Sunday, March 1, 2015

The right to write

My sister called the other day to give me an update on our parents. They’re both in their 80s now and have been considering moving to an assisted living facility. This is practical but depressing; nobody likes to think of the day when we can’t be independent and autonomous any more, when we need to hire a housekeeper and a meal service not because we’re wealthy or lazy but because we’re tired and frail. Ultimately they decided against moving; the facility they had in mind charged an outrageous monthly fee (as they all seem to do, in order to assure you that this place is legit and not going to leave you eating crust crumbs and sleeping in filth). Instead, they’ll simply buy more ready-to-eat stuff from Trader Joe’s so my mother doesn’t have to cook so much, and my sister will come over to clean a couple of times a month. My sister is freakishly effective at getting a room clean; if cleaning were a Western, she’d be the gunslinging badass all the dust motes fear so much they get the hell out of Dodge the minute they hear she’s coming. Problem, at least temporarily, solved.

This is a relief to me, even though I realize it now casts her as the good daughter and me, once again, as the bad one. She cares for her elderly parents; I visit once a year to gather fodder so I can skew the extended family in Peyton Place-like tales. It seems I hit a few nerves with my first novel. Besides telling me how gross our father’s bathroom is and how thick the grease is behind the stove, my sister informed me that my aunt is still very much pissed off at me for a story included in the book. There’s a character, Rose, the protagonist’s aunt, who comes across as a wee bit shallow. The story is one of the more light-hearted and humorous of the bunch, and while I admit much of the humor is at Rose’s expense, the character is hardly up there with, say, The Governor of Walking Dead in terms of sheer unlikeability. Oh, um, also: IT’S FICTION.

Many months ago when my sister first told me that my aunt was displeased with me because of what I wrote, I thought she was kidding or at least exaggerating. Well, turns out, she wasn’t. The aunt bought many copies of my book to give to family members before she’d read it. I don’t know what happened to those copies, but they were not distributed as originally planned. And the quote from my book that was read at my cousin’s wedding? Probably edited out of the wedding video, I’m guessing. I’m fairly stunned by this, and I’ll be honest: a small part of me is secretly pleased. I got a reaction, a strong one, from my little book of little stories. What writer wouldn’t prefer getting a punch in the face to a pat on the head over something they wrote? Yeah, it’s messed up, but so’s life, so yeah, write what you know.

At the same time, there is also a part of me that is not at all happy knowing what I’ve done. When I taught creative writing, students were always telling me that they had a lot of things they wanted to write but they were afraid of the reaction from people they knew, and my response was always the same: write it first; worry about everything else later. If you worry about the reaction you’ll get to your writing before you’ve even written it, you’ll never get anything written. Obviously I would never encourage anyone to write something malicious, but frankly most of what people write will probably never be read by anyone because it just isn’t worth the time. If it’s good—if it moves people, makes them think and feel and see the world differently—it’s worth writing, even if it ruffles feathers. I still believe that, though now I face the question of what to do about the feather-ruffling business.

I was pondering this last night at a poetry reading I went to in town. I am not a fan of most contemporary poetry, so it really says something about how much I liked the poets I heard last night when I tell you that I had been looking forward to this reading for months and that I bought both poets’ books and had them autographed. Despite my love of literature, I’ve never been one much for book readings; they can be excruciatingly awkward and tedious affairs, whether I’m the listener or even the reader myself. This was not like that; the two poets had good reading voices, chose their poems well, didn’t read every last thing they’d ever written, and most of all made me think and feel and see the world differently. And there was pizza. Poetry with pizza? In this case, win-win.

That said, their poems were not exactly cheerful homages to daffodils or skylarks. They were grim; the first poet read several pieces about her father, a schizophrenic paranoid who became homeless, while the second read a few about his sister who died in a car accident. Raw stuff, that, and to top it off, the second poet’s parents were in attendance. I have never read my fiction out loud to my parents; until the book was published they hadn’t even read anything I’d ever written as an adult (though my mother still tells me how much she enjoyed the story I wrote when I was 10 about a family who adopts a pet seal; the seal ends up saving the family from burglars, of course). I don’t like to use the word “brave” lightly because I think it’s used far too lightly these days in far too many undeserving situations, but I couldn’t help but think: that’s brave.

But is it really? If a writer “dares” to write about something that is likely to get a strong reaction, is it an act of courage or an act of selfishness? How dare we believe that our need for expression is more important than anything else? How stupid could I have been to think my aunt—and my parents, for that matter—would beam with delight and celebrate my first novel with genuine joy because regardless of what I said it in, I beat the odds, I got a book published, something I’ve dreamed of my whole life? Of course they would be upset. Of course they’d see themselves in the characters. Of course they’d believe that’s how I really felt about them all this time, and of course they’d think now everyone else would feel that about them too. It was sheer willful ignorance on my part to believe it’d be otherwise.

I hate drama, and as such I could simply shrug my shoulders, let my aunt simmer, and go on with my life. I’ve never been close to any of my extended family (though, ironically, this aunt is actually my favorite—I like her sense of humor, and her taste in movies and books is very similar to my own), so it would be easy for me to avoid them forever. Except, of course, that nothing, when it comes to family, is ever that easy. The last thing my sister told me is that she wants to plan a surprise anniversary party for my parents this September. It’ll be their 50th—who knew such a dysfunctional marriage could last that long? (Oops, there I go again, maligning the fam.) She hoped I would come out for the party, but she warned me: it would be awkward with my aunt. Really? I thought. We’re going to start a rift this late in all our lives? We’re going to celebrate the endurance of a bond while sticking crowbars in another? We really gonna be that childish? My aunt would no doubt retort You started it. And she’d be right.

I guess I’ll write my aunt with an apology, a much harder thing to do effectively than writing a funny story about some amusing—and fictional—characters. It’s hard to apologize and make it sincere because the truth is I am not sorry for what I wrote, not sorry it got published, not sorry it was read. But I am sorry that I don’t know how to balance the desire for personal expression with a conscientiousness about hurting people’s feelings. I would love to have both; I don’t know if that’s possible. Luckily, my next novel is a thousand percent fiction; not one single person in the book is even remotely based on anyone I know—at least not consciously. If you find yourself in a character, well, I hope you’ll be flattered that I thought of you. If it’s the villain, well, at least you’re famous. Nobody will ever forget The Governor, after all.