07 December 2012

Writing about family must be fraught with danger

I love The Writer's Almanac so much that I will make myself late for work so that I can sit in the parking lot and listen to it.  And I receive the daily email.  Yeah, that much. 

The first time I ever listened to TWA, the featured poet was Wesley McNair, one of my favorite contemporary poets, the current Maine poet laureate, who ALSO happens to be a member of my extended family (his stepfather was my great uncle).  McNair writes a great deal about his family, or nearer to the point, his stepfather's family, who is in fact, well, MY family. 

It's a surreal experience to read his perspective of people that I know.  These aren't characters, these are my aunts, uncles, and grandparents.  No pretty window-dressing, and that's one of the things I like best about McNair's work.  If his stepfather (my Great Uncle Paul) was a hard man, who was often angry or discouraged, I actually LIKE knowing that side of him.  I want to know.  That's a side I never saw at family gatherings, when I can remember him telling us about how our bodies are electrical, or how he and Aunt Ruth created a new variety of forsythia (New Hampshire Gold), or when I visited his little farm and bottlefed the kid goats.

I recently finished Jeannette Walls' Half Broke Horses for my book group (more like wine-drinking group, but what's not to love about that?!)  Walls' Glass Castle was pretty unflattering about her mother (Rosemary Smith Walls) and father (Rex Walls), but she still loves them, flaws and all.  On the other hand, her grandmother Lily Casey Smith is really the "heroine" of Half Broke Horses.  Lily has grit.... she's a survivor, and she can help others survive.  In the first pages of the book, she describes how she saves herself and her younger sister & brother from a flash flood by scrambling into a tree and staying there all night, fighting to keep herself and the little ones awake.  Her mother (this would be Jeannette's great-grandparents) is faint, a "lady," with little fortitude, not cut out for the demanding life of ranching in the American Southwest. Her father didn't always use the best judgement (he spends his daughter's tuition money on some dogs he meant to breed).  So at just age 15, Lily rides hundreds of miles alone on horseback across Arizona to get a job teaching school.  She learns to race horses, fly a plane, run a gas station, and a ranch.  And she raises Rosemary the best that she can.  We all try to be the best parents we can be.  But being a parent (or someone's child) doesn't come with an instruction manual.

How does one write in a fiercely genuine way about one's own family?  I think you have to be mighty brave, with a powerful story to tell, and be ready for the consequences of hurt feelings.  I understand that Jeannette Walls is estranged from some of her family for the situations she revealed in Glass Castle.  I suspect that McNair has made people in his (my) family unhappy too.

But the best writing is when we write from what we know, without shrinking from the truth.  No family is perfect, and we love our loved ones in spite of their shortcomings.  But airing out the dirty laundry can be very uncomfortable for those who once wore that laundry.  In the end though, don't we recognize ourselves in those people, to one degree or another?  I recognize my Great Uncle Paul's anger and frustration.  I recognize Rosemary Walls' flakiness.  And happily, I recognize Lily's ability to stick it out through a tough time, knowing that it will get better.  It really will.  And it does.

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