11 February 2022
I have stories I want to tell. They emerge from my life experiences. These fictions rely on the characters and settings I’ve known, on traits of people who left an imprint. I follow the most basic writer’s advice: Write what you know. The best stories reach for the universals in human experience. It could be a farmhouse, a church, or a spaceship. Regardless of the particulars, the story itself will delve much deeper. It will illuminate human interests, interactions, and emotions. These elements are best drawn from life.
I want to build layers into a mother/daughter story. For resonance and realism, I create analogues for myself and my mother. I make myself a princess and Mother, a queen. We are embroiled in court drama, spies behind the tapestries, trying on satin dresses for the Royal Ball. I draw the details from elsewhere. But if the story is strong, Mother will recognize her voice in the careless words a queen tosses to a wayward princess. She’ll cringe at the queen’s heartlessness. “Is that what you think of me?” she’ll ask. Can I face that question?
A writing instructor once asked a student, “Are you waiting for your whole family to die before you write something real?” I wonder how the student replied. I couldn’t give an answer. Because I can’t wait that long to write. But the thought of answering for myself at Thanksgiving dinner is petrifying. The conflict is immense, and it applies to every person in my life.
If my story features a married couple, I censor myself. My first thought is of my husband; how will he react to the spouse I am portraying? Over time, I have written fewer married characters. When a fictional husband appears, he has no dialogue. If he speaks, he is based on my father or grandfather, both of whom are safely dead. What would the instructor say to me? I think I can guess.
Creativity is said to have no limits. Artists alone decide where the boundaries lie. Shared cultural heritage shows the best art is made with abandon by artists who break rules, offend people, and speak truth. The families of these talents make peace (or don’t) with the work they inspire, good or bad, sacred, or profane. Parents laugh at their own foibles, spouses are unruffled, siblings don’t mind being side characters. “Art for art’s sake,” they say. “We’re so proud of her talent.”
If only I could be sure.
Jennifer, I love your thoughtfulness and your ability to put it into words. I have no advice for you, but my thoughts are stories are to be told, where would we be if no one told their story?