ImageI’m just home from a minor, unskilled role, helping with a wedding. One of the authors who has been part of my writing life for more than a decade, now, is a graduate of VCFA and has taught there a few semesters, too–Deborah Wiles. I got to see one of the first copies of Revolution, a story of the 60s and of Freedom Summer and of her own childhood memories spending summers with her family in the South. Her house is a home full of warmth, music,friends, good food, quirky stuff, and generosity. Since her youngest child was getting married…all the more so. We told a lot of stories and talked about traditions and family stuff that swirls in everyone’s life.

As we writers think about our characters and their families, sometimes we’re trapped by what we know–only able to play in our own playgrounds. We coax up a motivation that seems to fit perfectly for our protagonist and plan a scene using logic: what would make sense for this person to do or say under the circumstances? There’s nothing like a wedding to remind me that actions and reactions can be a tangle of barely-understood yearning and other emotions we hide even from ourselves. When a writer gets it right, though, we know.

A student recently included Eleanor and Park in her annotated bibliography and she wrote this: “One scene really hit me— Christmas Day the stepfather is in a seemingly good mood, but the more he drinks the family knows it is too good to last. Sure enough, he comes to dessert and wants to know where’s the pumpkin pie? He curses and flings rice pudding, and leaves. Then ‘Eleanor’s mom picked up the bowl with what was left of the rice pudding, and then skimmed the top off the pile of pudding on the floor. ‘Who wants cherry sauce?’ she said. They all did’ (199).

Up with families in all their messy glory–the gift to writers that keeps on giving.


by | May 26, 2014 · 2:52 pm

3 responses to “

  1. Julie Larios

    Here, here! I love my messy family, and at one point (when things were especially tangled up) I even told my sister, “Let’s just pretend we’re all characters in a short story – we would be reading that story and loving it, right?” Amazing, how that helped! So art imitates life, life imitates art, writers watch families. We keep on trying to figure out how it all works, but it’s good and proper to admit that much of it is a mystery of “mis-understood yearnings.” Capturing the messiness, that’s the writer’s goal….Well said, Jane! (And Deb, if you’re reading this, greetings and congratulations!)

  2. Yes to the “messy glory.” If only we could see that more often when we’re in the middle of things.
    I especially like your statement about being “trapped by what we know.” I’m sure that applies doubly to our view of our family members.

  3. Never is it more true than with a family member that we loath in them what we most loath in ourselves. Poor them! Or as Graham Greene says in the last line of The Third Man, “poor all of us, when you come to think of it.”

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