Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Dare you write about your family?
By Robert A. Sloan
2002, By Robert A. Sloan
writer comes from a different family situation -- including those they love and
fear to offend, family members who send them screaming in terror, or relatives
about whom they feel embarrassed. It's a tough juggling act. Writing in depth
about life demands looking at the people you know best, but writing about them
realistically may cause domestic problems. Nobody's perfect. The people you love
most are flawed and their flaws may be what make them interesting to write
about. The people you can't stand may have unexpected virtues. Sometimes it can
be hard to look at them honestly in their context, recognizing their good
points, when old pains or unresolved conflicts get in the way. No one said it's
easy to be a writer!
going to show how I handle this situation with a personal example of a loved
family member who's dead. Her feelings won't be hurt by this article, which has
to come a lot closer to life than the characters I've drawn from living family
members. Because I chose someone I loved very much, the portrait's more
sympathetic than if I drew from a dead family member that I'm still angry at.
Family conflicts can drag on for years, even a lifetime, because even if they're
irreconcilable, family is still family. You can choose your friends, but not
based many characters in novels on my grandmother. She was an incredible woman:
smart, dynamic, sweet, wise, skilled, and one of the most subtle women I've
known in my life. During the Depression, while my grandfather was unemployed,
she started working at a beauty shop and wound up owning four of them. She sold
her businesses as soon as he got work and retired to become a housewife. She
made "housewife" a profession she loved. At times she bordered on Mary
Poppins with the way she made life fun for my sister and me.
also discouraged my writing. The spoonful of honey she put on her disapproval
made it so much harder just to tell what was going on than in fights with family
members who openly tried to stop me from writing. I did not know why every few
months I'd fall into pits of suicidal despair and feel as if my life was a
worthless, empty fraud. I let myself get distracted by everything else that a
high school kid ever wanted, when deep down I was betraying myself by not
writing and giving it my best. I felt as strongly about my writing then as I do
now. It is central to my self-image and my life. She honestly disapproved.
Conflict -- that was a core irreconcilable conflict.
long dead. It took me years after her death to figure out that her distractions
always coincided with my attempts to get writing done or buy writing supplies. I
had good teachers in high school. I had Mr. Mazurek cheering me on, convinced I
was the next great dark poet of my times and fully expecting me to sell novels
too. I had thought no one appreciated my writing, but this high school teacher
problem was that one of my nearest and dearest family members, someone I
trusted, didn't approve of anyone wasting time reading or writing. She was
happier with the idea of my going out and partying, being social and dressing
well. She said things that suggested this was her general attitude.
you get bored just sitting there for hours trying to write? Let's go out and do
was always on the go. She couldn't imagine someone might be happier staying home
than going out. Going out was its own reward to her. She wasn't doing it as
something to make me do what she wanted. She just projected her own feelings
onto everyone around her, as many people do. From her point of view, she was
trying to cheer me up. It must have been frustrating to her all the times I got
upset over not being able to write. As a writer, I am now able to see it from
her side of things too.
she were alive, tackling this issue might really hurt her feelings. She was the
woman who held my head every time I vomited as a little kid. She was also the
woman who sent me Care Packages in college, and used to spend hundreds of
dollars on crafts tools I made my living with when I wound up poor. She liked
doing crafts, so she didn't think they were a waste of time like reading. She
was the one who got me to a doctor for a Gym Slip, and ended the nightmare of
required athletics I wasn't physically capable of doing. She was just a Mary
Poppins with a slant; she didn't like the idea of my turning into a pale indoor
scholarly writer who never went out.
also played mind games. She was Machiavellian enough that she would've survived
a Florentine Ducal Court. She ruled everything and everyone around her. It's
entirely possible under it all that she just decided it was better to be loved
than to be feared. No matter what it was, she did what she wanted and she got
what she wanted. The only thing that dared stand against her was Death; when
Grandpa was gone, that almost killed her. Almost. She grieved for one terrible
year, and then she picked herself up, went into beauty work again and lived
loved her. I still do love her. It's a hard question what to write and what not
know that I answer that in fiction by jumbling the truth with fiction.
take some particular element of my grandmother as a person, say the way she was
so ladylike and so strong, and then add bits from other people in similar
situations. I even use abstract ideas that fit the character and make the story
work. The character of Mrs. Arcadia Evans in Raven Dance is based in part on my
grandmother's good side, like the rose garden. My real grandmother loved to
garden, and she grew wonderful roses. It was always eerily perfect.
always grew bumper crops of great tomatoes and used them in her cooking. They
may turn up as background for another character who likes to cook. I could use
the memories of her tomatoes and her pasta sauce for a male Italian cook who
likes to garden, and it would still ring true.
once showed me a faded old photo from when she was a fashion-to-the-minute party
girl flapper with short, perfectly fingerwaved black hair. She joked that she
looked like a gangster's moll. She was gorgeous. She told wonderful stories
about her youth. Some of those will come back in other fiction. She startled me
at one point when she pointed out one of those photos where she'd posed with
half a dozen equally gorgeous, fashionable young men and cheerfully told me
almost all her male friends were gay. My grandmother was like the gal in Cabaret
-- not exactly a normative Grandmother!
order to write anything at all about her, I have to break up the facets of her
life. I have to focus topically, whether I'm drawing on her mind games and
Machiavellian intrigues, how a wise woman can comfort a sick child, or how a
wild young woman can maintain her virginity and fidelity to her equally faithful
husband despite ethnic differences and family infighting. Looking at her that
way, I'm stunned again. There's a Romance Heroine lurking in that flapper girl
photo from my memory. She looks wild, drinks a littlebut she's good; in all
those old fashioned ways she's. In the end, the aristocratic Italian girl who
fled Italy gets together with the poor German boy who works hard, and they're so
much in love that 47 years later it's still fiery.
a book that if she were alive, she might approve of -- or she might not. I never
could second-guess her when she was alive. Trying to do it now is pointless at
best. I'd have to assume something, and I might be a bit better off guessing
positive than negative. It won't hurt her, and it will keep the best in her
alive. Most of her anecdotes were good ones. There's a wealth of material in
just this one family member's stories, but when I do fiction, I still mix it up
with other sources.
I not write about my family? Anyone
seen that close up will have flaws. That's what makes fiction interesting.
Characters can't be flawless, but people outside the family will usually keep
their embarrassments to themselves. I can't write characters just from the
social distance of acquaintances and coworkers who put their best foot forward
most of the time. If I don't write from my experiences of my family, if I try to
whitewash them, I'm left with characters who bore my readers.
hard solution is to just grit my teeth, be honest, be self-honest, and do it.
When I was a portrait artist down in New Orleans, I used to work on those
drawings detail by detail. I put in wrinkles and moles. I put in crooked teeth
and lumpish noses, double chins and funny eye shapes. I didn't expect to sell a
dang one of them because of that realism. Inevitably though, an old woman would
look at hers and exclaim, "You flattered me! Look at this, honey, he made
me look so young! I look so good!"
I'd done was to show her smile lines, pose her with the sun on her face in a way
that brought out the highlights on her hair and then draw realistically. Perhaps
that's my best answer to "Do I dare write about my family?"
haven't lied about my family in my fiction. They, and anyone else I've drawn
inspiration from, may recognize a detail or an anecdote. But when it's too close
to home, I give them good lighting.