Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing the Family. Part I.

I've been on a couple of panels with a title like WRITING THE FAMILY -- once at AWP, once at the Tennessee Williams festival... (Or so my memory has it. Panels blur...) But this topic is one that surfaces again and again -- for good reason.

How do we write about our families? What's our story to tell and what isn't? Do we ask for permission or forgiveness?

My formula -- and I use that term loosely -- for a bestselling book is related to two things: the writer's urgent need to tell it and the readership's urgent need to hear it. (Of course, equally important are the agent's ability to convey those urgent needs, the editor's vision and ability to hone those words so that they are urgent, an art department's ability to create a compelling cover that reflects those two urgent needs, a publicist's ability to let it be known, urgently ...)

Sometimes the most urgent story a writer needs to tell is the one of their own family -- what and who shaped them. This is what we know, our point of reference, our bearings.

Rick Bragg -- who won a Pulitzer for his family memoir -- was on one of the panels with me. (Note: I've got a good Rick Bragg story, one that shaped me early on as a writer, on the subject of panel jockeying. One day...) On the panel, Bragg gave his take -- he always wants to be invited back for Thanksgiving. He gave ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' to the members of the family in it before publishing. They gave him the go ahead, a testament to his family, in fact.

This is the question you have to ask yourself. How important is it to tell that urgent honest story and how important is it to you to be invited back?

My parents have given me free reign. As I've mentioned, my mother is fond of tweaking Faulkner's mother's line -- which she read in a National Geographic issue -- "My daughter writes what she has to." And so I can write whatever I want about my parents.

Still, there's often a dance. My mother reads it. She calls me. She says, "Well..." and then I know that she's going to ask me to soften, tweak ... I listen. I tell her that I'll think about it. About a half hour later, she calls back. "It's okay," she tells me. "I take what I said back. Don't change anything."

My personal take on parents is that they made you and your story as child is completely your own. But this is easy for me to say. My parents and I are extremely close. I rely on them (at 42) as parents, friends, wise counsel.

I did, however, write an entire novel called THE MADAM based on the life of my grandmother who was raised in a house of prostitution in the 1920s and 30s. My grandmother was still alive during the writing and publishing. She told me everything. It was the hardest research I've ever done -- because it was personal and often brutal. (My essay on the writing of the novel can be found in Best Creative Nonfiction 2009.)

I was very anxious about her reading it. I wasn't sure she'd understand the difference between fiction and biography. And at first I gave her early drafts. She handed one back to me and said, "Maybe next time you'll write about the family," meaning the truth.

But when the entire novel was done, she read it -- which wasn't easy. Her eyesight was failing. And she told me that I got it right, especially her mother. Ella. I remember that moment. She was sitting in my mother's kitchen. And I was on my knees and she held me and we both cried.

Her mother was a woman I felt I'd poured myself into -- the hardest character I've ever written. Someone who required every ounce of empathy I could muster.

I got it right. And I'd told it urgently. It was probably the adult novel of mine that's sold the least and that's probably my most artful. Its commercial failure was hard for me. These women's voices had been dismissed in their time and place in history. I was trying to give that back and they were dismissed again. Some part of my writerly soul sealed up after that... It's hard to explain. I toughened.

And I think that's one of the hardest parts about writing family. You give them voice. You open not only yourself up but your family -- those you're deeply tied to, for better, for worse. I couldn't have prepared myself for that -- the criticism not of characters (though it was fiction and they were surely fictional characters in a fictional plotline) but I also saw them as deeply inspired by those ancestors I owe and love, not of me as a writer, but me as someone trying to give due to those who came before me, those who survived so I could exist.

Maybe you can't prepare yourself for the response that any of your writing gets. That's what makes all of it courageous, which is possibly why E. B. White said that he admired anyone who "has the guts to write anything at all."

The advice here is no advice. Only an admission that it's hard -- and write was already hard enough.