My sister hasn’t spoken to me for about 25 years. As I described in detail in my book, I don’t really know why she’s so angry. She has never been willing to tell me beyond the time she and her husband (who, I believe is really the abusive control freak responsible for my sister cutting me and my entire family out of her life) took me to court over something completely nonsensical and lost. If I passed her on the street I’m not sure I’d know who she was and I doubt she’d recognize me. People tend to change a bit in that many years and besides that, I’m pretty sure she’d walk right past me if she did know it was me.
But yesterday I saw her online and I didn’t recognize her. It wasn’t her face, it was her words that were foreign to me. Once upon a time when we had a relationship. We had things in common, we liked shopping together, we we were of similar minds politically. Among other things we agreed on, we were pretty much both pacifists. Okay it was during the Vietnam War era and a lot of people were pacifists but we were and I thought it was for real in both of us.
So yesterday when I happened upon an Op-Ed piece she wrote in a newspaper I was shocked. My pacifist sister was not only no longer a pacifist, she was pretty much strongly advocating going into regions of the world and scorching and burning people, places, and things. Agree or disagreeing politically is one thing but this was a complete reversal of her belief system. She really had become a different person altogether than the one I grew up next to. I wondered, what if she hadn’t cut me out of her life? Would I even want to know this person? Yes, I know we all have people in our families with whom we may not agree on every point. We hear myriad stories of family holiday celebrations rife with discord as the family members loudly and verociously argue their respective points of view. But the person who wrote this Op-Ed piece sounded nothing like my sister. (Yes, I know it was her; she has a very unique name.) I wasn’t at all sure I could like or embrace this person. I didn’t even know if I could have a meal with her, let alone embrace her!
So what happens if you have a family member with whom you really cannot have a relationship because you are diametrically opposed in belief systems? How do you handle such things? For me, it’s easy (I use the term loosely, nothing about losing my sister was easy) in that she won’t talk to me anyway, but in my musing, I wonder what I’d do if she suddenly offered to come back into my life?
Yesterday my new writers group held our first session of
slow torture helpful critique. Since it was the first, members were hesitant to volunteer. I stepped up as I have pretty thick skin when it comes to my writing (or so I thought). One of my editors told me years ago she loved working with me because I was perhaps her only client who was not “married to every word.” I’ve always been open to learning how much work can be improved and never took the corrections personally. I wasn’t even sure why any writer would.
The sample I offered was an excerpt from Tales From the Family Crypt. I chose the chapter where my father dies in my house. I felt it showcased the humor, (yes, even at the death scene) poignancy and overall tone/style of the book. Group members had read the excerpt in advance and came prepared to share their feedback. It started well. The first reader said “I love Sid!” Sid is my dad and from the little bit she read, she was enamored with his peculiar and spectacular character. As he’s been dead for 20 years it was lovely for me to know he still had it and I succeeded in painting a compelling picture of him. So that made me feel warm and fuzzy.
Two more members spoke and praised the work overall. Said they completely enjoyed the excerpt and wanted to read more. (I gave them copies of the book on the spot!)
The next reader basically said he questioned the narrator’s (aka me) motivation for being, well… somewhat bitchy in telling this story of family dysfunction in the first place. He said he wonders about anyone who tells a story in which the narrator is sane and everyone else is crazy. I responded I understood his point and perhaps if he had been able to read the entire book he wouldn’t have felt the same way. That’s the difficulty in working only with an excerpt and not a complete work, I suggested. But, then I had to ask, “But what if the narrator (aka me) IS the only sane person in the group?” I mean I had no control over what the siblings in this story did. It’s nonfiction.
The next person was complimentary about my writing. She said she loved the way I wrote; my style is easy to read and wonderfully descriptive. She asked a plot-related question I attempted to answer graciously. She added she thought I could have developed the death scene in more depth. I agreed to look at it again.
Here’s the thing, I thanked each speaker for the feedback and I thought I was accepting all criticism gracefully.
But then the group moderator suggested I stop being defensive and perhaps wait until all the members had spoken before I responded.
What? I was defensive? I thought I was just responsive. So I’m left wondering what happened to my thick skin? Have I become married to every word? Or is writing a memoir a whole different animal from what I’ve written before — parenting books and children’s books?
How do you handle critique?
This morning I ran a few miles outside for the first time in many months. Running time has often been meditational for me and today was no different. While I try to quiet my mind what usually happens is thoughts that must push their way through the quiet do so and interrupt my meditation. When that happens, I’ve learned to go with it and investigate the thoughts in order to let go of them.
That’s when I had the epiphany. Writing is a meditational process and much the same way as in meditating, you may be writing or attempting to write one thing but other thoughts keep pushing through. There’s a reason they push through; they demand to be investigated.
Years ago I set out to write a piece about my dad who had just died. I meant to write a loving tribute to a wonderful man with a beautiful soul. But here I am, many years later and that same piece of writing morphed into a full memoir about family. I didn’t mean for it to do so, I just couldn’t keep those thoughts, the concept of a family’s big picture dysfunction, from creeping in. I had to investigate them. So I did and before I knew it, it was a book.
And now I can let it go. And pick up where I left off. Back to meditating and musing on love.
If you find yourself writing and thoughts keep crashing in, maybe you are writing about something which needs to be tabled so that you can focus on what keeps bubbling up to the top of your mind. Then, let it go.
I wrote my reply to the commenter who said, “Memoir is a challenging genre.” I agreed wholeheartedly and added my thought that memoir is an indulgence. To indulge means to yield or to gratify a desire. Its connotation often indicates participating in an activity that isn’t necessarily good for you but is pleasurable. You indulge in eating chocolate or drinking wine or even in gossiping. You do it because you want to, not because it’s good for you.
I think memoir writers like me indulge in some way. Or, perhaps I should speak only for me. I indulged; I satisfied my urge to tell the story of my extended family as I experienced it. Perhaps telling the story wasn’t a good thing, it hurts some of the family members to have this truth out there in the world. But it felt good.
So, did I indulge? I think so. Do all memoirists do so? What do you think?
This morning I was speaking with a friend about my book, Tales From the Family Crypt: When Aging Parents Die, Sibling Rivalry Lives. He had read the first few chapters and noted it was quite compelling. “You can really tell a good story,” he offered graciously. But, he said he thought I had left out an important point. My story is deeply personal about how our dysfunctional siblings disrupted our lives. It’s also about how our parents, my husband’s and mine, added to the dysfunction by being really poor communicators. While I’ve waited until all four parents died to put this story out there, the siblings are all still alive. So, the story is likely quite painful for them to have out there in the world. My friend thought it important for me to state emphatically why I “needed” to write this book while those siblings are still living.
He knew the answer but he thought readers should know too. So, he asked me “Why did you want to write this now?” I explained I had lived this heartache for 30 years and in all of that time, as a result of the way our parents dealt with conflict, I had been unable to speak my piece. My husband never wanted me to confront his parents or his siblings and I never wanted to upset my father about what my sister was doing. When they did despicable things to us, to my husband and my daughters, I held my tongue. I held back this story for half of my life. I think it’s a good story, one that may help others to deal with their difficult family situations. More than that, though, I think I was simply unable to hold back my story any longer.
It had to come out. Was it selfish of me? Yes, I have to admit it was because I am benefiting from the release in the relief I feel now. Letting this story see the light of day after years of being shrouded in the darkness was cathartic. I didn’t have much to lose, none of the siblings involved speak to us or to my kids. Was I worried about embarrassing them? No. I just told the truth about what happened. If they find it embarrassing, I can’t help that. Some of it is embarrassing to me too but overall, it just feels like a burden has been lifted.
So, writers, I ask you to consider — Are you holding in stories you need to let go of? What’s holding you back from being freed of the burden you carry?