People Writing

The Turbulent Waters of Families and Writing

In my trip last week, I started out with no specific destination — just a general need to get out on the road, have some time to myself, to think. I first thought about heading to Boston, but decided Spring is a better time to visit the East, so I headed west. I then thought about traveling through Canada, even driving to Alaska; however, I had forgotten my passport and supposedly you can’t re-enter the country now without showing proof of native birth or citizenship papers.

Ultimately, I found myself heading to Sandpoint, Idaho, the place that I’m sure was at the back of my mind during all my traveling decisions. Mom’s new home.

It has been years since I had seen my mother, though we talk relatively often on the phone. She hasn’t changed much, though I notice that she still starts drinking at 9:00 in the morning. Since this wasn’t anything new, and I was no longer dependent on her driving me anywhere, her early drinking was nothing for me to remark on.

Monday night Mom and I were home alone, planning on a visit to Kettle Falls the next day. Somehow the conversation veered about to Mom’s various boyfriends in the past, both the good and the bad. I really liked Jim, a forestry service employee who was comfortable and caring for I and my brother. However, Mom really liked Hernando, a Columbian bi-sexual child abuser with a brother who had a very dubious profession of “emerald importer”. Yeah, emerald importer.

Since Mom had been gently tippling all day, she was particularly garrulous about her various boyfriends, and her divorce from my father, her disastrous second marriage and violent divorce from Knut. The same Knut who would later go to prison for throwing his second wife down a set of stairs in an attempt to kill her.

During our talk, I told Mom that I was writing a book, a book about my childhood, our hometown, coming of age. We discussed some of the things I would include. I wasn’t asking permission to write these things — I was informing her of my intent. By the end of the evening I had made a decision to return to St. Louis the next day. We hugged good-bye the next morning, in mutual though uneasy accord.

Since family and writing were on my mind when I returned home, I was surprised when I read about Mike Golby’s difficulties with his family and his own writing. My first reaction was to say, “write what you want Mike, and damn the consequences”, but that’s a quick response, without a lot of thought.

Regardless of the genre or the story, the best writing always has a kernel of the writer’s life in their work. Even forms of writing such as science fiction encompass human emotions and every day events, connecting the reader to the story by placing the familiar within unfamiliar and outlandish settings.

How much the writer exposes themselves and their lives in their work is dependent on how much this exposure adds to the writing. Writing a throwaway statement that one’s girlfriend is on drugs or brother cheats on his taxes is nothing more than cheap sensationalism at the expense of others. However, exposing real pain and difficulty, in carefully considered phrases, with the express purpose of drawing the reader in with the words — this isn’t sensationalism, this is art. The truest form of art. The most difficult form of art.

Mike Golby writes about his family, the effects of alcohol abuse, his wife’s rape. Uncompromising subjects exposed to the metal. No fade away into black, no wind ruffling the curtains of the windows. This displeases his family. No, this angers his family, and they want him to stop.

In response, several weblogging neighbors of Mike have talked about the issue of families, and writing (well, weblogging but to me they’re one and the same). Dorothea wrote:


Blogging threatens such families for the same reasons it threatens PR-dependent corporations. It threatens the fiction, the public façade of perfection, the private walls around anger and pain and disagreement and error.


Jonathon continued this thought, focusing on society’s insistence on portraying families in a sentimental manner:


I’m not suggesting that happy families are impossible, or even unusual. Rather I’m protesting a pervasive myth based on what Dorothea Salo calls “clichés and polite fictions.” Nor am I saying there’s no room at all for sentimental depictions of the happy family but we live in cultures that—proportionately—offer hardly anything else: not just things that are “not entirely true” but things that are manifestly false. It’s this preponderance of family kitsch that makes a weblog like Mike Golby’s so precious. In Blogaria, most everybody aspires to be a journalist. Artists are distressingly rare.


AKMA continues Jonathon’s disagreement with Mike’s concern about free speechwriting:


Like Jonathon, I demur at the suggestion that Mike’s “right to free speech” warrants our support and intervention. I’m amenable to free speech, by all means, but (again, as Jonathon points out) the heart of the matter here concerns not Mike’s rights, but his practice of honesty (well, allowing for some occasional exaggeration). Where convention dictates that people pretend that the domestic relations of every family are jolly, cheery, polite, affectionate, sober, chaste, responsible, and commendable in every respect, Mike reminded us that few families actually live out that sentimental myth (Jonathon was right about “sentimentality,” too).


Not being a sentimental person, or having come from what one could term a ‘traditionally happy family’, I can agree with Dorothea, Jonathon, and AKMA; about sentiment, family, and honesty in writing.

However, I also agree with Loren when he writes:


Jonathon suggests the role of art is to show the truth about life, to strip away sentimentality, but I would argue that revealing the “truth” in this sense is only one aspect of art. An equally important role is to show what life “can be,” to hold up models of what we want our lives to become.

I would argue that both are real, and both are the domain of the true artist. The artist does not have to choose one or the other to be an “artist,” though contemporary art critics certainly seem to have come down on the side of angst and despair. Emphasizing one at the expense of the other, though, seems to be a distortion of reality, a distortion of truth, whatever that might be.


Perhaps the issue is more of rejecting that which is mawkish and maudlin, embracing instead fond reminisces and a hopeful disposition. (Though I’m not sure how fondly reminiscent or hopeful I am of Loren’s use of the phrase “pulling a Shelley” to denote putting one’s foot in one mouth.)

Mike, eloquence escapes me and I’m fresh out of the profound. I’m left with my original advice: write whatever you want, and to hell with the consequences.


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