Writers and Families

Writers have families.

On the one hand, this is good because it gives the writer something to write about. On the other hand, it’s bad because it means the writer is under scrutiny. Families read the writing, and they inevitably evaluate it relative to themselves. Is a story really “about” the family? Does it put forth a position with which the family disagrees? Does it represent members of the family in a negative way?

This reminds me of a former boyfriend whom I once called Raven, and who therefore imagines that every raven in every story or poem is always him. (Even the unflattering representations.)

Families are like that. And it’s probably worse when the writer is writing non-fiction, giving interviews or describing his or her life in a blog post. Everything is taken to reflect on the family.

My family has a strange attitude toward my writing, which I think is almost always the case unless the writer comes from a family of professional creators. (By professional, I mean people who actually make a portion of their incomes from a creative endeavor — writing, art, dance, etc.) When I met my cousins in Debrecen, they told me they’d heard I’d become a famous writer, of fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course, I’m not at all a famous writer, and what I write is nothing like Tolkien. They’d never read my writing themselves — that was simply the general family impression.

My parents’ generation was raised under communism, and still retains the assumption that literature is important to the extent that it adheres to literary realism. I remember being given Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea when I was a child and being told that it was great literature. Now, I like Hemingway very much, but I loathe that particular book, partly because it’s boring, and partly because I was given it as an implicit model for what writing should be like. I think becoming a writer always involves a rebellion against what and how one was told to write. My rebellion is in part against the dreariness and tedium of what I was taught as great literature.

So it’s a problem, really. Writing professionally means writing for an audience, and that means one’s writing is out there, to be judged — including by one’s family members. Who, in some way, are the group of people it is least for. Writers treat their experiences ruthlessly — witness my making fun of the way Hungarians do laundry, which got me into trouble, but surely if I can make fun of anything, it is my own country, my own people. We are not merciful, we writers. We take things apart, we put them back together.

I’m not sure what to tell writers’ families about all this. I suppose this, at least, might be reassuring: if your name is Judith and the writer creates a character named Judith, that character is not you. Not even if Judith majored in the same thing you did in college. The writer is using you to create something completely different. Of course, no one likes to be used. But at least it’s better than actually being written about. The writer transforms everything, but in doing so he or she uses the material that is at hand. This implies no particularly insight into you, the actual Judith — either good or bad.

I write this because it’s something I discussed with Catherynne Valente, while we were both in Budapest — and also because I’ve had family members reading my writing lately, and it’s frustrating to be misunderstood. But then, it’s probably frustrating to be in a writer’s family as well. After all, if the writer becomes famous (there is always that miniscule chance), the family will be remembered only relative to the writing — as Hemingway’s is. It’s rather a horrible thought, that one might be a line in someone else’s Wikipedia entry, as writer’s parents, spouses, and even children often are. I’ve always felt sorry for Christopher Milne — although he has his own entry, mostly because he wrote about being Christopher Robin.

So basically, it kind of sucks having a writer in your family. But it’s difficult for a writer as well, because people who aren’t writers or editors or publishers have a hard time understanding exactly what it is we do, how we transmute life. How even in a blog post what we present is a story, intended to be read by an audience. How even we become our own characters. (What I write here is not about the ordinary, everyday Dora, but about Theodora Goss, who has a series of adventures and insights. She is real, and she is me, but she does not represent my every thought or moment.  Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that she is realish.)

It’s difficult, isn’t it? And in the face of it, what the writer has to do is go on being ruthless. Because if you don’t mine the material, if you hold back and censor yourself, which is so easy to do when you know your writing is being read, you betray your allegiance to the story. And that is where your allegiance lies. Milne may have been a bad father, Hemingway was certainly a bad husband — but they were excellent writers.

Christopher Robin Milne, with bear:

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9 Responses to Writers and Families

  1. Alex Bledsoe says:

    Southern families are just as bad as Hungarians, if not worse because they hide it behind a smile and a “Bless yore heart.” Ironically, just this morning I read this bit, written by Jill Faulkner, daughter of William:

    “I was just before my birthday, and I knew Pappy was getting ready to start on one of those [drinking] bouts. I went to him–the only time I ever did–and said, ‘Please don’t start drinking.’ And he was already well on his way, and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, no one remembers Shakespeare’s child.’ I never asked him again.”

  2. Thank you for writing this. It’s incredibly timely.

    I’ve let my family read my writing–after all, it’s out there for them exactly as it is for anyone else–and know they generally won’t understand it, and that doesn’t bother me much. But today, my mother is diving into the newest bit–feminist speculative poetry. I’m utterly at a loss what, if anything, to say about any of the poems inside, including my own, after my mother gave me her opinion of the cover art, which was “it’s weird.”

    This post was reassuring and challenging to me, but it might also, I think, be able to function as a touchstone for my family when they read my writing. That double function is a rare and precious thing.

  3. Sofia says:

    “One writes for oneself and for strangers.” ~ Gertrude Stein

  4. When I decided to be serious about writing, I knew what I wanted was to please some stranger who picked up my books at the library, as I loved what authors I’d never know pleased me. Funny story. My own mother I think was pushing me to write & be an artist, and a lot of my Dad’s side of the family are wonderful story tellers, and one cousin writes and does theatre. But when I was 20, I had a story in the college little journal, MS, sort of influenced by Poe, and my stepmother said, “Can’t you write something pleasant?” But I always took her comments with a grain
    of salt and a smile.

  5. Thanks for this! I’ve found myself in similar circumstances, especially when my family (biological and in-laws) has a strong conservatively religious viewpoint, by and large. When the subject of my writing comes up at reunions (as it did two weeks ago) I get a mixture of comments such as “Oh, that sounds interesting!” (from those who haven’t read my work) to “It’s a little dark for me” (from those who have). Now, I love my family (even my in-laws), and I share many of the same religious beliefs (though I’m MUCH more open minded than any of my relatives, in this regard), so it makes things . . . uncomfortable. I’ve been careful not to let these dynamics cloud my writing – I write what the story and the characters demand – but it still feels rather odd, like I’m a stranger in a room full of people I know aren’t strangers, when my writing comes up. Still, my kids really tend to like my writing, so I’ve successfully corrupted . . . er, gifted them with a love of the art, if nothing else.

    And I will add that this is the primary reason I like to “work” through Google +, rather than facebook. The ability to separate groups from one another helps me keep my sanity.

  6. My allegiance is divided. Which probably makes me a poorer writer, but it’s not something I regret.

  7. caszbrewster says:

    Oh yes. Thank you for this entry.I think perhaps this may be even tougher when you are a transgressive writer like myself. My immediate family — husband and children I believe understand it. My parents and sibling and beyond…Oi, they are confused. Hoping this blog entry will help them understand. At least I can say I tried to give them an opportunity to understand.

  8. While we wait for Theodora to return, I reread the posts and saw Christopher Robin
    Milne’s picture. While I was in Manhattan I had a chance to visit the venerable main
    library and in the children’s area there was a small room devoted to all things Pooh,
    a map all around, a jar of honey and a tiny red balloon, enlarged versions of the
    illustrations. There’s magic all over the library guarded by lions.

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