs. In my current favorite book of essays, Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, I meet trapped suburban mothers, Midwestern farm mothers, mothers with dementia, mothers who have been murdered; fathers who are pedophiles, fathers who are homophobic, fathers with hooks for hands. The stories are painful, yes, but full of value: beautiful, complex, poetic, redeeming in their truth-telling.

Even so, I resist returning again to my parents as a topic. I feel repetitive, self-indulgent, small-minded . . . un-evolved. Even worse, I fear I am imposing something unsavory on the reader, adding to the darkness in the world. But poet Mark Doty helped. In his essay “Return to Sender,” he writes about his struggles to write Firebird, his childhood memoir about his distant father and alcoholic mother: “Sometimes I’d catch myself saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have to write that, who wants to read it?’And then realize that in projecting these doubts outward onto readers, I was actually protecting not the potential reader but myself; I was the one who didn’t want to read about whatever it was that was troubling me.” So perhaps my self-judgment and anxiety is really a cover for a deeper fear: of the material itself, the discomfort of revisiting pain, the uncomfortable truths the stories hold. Doty ends with, “Once I understood that, I did want to read it, and to write it.” I can’t say I’m there yet, that I want to write it, but I am writing it, and that means something.

If I step back from my fears, I know that when we write honestly and richly about our families, we also write cultural history. While wrestling with my memoir about my hippy parents’ attempt to live off the land in the Canadian wilderness in the early 70s, I discovered that to truly understand my mother and father, I had to know the forces that shaped them: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the divisions and disillusionments of the Vietnam War; the rise of modern feminism; the movement toward an eco-spirituality. I began to see my parents not merely as individuals making choices, but as players in a larger cultural movement—pushed and pressed by their families, neighborhoods, religious backgrounds, cultural messages, by the books they were reading, the music that moved them. My father would not have been the man I knew without Jack Kerouc’s On the Road. So, ironically, by striving to know two individuals deeply, I inadvertently became a historian. So here’s a justification for writing about our parents: we flush out a history too narrowly defined by charismatic figures and dramatic events. We fill in the gaps. We reveal the pattern, texture, variety—the more layered truth—in our shared, global story.

And by understanding the stories we have inherited, we understand ourselves better. All cultures have their origin stories, their creation myths, which reveal their foundational beliefs about human nature, good and evil, power hierarchies, and the qualities of a hero. Our family story is our personal origin story. When we examine it, we see more clearly the assumptions—faulty or inspired—by which we live. To a comic book fan, an origin story is the tale of how villains or heroes acquired their superpowers and what interior and exterior forces drive them to good or evil. Dissecting our own origin story, we identify the source of our power and recognize how we have been shaped by our choices and by roles others insist we play. In short, we become more conscious.

And here’s a confession: I called my parents ordinary. And yours. But they are not. They are remarkable. Fascinating. Every single person, no matter how simple he or she appears, is a vast galaxy. A breathing miracle. A dynamic interaction of cells and liquids and electrical impulses, of stories and habits and smells, of conscious and unconscious motivations, of inexplicable courage and strength and grand failure. But if we saw each person who crosses our path as the elaborate, miraculous contradiction they are, we would face such a state of raw wonder—such openness to fragility, pain or admiration—we might burst right out of our skin.  We can’t bear it. So, in general, we adopt a shorthand, a reduction of someone’s being: the police officer, the cat lady, our first love.

But most of us met our parents before we could categorize, when the boundary between ourselves and others was thin and permeable. As a result, we often know them more deeply than any other human being, often more clearly than they know themselves. At the same time, we are also profoundly aware, in a way we are not with those we have so neatly tucked into simple, labeled boxes, of the vastness of their unknowable mystery. We can return again and again and never meet the fullness of them.

I believe this. And I want you to write your family story. But to be honest, I’m still hoping that my parent-centered writing might soon be over, that my most recent essay was the last unexpected wave, the last mother-zombie surge, that I will soon be getting that National Geographic call. I want a new story. But maybe the only way to get a new story is to transform the old one. And maybe the only way to transform the old story is by writing into it, writing into the tension and puzzles, writing through the shame or fear or confusion toward the edges of acceptance and understanding. When we write, again, about our parents, we are not narcissists: we are adventurers in the interior of the human cosmos—we just happen to be exploring the closest galaxy.

Tarn Wilson has been published in Gulf Stream, Inertia, Inlands and A River & Sound Review, as well as the anthologies Hard Love, What’s Nature Got to Do with Me?, and The Poet’s Guide to the Birds. New essays are forthcoming in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Life Writing, and The Sun. She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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