In class we have had multiple discussions about how we as writers can define the boundaries of truth in the genre of nonfiction. Some of you may know, but I will be panelist at AWP next month with Kelly Magee, Lee Gulyas, and undergraduate Zackrie Vinczen. The panel is going to focus on the way students work to construct their own view on “truth” in a classroom atmosphere based on the views of their teachers and current literary conversations and controversies.
I think it’s an interesting twist on the standard “how do we define truth” question because it focuses on this: We all define truth differently for our own writing, and that construction is formed on what we have read and learned from others. At this point, I feel for the most part comfortable with my version of truth, with the contract I have established in my writings. But yes, my views have shifted over the years, and I have gleaned from each mentor a different perspective on truth, and how we define the “non” in nonfiction.
Last summer I studied with Dinah Lenney at Centrum, and the conversation in our workshop wasn’t as concerned with the contract between writer and reader, but the contract between writer and loved ones. Some of the other women (as luck would have, the class was all women) in the class were writing about family members–brothers, parents, children—and voiced questions about how much they should share about the lives of others. The questions of pseudonyms came up, even “Am I allowed to write about this person?” And just like with the question of truth, each writer has their own contract they have written. Dinah said she stopped writing about her children when they became teenagers, that she doesn’t write about her husband, and that parents are fair game—no matter what. Brenda touched on it in class that if you write about a loved one, it should be a writing to understand, not writing to indict them.
For me, I find it harder to write about my immediate family. Instead, I write about my lovers and formers, because quite frankly they knew what they were getting themselves into. I don’t keep it a secret that I write nonfiction—acting as some sort of undercover journalist looking for a scoop, collecting an interesting cast of characters to populate my essays. That isn’t to say I don’t ask permission. I’ll let Brandon read moments I have written about him, allow him to say whether or not he wants that memory to become literary. I called a former boyfriend to ask if I could use snippets from letters he wrote me in an essay I was writing about the difference between Skype and love letters. These people mean something to me, so I don’t write about them to air dirty laundry, but instead to frame moments.
I have always been closer to my father’s side of the family—my many cousins and extended relatives with stories that not only shaped the way I was raised, but shaped the landscape of Washington. The Wood family traces back roots five generations in Washington state, and three of those generations worked as loggers for Blodel Donovan. My great grandfather married a woman whose family helped found the Fairhaven settlement, the old homestead still up in Birch Bay. My father remembers stories told by an auntie about as a young child, moving west by covered wagon from Minnesota while Abraham Lincoln was president. I have heard these stories so often growing up that they have become folk legends for me, as fantastical as Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox.
My mother has one brother, and I have no cousins on that side of the family. Most of my maternal extended family lives back east, in Georgia, or in the Midwest. My mother’s father was in jail for most of my childhood; a convicted counterfeiter, he went into the witness protection program upon his release. I met him only once, a Thanksgiving he spent with us just after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I later learned from my mother that he had broken rules in contacting my mother at all. It’s only been within the last few years that my grandmother has offered up family history, seemingly out of spite for the interest I’ve taken in my paternal lineage. “You get your love of science from my brother you know,” or, “Did you know that my uncle has written a book? He has a website even.”
I find it hard to write about my mother. To write about how she hid the fact that she smoked from the majority of our family, until she quit. How after quitting smoking she increased her drinking. I don’t like to write about the fact that my mother posts pictures of cats on Facebook when she’s drunk, with odd captions completely unintelligible. These things feel like airing dirty laundry to me—in my writing at least. I’m a candid person by nature, but do feel that some subjects are not meant for the page. But what then could I write about my mother? Would it be interesting for the sake of an essay to write about my mother being PTA president and the time I rode with the principle in his personal vehicle to pick up a visiting teacher from Scotland? It seems to precious to me, too American dream fulfilled.
I write about my father in contexts that go against the grain. I write about my father because at sixteen I spent Friday nights wrenching on my Jeep. I write about my father because it was his dusty brewing equipment he helped me pull out of the shed when I started brewing beer. I write about my father because I can sit next to him in a car, not needing to say a word to him, as the landscape slips past us, and remember him bringing me an ice cream cone and balloon on every one of my birthdays, and that he would kiss me goodbye without waking me every morning before he left for work.
So my question is this: Are parents really fair game? I’m really interested to hear about how all of you honor the truth, but also honor your relationships with your loved ones.