Tuesday, November 6, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 17 - Bad News in the Family
All writers should be warned that real writing – writing that goes beyond predictable matters, or pure genre hokum, or fluffy, teddy bear stories – real writing invariably means war.
It is almost never good news to a family that a family member is writing. It is terrible news that someone may go public with, among other things, his or her version of events in the family or some other cult in which he or she once lived.
It is not just the possibility that family members might be portrayed as less than heroic characters – it is also that the entire surface world as they know it – everything seen as good and moral and everything that could be seen as deserving protection – might turn out to be nothing more than clever theater designed to solidify and enhance and enforce whatever the position of the family’s most triumphal members.
When I was 36 and I got a contract and advance money from a major publisher to complete a novel, my brother let it be known I was behaving in really bad taste because I was celebrating the contract with Don Perignan and Beluga caviar. Our family had not had a writer since my grandfather, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1917, and I – more innocent than I was ready to admit – thought that my success would please them. But it was just the opposite. The family already had its writer. It was presumptuous for anyone to try.
I wrote off my twin’s reaction to jealousy, he being the good twin who was expected to be rewarded for being good. I found it sad and touching that he was telling people I should not have gotten such a contract because I had done all the wrong things in life, most notably never having had the benefit of graduate school.
My father’s reaction was just as negative, even though he was a publisher, or maybe because he was a publisher. He took me to lunch at the staid old Century Club to tell me I had become the family’s number-one problem since I did not have a proper job. I had thought the lunch was to celebrate my triumph. And as for a job, I had my book advance.
“Your grandfather never took a cent until the book was in print,” my father said. As a writer I was around writers and publishing people for years and I never heard of any other case of a writer refusing a book advance until after the book was done. Maybe it was because my grandfather, unlike me and most writers, had an independent income. But I don’t really think that explains it – so here is yet something more about this strange family to explore.
This opposition to writing from my family was especially blunt and blatant – but in kinder, gentler families than mine it is also common that the opposition is there. Whether it comes in the form of “please write something inspirational ” or “Go back to school for your teaching certificate, or “Better go get your real estate license.”
Recently I made the mistake of showing my brother what I had written about that time during the war when they forgot about us in Florida, and although he stayed at the beach hotel and got credit for looking at the fourth grade textbooks, I became a bleached hair scraggly swamp rat, roaming the jungles and finding ways to get coins to play the slot machines at Max’s tavern, where at the age of nine I was a regular. I thought it portrayed his position as much more difficult than mine, he being called upon to be the perfect child while I was, in comparison, free in my family scapegoat role.
I showed the story to my brother – about the mildest story I had ever written in which he appeared – I showed if even though I knew better.
“I can see that writing memoir is a real struggle for you,” he said. “And I deeply resent your writing this Florida story this way.”
There was another way I could and should have written, he said. I should have written that he too played the slot machines at Max’s and roamed the jungles and got into rotten citrus fruit fights with local urchins. That he was more than just the trapped good little boy I had portrayed. And now he was angry, repeating his put-down, “A real struggle for you.”
And he sent me a letter, now not in anger, saying that in any case memoir is not the proper course. The problem with memoir, he said, is that you cannot resolve people’s stories if you stick only to what actually happened. In memoir there are no proper endings.
I showed him my little story even though I knew enough by now never to show anything I wrote to a relative. I had seen it happen over and over – the reaction that nearly always means trouble. Sometimes it comes as something said sweetly,
such as you should be commended for trying even though it proves to be too much of a struggle. Sometimes the reaction is fierce, as in how can you say such things about me or your mother (or father or brother or, sister or grandparents or country or cult leader)? – the way critics were upset that the McCourt brothers did not depict their mother as if she were a mummified saint.
I have seen people from our workshops yanked away to another part of the country to keep them from writing. Or maybe, out of the blue, it time to have another child, or maybe this is the moment to turn your life over to caring for dying relatives, which is what my brother wanted me to do, or time to take a course in something decent like children’s literature or technical writing – anything except writing about your life.