By Greg Marshall
Being part of a family is the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way, though saying as much is like admitting you breathe air. Well, duh. It’s hard to think of a topic that isn’t in some way about family: love, disaster, mortal illness, money, vacations. These are the ties that bind. The ties that bind, gag and occasionally make us want to hurl ourselves off the nearest bridge. Mothers and sons, sisters and brothers—we’re all best friends until one of us slips a passive-aggressive word into the conversation, let alone commits one to the page.
Tobias Wolff writes that the good luck of having a brother is partly the luck of having stories to tell. That’s the luck of having the rest of them, too, and the trouble. You can’t just write about these people. You have to go on living with them. And if you do write about them and you get something wrong, they will let you know it.
A few days after Issue 9 of Tahoma Literary Review was published, earlier this month, my phone lit up with a text from my mom. It was eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. “I’m reading ‘Lies My Mother Told Me,’” she told me. “My wig did fall off into the walrus tank. Ask Tiff.”
My mom was referring to a funny incident she had written about years ago in her newspaper column, “Silver Linings.” One of the columns I reference in my essay is about taking a family trip to SeaWorld and Knott’s Berry Farm while my mom was bald from a super toxic, experimental chemotherapy. The problem I had with Mom telling readers about her wig falling into a walrus tank was that, as far as I could remember, it hadn’t happened: I was bringing it up as an example of my mom taking liberties with the truth.
As Mom suggested, I turned to my older sister Tiffany to resolve the matter. “Did Mom’s wig fall into a walrus tank at SeaWorld when we were kids?” I texted.
“I don’t know! Maybe!” Tiffany texted back. A second later, she added, “It fell off on a rollercoaster.”
The rollercoaster is what I remember too, but my larger point is that friendly disputes like wig-gate happen all the time when my family reads my work. We squabble over the details, debating whether it was a walrus tank or a rollercoaster.
Let’s begin with the assumption that most of us who write about loved ones have an earnest desire to portray them in the most flattering possible light, but along the way some less-than-flattering stuff happened, stuff that was so remarkable we couldn’t help but want to sit down at our computers, sometimes years later, and write draft after draft of an essay with the hope that an editor will one day pluck the finished product from the slush pile and be entertained, amused, moved and awed by our words. We want tales about our families to be honest, strange, fearless and unsparing, to transcend the anecdotal and become stories. We also want our loved ones to not disown us should they come across our work (and they will come across it).
I’m no expert, but I’ve been publishing stories about my family in literary magazines for the past few years and I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way that you may find useful. Here are some tips for writing about your family without making them want to disown you:
Decide which stories are yours to tell
The biggest time-waster in my life as an essayist is when I pursue a story that doesn’t belong to me. Let’s face it: there are things fiction and even journalism can do that personal essays can’t. One of those things is inhabiting another person’s perspective. I’m not talking about empathy but about appropriation, taking what isn’t yours. Just because they’re in your family doesn’t mean their lives are totally fair game. Your job isn’t to try to make your relatives understand themselves; it’s to make them have a better understanding of you.
I may be cribbing this advice from Mary Karr’s fantastic The Art of Memoir, but it’s worth repeating: If I find myself presuming the emotions and thoughts of my loved ones or ascribing motivations to their actions, I know what I’ve written will come off as hollow. When I’m weighing whether to launch into a new essay, I try to ask myself, “Am I the best person to tell this one? Did I have an active role in what happened? Have the events I’m depicting had a significant impact on my life? Was I old enough to really get what was going on? What did I witness firsthand?”
As readers, we want the inside scoop. That’s why writers need to find a unique angle into family material. My friend Mary Miller, the novelist and short story writer, says to tell the stories only you can tell. Tell that old stem-winder about the misadventures of a beloved family dog, but tell it from your perspective as, say, a puberty-stricken gay twelve-year-old with a limp (that’s my point of view; yours may vary). It’s no accident that the essay collection I’m working on is about growing up gay in Utah with cerebral palsy. When it comes to liking guys and having a mild physical disability, no one in my family knows more than I do. I’m the expert.
Apply the expert test to any family story. Take the essay in TLR about my mom’s newspaper column. I knew if I was going to have any success writing it, I had to zero in on the part of the Venn diagram where my mom’s story and my own overlap. “Lies My Mother Told Me” isn’t just about her newspaper column. It’s about how she used her newspaper column to support my own dreams of becoming a writer and how she explained (and avoided explaining) the full truth of why I walk with a limp.
Make it all about you
I used to treat each essay like a junior high skit. My brother and sisters, parents and most of my pets and stuffed animals needed to be given a role and at least a line or two. Every essay had to account for everyone I’d ever loved. This made drafts of my work read like un-funny sitcom episodes with my wiseacre siblings always barging in to have their say.
Once you’ve picked a story that is yours to tell, the literary essay is the one place it’s OK to make everything all about you: your impressions, your fears, your emotional journey. I had to learn to let myself be the hero (and the villain) of my own story. This hasn’t meant giving myself all the best lines and making myself look great. In fact, one good rule of thumb is to be hardest on yourself. (This nugget, too, may be on loan from Mary Karr.) You have to be willing to make yourself the flawed, complex protagonist of your essay, the one who undergoes a change at the end. Your siblings and parents should come and go as needed. It’s your world now, middle child.
Leave room for doubt
Writing about family is, by its very nature, about the act of storytelling. Don’t shy away from contradictions, incoherence or half-baked sentiment, just don’t accept them as the full truth and nothing but. Offer your own take. Personal essays aren’t that different from the persuasive essays kids write in high school English. Come up with a thesis that goes beyond conventional wisdom. Be a little provocative or controversial. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if no one in your family agrees with you. Don’t think in terms of a singular “truth.” Think in terms of layers. Acknowledge and build on the official version of a story your mom tells, pointing out her understandable bias. (She’s your mom after all.)
In the meantime, don’t get caught up squeezing in every exact date or accounting for every moment. Pull back and think in terms of theme. What’s the big picture? The takeaway? It’s not necessarily whether my mom’s wig fell into a walrus tank that matters, but the fact that my mom and I use family stories to play a game of cat and mouse.
Write through the anger
If you’re working on essays about your family, it’s probably not because everything is perfect with them a hundred percent of the time. You don’t want your conclusions to be too canned or tidy—it’s not like any one of us has it all figured out—but unremitting acrimony is probably not what you are going for, either.
I try to remember that writing is an act of empathy, an attempt to understand. That said, bitter disappointment and indignation are a great place to start. Let anger be your muse. The first drafts of my essays are not unlike journal entries: nasty, disgusted, glib, resigned and dashed off relatively quickly, over the course of a week or two. Only later do I go back and ask myself, “Is this really what I think? What was my own culpability in the incident?”
Don’t scrub away the anger, but try to contextualize it.
The memoirist Domenica Ruta advises that when you’re writing about loved ones, pretend they’re already dead and you are too. I think what she means is to write about family without reservations, holding nothing back. To me, the advice also implies that you write with respect and perspective, like you are giving a eulogy that attempts an honest accounting of flaws and shortcomings, but also of virtues. Anger doesn’t age well. It’s just not as interesting as a search for meaning and understanding.
Hop on the phone. Informal interviews are a nice way to give your family a heads up about the content of an essay you’re working on while still giving yourself the space you need to create, and just hearing their voices will remind you that these are real people whom you love. As tempting as it may be to share what you’re working on, hold off on handing over those angry early drafts. You’ll end up changing the whole thing anyway. No need to royally piss off your mom in the process. Trust me.
You’re not looking for brownie points, but you also don’t want to be like Kathy Bates in Misery, taking a sledgehammer to your mom’s feet and then sighing, “God, I love you.” The less blindsided your family feels, the more supportive they’ll be when the essay gets published. Remember, you’ll need all of them to be your biggest cheerleaders when the book comes out. Moms are closers. And who knows? Maybe yours will text you something you can use in a blog post.
Greg Marshall’s writing will appear in Best American Essays 2017 edited by Robert Atwan with guest editor Leslie Jamison. Greg is at work on an essay collection about growing up with cerebral palsy called Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It. In addition to Tahoma Literary Review, his work has been in Electric Literature, Sonora Review, Tampa Review and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. Find him on Twitter @gregrmarshall.