"Write what you know" is common writing advice, but when it comes to mining what you know about your friends and family for stories, you enter delicate territory, as Mark Guerin shares in this guest post.
My dad was such an interesting character that I always wanted to write a book about him. Polo player. Yachting enthusiast. Doctor. WWII MASH surgeon in New Guinea. Air Force lifer. Captain, then Colonel. Hospital Commander. Father of seven. Staunch Catholic and conservative. And then, unceremoniously dismissed from the Air Force ten years before he was ready. He ended up at a Chrysler Assembly Plant in a tiny, run down, Midwestern factory town, performing physicals, handling workers comp. claims and attending to the odd workplace injury. It was a job he hated, so he took up drinking and took that hatred out on his family.
But how do you write a painful story that involves family and friends who may not want their memories tarnished or their own deeply personal stories told or worse, misrepresented?
Stories abound of autobiographical novels souring authors’ familial relationships. In Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe famously wrote not only about his dysfunctional family, but also about many citizens of his hometown Asheville, NC. He was so criticized for his unfavorable depictions that he exiled himself from Asheville for eight years.
I wanted to avoid a similar fate.
Wolfe’s big mistake, if there is anything “mistaken” about such a classic, was that he wrote about living people. My dad died fifteen years ago, my mom before him, so I felt safe writing about them. But my siblings are all still around and have their own memories and opinions. How could I write about them without invading their privacy, co-opting their pain or undermining their affections?
I didn’t really want this story to be entirely mine, either. Certainly not an autobiography. Given how unreliable my memories are, the bad times blotting out the good, I couldn’t pretend it would be accurate or interesting, chronicling the sordid details of my otherwise unremarkable life. To be fair, I could have written a memoir, a genre that forgives fallible memory and accepts the subjective pursuit of emotional truths, but I still would have felt obliged to unearth certain sacred burial sites in my psyche I preferred be left untouched. I wanted to write a novel, to target the overriding spirit of those “burial grounds” without disinterring each and every grave.
I wanted to write unapologetically about the kind of son who might be produced by this out-of-proportion, extraordinary father, shaped by this domineering but disappointed man. Someone like me, but not me. But I wanted to do it without being as presumptuous and off-putting as Wolfe was.
I could use stories of my life with my father, but those stories would still require my young main character to have a supporting cast. At least one brother. One sister. Friends and lovers. How could I populate that cast without writing about my real siblings and friends? I could steal a long-lost story here, a character trait there. But nothing with identifying marks.
The person I could steal from was me. My past and personality. So, that’s what I did. As it turned out, using this technique, I ended up writing more about myself than I ever would have had I only channeled my story through my main character.
For many years after I got out of college I aspired to be a playwright, joining a playwriting group in Chicago, then getting an MFA in Dramatic Writing, a program that taught me every job in the theater. Eventually, I chose family over pursuit of a theater career, but I continued writing, turning to fiction, and my theater experience helped me create the brother in my book.
As the founder of a Chicago-based, anti-war guerrilla theater company, that character embodied not only my theatrical aspirations, but also the anti-war spirit I witnessed in older siblings who, coming of draft age in the late sixties, were confronted with serving in the Vietnam war. Characterizing this brother in that way allowed me to write confidently using my background while summoning the spirit of my siblings’ anti-war sentiments.
For the sister of my main character, I mined a more sensitive part of my experience. I’ve always been painfully shy, and I’m still shy now. When I go to parties, the only thing I’m drawn to is the door. But being ten years old and moving to a new town when my father left the military only compounded my problems. Sure, I made friends, but I also missed out on a lot. I was a true wallflower, never able to peel myself off and put myself out there.
One way I coped was by taking up the piano. My mom played; lovely, bouncy ragtime tunes she composed in her head, and soon after we moved, at the urging of my sister and mom, our father bought a used upright. Typical of him, he installed the piano in our unheated basement so he wouldn’t hear us playing. My sister lost interest—fed up with practicing in a parka, no doubt—but like my mom, I enjoyed playing by ear, losing myself in the act of composing strange, jazzy tunes. With a space heater glowing red nearby, the piano became a marvelous way to drown out my loneliness.
That lonely, insecure, piano-pounding boy became the kid sister in my story. My real younger sister, an outgoing, warm, and sociable woman, was and is nothing like my story’s kid sister. Well, almost nothing like her. I took a rather normal facet of the real father/daughter relationship—one I can’t reveal without ruining the story—and, with this lonely girl, blew it completely out of proportion to open a wider window onto my relationship with my father. In reality, there were many windows, many reasons, many events collectively explaining what he became for me, but I wanted to emphasize a single point, and this bit about my sister and father crystallized all those windows into one well-focused lens.
Using facets of my own life and personality for the development of other characters allowed me to reveal even more about my own life than I ever imagined—more, in fact, than I do via my main character. In some ways, the young man at the heart of my book is less like me than are his sibs. He has a girlfriend, a best friend, avenues of escape from his abusive father I didn’t have. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. He’s braver, more sociable, more reckless than I ever was. In some ways, he is more the me I wish I’d been. Most importantly, he confronts his father in ways I never could. Of all the benefits of writing my book in this way, that was probably the most satisfying.
But the question remains, using this technique, did I avoid offending the other people in my life? Only four of my six sibs have read—or tried to read—my book, so not all the votes are in. Still, the feedback has been encouraging.
I was most concerned about my younger sister from whom, as I’ve pointed out, I drew the most inspiration. She had to read the book twice, she said, and repeatedly referred back to the letter I’d included with the book, reminding her this younger sister wasn’t her. I sensed in our conversation how dissonant the experience was for her, seeing events and behaviors she recognized mixed in with complete fictions, but she agreed that my impressions were largely accurate. My older sibs, who were off in college or out in the world when my book’s events took place, said they could recall similar incidents of their own with our father. The book was disturbing to them, I think, not because it was wrong, but because it felt right.
One sibling tried to read the book, but couldn’t. Living nearer to my dad, seeing him more often over the years, he grew closer to him than I did. He said my book “cut too close to home,” and I suspect he didn’t like how the book sullied his warmer, more recent memories of our father.
I’m fine with him not reading it. As I wrote this book, I dwelt so much on the harsh man my father used to be, it made me forget the kind man he became later in life. I take pains in my book to point out that his earlier behavior wasn’t entirely his fault, that he was a victim of circumstances, that he was a good man dealt a bad hand, that he did indeed change as he grew older. But I cannot forget how his behavior when I was a kid shaped me as a person, made me who I am today, poisoned memories and all.
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